The Year I Could Not Run (excerpt)

The Year I Could Not Run (excerpt)

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BY MARGREET DIETZ | This essay was selected as the Honorable Mention in the adult category of the Awesome Sports Writing Contest

I was down for the count the night before the Seattle Marathon, lying in the king-sized bed of the newly renovated Westin’s 29th floor, only waking occasionally as the building creaked and swayed in the wind.

The alarm went off at 6am. Tim, my partner, made me coffee while I ate my first Powerbar, reluctant to leave the cozy bed.

It looked like it was dry but the flag on one of the other tall buildings nearby could not have been more taut. Hilly and windy—not ideal, I thought.

I did not feel like running 26.2 miles as fast as I could. In a way that felt reassuring: I had never felt like racing a marathon when I woke up on a race morning. Yet, I was also glad the waiting was about to end. Thinking about racing a marathon often appeared infinitely harder than doing it—I was ready to get started.

“The spectre of never running again had so terrified me that I had refused to accept the possibility. “

I did not expect to best my marathon time in Seattle. The last third of the course was known for its hills, specifically on Galer and Madison streets. “It’s unrealistic to keep the same pace as the first two-thirds of the course,” nine-time winner Uli Steidl told the Seattle Times. These words stuck with me.

And then there had been the subtle but increasingly debilitating foot injury that had kept me from running for about a year, striking just as I had finally come within thirty seconds of my goal to finish a marathon in less than three hours. Five months into my struggle, one physician had even suggested I might never run again. The heel pain that had defied both diagnosis—it was not plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendonitis, or a stress fracture—and a slew of treatments, had threatened not only to end my athletic pursuits but also a crucial part of my identity. The spectre of never running again had so terrified me that I had refused to accept the possibility. I needed all my grit and determination to make it here, today, so grateful to feel that loaded anticipation, a familiar mix of dread and excitement once again, before my 17th marathon.

I was just so happy to be able to run—to train—again. I wanted to run a marathon, just to celebrate that I could. It wasn’t always about personal bests—especially not today. It felt freeing to focus on revelling in my body’s renewed strength. While I still planned to race as well as I could today, I was determined to keep the sensuality of my ability to participate at the forefront of my mind. “Do I have to run a marathon today?” I smiled. It seemed so long since I had been able to ask my usual pre-race question.

“Yes.” Tim laughed. “Yes, you do.”

After a hot shower, I stepped into my race outfit, containing more pink than ever. I was not a fan of pink but I was a fan of discounts and that was how the colour seemed to find me as of late—a fuchsia and orange top, with candy pink shoes. I divided four gels over the shirt’s two back pockets, put another two gels in the hip pockets of my running shorts, and carried the remaining two gels in a ziplock bag which I would slide into one of my gloves. I’d be fueled.

I pinned race number 551 to the front of my top. I didn’t even care that I was unable to find a way to make it add up to 13, my lucky number. Given the wind, I decided against a hat, neither willing to chase it, or lose it. I also decided against sunglasses—it was overcast and could rain.

Seven AM. Another Powerbar. Some water. Breakfast done. Perhaps a touch later than I would have liked.

Tim and our dog, Luka, were getting ready, too. We left the room, as planned, at about 7:30 AM. Race start was at 8:15 AM.

Downstairs, we slid into the stream of runners and spectators leaving the host hotel, joining a larger crowd on the sidewalks of 5th Avenue as the half marathoners flew by us in the opposite direction: their race started before ours.

The temperature was mild: Cold enough for winter coats on spectators, but I knew I would be warm in shorts and a tank top after a couple of kilometres at marathon race pace.

My stomach still felt fuller than I would have liked. “You'll be fine,” Tim said.

It was a kilometre, perhaps a little more, to the start line. As we approached it, Tim suggested I duck into a little restaurant for a final pit stop. Good idea. Having just left the hotel 10 minutes ago, I didn’t really need to stop but mentally it was good to go one more time—after all, there would be no “planned” breaks for the next 3-1/2 hours.

Near the start line, runners were everywhere but no one had begun claiming their spot. I looked for a place to do a warm-up but only ran for three minutes, up and down 5th Avenue. Then I decided to go to the start line. Tim and Luka were there, on the other side of the fence.

I was still wearing an old fleece sweater and a throwaway T-shirt. It felt chilly—I was in shorts—but not as cold as I had feared it might be for early December.

Officials waved, beckoning our approach to the starting line, but few were willing to bite. I gave Tim my sweater. He wished me well, as did Luka, and said he was going to head down along the course to catch me there.

I was calm and nervous at the same time. Ever since my first race, the 20K of Brussels in 1996, I always experienced a flood of wild emotions surging through my entire body before the gun sounded. The imminence of the thrill of voluntarily testing my body and mind quickened my pulse and brought tears to my eyes. The prospect of knowingly and willingly taking on a physical and mental challenge that was guaranteed to require nothing less than all I had sparked goosebumps all over my body. The marathon was especially daunting and electrifying.

The lack of a warm-up bothered me, but not enough to do something about it now—I preferred to stay and hold my spot with just 15 minutes to the gun. Walking in place, while shaking my arms to stay loose, I took deep breaths and reminded myself of my favourite race mantra: Relax and let it happen.

Relax. And. Let. It. Happen.

Next to me, I recognized a familiar face—it was Ben, a triathlon coach I met at a training camp in Boulder, Colorado, a little over two years ago. We had since met at a few Ironman races, most recently at Whistler in August, where Tim raced also.

Ben was a positive guy, and I enjoyed chatting with him as we waited for the start gun. A Seattle resident, Ben knew the course—he had run both the half marathon and marathon here before.

“What is your goal today?” he asked. I briefly explained my layoff and recent return to running, adding that my speed up to the half marathon distance seemed as fast as ever, but that I felt underdone in terms of long runs as they had not exceeded 20 miles.

Still, my plan was to start at 3-hour pace and to see how that felt.

“Great, I am with you,” he said. I knew Ben had run a Sub-3 marathon. But it felt great to have an ally, and someone who knew the course, too.

I peeled off my T-shirt and threw it to the side, set my watch so that all I needed to press was the start-button.

Ben and I kept chatting, and all of a sudden the gun went and the crowd moved.

Here we go.

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I did not want to start too fast, meanwhile, others steamed ahead.

“We'll see those people later,” Ben said. I held back too and we ran side by side. His company felt reassuring, a good omen.

There was Tim. I waved, Ben shouted, “Hey Tim!”

I felt good, comfortable, and grateful that I was on my way.

We hit the first mile in 6:49, a Sub-3 marathon pace, and I relaxed further into my rhythm. It was always hard to keep myself in check at the start of a marathon.

There were some rolling hills in the first few kilometres as we headed out of the city and onto the I-90 expressway. We had formed a small group— Ben and I were now running with two other men and two other women. An enjoyable shared rhythm of breath and moving limbs.

I pressed the lap button at 3 miles, 20:42, and did a quick mental calculation. Seven-minute miles—an easy number for mental math—meant a 3:03 marathon: I was under 21 minutes so that was good.

My Timex watch was not as easy for taking lap splits as the Polar watch I used in most of my marathons; I knew I wouldn’t be looking to press that split button every mile. But I did for the next two, with a 6:53 and a 6:47.

“Isn’t it amazing how small the world can be?” Ben said. I smiled and agreed. It was great to still be running together, but I didn't want to chat, at least not at this pace, and felt bad about that. I hoped he understood.  

By now we were out on a bridge spanning two miles across Lake Washington and it became clear exactly how windy it was. Even in a group, now of about 10, the wind was so strong my legs got blown to the side—I had to be careful not to trip over my own feet. I reminded myself to focus on what I could control—my pace, my frame of mind.

While I pressed my watch to take another split, I didn’t analyze it and just stuck with the pace. At mile 8, we exited the bridge, turning left onto a pretty, narrow road, grateful for shelter from the brutal wind that blasted us for the past two miles.

Eventually our little group began to disintegrate, slowly but surely, spreading out over the next few miles. I took one of my gels, ripping it open with my teeth, and sucked the gooey substance out of its package. Fuel. Relieved the wind was gone, at least for now, I passed a sign marking 15K—my god, not even close to halfway. Ben had mentioned that the halfway mark was at the turnaround of this out-and-back stretch, so that was what I tried to focus on. Breaking down large goals into small sections is a powerful mental tool, a lesson my first coach had taught me more than a decade earlier.

I could not help but worry about the fatigue that already seemed to envelop me at this stage. I did not think about the hills ahead. There was nothing I could do to avoid them, and I reminded myself of nine-time winner Uli Steidl’s warning: You can’t expect to run even splits on this course.

For now, I just needed to stay with the pace as best I could. The other two women in our group seemed to have fallen behind but I was not sure how far. On the bridge I counted only two women ahead.

Two men in our group were running strong, and moved ahead. Ben did, too.

I spotted the halfway mark. As I ran across the timing mat next to it, the clock showed 89:14.

Crap—too fast!

I’d reached halfway, or 21.1K, almost a minute faster than I had in Vancouver 19 months ago, 90:09, which was then the fastest I had ever run the first half of a marathon. Of course there was a problem near the halfway point in Vancouver—the course was shortened as the race was in progress. So, either I had gotten faster after my year-long enforced break from running, or it was an indication of how much extra distance I ran in the Vancouver marathon.

No wonder I felt tired. I was on personal record pace! I was afraid to get excited. I wondered if I overestimated my fitness. Could I sustain this pace?

Breathe and relax. Breathe and relax. Do the best you can do now. And remember, a year ago, you could not even run.

I settled into the discomfort, focusing on maintaining my pace as best I could. Marathons are not meant to be easy. I saw Ben ahead. One of the other guys who had broken away with Ben seemed to be tiring.

A few kilometres later, I caught him.

“Great job, stay strong.” My words were meant as much for me as they were for him.

My big toes were now telling me that my decision to wear relatively new shoes was a mistake. It was the same model, just a newer edition, of the shoes I had been wearing for about four years. I had worn this pair for the past two weeks and thought I'd be fine in them today. I was wrong. I tried to ignore the pain. I accepted it as beyond my control.

Spectators lined the course in various places, and cheered me on.

“Go girl!”

I smiled, waved at their cheers, soaked in the energy.

“Third woman, looking strong!”

Third woman—that was what I thought. But the race was far from over—the toughest quarter was yet to come.

I could still see Ben in the distance. He looked strong.

The hills began. I accepted that they were here. I accepted that my legs felt like Jell-O on each uphill incline, and that my pace slowed markedly. As soon as the earth flattened out, I sped up as best as I could and gladly welcomed the helping hand of gravity on the downhills.

“Breathe and relax. Do the best you can do now. And remember, a year ago, you could not even run.“

“What goes up, must come down,” I encouraged myself.

Now it was a matter of staying strong, and working with those hills as much as possible. Others were hurting, too. I passed runners who had been reduced to a walk.

I reveled in the challenge of sticking with it, to keep going, even as my pace slowed. After all, I was still passing runners, while very few passed me. I tried to tap into my mental resources, I marvelled at the human body—my own body. I strongly believed that, fundamentally, the body was good and capable. I believed that running was a natural activity—I knew it was natural for me. I also believed that we could teach our bodies far more than we realized. We could also rewire and restore far faster than we realized.

I accepted that my body was, and always would be, a work in progress. Yoga had become part of my marathon training, which rewarded me with more flexibility, balance and strength. I was making peace with the mirror, with the person looking back at me, without criticism or averting her eyes. I had found compassion for the things my body could not yet do, instead of anger and frustration.

Where I was, was exactly where I needed to be.

I understood that I did not need thoughts.

I was not my thoughts. My thoughts were not who I was.

My body was where I felt, understood and processed.

The potential was there waiting to be tapped.

Deepak Chopra describes the silence between thoughts, a space where we experience our spirit, our true Self. I first discovered this in running, without an ability to put it into words. I felt it during every run and sensed it was the most important thing in the world, the universe. To me, the prospect of losing my ability to run meant the prospect of losing touch with my Self, because that was my best way of approaching her, being her, even if only for a little while. In running, I always found my way back to my true Self, who I really was—without thinking, without effort, without fear.

With two miles to go, I allowed myself to look back—once, twice, three times—I had held third place for more than half the race and I was determined to finish with it now.

Tim and Luka waited at mile 25. I smiled, waved, but kept moving as fast as I could.

One more mile.

Three hours came and went.

Stick with it.

Finally, I saw the finish chute. The clock.

I smiled and pumped my fist in the air as I crossed the line in 3:05:09.

My second-fastest marathon!

The loss of my ability to run compelled me to dig deeper than I ever had before.  Overcoming my injury required tapping into all of the grit and determination I had accumulated over nearly two decades of running. I had to re-commit to my true Self, as an athlete and as a human being who wanted and needed to run.

What perhaps surprised me most was that during my injury I relied on the qualities I previously only associated—indeed, only discovered in myself—with my running. Until my injury, I believed I could only summon and access this strong, driven, physical, competitive and confident side of me when I ran. But as I looked back over the past year, I realized that the runner-side-of-me was always there, patiently waiting for me to acknowledge and use her abilities at any time. Working through what I experienced as personal failure had, in fact, empowered me.

I still cannot fully grasp why being a runner is so critically important to me, but I have erased any lingering doubt that running is essential to who I am and my sense of Self. I do know, however, that the only way to uncover the true significance of running in my life, was to keep going, to renew my pursuit of the Sub-3 marathon. Gratefully and hungrily, I accepted the challenge.

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Opportunity of a Lifetime

Opportunity of a Lifetime