Into the Unknown
In case you’re new to my running story, let me catch you up. Last spring I became single after 12 years and was sad. As a newly solo dog mom, I endeavoured to tire out my high-energy Labrador retriever/border collie mix (cute, isn’t she?) by taking up running again after a very long hiatus. It changed my life. I ran my first half-marathon, began training for a full marathon, and realized the joy and confidence I feel on the running trail applies to everyday life. Running makes me happy, keeps me sane, and lets me believe anything is possible.
Training for a marathon changes you.
I remember the day I committed to running 42.2 kilometres. It was Sunday, October 14, 2012. I had finished my first 10K race almost a month earlier and was contemplating trying a half-marathon in 2013. I was on Front Street, heading into the grocery store to pick up a few items I needed for the week. On my way in, I passed the 41K marker for the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon, which was in its final afternoon stretch.
After collecting my few supplies, I followed the race route through its homestretch to the finish line at Nathan Phillips Square. The people crossing at that point had been at it for five and six hours. The massive, roaring crowds had already dispersed, but that didn’t diminish the emotion at the finish line. Race volunteers ran beside these last runners, shouting encouragement for the final metres, while the announcer welcomed them home, each by name, with booming enthusiasm. Some cried as they crossed the mats that trip-stopped the electronic timing chips in their race bibs; some raised their arms aloft and shouted with joy. It was impossible not to be moved by the display of courage, determination, and accomplishment. With a lump in my throat, I decided I wanted to know what that brand of accomplishment felt like.
It’s almost a year since that day, and here I am, entering the infamous taper portion of marathon training. I’ve logged just under 1,500 training kilometres in 365 days. I’ve run 5K, 10K, and 30K races, improving my average race pace each time, and breaking the top 10 standings in my age category twice. I’ve been injured, and lucky enough to heal and come back strong. I’ve completed the important 35K “dress rehearsal marathon” (see the current issue of Canadian Running, “The Execution Run” by Nicole Stevenson). I’ve finished my last long run. And now I cut back on distance, focusing instead on running quality and intensity over shorter distances, as I let my body rest and recover for race day on October 20.
It’s been a long, rewarding year. Nearly every Saturday this summer, I laced up my running shoes and went out on the trails and achieved a personal best. It’s the most wonderful thing about being a marathon first-timer: It’s impossible not to feel like the strongest, most capable, and remarkable runner around when every week you get to shatter yet another record. The first time I ran 21.1K, the half-marathon distance, I rode the high for days. Then my distance inched up to 24K, then 25K, then 28K and beyond. On cut-back weeks, where I focused on pace rather than distance, I missed getting the email notification from the app I use to track my training stats telling me that I had achieved a new personal record.
As I head into the relatively quiet period for the last two weeks before Marathon Morning (as I’ve come to call it, capital “M”s absolutely intentional), it’s hard not to get rather contemplative about how special this time has been. I have never — and I doubt I will ever again — lived through a time when I can say every single week that I was better than the week before. That kind of consistent accomplishment reprograms your brain. It changes your conception of what is possible. It alters the expectations you have of yourself. It transforms your notions of commitment, of responsibility, of truth. I believe that training for a marathon makes us into the people we’ve always wanted to be — or hadn’t even dreamed we could be.
I had no idea all of this was lying in wait for me that day I decided to run the marathon. I also had no idea how hard it would be. There have been stretches on training runs — and in races — where I can barely convince myself to keep running. In those moments running 42.2K seems wildly absurd. And quite impossible. But I pushed through. There have been times when I was so tired after work I couldn’t imagine walking the dog, let alone walking her and then heading back out to run 12K. But I pushed forward. There have been times when I wanted nothing more than not to run. Sleeping in, or staying out late with friends for one more beer, or even cleaning the house seemed infinitely more appealing. But I pushed on. And every time I managed to run when I felt I couldn’t or didn’t want to, I clicked off my watch timer as I returned home, face flushed and sweat trickling down my back, and relished that feeling of accomplishment, knowing I was one run closer to the jubilation of the marathon finish line.
Now that finish line is almost here. It is almost time to race off into the Unknown: What will it be like to flow out of the start corrals and take to the streets with 25,000 other runners? What will it feel like to run down Lakeshore Boulevard, passing landmarks I have countless times this summer but knowing it is Race Day instead of just another training day? What will happen in my mind and in my body when I run those last 7K, the only part of the marathon distance I haven’t yet run (this is a strategic choice, not lazy training!)? What will it be like to make that final right turn onto Bay Street, to run the final 800 metres to the finish? What will I do when I cross the finish line? Will I meet my (ambitious) time goal? Will I qualify for the 2015 Boston Marathon?
See, worrying about the Unknown can get you into trouble. You start with one question and the mind starts reeling off in all directions. And so over the next two weeks I plan to cope with the Unknown by remembering the road I’ve travelled. At some point every part of this journey was Unknown. There was a whole year’s worth of training to do that looked pretty daunting and made me wonder in my quietest, most private moments what I’d signed up for. But I checked off kilometres and runs and races, one by one. I met and overcame challenges on the trail, one by one.
Race day will be the same, won’t it? New experiences will come, one by one. Kilometres will fly by, one by one. Obstacles will appear, one by one. And I will take them all on, one by one.
It’s time to trust the training. It’s time to let go of expectations. It’s time to run, right into the Unknown. And I’m pretty sure I will not be the same person at the end of the race as I was at the beginning of it.
That will be the beauty of running a marathon.
Note: I was extremely thrilled and so honoured to be asked by the Canada Running Series to participate in the two-day Expo that kicks off the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon by being a guest speaker. I’ll be joining the “Leading the Pack: Women and Marathon Training” panel on Friday, October 18, from 4:00pm to 4:20pm. Come on by and say hello — I’d love to meet you!