13.1 miles is an arbitrary (stick with me) number of miles. If you run them it indicates what? That you can run 13.1 miles? Yes – actually! And, that’s all it says. And then you get a medal, literally, to say you did a thing. And apparently you’re worth more? You’re more of an athlete? You’re more fit? I don’t actually know what it means. It means you spent time training to do a thing, and you did it. Then you get to tell people?
I never identified as a “runner” until someone else named it for me. I described my weekly mileage, the feeling of invincibility, the restlessness I feel when I’m not running, and they named it – “you’re a runner”.
Running saved me. It gave me clarity and space. It gave me strength. Until it didn’t.
A week ago I tried to run a half marathon after having been sick that morning. If you know me, you know it takes a LOT to convince me not to do something. So, despite having been sick, I was determined to run. I trained, and I was ready. I was confident! I expected to finish – there was seriously no doubt in my mind. The adrenaline kicked in, and I was off. I told myself, “I can do this”, and tried to be completely in the moment. Miles one through seven were great, but then the adrenaline wore off and my sickness took over.
Simply put, I don’t remember miles seven through ten because all I could focus on was the unbearable pain I felt. I was dizzy, sick, scared, lonely, and weak. I never wanted to associate those feelings running ever again. I knew was better than that! I was also really sick, and pushing myself past my limits.
This part of my story does not end at the finish line. Instead, it ends with seven hours in the ER. A diagnosis of excessive fatigue, among other things, kept medical professionals watching my BP rise from dangerously low levels, my temperature drop back to normal, and several bags of fluids rehydrate me so that when I left I was only mildly dehydrated. And then, the minute I got home, I burst into tears. I felt like I couldn’t breathe or face the world. I felt like I let people down. I felt like there was an expectation I did not meet.
The choice to stop running wasn’t a choice. It was a necessity. It also wasn’t because the race was too hard. Let me make that clear. However, I cannot explain that to each and every person who asks me, “how was the race?”
What’s been more challenging than knowing I didn’t finish is the pity and shame. Seriously, the pity is crushing me. I’ve heard, “you only had three miles left” or “you’ll get ‘em next time” as if 1) I didn’t know the length of the race or 2) I just decided to throw my hands up and quit because it was too challenging. Not surprisingly, these comments came from people who aren’t runners. Still, their condescending remarks are getting to me WAY more than not finishing.
I didn’t finish because I was sick. I could have finished. I was ready. I am strong enough. My persistence is my most powerful quality. If I set my mind to something I WILL do it – unless there’s an incredibly compelling reason not to.
Anyway, those unmet expectations are perpetuating my feelings of worthlessness and guilt even a week later. I feel guilty! I’ve spent a week in bed feeling sick, embarrassed, and scared to run. I’m mad because of how not finishing looks to other people, and because of the assumptions that (I feel like) people are making about me. If you know me, you know a challenge ignites me, and I don’t quit. Quitting isn’t my style.
Often, I recall the years when putting one foot in front of the other and walking heel to toe seemed impossible. Relearning how to walk is one of my biggest accomplishments. It follows that I feel a similar sense of immense pride knowing that I’m overcoming all of that and re-envisioning strength in a way that is entirely and only for me – regardless of whether or not I finished the race.
I started running because it was the most brutal, ruthless, clearest way, aside from being a competitive gymnast, I could think of to tell my chronic pain that it isn’t in charge. Running is how I’m reclaiming my body. When I’m running I’m in charge. I’m strong, powerful, and triumphant. I actually don’t care that I didn’t finish the race – others shouldn’t care either! I recall too distinctly a time when I couldn’t even walk. Each step I take is something I do for me, not to prove anything to anyone else. If I have to prove to anyone that I’m strong and capable, they haven’t been paying attention.