lifestyle

"This is why I run."

Sarah

 By SARAH KRASNOSTEIN

Last Monday, I put my tired feet up and watched the 117th Boston Marathon until the wee hours. It had been in my diary for weeks, in case I forgot and made other plans for 2am on that Monday morning. I had my Boston Marathon app with bios of the elite participants. I made snacks.

I stalked #allinforboston on Instagram and Twitter to see what the mere mortal runners like myself were eating, wearing and feeling before their big race. I was more excited than anyone should appropriately be at 11:30 on a Sunday night.

The first time I watched a marathon, it was the Paris Marathon and I thought something was wrong with the broadcast. Why was the camera focusing solely on the runners at the front? Where were the Waddlers, like myself, slogging through each of those 42.2 kilometers like little engines that could? And why were the spectators so sparse, so blasé? As for the crowd, I’ve since learned that’s just Paris.

And as for rest of it – well, I also learned that in the big marathons, there are officially two different races: the elite race and the general race. But while the broadcast focuses on the former, those two races are really one. Everyone is competing only against themselves and everyone is doing it so beautifully that it will bring you to tears with pride for them and for what is possible for any of us when we believe.

But this Boston Marathon reminded us that there are other types of tears. When the bombs went off about three hours after the elites crossed the finish line, there were many runners still on the course and hundreds of spectators cheering them from the sidewalks. In a single footfall, the zenith of human potential was stomped down to its nadir.  Or was it?

After years of training, those runners could see the finish line. And smoke. And blood. And limbs. And they ran into the crowd, checking for family, friends. They ran toward the injured. They tied tourniquets. They ran to donate blood. And when they did those things, one of the world’s greatest marathons became even greater.

The most frequent thing I read in my Twitter and Instagram-stalking of the ‘normal’ Boston marathon runners heading down to the start line was that they felt full of gratitude to be in that moment. That they felt so lucky to be supported by their families and friends. That they felt so alive.

The Boston Marathon explosion as it happened.

Running – especially together, especially supported by crowds of cheering faces – is when we feel most gloriously, most vitally human. The energy created by people coming together for that purpose is sacred and it is sublime.

The bombing at Boston cannot change that. Darkness is not fought with darkness. It is fought by putting one foot in front of the other when everything else is telling you to stop.

The runners who were approaching the finish when the bombs went off, had run thousands of kilometers to reach that moment. They did so knowing that there would be times when all they would want to do was stop. And that when that time came, they would refuse.

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These runners are all finishers regardless of how short they were forced to stop. These runners, and those in the crowd who were with them each step of the way cheering them on, and the first responders who came to their rescue, are marathoners.

I know a small part of this from my own experience. As a Melbournite/Manhattanite hybrid, it was only appropriate that the training for my first marathon was split across my two cities. The physical part took place in Australia. For 12 weeks, I schlepped myself out into the Melbourne winter for my runs; the same route every time. The monotony was a small price to pay for knowing where the water fountains were and, as the kilometers slowly mounted, where I was.

By the time I arrived in Manhattan a month before race day, there was an ‘unpleasantness’ where my hip was concerned. So my physical training in New York was limited to the exercise bike at the YMCA near my sublet where everyone looks like Larry David, the average age is 104 and it is acceptable to snack on a little cottage cheese whilst using an elliptical trainer.

I was never a fast runner. In high school, I was taunted as the “The Un-co” (short for uncoordinated) until I found refuge in the library long enough for the P.E. teacher to forget my existence entirely. In uni and in my twenties, I read on the treadmill at gym while “working out”, happily blind to the fact that if you can comfortably do so, you’re not.

My father proposed running the 2009 City2Surf road race in Sydney to raise money for the breast cancer. I “trained” by watching YouTube videos of other people running and downloading power songs. Only after the funds had irrevocably been raised did I realise that I was going to have to run 14 human kilometers. In public. All at once.

Between that painful finish and deciding in 2011 that I would run the New York Marathon on 4 November 2012, I became a passable approximation of a runner. But the clientele at the YMCA gave me the delusional self-confidence that I might very well win the Marathon.  And so I concentrated on the second – and most important -part of the training: the mental element.

Depending on what you read, somewhere between 50-80% of finishing a marathon is mental. Your mental training starts with learning to lie with a causal aplomb matched only by televangelists and politicians.

“I am a marathoner,” you say even if you can only run for three minutes before walking to regain your breath.

“I am a marathoner” you say.

“I am a marathoner,” you say while pretending that $35 is a reasonable price for socks.

“I am a marathoner,” even if, like myself, you are training for your first marathon.

You say this casually to strangers, working it, non sequitur, into the amount of conversation required to buy milk. You say it because behaviour motivates attitude: fake it and you will be inspired to make it. This is most of it, if not everything.

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“I am a marathoner,” you will say to yourself, repeating it like a mantra to spur you through each week of your training as you run longer and further than you have in your life.

I am a runner because I run. I am a marathoner because I say I am. Even though I have not yet run a marathon.

Hurricane Sandy hit New York on the Monday night before my marathon and all five boroughs were turned upside down. The marathon was cancelled. People lost homes in that storm. Lost lives. Lost electricity. But no one lost power. And this is what, at its heart, marathon training teaches: you always have more to give. My marathon training had taught me a practice that I could use in the face of any disappointment, including the disappointment of no marathon at all.

You learn that things will not go according to plan. Stability and change is the rule in running, as in life. We must be consistent but we must try new challenges in order to improve. Sometimes, though, the balance between stability and change can be more like the keeling of a ship.

You learn that you will, at some point, be in pain. When you feel that pain, you say: “Yes. But it doesn’t matter.” You say: “Pain, come run with me.” It doesn’t matter. Run with me. This is part of your training, more important even than kilometers.

In training for a marathon you break barriers. You learn you can run in rain. Cold. Heat. Night. For more than an hour. Two hours. Three. Four. Through discomfort. Exhaustion. Tall. Strong. You learn that your mind will carry you when your legs can’t.  You meet yourself at what you thought was your limit and, running through it with your eyes on the horizon, you realise there are no limits.

You learn to distinguish between pains, to judge them, rank them and identify those which are tolerable. You learn to be louder than that pain. We are all fighting something and to that degree we all know this intuitively, to that degree we all have to learn it better and to that degree we have to live it. We are all marathoners. Sometimes it just takes us longer to know it.

Whether you own a pair of running shoes or not, these workouts are a part of every life, we are all distance runners, endurance athletes. Injuries heal and runners improve with age; the kilometers make us stronger and not just musculo-skeletally.

When things get dark, as they will in life, and my anxieties burble up, I have more practice now running with them and running through them. I know better now when the body can handle the things which the mind can’t. And vice versa. I don’t always get it right. It’s a practice.

My marathon is on 3 November 2013. But I am not starting over. I never stopped. I am a marathoner.

Sarah Krasnostein can be found reading and/or writing most hours of the day. She is a writer, lawyer and full time doctoral candidate at Monash University Faculty of Law researching in the area of sentencing law, crime and punishment. She does not view running as punishment.

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