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May 7, 2006

Through the Darkness

"Out of darkness comes light, twilight unto the heights...
Said, thank you to my God, now I finally got it right
And I'll fight with all of my heart, and all a' my soul, and all a' my might."
- Matisyahu, "King Without a Crown"

I’ve still got a couple of leftover items from last weekend’s Big Sur Marathon to talk about before I get the race completely out of my system. Just bear with me a little longer…

First, the leader of my son’s Good News Club reported to my wife that last week my son asked the group of his classmates to pray that his dad’s legs would feel better soon. Which speaks to a couple of obvious points:
1) I was in a lot of pain last week. I spent the better part of last week hobbling around in slow motion, wincing and moaning the whole time. Apparently it was even worse than I realized. And…
2) I mean, how great is this kid? He way more selfless and considerate than I was at his age – or ever, come to think of it. I guess the simplest thing I can say is that when I heard that story, it didn’t surprise me one bit.

Second, I wanted to revisit this idea of going through dark, desperate straits during the marathon. I described how it happened to me. I received e-mails from people who had similar experiences.

As you would suspect, most people ran into trouble at the same part of the course – Carmel Highlands at miles 21-23. No one who has run a marathon should be surprised to hear this.

The thing I wonder about is that in the aftermath, runners often talk about how disappointed they are to have succumbed to hopelessness and despair, even if they only faltered to a slight degree. And truthfully, I’m no different. It’s only been one week since the race, and I’m already second guessing why I couldn’t have gone just 20 seconds per mile faster for three tough miles, to shave one extra minute off my time.

It’s a natural thing to consider, but also somewhat pointless. I mean, to some degree or another, everybody goes through a difficult stretch like that during the marathon. If you are running hard and pushing your limits, you are going to suffer. It’s just part of the deal that we sign up for when we choose to take on this particular event.

It took me a long time to accept this fact, and in the meantime I frequently beat myself up for losing my focus or straying from my target pace in the latter miles of several races. I used to think I was psychologically “soft” for being unable to stay confident and positive throughout the most difficult stretches.

But here’s the thing: I was killing myself last Sunday. My feet were torn up, my calves and quads were on fire, my stomach was cramping, and I felt like my legs were made of lead. I inflicted so much pain on myself that four days later, my son was praying for my recovery. And in some form or another, two thousand other people were doing the exact same thing.

So the real question should be, why wouldn’t somebody’s thoughts turn a bit negative under these circumstances? I can’t imagine somebody going through similar conditions and being able to completely block out all of those physical alarms.

It’s almost like a chicken-and-egg scenario: do our thoughts turn bad because we are struggling physically, or do we struggle because we lose our psychological focus?

The answer I’ve settled on goes something like this: my physical training before the race prepares my body to carry me through the most difficult stretches of a marathon. The better my training is, the more efficiently I will get through those dark miles (i.e., without losing too much time). But that doesn’t mean I won’t encounter self-doubt or other mental anguish along the way. That particular obstacle is unavoidable, no matter how well-conditioned someone is.

But here’s the funny part: going through that darkness is the part of marathon running that many of us appreciate the most.

Those of us who are hooked on this sport know that there is nothing more rewarding than working our bodies to the brink of failure and facing down our inner demons, then somehow pulling ourselves through to emerge triumphantly on the other side. Some finishers will tell you they don’t even know how they get through those difficult patches, yet they always find a way.

And every time we go through that fire, we gain a self-appreciation and self-respect that is (as MasterCard would say) truly priceless. What’s more, we’re thankful for the hardships that helped us earn this awareness, because they aren't so easy to find in our everyday lives. Many of us become addicted to the feeling, and start looking for another race to renew the fight all over again.

Those people are called marathoners.


Downhillnut 5/7/06, 7:11 AM  

So, a good marathon is like a good novel or movie. Conflict, the struggle of good against evil, and what the protagonist learns from his experience is what makes the story.

So, in thinking about my upcoming 1st marathon, I will add to my list "anticipate/embrace/conquer the darkness"

Thanks, Donald!

matt 5/7/06, 10:12 AM  

you hit it on the nail, donald....we just can't find these challenges in our everday lives. i am hoping to join your club on June 3rd :) thanks for the inspiration and insight.

Darrell 5/7/06, 1:47 PM  

The training conditions our bodies, maybe only the race itself can condition our minds, emotions and will to go on.

I definitely have a new respect and appreciation for what you put yourself through to get there. From the outside it seems crazy to put yourself through that, but from my side, I understand why you do and why we love it.

backofpack 5/7/06, 2:18 PM  

Donald, well written as always. Your son is the greatest!

angie's pink fuzzy 5/7/06, 7:07 PM  


And by realizing I can face the darkness and continue on, I realize I have so much more strength and endurance in me to handle day-to-day difficulties.

Mike 5/7/06, 9:10 PM  

thanks for stopping by....great post- I can definitely relate to the "dark miles". No need to second guess your performance at Big Sur- you were flying!

olga 5/8/06, 8:03 AM  

Great thoughts! Loved the "dark miles" disection. And your son...awww...

susie 5/8/06, 3:37 PM  

As I watched the marathoners take the turn to go back out and do again what I had just finished, I had the utmost respect. I couldn't have imagined doing it...and I saw what you are describing on some of the faces. Yet, they continued on. Great post.

dave kellogg 5/10/06, 1:15 AM  

You know what's kind of wild about going through the dark miles? After the marathon I felt emotionally, as well as, physically drained. I wasn't expecting that. In one way, I felt a lot like after my father died, so spiritually beat up . . . and I flashback to that time in bits and pieces, not as a whole. Hey, I thought we were going to write about this next year for the paper!!! And by the way, sounds like you've got a world changer in that boy of yours.

jeanne 5/19/06, 8:38 PM  

great and thoughtful post! I just signed up for my second marathon. I hope I remember to prepare for the dark parts. And yes, you have a terrific kid.

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