I crossed the line in three hours, 33 minutes, and 37 seconds.
My legs immediately locked up, and I felt like I had just been punched in the gut. If I stopped moving, I thought I would collapse. I deliriously walked around the finisher’s area, sipping on water and chocolate milk while trying to steady my shaking hands. I tugged the medal on my neck and looked down at my watch, which confirmed I had ran the 26.2 miles in under three hours and 35 minutes, qualifying me to register for the 2014 Boston Marathon (a race that famously requires meeting qualification standards to participate). Nearly two weeks earlier, the Boston bombings had completely turned the world upside down, so “BQ’ing” felt exceptionally special.
But I wasn’t happy. Instead, I felt awful. And in that moment, I wondered whether I would ever run a marathon again.
How It All Started
Rewind seven months earlier, to my first marathon. I’ve been a runner for over 10 years, but my forte was the 400-meter dash (one lap around the track) and I never dreamed I’d run 26.2 miles (105 laps around the track, for those playing at home). I didn’t seriously train for the first one; I had completed a few long training runs and was running regularly, but when I crossed the starting line I had no idea if I would also cross the finish.
Much to my surprise, I ran really well—3:38:02—and loved every single second out on the course. I was convinced the marathon was for me, and I signed up for my next race that night. I told myself I would actually train and see what I was capable of accomplishing. I set a goal of running sub 3:30:00, and I couldn’t wait to crush it.
Ready, Set, Train
My 16-week training cycle began on Monday, January 7th. I sprang out of bed at 5:30am, unconcerned about how cold or dark it was outside. I did some dynamic warm-ups in my apartment, and went for a comfortable four mile run. I came back, did a core workout and checked off day one on my calendar. That wasn’t so bad, I thought. One day down, 111 to go.
The next few weeks were really fun. I enjoyed having a reason to get out of bed every morning, and I was still stoked that I was training for something big. I was strong, confident, and excited—convinced I could conquer the blustering New York City winter with my strong spirit. I felt unbreakable.
But my training stopped being so perfect. I wasn't prepared for the long runs. I found myself spending every weekend “preparing” for a 16 to 22 mile run. I stopped going out Friday nights, finding myself in bed by 10p.m., hydrated, and ready to run in the morning. I ran in ankle-deep snow, over bridges, through every New York City borough, and around dozens of tourists waiting for the Ellis Island ferry. I listened to podcasts, 80s techno music, and the sound of my own breathing. Some mornings it was 20 degrees. Others it was even colder.
The running itself was challenging. But what I wasn’t prepared for was how I felt afterwards. I’d come home and immediately eat, shower, and take a nap. But instead of waking up refreshed, I’d wake up starving, sore, and even more exhausted. I’d try to be productive, enjoy an evening out with friends, or even just make myself a nice meal—but I was usually so tired and so uncomfortable that I stayed in bed for the rest of the weekend. But I felt accomplished enough: I had done my run.
The Breaking Point
When I began training, I had a vision: I would get leaner, stronger, and much faster. (Hey, maybe I’d even get six-pack abs!) I envisioned making amazing post-workout smoothies, eating a perfect diet, and being more productive and energized than ever before. But as I reached weeks six, seven, and eight of my training cycle, I began to feel the opposite. I knew I was getting a bit faster, but I felt sluggish. Instead of feeling strong, I felt weak. Instead of feeling like I was in the best shape of my life (which I was), I felt broken.
My body was constantly hurting, no matter how often I foam-rolled. My appetite was out of control and, instead of those homemade protein smoothies, I was eating homemade macaroons. I’m not sure if I gained any weight, but the amount of chocolate chips I ate (my favorite late-night snack) makes me think “definitely.”
I also became obsessed with numbers. “Success” was running under an eight-minute pace on the roads—it didn’t matter if I felt steady or strong. Running 50 miles per week was more important than making sure I ate well, slept enough, and genuinely felt happy. Of course I felt great sometimes, but I couldn’t help but wonder if I was fooling myself. Many of my friends were also training, and when I saw their post-workout glowing, happy faces on social media, I’d wonder why everybody else seemingly so ecstatic, strong, and healthy. What were they doing that I wasn’t?
I hit a breaking point one Wednesday morning while running eight miles before work. I ran over the Pulaski Bridge into Queens, and when I turned back around into Brooklyn, I stopped. It was barely 6a.m., six degrees Fahrenheit, and after four miles I had no desire to keep moving. I wasn’t physically tired, but I was emotionally spent. I sat down on the sidewalk, hiding my face from the icy gusts of wind, and cried. At that moment, I wanted to give up. I didn’t want to train anymore. No one is forcing you to do this. You can just stop, I told myself.
But I didn’t. With one stubborn foot in front of another, I finished the remaining four miles with tears streaming down my face and a confusion I had never felt before. I had loved running, but I didn’t love this. And I couldn’t figure out why.
I finished my 16 weeks of training with enough of a smile on my face. Even though I had major highs and lows, I couldn’t wait to get to the starting line to see what I could do. I flew out to Oregon where I met nearly 20 friends also running the 2013 Eugene Marathon. The air was filled with excitement, camaraderie, and crazy anticipation. I had battled against my body for four months, and now I was ready for the ultimate test.
The gun went off. I reflected on every weekend I spent running hours upon hours—every early-morning wake-up call, 10-degree wind-chill, and strength training routine. I thought of what I put my body through, and what I was now capable of, both physically and mentally.
I ran the first few miles way too fast. I knew I should have slowed down, but I didn’t let go. I crossed the halfway point, 13.1 miles, in 1:41 (a 7:42 minute/mile pace) and knew there wasn’t much left in my tank. I cursed myself for running purely off the adrenaline; I wasted all of my training on poor judgment. By mile 15 I had hit “the wall” (most people “hit” it around mile 20, if at all), and I knew I had to do whatever I could to climb over it.
Those final 11 miles were a blur, and to this day I am not sure how I was able to finish. The race ended on the famous University of Oregon track, where Bill Bowerman coached and Steve Prefontaine raced. Instead of soaking in my surroundings, I could barely see straight. I trudged to the finish line, my feet barely lifting off the ground. The spark was gone.
I had still qualified for Boston, but didn’t reach my goal of finishing in less than three hours and 30 minutes. After running away my whole winter, I had only run around four minutes faster than my first marathon, which I barely trained for. In many ways, the whole race, and those 16 weeks prior, felt like a complete waste.
Many Miles (and Lessons) Later
It has taken me months and miles since I crossed that finish line to learn from my experience. Since Eugene, I haven’t crossed any serious starting lines (I’ve run a handful of shorter races for fun) and I don’t plan on anytime soon. And quite frankly, I’m afraid to. I realized that training for a long race simply wasn’t fun to me. And the pressure of dedicating so much time to one race was too much for me to handle. I loved running throughout most of my young-adult life, and marathon training tainted that love.
This is not to say racing is bad, but maybe it is not for me. Sure, there is a part of me that still wants that sub-3:30 marathon, and I wouldn’t be surprised if one day I sign up for another race. But for now, I’m sticking to running without any race bibs.
Now I run simply because I love it. Because it’s empowering, freeing, and fun. It’s often the only “me” time I get, and the movement helps me relieve stress. When I hit the roads, I’m not doing it to prove anything to others or myself. I do it simply because it’s a part of who I am.
Nearly a year later, my alarm still goes off at 5:30a.m., reminding me of the many mornings I spent training for that race. It’s still dark, still cold, and I’m still tempted to stay in the comfort of my warm bed. But I get up and get myself out the door. I run without a watch, without any amount of miles in mind, and without worrying if I’m going too fast or too slow. I lock into a rhythm and get lost in my own head as I glide around Brooklyn, watching the sun begin to rise and my neighborhood begin to wake. And in that moment I feel strong. And I feel free.