Running a marathon is all consuming, they say – I am they, as I’ve written about this often (here for example). 26.2 is out of reach for the casual athlete, so preparing for race day requires a high level of preparation. Over the course of several months, the longest weekly run gradually increases in distance, which inherently means the time commitment increases at that same gradual level. One week you’re running 10 miles in two hours and before you know it, you’re up to 18 and four hours of your Saturday are gone, not to mention the canceled plans the night before to prepare + the cleared schedule afterwards because you’re too exhausted to leave the couch.
I’ve completed six marathons, and to varying degrees each training cycle has controlled my life. There’s a sense of fulfillment that comes from pursuing such a single-minded goal. I loved each marathon for different reasons and was grateful to be consumed.
I always framed it as discipline – what drive I have! What dedication! But truthfully, it was a distraction. Throwing myself into marathon training meant I didn’t need to be fully present for the rest of my life. I numbed myself willingly. With my blinders firmly up, all I could see was the number of miles I needed to run, the specific foods and beverages I needed to consume at set times, and the blocked-off time to recover before repeating the cycle.
The escapism / celebration cycle can become addicting, too. I don’t need to face my problems AND I can get praise and attention for the distraction? Sign me up!
As much as I’ve been running toward the finish line, I’ve always been running away from much more.
- 2011 Twin Cities Marathon – my first time completing 26.2! I was a few years out of college and failing to live up to the prestigious career I’d imagined for myself. After an entire life of shiny report cards attesting to what a pleasure I was to have in class, I had no fancy title, no prospects for career growth, and nowhere near enough money to support the lifestyle I wanted. I was working in a call center after failing / quitting / narrowly avoiding being fired from three different jobs. I needed to prove to myself that I could still be impressive, and what’s more impressive than a former band kid becoming a powerful athlete?
- 2014 Portland Marathon – I’d moved across the country two years prior and was still struggling to find my way. I hadn’t made many friends yet and felt lost in the woods again professionally. Being far from the majority of my loved ones also put oversized pressure on social media, and posting about marathon training implied I was doing much better than I actually was. Of course I’m fine! Did you see the pics from my 18 mile run? Could a depressed person do that??
- 2015 Portland Marathon – I registered for this race during the death rattle of a decade-long relationship and ran it a few months after we separated. This is by far my fastest time, as I was more desperate than ever to outrun my heartbreak.
- 2016 Seattle Rock & Roll Marathon – still aimlessly finding my way in a town I hadn’t fully embraced, even after living here for four years. I couldn’t take my foot off the gas, so I kept trying to outrun my feelings.
- 2016 Twin Cities Marathon – my third full marathon within 12 months and the end of my extreme exercise breakup bender. Do not recommend.
- 2018 Chicago Marathon – deep grief on a national level. We were two full years into the Trump administration, and help was not on the way. I applied for the Chicago entrance lottery desperate for anything good, and was relieved beyond belief to see the nearly $300 charge on my credit card letting me know I’d been accepted. I trained hard and drowned out the news with hours of entertainment podcasts on my 20 mile runs. In this training cycle I also found a community of strong women to run with, and I sought solace from them by spending more time on the trail. The day before this race, Brett Kavenaugh was appointed to the Supreme Court, solidifying the hate and danger we all feared was coming, so I ran the race fueled by a combination of grief, rage and mini pretzels.
I run my seventh marathon in one week, and this time around I’m doing what I’ve never let myself do before: slow down.
As I’ve written about previously, I stretched out this training plan to build in more rest and deloading weeks, so instead of running 15 miles one week, then 16 the next, then 17, I staggered it to do 15, down to 10, then back up to 16, then back down again. For midweek runs, I typically only ran twice, and the other days I moved my body however felt right at the time – some strength training, some yoga, and lots of gentle walks.
I’ve learned what enough looks like, and I’ve grown more comfortable sitting still.
Learning to slow down is an ongoing process, and I repeatedly catch myself slipping back into the trap of wanting fill any downtime with more motion. I need regular reminders, but I’m gradually redefining my goals to protect the time and space needed to do less.
Counterintuitively, doing less is harder, but in different ways from the type of hard work I’m used to. That brute force, no excuses approach has earned me medals and promotions, making it much less tempting to pursue the invisible inner work that comes from therapy and introspection and actually feeling the ups and downs of life.
One of my proudest outcomes from this training cycle is that instead of focusing on what I’m running from, I’m getting clearer on what I’m running to.
I’m running to a routine where I get plenty of sleep and drink enough water. I’m running to a healthier self image where I feel neutral about my appearance, and grateful for the journeys my body can take me on. I’m running to a future where I have strength and mobility for decades to come, and a life where I celebrate the love I’m surrounded by more than my achievements.
As I enter into taper week, I’m intentionally slowing down even more so my legs will be fresh for race day, but I’m grateful to have taken this approach this entire cycle. Doing less has allowed me to be more present for both the good and the bad, not to mention arriving at the start line uninjured and not burned out. For the first time, marathon training has consumed only a healthy amount of my time, strength and sanity, and for once I haven’t outrun my love of running.