Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
When I was young, at bedtime I used to leap from one corner of my room to the bed. Flip switch, room dark, one bound and there I was: in bed. Safe. As far as I knew, my parents and brother didn’t know. Even in my childish imagination, I knew there was something ridiculous about the notion of a creature grabbing my ankles from under the bed and dragging me into the abyss. Nonetheless, in the heat of the moment when the light went out, my little self couldn’t process the immensity of what could be in the darkness with the knowledge of what was in the light. So, I continued this bedtime ritual with some incongruity until I grew out of it.
Standing on the starting line of the Boston Marathon, I felt a chill run up my spine. It passed through my chest, down the sides of my arms, into my fingertips. The stillness in the air and the dull hum of the crowd was broken by a breeze on my face. I breathed it in. Moments earlier, I was deliberating whether to drink a couple more sips of water to compensate for the unexpected warmth and risk feeling too full, but that was behind me now. I felt the grip of my hand release. I felt my heartbeat in my throat. I swallowed it. I knew: my nerves were in a dual with my brain. At the moment, the brain was strong, fueled to the brim with nutrition and confidence. The ensuing hours would determine exactly how strong.
It’s not about if, rather when the dark place in the marathon will come. The best preparation is to practice accepting this inevitability before it arrives so your response is intuitive. Mentally and physically, my approach to Boston – third marathon – was different than before. It involved taking more risks. At every opportunity that made sense, I strung it out a little longer, dug a little deeper, emptied myself more often than I have dared before in a marathon cycle. Purposefully training through more fatigue than I had felt confident doing in the past: doubling more often and doing back-to-back marathon simulation long runs and steady-state medium long-runs plus a strength session the following day. Having three years of uninterrupted training, these risks were not without calculation. The demand of working full time as an architect, however, is a non-negotiable so there was very little tolerance in the calculation. When working full time and trying to be a competitive runner, you start doing shit like running 14 miles with over 7 of them at MP before 7am, biking to work, working ‘til 7:30-8pm and running home to kill the commute and secondary with one stone. Part of the calculation. These are the non-negotiables.
The marathon is the most intellectual of the running events. Both in training and execution, all aspects of the brain are put to the test. There is a science to nutrition, hydration, recovery, adaptation, glycogen storage, lactate clearance, speed economy… The merit of sticking with the program and not skipping steps is vital to establishing a foundation upon which you can tap into a higher level. Without the minutia, the huge leap is not possible. Since it is atypical to ever complete the distance in training and impossible to recreate the physical and emotional duress of the event, every facet of training is designed to bring your body just to its outer limits and then recover, only enough so you can do it again. Sustaining this cycle requires a great deal of attention to detail and self-awareness. If training has been going well, the aggregate of information the brain has to process should get progressively simpler the closer you get to the race. Decisions become more straightforward. Instinctual. Do I need to poop? Am I hungry? Do I need to sit down? Should I drink more water?
The marathon itself is the sum of countless micro-calculations hitting the brain in rapid fire. The closer you are to the heat of the race, the more micro and rapid the calculations are. Getting to the next fluid station; assessing that twinge in your hamstring and whether you need to adjust your pace for a few strides to fix it; taking two cups of water instead of one, etc. It is the calculation that gets you here: to the point in the race at which the calculation has served its end and the brain is compelled to make a shift. At this point you know you’re reaching another level of existence, when your brain is trying to cope with the reality of the unknown.
Boston was for me, the pinnacle, as it is for many runners. Perhaps the last major unfinished goal of my running career. I trained every day with this attitude, motivated by an almost primal sense of survival – like I needed to prepare twice as much for something big to hit; something of unknown gravity. The Olympic Trials Qualifying window hadn’t opened yet so the time had no objective relevance, yet the personal stakes could not have been higher. I had no specific race goal, other than to run under my PR (2:40:30). The race goal needed to be intangible this time. Instead of thinking about numbers on the watch, I focused on accepting paces in workouts that felt too intense to sustain for 26.2 miles. The goal was to train my brain to become agnostic to sustained discomfort and the associated fear of blowing up. I had taken the opposite approach in the two previous marathon build-ups. This time, I trained as if I had nothing to lose.
The pace was uncomfortable from the gun, not what I had expected. No one expects the pace to feel uncomfortable in the first few miles of a marathon, if it is the pace you have been training for. But I had already committed. The heat and wind gusts were not enough to derail the plan. 5k: still too early to make significant adjustments. One of the female elites ahead of me must have accidentally taken my first bottle because it wasn’t there when I passed. In these conditions, I knew what missing a fluid table could mean later in the race. I stamped that out of my mind. I looked at my watch. 5:50. A nice number. But it is still too early for it to feel this hard. Three more miles and the next fluid table: this bottle had only water (no Nuun) and a Gu. The Gu I couldn’t stomach but I forced down about three quarters of it. I knew I couldn’t skip it, had to stick to the plan. I felt a little better. Between 6 and 10 miles I started to feel my stride, even as it felt like a grind. Head wind one moment, side wind the next. The road seemed huge, the crowds far away. I felt alone.
Fear becomes habit, habit becomes mentality, mentality becomes reality. My reality. Your reality. When we’re young, our perspectives are limited. We learn to fear what we can’t see or don’t know, if we let what we can’t see or don’t know become too big. We’re taught what to fear before we understand what fear is or how to cope with it. I have memories of my mom screaming at me, as a young kid, if I would get “too close to the edge” as if her abrupt shriek alone wouldn’t cause me to freak out and fall over. Fear comes in many disguises as we age, becoming more complex and embedded in our behavior. I have seen people who love each other also hurt each other out of fear. I have felt it enough to know what it is.
Running is a gift. We don’t own it, but we get to do something with it. Through it, we get to do something elemental. Something real. Because running contextualizes suffering. It gives purpose to hardship and meaning to sacrifice. It’s a portal into the human experience, as deep as you want to go. Running is intensely personal but what makes the marathon particularly special is that we get to share it with others. We fear, we suffer, we endure, we breakthrough together, apart. Sometimes we fail and fall and have to figure out how to make sense of that. Sometimes we succeed and have to make sense of that. Either way, through it all, we witness the relentlessness of the human spirit.
Mile 16, the beginning of the fated hills: I questioned myself again. I had run these hills before, with fresh legs and friendly BAA runners, back in the winters of 2010-2011. They felt steeper now. The pace felt more urgent now. I ran as if I needed to get them over with. But they kept coming. I found no words of positive affirmation in me. My mind was consumed with a driving imperative to hold the pace. Hold the rhythm. This proved to be all I could focus on. I saw small children holding out their hands for me. For me? It was too much diverted energy to hold out my hand in return. Once or twice, I did, but it felt more out of obligation than joy. I had to spend a couple strides recouping from the break in momentum. I tried to crack a smile instead. They say smiling helps relax your face which translates down the chain to your body. Mine was more of a grimace. Does a grimace relax your face?
Every step was a calculation of minute proportion; a calculation to determine the least amount of effort expended to produce the greatest amount of momentum forward, and then project that into the remaining amount of race left to calibrate how much you can burn now. Cracks in the pavement, uneven surfaces… These were hazard zones now. I tried to avoid them yet still maintain the straightest line to Boston. The slightest misstep was a loss of inertia that I couldn’t afford to spare. Fluids were part of the calculation too. A combination of water, water and Gu, water with Nuun and 1/2 a tablet of Nuun+. But always water. Water in the mouth. Water on the head. The water tables were full – three or four stacks high – of water cups. I thought about the runners behind me and what the water table will look like in an hour or so. I thought about holding my cup until I saw a trash can to throw it into. I stopped thinking. Crumpled the cup and tossed it to the side. Conserve. Conserve. Contain. Contain the mind. The slightest misthought was one I couldn’t afford to spare. It was becoming increasingly harder to maintain momentum. Maintain power. Maintain focus. Maintain focus. The dark place was here. But my mind was locked in. I felt it. I knew what it was. Not negotiable.
At the top of Heartbreak Hill, covered in Nuun, Gu, and sweat, I felt more animal than human. Mile 21, the notorious breaking point of Boston, was the moment of truth. Had I gone out to fast? Was the heat catching up to me? Was the swashing in my belly and my loss of appetite a sign that my body was not processing fluids? I remember feeling the stick of Gu on my finger tips and the cool water I had poured over my head mixing with the heat of my head and dripping down my neck in a warm trickle. I was not afraid. In my heart I knew I had prepared for this moment. This moment gave purpose to the sacrifices, the suffering, the setbacks, the heartbreak…the culmination of which built into a reservoir of willpower to keep going. Because it is not for the glory and the coronation that we run. It is to breakthrough. To face our fears and methodically and resolutely reduce them, one step at a time, to nothing.
In this moment, there was no more calculation. The system switched: from cold execution to something I cannot describe. Something raw, messy, untamed… Something I will never forget because it was something I had never experienced. The pace for the ensuing 5 miles felt reckless. Propelled by gravity, will, and an uncommon force, I drilled into the pain. Bite down. Empty yourself. Every fiber of muscle was screaming, so why did it feel like I was flying? My Garmin beeped, 5:48…5:52…5:38… I remember my thoughts, but I don’t remember much else. There was Hereford. There was Boylston. There were the flags. There was the finish.
6 months ago, I stopped running. Diagnosed with a talus stress fracture. My brain could no longer override my body telling me to stop. This new challenge, mentally and emotionally, has taken many forms and has been exceptional at times. Unlike previous setbacks, this one carries a particular sting: an unknown time frame and outcome at a stage in my life when my days as a competitive runner are numbered. So I cross train. Holding on to whatever fitness left of the last three years spent building it has been my primary motivation. But it is dark at 5:30 in the morning, and the spin room at the Presidio Y is dimly lit. The ankle is a quagmire of tightly packed and intricate moving parts that depend on each other to bear the full force of each stride. Blood flow is limited, slowing healing. Injury here is torturous because it is complex. My case is not unique, albeit unusual.
It is ironic, though not surprising, that this challenge is particularly acute. Running has been for me the counterargument to defeat. The repetitive pursuit of willingly stepping into the unknown, with courage. It has been for me a measured proof of human resilience and spirit. It has been the recovery from loss, the rebellion to the status quo, the resistance to mediocrity. A secret superpower. With running, there is no such thing as cutting corners. You can’t fake your way to fitness. It is earned. Running is also a gift. We don’t get to own it, but we get to do something with it. Without running, my life would not be as rich and full and unlimited as it is. The test now is to face all of the above, without it.
It’s hard to dig deep when you can’t see where you’re going…when you’re at the brink and the cracks in the road seem like they will derail you. But you pass over them, one by one, and realize there is always more road.