Last Saturday I headed up to Atlanta to reunite with my running partner Martha so that we could embark on the longest run of our marathon training together. Our terrain of choice for this endeavor was the Silver Comet Trail. This paved trail starts in Smyrna, Ga., just minutes away from downtown Atlanta, and spans 61.5 miles to the Georgia/Alabama state line. What once was an abandoned railroad line, is now heavily used as a gold mine for cyclists, walkers, runners, rollerbladers and more.
The path is clearly separated into directional lanes so that foot and bike traffic flow steadily. The portion we set out to conquer included slight inclines, opposed to actual hills and contained plenty of places to pause, for those opting for a leisurely journey. Certain segments we passed through resembled whimsical tree tunnels, while other bits remained more open. Each bridge we crossed offered magnificent views of water far down below, leaving me wondering how on earth we got so high. Other than birds chirping and the airy sound of bikes whizzing by, there’s a prominent stillness and silence in the air.
Headphone Dilemma: For situational awareness purposes and to enjoy each other’s company and fully soak up the scenery, we opted to leave our headphones behind. Personally, I wanted to be able to hear a cyclist say “on the left” so not to cause a potentially catastrophic accident by stepping in front of someone blowing past me at a high speed. But hey, that’s just me.
We started off running 10 minute miles, aiming to not drop any slower than 10:30, and planned to turn around 11 miles in, making for a 22 mile roundtrip journey. Sounds easy enough, right? It should be noted, this was the first run (of my entire life) I carried water with me. From the start, I found myself aggravated by the fact that the collapsible bottle in my grip felt like carrying a squishy bladder, making my own bladder feel full. So I haphazardly poured a bit of the water out, and carried on. When I finally decided to drink some of the water, I unscrewed the entire cap and inadvertently dropped the spout, meaning over the course of the upcoming miles, my water gradually spilled. Despite these water difficulties, and some residual soreness in the legs stemming from a lengthy trail run a few days prior, once getting in a groove 4-5 miles into the run, I began feeling like I had a handle on my pace, and we were even laughing and chatting a bit. At one point I suggested I tell a lengthy story, but decided I would wait and see how I felt on the return journey. Little did I know what was to come just miles later.
By mile 15 I was waterless, feeling the effects of dehydration, and was lagging behind Martha to the point where she was no longer in sight. Needless to say, story time was out of the question. At mile 16 I spotted the spout to my water bottle I had dropped on the way out and fearing what could happen if a bike tire hit it at the worst possible angle, I made a bold move to jump squat all the way to the ground (while still running) to pick it up. This took all of my energy and immediately caused my hips to tighten up and my back to shoot with pain. Although I carried on, it wasn’t long before my legs did what I considered to be the unthinkable. At mile 17 they abruptly slowed to a walking pace. In that moment, I was stricken with the terror of what a wall felt like. I couldn’t fathom the fact that it was happening, but it was. After yelling “I’m walking” at myself so I could hear these words out loud and attempt to make sense of them, I was able to get myself running again and make it to a bike rental stop to fill up my water bottle. It was there, at mile 18, after staggering to a water fountain amidst a level of dizzy dehydration and severe hip pain, I knew what had to be done. I was roughly 4 miles away from the car, and I had to get there. I walked. I ran. And I hobbled. At this point I was already over three hours in. My phone died and every silent step of isolation came with an increased level of pain. The natural beauty served as a buffer, yes, however with the draining sun, and the incessant pain, the challenge was beyond taxing. Minutes felt like hours and I thought I would never make it.
In these final miles of pain, I realized this is why it’s important to do a dress rehearsal training run of this magnitude, this far in advance. It was during these final miles I also came to terms with the hard truth that if I let myself slow to a walk, even for a single step on race day, that was it for me. Both mentally and physically, I would be finished.
When I finally spotted the end of the trail, I reunited with Martha who had met her own difficulties before making it to the finish. I would have cried tears of joy if it weren’t for the fact that I was still so dehydrated I didn’t have a single tear left in me. Instead my eyes burned with salt. I snagged my camera and hobbled back to the trail long enough to take this photo (below), and then collapsed to stretch, recover, and talk it out.
Although the physical impact hit hard during and immediately following the run, the mental impact didn’t fully register until I got back home to Florida and had time to sit with it and let it sink it. It was within this time of reflection, and frustration I not only asked myself why I was doing this, but gave myself an honest answer.
I reminded myself that this marathon signifies far more than a race to me. My marathon year (26) has been quite the year of seemingly insurmountable obstacles that have felt like punches to gut. This obstacle is no different than the ones that have come before it, or the ones that will surely follow. Beyond the surface of wanting to do this, the marathon is metaphorical in so many ways. Not only is it something I want to prove to myself I can do, it doubles as life training, for whatever comes next.
I reminded myself I’ve never been one to want to follow a formula or stay inside the lines. I’ve always made decisions that have been met with plenty of questions, and criticisms. I’ve always been better at following my feelings and my heart, than feeling boxed in or bound by a plan. Things tend to lose their life when they become orchestrated after all.
And so, I did the obvious thing. I cut up my training plan. I cut it into bits and pieces. From here on out in my day to day training, I’ll simple be looking inward and running how I feel. On race day my heart and mind will either work together to do this, or they won’t. Sure, I’ll do everything in my power to see that they are as fueled, rested, revved and ready as they can be between now and then; however, as is the case with any situation in life, I cannot control the variables. I can only somewhat control the constant (myself), and how I react to what I am faced with.
Ultimately, the morning of the race I will be running how I feel, all 26.2 miles. I will give each mile of the marathon everything that’s in my heart and that will be all that I can give. It will either be enough, or it won’t be. It’s as simple as that.
A plan will only take you so far in life. Ultimately it’s up to your heart to carry you through the journey.