The Road from 3.1 to 13.1

How finding a calm mind, despite a racing heartbeat, became the true accomplishment of my half-marathon.

Flashback to New Year’s Eve 2016. While the whole world ushered in a brand-new year with booze, confetti, and dance parties into the wee hours of the morning, I hit the lights at 10 p.m. in anticipation of what the earliest hours of the new year would bring me. I had agreed to run a 5K with my uncle, and I knew it would be tough enough without a hangover and excessive sleep deprivation. I didn’t know it then, but that race would solidify 2016 as my year of running. That 3.1 miles would grow slowly, but steadily, over the next eight months, until my mileage meandered up to 13.1 miles.

A year ago, I would never have pictured a half marathon being so close on the horizon. Hell, I wouldn’t have imagined a half marathon being on my horizon at all. I used to stare dubiously at any runner I passed, wondering how she/he could possibly stand repeating the same, strenuous forward motion with nothing other than music to entertain the chattering, grumbling mind. I now understand that—sometimes, not always—a veil of silence drops over the mind while we run. Thoughts aren’t gone, but they are muffled. Our focus can shift to the consistancy of our breath, the music traveling through our ear drums, or the landscape of the long road ahead.

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In Haruki Murakami’s memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, he says, “All I do is keep on running in my own cozy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence. And this is a pretty wonderful thing. No matter what anybody else says.” What Murakami describes here is what I struggled the most with during my training. Discovering, designing and fully inhabiting my own “cozy, homemade void.” When your training demands runs that stretch on past the 60-minute mark, there has to be a place inside of yourself where you can retreat to feel safe, strong, and in control. Finding that mental state was exceedingly more challenging than facing my first six-, nine- or even eleven-mile run. When my training began, I simply wasn’t good at being with my thoughts for that long.

Knowing my mind would make or break my half marathon, I began to try incorporating aspects of mindfulness into my runs. I’ve been meditating consistently since January now, and had heard other runners talk about the labeling technique—which proves exceedingly helpful when my the mind begins its circular tirades. For example:

Mind: Why am I running again? My legs hurt. Everyone else is at brunch. It’s Saturday for god’s sake! I should be sleeping. Or reading The New Yorker in bed. I am totally going to break out from all of this face sweat.

Me (Labeling): Oh, it’s actually okay. I’m thinking. These are just thoughts.

Sometimes this works. Sometimes … not so much. But just as my muscles and heart grew stronger throughout the training process, so too, did my mind and its ability to perform this little exercise. My “cozy, homemade void” made more frequent appearances on my long runs. And before I knew it, 13.1 miles was just around the corner. I headed up to Tenants Harbor, Maine to meet my family and run the longest distance of my life (so far).

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Tenant’s Harbor is an hour and a half outside of Portland. It’s absolutely gorgeous, and if you have AT&T, there is absolutely no cell phone service. Not even one bar. It was absolutely glorious. Sometimes going off the grid can be liberating … unless you forgot to download your Apple Music “1/2 Marathon” playlist, which I did. So I enjoyed throwback Michael Jackson songs for the extent of all 13.1 miles. I’m not complaining; I think it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

The weather could not have been more perfect the day of the race. We awoke at 5:30 a.m. to 65degree temperatures, and mostly overcast skies. After training in the suffocating humidity of New York all summer, this transition felt like finally returning to pavement after a long run in the sand. At 7:30 a.m. we set off, and the hills began. Because I spent most of the summer training on the manmade hills of Central Park, Maine’s hills did not seem quite as daunting as they could have. Pacing myself moving downhill proved even more difficult than propelling myself going up. But I managed to keep my pace, and control my breathing.

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My inner monologue faded quickly early in the run, and I retreated to my safe bubble inside myself. The surroundings were breathtaking, as I knew they would be. Miles of green unfolded around me, gorgeous seascapes captured my attention for mile upon mile, and the sky was unobstructed by skyscrapers. At mile six, I passed a homemade advertisement for a “Coffin Maker,” and laughed out loud. At least I would be in good hands if I suddenly dropped dead during the second leg of the race.

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In classic Maine style, every mile was marked by a painted buoy. Though I looked out for them along the run, I found myself counting the water stations instead of the miles. What can I say? I had my priorities straight. The prospect of taking an instant to guzzle down water or gatorade felt like a well-deserved treat. As Michael sang to me, I honestly can’t tell you what I thought about, or if I thought at all. I tried to focus on the people around me. One woman, who I stuck with most of the time, would stretch her arms out to catch the downhill breeze. I think I watched another runner’s ponytail flick back and forth for about three miles. Without my even realizing, the miles began to collect behind me until finally, I only had a 5K left. I convinced my leaden legs that we were starting 2016 anew; starting with 3.1 miles.

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At the 13-mile marker, I went into full on sprint mode. The latter half of the path was characterized by a treacherous, gravelly hill leading up to Blueberry Cove Camp. But I was too close to the finish line to even care. I had been promised a blueberry brunch upon finishing this race, and I was hallucinating various blueberry pastries by the time I raised my arms and registered that I had finished in two hours and three minutes. I let out a ludicrous, half-crazy laugh, and swallowed several small cups of the best water I had ever tasted.

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The brunch spread was fantastic. We lined up camp-style for eggs, bagels, blueberry pie and cake, salad, coffee, bacon, sausage, and the most fantastic blueberry granola crumble I’ve ever tasted. Three servings of blueberry brunch later, we heaved our full bellies back to our rental house for naps, and some post-run chill time. After anticipating this race for an entire summer, and having it come to fruition in two hours, I felt a sense of calm accomplishment. We’re so skillful at building future events up in our heads, imagining millions of scenarios and story lines. But I had not anticipated how at peace I would feel as I plopped down, post-shower, on a chair overlooking the ocean. I had done something that I had never envisioned being able to do. And for me, the glory and excitement came in reveling in somehow finding a calm mind through a racing heartbeat. And, of course, treating myself to half a dozen biscuits and far too many servings of blueberry crumble.

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For those of you training for your own race, here’s a little taste of the 1/2 Marathon Playlist I forgot to download:

  • Stronger – Kanye West
  • Closer – The Chainsmoker (feat Halsey)
  • My House – Flo Rida
  • Sweet Home Alabama – Lynyrd Skynyrd
  • Dog Days Are Over – Florence + The Machine
  • Walking on Sunshine – Katrina and the Waves
  • Bad to the Bone – George Thorogood & The Destroyers
  • Tequila – The Champs
  • Renegades – X Ambassadors
  • Never Let Me Go – Florence + The Machine
  • Viva La Vida – Cold Play
  • Good Feelin – Flo Rida
  • Love Me Harder – Ariana Grande & The Weeknd
  • Feel Again – One Republic
  • Jessie’s Girl – Rick Springfield
  • #SELFIE – The Chainsmokers
  • Same Old Love (Filous Remix)- Selena Gomez
  • Lonely Boy – The Black Keys
  • Radio – Santigold
  • We Used to Be Friends – The Dany Worhols
  • Houdini – Foster the People
  • Hips Don’t Lie – Shakira
  • Footloose – Kenny Loggins
  • Mercy – Duffy
  • Heart Shaped Box – Nirvana
  • Born to Boogie – Hank Williams, Jr.
  • 679 (feat. Monty) – Fetty Wap

 

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