“Mama, we had our Panda Powwow today.”
“You did?!” Did you get a new life skill to work on?”
“Cool, what is it?”
“I can’t remember.”
“It starts with a p … It’s a long word …”
“Hmm. And it starts with a p?”
“Yeah. It’s like, when something is really, really hard. But, like, you just keep trying to do it anyway. And then you, like, win over it. Because you just kept on trying. Like, you know, even when nobody thought you could do it.”
When we set goals, the intent is always to persevere. And sometimes we do, and sometimes we don’t (because sometimes, you won’t). Last Saturday I successfully ran my second half marathon, and I was humbled and reminded yet again that our bodies can do amazing things when we will them to.
The entire race journey is really an exercise in body awareness and mental manipulation. It is perhaps the only true exception to the widely accepted definition of insanity. You show up and repeat the same action, day after day, mile after mile, hour after hour, song after song, and expect different outcomes. But it doesn’t make you crazy. Just optimistic. Because in this case you actually do get a mixed bag of results depending on the day, the weather, the wind, the blisters. My 8-mile training run was as painful for my pride as it was for my knees and lungs. I ached psychologically, physically, spiritually, from the second my sneakers hit the pavement until we turned the final corner. Just 4 weeks later, I completed a 10-mile run with a full minute shaved off my splits and a damn-near cocky disposition. Running is the most unpredictable game you can play with yourself. Strategy is for suckers.
And yet, I keep dealing myself in. I am not a great runner. I aspire to be, of course, but I am not great. I will never break the tape. In fact, the tape and streamers have been swept up and taken to the dumpster 5 blocks away by the time I finish. But I still come to the party. Better yet, I bring a guest. If you’ve been hanging in here for awhile you might remember my bud Britni who ran with me last year. That was until we had to part dramatically around mile 10 and I finished ‘er out with a 70-year-old stranger.
This year Britni went and got herself in the family way, but one of my ride-or-dies for the last 18 years, Jackie, signed up. Jackie, much like me, much like Britni, was not a runner when she checked the boxes to enter the race. It was a leap of faith. It was a declaration of an intent to persevere. It was brave, and she was brave for doing it. What possessed her? I think the same thing that possesses most people who sign up for these things. It’s a temporary self-improvement project. It’s purpose. Plus, don’t we all just want a win once in awhile?
For 12 weeks, starting in July, every Sunday I met either Jackie or my embarrassingly swifter friend Jill for the week’s long run. While the training schedule was exactly the same, something felt different this year. I don’t think I had what I would categorize as “a good run” until the very last training run the Monday before the race.
“Man, do you feel older this year?” Jill asked during week 3.
“Ya know, I do.” I said.
You guys, i wish I were being facetious. At the ripe age of 33, my hips, ankles, knees and back screamed at me for 12 straight weeks to, for the love of all that is holy, stop hammering them into the ground and dragging them up small hills that felt like Mount Kilimanjaro. I guess I just never found my groove this go-around. But Jackie did, and then she lost it, and then she found it again. And I was so, so proud.
There is a rare joy that comes with watching someone else uncover a soul-changing strength that was just lurking in the caverns of their being, completely untapped. While I think most of us have that grit, not everyone chooses to go looking for it. Or to push themselves to that point where you either discover it or abandon the pursuit of it. Turns out, I get my jollies watching others push themselves to this uncomfortable, magnificent place. I mean, I like to do it myself as well, but moreso it’s the watching others.
Glennon Doyle Melton has a term for these discovery missions, and life in general. She calls them, “brutiful”. Because certain moments of every day are brutal. And certain moments of every day are beautiful. Life is brutiful. Running is brutiful.
There were stretches of country roads where it was just me, Jackie, God and the sunset. Beautiful. There were gradual inclines that hit just as a side stitch settled in. Brutal. High fiving one of my dearest friends after 2 hours of uninterrupted conversation and a new personal best; Beautiful. Chaffed armpits and chin acne; Brutal. See how that works. It’s the good with the bad. The tightrope stretched between triumph and adversity. Any challenge worth taking is one peppered with trials because, let’s face it, perseverance is a prize that doesn’t come cheap.
On the day of the race, my sweet Jackie felt good. Really good. The temperature was ideal. The crowd and spectators were supportive. All the pieces were in place for a spectacular morning. But I had lead legs. I don’t know why. Why do these things ever happen? Not enough training. Too much training. The fact that I had peanut butter toast instead of dippy eggs. Who knows. But my limbs felt like cinder blocks from mile 3 on.
I’m always amazed at the master-slave relationship between the mind and the body. If you will it, they will run. Confession: The only things that fueled me to the finish line on that October morning were my persistent best friend, stupid pride and a ravenous desire for Chipotle.
“Get outta your head,” Jackie urged. “You’ve got this, Court.”
“C’mon girl. We’re finishing this thing together. I can’t do it without you.”
[more panting] “Uh huh.”
“I can tell you’re in your head. C’mon Court!”
“Jac, I love you, but this won’t make me go any faster.”
I so badly wanted her well-intentioned pep talk to be the magic pill that broke up the cement encasing my extremities and my state of mind, but sadly it just wasn’t that kind of day for this old mare. It’s so frustrating when your expectation for yourself and your actual ability can’t find a way to communicate and compromise.
But just as tortoises do, I slowly, steadily finished the race. I think that’s a big part of the bargaining I’ve learned to do with myself. I accept that I will finish, but I also have to accept that I won’t be doing it quickly. Once I resign myself to the reality that I will eventually get where I’m going and I won’t, in fact, die getting there, I’m usually OK with hangin’ in. But speed is nonnegotiable. My body just takes it off the table. Covering the distance will have to be enough.
When the finish line was in sight, my homegirl sprinted it in. “Get that for yourself,” I thought. My pace stayed lukewarm but amazingly, I finished the race 4 minutes faster than I did last year. Jill blew her goal out of the water and came in well under 2 hours. I see a full marathon in that mama’s future.
The punctuation mark to these things is always the post-race picture. It’s over. You did it. You can throw your arms over each other’s shoulders, rehash the brutiful moments and smile the truest smile. Because that smile is relief spilling out of you. Relief that you did it. Relief that they did it. Relief that no one got hurt. Relief that all that time away from your family wasn’t for nothing. Relief that rest is a car ride away.
Then there’s the babies. Ahhh, the babies. As a mother to three little impressionable girls (Jill and Jackie are also mothers of three), the pain of lost toenails and runner’s knee and stubborn chaffing dissolves when I see their genuinely ecstatic little faces. The runners enter a baseball stadium at the end of this race, and Hank stood above the entryway into the outfield, so when I made that turn to bring it home, my tiny tribe was standing right above me. They screamed from their toes and squeezed excitedly onto the fence railings. “Go Mama!” That sound rained down on me and, combined with the sight of the end, triggered the most organic emotional release. My hot tears carved jagged trails through my salt-crusted cheeks and the peace of validation hugged my heart. My poor training runs and lackluster performance washed away because it was obvious they didn’t care. In their eyes, I had won the whole damn thing.
And after all of it was over – After they asked to wear my medal. After I admired their homemade sign. After I promised I’d help them practice so they, too, could become a runner. – I bent down, scooped up the littlest one, put her on my hip and started the long walk back to the car. The glory is great, but it doesn’t have the longest lifespan. I could feel it fading already. The lesson, however … the lesson will last. All the good ones do.
“steady persistence in a course of action, a purpose, a state, etc.,especially in spite of difficulties, obstacles, or discouragement.”