Most runners have a mantra (or two) that help them overcome a tough situation. It might be a simple as “you can do it” or as deep as “keep running for those who can’t.” I am typically deep and sentimental when it comes to my mantras. I always think about how my mother would be proud, how I can be a positive role model to my daughters or about friends and family who have fought (or are fighting) cancer. Those thoughts motivate me to push through the mental and physical barriers that try to keep me from moving forward.
Yesterday’s mantra couldn’t be further away on the mantra spectrum. You see, I was smart (or stupid… still not sure yet) and decided to run a marathon 3 weeks after achieving a personal record in a marathon. And not just any marathon…. a marathon that included a 2,200 foot climb up steep and winding roads through a national park. A marathon that was going to be the most scenic racing adventure of my running career thus far, but a marathon that would also be the toughest one for me to complete. I knew I could do it, but I wasn’t sure at what cost. Would my knees buckle and leave me crying on the side of the road? Would I hurt my ego as I crossed the finish line in last place?
We drove the route the night before the marathon. It wasn’t like I hadn’t seen it before. Last spring we came out and did the tourist thing. At that time I never imagined running the road we were driving on. As we drove it again the night before, I had a whole new perspective. Wow, that was quite a climb! I will be running up that? This part of the road looks relatively flat, but there really is no true flat section. I have to run down that? How will my knee react? There were some positive thoughts as well. Holy cow, would you look at that view?? I get to stare at that for 5 or more hours? I should just look at this marathon as a run to tour the Colorado National Monument.
I went to sleep thinking that everything would be alright. And then I was wide awake at 4:30 am even though I didn’t need to wake up until 6. My mind was racing. Should I wear that shirt or the other one? How many bottles of water should I carry? What should I eat for breakfast? What if it is colder at the top? How the heck am I going to get up those hills??
Eventually it was time. I was there at the starting line. The road started off as a slight incline for the first half of a mile and then it went up. Up, up and up. I kept thinking about getting to the halfway point. Once I was there it would all be downhill. Then a negative thought popped into my mind. Yeah, downhill looks good on paper, but the reality is that you could be hurting so bad by the time you get there that it really sucks to go down. It is not fun to run downhill when your quads are on fire.
But wait, here comes the mantra. I was recently reading a book about running (okay, I tend to read these books a lot) and I came across an excerpt on hill training. It emphasized the need to activate your glutes (yes, your butt) in order to alleviate some of the work that is ultimately placed on your quads when running up a hill. It happened to mention the fact that you are definitely using your quads if you run up a steep incline and feel the need to put your hands on your knees. Yes, I was just doing that the other day when I was running up a steep trail.
So, I decided on a new mantra: “Activate your glutes!” Yep, that was it. I kept repeating that over and over in my head (maybe out loud a couple of times too… not sure since I was in a daze). I wasn’t really sure how to activate my glutes, but I just kept my focus on them and hoped that it was working. Any time I felt like I wasn’t going to make it up the hill I just repeated the mantra. Somehow I made it up the worst part… the first 4.5 miles of straight climbing. That was when I reached the first aid station and was greeted with volunteers cheering me on. I felt like I had just won a major victory! I was pumping my arms up in the air! And then I remembered that I still had 21.7 miles to go. Um, I think I just used all of my energy on that climb and I am not sure how I am going to keep climbing. “Activate your glutes!” Then I was off again!
Any slight flatness or decline and I felt like I could fly. Running on level road or running down a slight incline just seemed so much easier than before! Of course I didn’t know how fast I was going. I had decided to leave my Garmin behind and just run based on how I felt. Afterall, my only goal was to finish.
It seemed like forever, but I finally made it to the final incline (well, I was smart enough to tell myself that there could be a few surprises down the road… which there were). I was feeling okay. My legs were still with me and I didn’t feel any unusual pains (not even in my knee). I tried to tell myself to take it easy going down. From mile 14 to mile 20 it wasn’t so bad. A bit rolling, some flattish, slight declines with a few of those “surprise” inclines.
Then I looked over the cliff and saw the road. Steep switchbacks heading down. I looked out and could see the park where I would finish. Just a down and out. That was it. I tried to tell myself to take it nice and easy going down, but I don’t usually listen when I spout good advice. I didn’t focus on my glutes as much because I turned my attention to my form. I tried to get into a downhill rhythm. Then I saw them. The runners who were walking down the hill. One even stopped to stretch his… yep, he was stretching his quads. I wanted to yell “you should have activated your glutes on the uphills!” but I figured that it was better left unsaid and I just said “Hi!” instead. I was so sure that I was going to get passed going downhill. Yet, somehow I managed to be the one doing all of the passing. That made me wonder if I was running too fast.
When I passed mile 22 I knew I was as good as gold. Miles 20-22 are usually my toughest both mentally and physically. Not this time. I was even speeding up. And then there it was right before mile 25. One more freakin’ hill. Nothing major, but not something you were hoping to see again. I just kept going because I didn’t want to be passed. As I came down I saw a friend of mine. I ran right up to him and we crossed the finish line together. I was so relieved to be done that it didn’t dawn on me for a minute or two to find out what my time was. I couldn’t believe it when I found out I had done that crazy course in 4:03:34! I was expecting to take at least 5 hours.
Then I realized something. Nothing is out of reach. You just have to work hard to grab it. I never believed I could be so strong and endure so much. Running that marathon was an enlightening experience that I will never forget. What’s next? I’m not sure yet, but I will let you know.