The marathon is often the pinnacle of a runner’s quest—the longest distance anyone hopes to run or race. I have done a handful of marathons in the past four years, but I occasionally have wondered what it would be like to run beyond 26.2 miles. A few weeks back I had the occasion to participate in the 2nd annual CocoLuxe Run. CocoLuxe is a bakery in Pea Pack, NJ that happens to be about 30 miles from my town of Maplewood. Last year after listening to cyclists extol the virtues of the pastries at CocoLuxe, which they would sample on a weekend 60 mile roundtrip ride, a few of us decided to do a long run out there. This year my intention was to go beyond last year’s total of 29 miles and do at least 50K (about 31 miles) for the first time.
I remember last year when I ran past the 26.2 mile mark. There were no fireworks exploding, no bells ringing, no horns blaring, just the near silence of the rural road save for the sound of my footfalls and the occasional car. 26.2 miles is as arbitrary a distance as there can be (especially when you examine the history of how it came to be 26.2). There may be magic in the number for us runners, but it is the magic we imbue it with.
Those miles beyond 26.2 have been tough both years, especially this year because I was running with a faster group of runners in the second half of the run. It wasn’t so much about energy. Sure, I was tired, but I was careful to hydrate and “onboard” calories throughout the run. It was more about the physical effort and the toll on my body. I hurt in all the usual places (left hip, right foot), but also in new places (left knee, both ankles). My legs just weren’t used to being pushed this far, this hard, for this long.
Before and during the run, I also had to deal with fear (What if I hurt myself or do significant damage to something?), doubt (Can I really do this? Can I keep up with Paul and Eliot this time?), and negative self-talk (I am too old to be doing this.). Some of these intensified past 26.2 (That pain in my foot could be a stress fracture. I am putting too much strain on my body. This is one of the stupidest things I have ever attempted. What the hell was I thinking?).
Having others along helped tremendously. We had a large group do either the first half or the second half, with six of us attempting the entire distance. Toward the end, my friend and running partner, Paul, stayed with me rather than running with two other guys who pulled ahead in the last three or so miles. He helped me remain focused on the task at hand, rather than on the fatigue, pain, fear, doubt, and negative self-talk. He kept promising that THIS was the last hill. He was wrong at least four times, but I forgave him.
I finally reached the bakery about 4 ½ hours after we started and collapsed onto the bench outside to rest. I had completed 31.75 miles, just beyond my 50K goal. I was very tired, but I was satisfied and proud. I hadn’t damaged myself after all. The pain of the “stress fracture” in my foot magically disappeared. Within a few minutes I felt good enough to enter the bakery with the other participants and enjoyed two chocolate croissants and a big cup of coffee before heading home—by car!
In my reflection on this experience, several things were reinforced for me. First and most importantly, the vast majority of the limits we experience are the ones we impose on ourselves. Can just about anyone run 50K? Yes! Maybe not tomorrow, but with many months and miles of training, it is quite possible. I am living proof. It has made me continue to look for where else in my life I am setting arbitrary limits on myself.
The other thing it reinforced for me is the importance of fellow travelers on the journey. Sure, having Paul hang with me in the last few miles was important, but just as important were all the days Bill was waiting outside my house at 5:20 a.m. for a run, or Paul waiting for me to show up at his house, or John (several of them actually), Jay, Eliot, Christine, David, Larry, and the others who showed up for early Saturday or Sunday runs or workouts on Thursday nights. Days when I might have run less or not at all, there were people who by their very presence inspired me to get out there and do the miles that eventually led both to successfully competing in marathons and in the ability to run more than 31 miles on a chilly Sunday morning in January.
So, what is your 26.2? What are the arbitrary limits you set on yourself? And have you surrounded yourself with people who believe in you and your crazy goals or with people who reinforce the arbitrary limits that exist?