strong / 13.1

I stood, shivering, surrounded by men who were taller than me, all of them lean and muscled or at least older, glancing sideways at the tiny chick who’d positioned herself next to them on the starting line. I bent down probably five or six times to retie my shoelaces, a nervous pre-race habit I’ve had since high school, chattering away at the friends racing with me to release the pressure building in my chest. I prepared my watch and reminded myself of my plan.

Go out and see what happens after the first mile. Don’t go out too hard. Aim for 7-7:20, 7.30. Hold it until mile 8, then reel in the last 5. Negative splits. Get uncomfortable and see what you can do.

The community of runners and coaches I hang around here in Texas thought I could run the thing in an hour and a half. I was unconvinced. I’d run a lot of half marathons but never really tried to race one, so my best time was 1:49. A 20 minute PR? And I’d barely trained for this thing, was actually wearing the number of someone I knew who’d had surgery and couldn’t run. They’d only offered me the bib a few weeks before the race. I had done exactly one run longer than 8 miles in the past year, and exactly one speed workout.

I’d been working in other ways, on the elliptical, on a bike, on trails in Mexico, with multiple physical therapists… but I was scared to trust myself. Scared to try to be fast. Scared to think I was and end up failing. I was worried the 19:13 5k PR I’d run the week before had been a fluke, despite the time having been recorded on multiple watches, the course measured by GPS. I was scared to trust the 8x800m workout I’d done in repeats consistently 3:00 or faster. As a lifelong runner and coach I knew I should trust the numbers but I was terrified to trust my own ability.

The gun went off then and I ran out of time to worry.

I would have started out slower had it not been for the friends I’d stood on the line with, who went out in 7 flat and who I hung with because this was normal, comfortable, easy. These were my training partners, whose paces and footsteps I recognized the rhythm of. Miles 2 and 3 we hit in 6:58 and 6:59, and I tried to focus on the fact that I felt good instead of letting the panic those numbers ignited kick in. 4 and 5 were slower, 7:06 and 7:07, but we were running steady, strong. One of my friends peeled away to rest a knee injury. I hung with a small pack, beginning to enjoy myself. Mile 6 we hit in 6:56, 7 in 6:51. I realized, at some point, that there were no women in front of me. I was leading the women’s race. Some small voice in me rose up then and started to shout, a thin but powerful sound.

What do you think you’re doing? This is too fast. You can’t hold this. You’ve never done this before. Who do you think you are? You’re not this fast. How could you be in the lead?

It was not easy to shut this voice out.

Luckily, I really had to pee. The fifteen minutes or so I spent debating whether it was worth stopping at a port-a-john distracted me enough from my fear that I stopped looking at my watch and just let my body move.

Eventually I decided that I’d rather pee and lose a few seconds than struggle to finish on a full bladder (does this bother anyone else?? I would rather run through most injuries than that awful feeling). So I did and then pushed myself to catch up to the guys I’d been running with. Screw it, I’d thought. If Shalane Flanagan can pee in a race so can us mere mortals! 

Suddenly mile 8 had disappeared in 6:27. I sucked down a Gu mostly because I’d skipped breakfast and was growing hungry, then realized that I still felt fine.

Better than fine. I felt good.

I stopped looking at my watch, realizing the only thing it was doing was freaking me out, and simply asked myself one question.

How much do you love the feeling of flying?

I answered myself, too, even as I asked the question. How much do you love to fly? Like nothing else in the world. You slow down now, and you won’t be flying. Fall in love with the sensation. Sure, it hurts a little. But if you let if hurt, you get to fly.

I focused on the people ahead of me, on using them to reel myself forward.

The miles ticked away beneath my feet. 6:42, 6:31, another 6.31. Two miles to go and I realized I could really do this, I could run under an hour and a half but I had to make it happen now. It was going to come down to seconds.

You can do anything for two miles, I reminded myself. 6:36. You can do anything for one mile. 6:20 and then there it was, the end and someone was announcing “…the first female finisher has 50 seconds to break 1:30…” and I just starting hauling ass because holy shit I was going to make it.

Breaking the tape just under 1:30 was one of the best moments I’ve experienced in a while. Not because I had won (due to the fact that I was wearing a friends’ bib my win was unofficial, a mistake I won’t make again!) but because I had done it.

I couldn’t believe it.

I had done it.

I cried in the shower later where no one could see, because who could understand what I was crying for?

No one fully realized, afterwards, how nervous I had been. How many years of running it had taken for me to learn why I even bothered, to find the things that were going to spur me on in a race. Why it mattered so damn much to me to run well.

But I had been nervous. I had been scared.

I have always been. And far too often, I had let that fear get the better of me.

The thing about racing is that no one else sees the very personal fears inside your own head.

For me, there’s a constant struggle to be good enough.

Fast enough. Strong enough.

I am always afraid of not living up to the expectations I set for myself.

My whole life I’ve been fighting a constant lack of belief in my own ability to succeed that has tricked me into starving myself, quitting big things I was too scared to finish, staying in a relationship that was not right for me…  Every one of these was rooted in the fear that if I trusted myself, I would be disappointed.

This isn’t something that you want to talk about.
This isn’t the kind of blog post I prefer to spend my time on because
no one likes to admit their flaws but
these are the things that, having experienced and overcome them, make us stronger.

These days
I am learning that
I belong here, in this moment.
I have put in the work
I am strong. I am tough.
I am enough.

I don’t care about being fast anymore just to be fast. I care because it speaks to my soul, because it reminds me that I came from something primal and that I am a fighter.

I belong out front on the starting line. I belong somewhere among the leaders.

And if I can learn this, if I can figure this out after years and years of self-doubt…

I want you to know what whatever you’re going through, you can do it too.

There will always be a voice in your head
some seed of doubt that warns you away from big dreams and massive goals.

There will always be naysayers who criticize the things you hold so dear, dark places in your heart that try and shield you from the things that terrify you. You will always have to fight the parts of you that avoid risks, are so scared of failing that they fall short of what they could have been.

So stay alert. Next time you feel those fears rise up, fight them. Know your worth. Know your strength. Because man, there is so much more inside you than you know. It’s frightening how often we underestimate ourselves.

There’s a great quote out there that asks,

“What would you do if you knew you could not fail?”

Think about it.

Great.

Now, go do that.

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