I almost ran a marathon last year.
Or perhaps I should say, I ran most of a marathon last year. I got into running for the first time two years ago with the help of a friend who is a marathoner. It began as a way to try to avoid topping the 200 pound mark on the scale, and has since been returned to as a way to get back under the 200 pound mark on the scale.
At first, I hated running. It was hard and boring and stupid. I didn’t mind running during my competitive sports life in soccer and rugby, nor did I mind it during pick-up basketball or tennis with family members. But running just to run? No thanks.
But when my friend invited me, I joined him. I realized that I was letting myself slip physically, and I wanted to put a stop to it. I prided myself on being an athlete; as a matter of fact, I still do. I know that’s a part of who I am, and it’s a part of myself that I really like. Running, and my friend, kept me from losing that.
So the more I got into it, the more I found that I enjoyed it. I loved that point about two miles into a run where I would hit my groove, where my legs were moving themselves, where I was just gliding and observing and reveling in the moment. It was boss. What was once a burden was now a joy; what was once a pain was now a pleasure. I was loving it.
But as much as I liked running, I needed a goal. I needed motivation. I needed destination. And the ultimate destination for distance runners is a marathon.
I know there’s ultra-marathoners who run a hundred-plus miles, running while they sleep, urinating on themselves so they don’t have to stop, etc., but for most people a marathon is the standard. So that became my goal.
I knew I would have to do some serious work to get ready for a full marathon, so in the meantime I signed up for a half-marathon. This was a good starting point, and I worked my way to it and succeeded. Mostly. I wanted to run it in under 2 hours (which is not a particularly fast time) and missed that goal by 7 minutes. But I still finished. So that was cool.
But the big dog still lay ahead of me. I waited to sign up for my full marathon until after the half, just to make sure I didn’t commit to something I couldn’t even do half of. After signing up for a full a few months away in my hometown of St. Louis, I got to work training.
But here was the tricky part. In training for the half, there were some things I was able to get away with that weren’t really working as I worked towards the full. Anyone who knows me probably wouldn’t describe me as a health nut. At the time I ate a lot of fried food, drank beer, smoked cigarettes; to be honest, running was really the only thing I did that didn’t present an immediate risk to my personal wellbeing. While maybe I was a little more conscientious about my eating and other physical vices when training, I certainly didn’t change a whole lot, mostly because I didn’t want to. And as I started trying to go further and further distances, these things were keeping me from making the progress I needed.
Training didn’t go particularly well. I worked my way up to sixteen miles with no problem and was right on target in my program, but when I went for my eighteen mile run, it was a disaster. I was nine miles in and my feet and back were killing me. My pace slowed, eventually turning into a limpy-shuffle. Ten miles from where I parked my car, I started walking. A couple hours later, long after sunset, I got back to my car and drove home. I was pretty depressed. I wasn’t sure what this meant for my chances of finishing a race.
The pain in my feet and back didn’t go away. I talked to a doctor, and he gave me disappointing (albeit not surprising) news. My beer belly was putting pressure on my back, and when I would get out of breath after hills and would lean forward to rest my crappy lungs, the pressure would increase. I had strained at least two muscles in my lower back. Oh, and the feet were hurting because I didn’t listen to experienced runners who told me I needed to buy nice running shoes and inserts to protect my feet. The only thing that would help was rest.
Fast forward to race day. I had never successfully run more than sixteen miles without stopping, had not completed a run of more than ten miles in over a month, and was still kind of chubby and inexperienced as far as runners go. I woke up at 5:30 a.m. scared, nervous, and really hoping that I would live to see dinnertime.
I almost did great. Well, the first half went great. I was feeling good and enjoying the race atmosphere up to about the halfway mark, but by the time I passed my family at mile marker 14, I was shouting to my mother and anyone else listening about how the race was the stupidest thing I’d ever done. My wife illegally jumped in and ran with me for a while, and we made it to about the eighteen mile marker before I walked for the first time. I then alternated between walking and running for the next five miles, feeling more and more like my death was imminent, before finally falling in some guy’s front yard right at mile marker 23 and vomiting for about fifteen minutes. I was done.
So, to review: Distance traveled, 23 miles; distance remaining, 3.2 miles; amount of medics telling me I needed to go to the hospital, 4; chances I was going to be able to finish, 0%. I was crushed.
To have traveled so far and not made it to the end was devastating. My family was very encouraging, telling me it was amazing to even go that far, and my wife kept reminding me of all the factors working against me (it was 91 degrees that day, it was my first race, I was coming off an injury, etc.), but in the end, I didn’t make it to the finish line. I almost did, but that’s just a fancy way of saying I didn’t.
And the worst part was, I had no one to blame but myself. Of course, when I’m telling other people about it, I never fail to mention the hot weather or my injuries (there’s a “Death of Pride” post coming at some point), but that wasn’t the real problem. The real problem was that I didn’t commit fully. I didn’t change my diet. I didn’t change my drinking and smoking habits. I didn’t listen to the advice of experienced runners who told me to get better shoes and walk through the drinking stations during the race and try a more reasonable pace given my injuries. It’s not that any of those were terrible mistakes of their own accord, but together, all those little pleasures and prides that I wouldn’t let go of kept me from achieving my goal. They kept me from accomplishing something great, from making it where I wanted to be. And they weren’t worth it.
Tomorrow, I start training again. I’ve signed up for a half marathon in October and will soon sign up for the St. Louis full marathon next April. We will see if I have made enough progress, died enough to my desires, to be able to succeed. I think that I have; now it’s time to test it.
I must test my commitment to running because “almost” is never good enough. I’m not satisfied with almost finishing a marathon; I want the finisher’s medal. I don’t want to almost be a great father and husband; I want my family to have the man they deserve. I don’t want (God forbid) to almost make it to Heaven; I want more deeply than anything to rest forever with Christ.
A priest once said in his homily that the distance between being good and being bad is only a fraction of the distance between being good and being holy. It doesn’t take much to be a “good guy”, but it takes everything to be a saint. I guess we will see next April if I am a good runner or a holy runner, because we know saints always “run in such a way that [they] may win,” (1 Corinthians 9:24).