"How much can you know about yourself, you've never been in a fight?"
— Tyler Durden, "Fight Club."
How much do you really know about yourself, after all, if you've never fought something? It seems like an arrogant question because the person asking it surely DOES know the struggle and wants nothing more than to tell you about it. But the reason I'm asking it is it's the exact question I asked myself three minutes before the start of the mile. And I am going to tell you about my own struggle, at the risk of sounding like that arrogant bastard, because you need to hear it.
You need to hear it because many times the person wielding the question is NOT arrogant. At least he or she is not nearly as arrogant as you might think when they ask that question. And the reason they want to tell you about the struggle is because they are proud, and because they want to possibly inspire you, but mostly, they want you to relate to them because everyone struggles, in relationships, at your job, at parenting.
And I know all this because I am that person.
• • •
I have blogged about my running quite a bit. You've read about half marathons, trail runs, runs up mountains, tough 10Ks, 5Ks and even a couple marathons. And I will tell you, right now, nothing tells me more about myself than the mile.
It's the mile, just a mile, that challenges me the most. It's by far the hardest thing I do during a season. When I tell people I'd rather run a half marathon, they don't believe me. Seriously. I'm not kidding. Because an hour and 45 minutes of mild suffering is far more agreeable to me than four minutes of pure hell.
If you do them right*, races don't get easier as they go down in distance. They get harder.
* When I say "right," I mean as a runner who trains hard and takes it fairly seriously, like me. I would never do anything but encourage anyone who enters a race, even if you do a 5K twice a year because you want to ease the guilt of overeating before the 4th of July or Thanksgiving. I want everyone to lead active lives, and, to be blunt, I can't talk down to you anyway because there are runners out there who make me look like a squeaking mouse.
Those races get harder, at least they do for me, because there's no reason to hold back in a 5K. It's three miles. That means running hard, really hard, in fact. Some people find this fun. I do. Now. But when I started, the intensity of running was the hardest adjustment for me. I'd climbed more than 150 peaks and repeated more than a few, but I'd never felt the lung-burning misery I do during a 5K. It took me years to banish the trolls, the ones constantly telling me to slow down, from my brain. One reason I've improved so much this year is because the trolls are quieter.
I'd mostly gotten over my secret hatred of intense races that made me miserable.
The mile was my last hurdle.
• • •
I texted one of my running partners two hours before the race.
"I'm trying to look forward to this tonight," I said, "and not dread it. Failing!"
Dread will kill you before a race. If you already believe it will hurt, how can you banish the trolls when it's actually hurting? You can't. And yet I couldn't shake the dread. I KNEW how much the mile would hurt.
The mile, as you've probably guessed, is as close to a sprint as you can manage for a mile. If 5Ks hurt, the mile REALLY hurts. In the last half mile, you can barely breathe, your legs turn to lead, and your heart booms like a bass drum. Your throat burns. I went to the doctor a few years ago and discovered I had a touch of exercise-induced asthma and acid reflux. I use an inhaler only before a tough race, and I take a mild form of medication for the reflux. Both have helped immensely. But the burn, the fire, really, still visits me for the mile. Only for the mile.
• • •
Positive, I told myself. Think positive. Smile during your run. Think positive. My goal was to go under 6 minutes. I'd only done it once, two years ago, and by the skin of my teeth, at 5:58. Still, I'd run well this year. If I didn't go under 6, it would be a disappointment. Positive. Positive. Positive!
"30 seconds," our coach said.
The first minute, when I would still be able to think clearly, was crucial this time, I thought. I told myself to stay with one of my running partners. She's smart and won't go out too fast.
I've gotten much better about gassing myself before the finish line. It's one reason why I enjoy the races more. But in the mile, it's hard not to go out too fast because it's balls out from the start, and seconds count. There's no room for a bad quarter. So I tried to hold back and run hard at the same time. It's harder than it sounds.
As we turned the first corner, a steep downhill awaited me, and I was already panting and fighting the trolls.
The trolls really come from deep inside your brain, and what your brain says to you is, "You sure?" You sure you want to do this? After all, it IS hard, and the risk for injury is pretty high, as even a slip would probably mean some serious road rash, and you are maxing your heart rate, which isn't good for you for long. I tried to think of excuses for me to quit. I couldn't think of any. So I relied on bargains to quiet the trolls.
I know this hurts, I said to myself. But this is downhill, so let your legs carry you and relax. I have long legs. It's my only athletic gift. I tried to use it as I ran downhill, but I started really breathing hard, and this is when the dread starts to settle in, because you know it's not getting any better, and probably it will get worse.
The third quarter is always the toughest. You aren't close to being done, and yet the furnace is really burning at this point. It was all I could do to breathe. It's actually kind of scary at this point because your heart feels like it might explode and the air scalds your lungs. I once got an EKG during a physical because I was worried about the pain I felt during the hardest runs. The inhaler helped with that. But that's also just the way it is. I also began to see tiny pink stars, which would be cool if I was at a Pink Floyd concert and not killing myself.
I slowed a bit on this quarter, I know I did, and so I started searching for people to pace me. Pretend you've got a rope attaching you to the person, I told myself. It's a neat trick because it works.
The third quarter ended, thankfully, and it was time for the stretch home. At this point I was so miserable that I made another bargain with myself. I told myself I would dog it if my time was just OK.
I glanced at my wrist. 4:15.
Do NOT slow down, I told myself. You're going to PR if you keep it up.
It helped, but I needed something more. I began to listen to the others around me.
• • •
The collective breathing sounded like the wind that rattled my windows the night during an angry thunderstorm, and I recalled a talk I had with others before the start.
Some runners close to me in ability asked me if I was going to run the first wave of faster runners or the wave of runners that were just over a 6-minute mile. I was going to run the first, I said, because I thought I could go under 6.
And it was then that I was honest. I wanted to get it out of the way, I said. I didn't want to go second because I didn't want to dread it any longer.
Yeah, they said. Me too.
Others were going through exactly what I was going through, I told myself. They were hurting, barely able to breathe, even probably fighting their own trolls. Everyone was going through a period of discovery, about how much they could suffer and still fight to the end. That seems obvious, and yet, when you're suffering, you really do feel as if you're on an island. No one could possibly be as miserable as me right now, you think. It's not true. There are many out there. And that's why it's not an arrogant question to ask how much you really know of yourself if you've never been in a fight because those who DO fight are scared before it. We are nervous. We don't want to feel the pain and the misery and we don't relish the battle. In fact, as soon as it starts, we really just want it to be over.
I dug deep, way deep, even as I wished for it to end, and ran as hard as I could. It was not as fast as some. It was faster than others. At that point, it didn't matter. I heard my time, "5:48," as I approached the line. I knew something about myself. This was my own fight. And finally, I was winning.