When the Going Gets Tough: How Training for Marathons Is a lot like Life
Why it’s important to push through when all you want to do is quit.
I’ve been training all summer for my third Chicago marathon. For the most part, my runs have gone well. Until recently when I hit a wall—the one runners always talk about.
I was attempting to do a 23 mile run. I was about 16 miles into it when I snapped. Something inside me begged like a baby to be done—not just with this one run, but with the whole business of marathoning.
You don’t even like to run, my brain whined. Stop now, and make up the miles tomorrow or next weekend.
I tried to rationalize quitting: I don’t really have to run all 23 miles. Besides, adrenaline will carry me the last few miles of the marathon, so even if I don’t get all my training runs done, I’ll still be able to finish the race.
Last year, I made the mistake of going to my high school reunion the night before a race, which meant I stayed out too late and never ate a proper dinner. Between my extreme fatigue and lack of fuel the next day, my brain got caught in a loop of negativity, further fueled by my overheating body and aching hips and feet. I was delirious with discouragement. I pulled over to stretch—then I broke down.
“I’m not sure how I’m going to do 10 more miles,” I told Anne, my running partner. I desperately wanted her to leave me and run ahead. I thought I could walk the rest of the miles and cross the finish line at my leisure.
Anne said, “I’m not leaving you. We’re going to finish this race, and we’re doing it together.”
I hated Anne in that moment. But because of her, I got up, put one foot in front of the other, and together we made it the last 10 miles. It took every act of my will and a ridiculous amount of prayer to get to the finish line. But we did it.
We was the key. Anne was willing to stay with me to make sure I got over the mental hump that was making me want to quit. Yes, I was facing a wall that ultimately only I could choose to break through. But Anne’s commitment to help me break through made all the difference.
The other key was methodically breaking through the wall. When I was doing my training run, I got out of my funk by breaking down the remaining miles into bite size pieces. Instead of thinking I still had seven more miles to do, I focused on getting the next three minutes under my belt. Then I thought about doing one mile seven times, as opposed to seven whole miles. Reducing a long-term goal into fractions of the whole sometimes helps us make steady progress overall. Debt reduction counselors preach the same concept: Pay down the smaller bills first so you have a sense of accomplishing your overall goal. By breaking a mega-deficit into manageable, attainable goals, before you know it, you’re on your way to being debt-free.
On a larger scale, the biggest aid for pushing through a wall is maintaining a vision for why you’re doing what you’re doing in the first place. I never liked to run—I couldn’t even run one mile when I signed up for my first marathon three years ago. The reason I run is to raise money for clean water projects in Kenya through World Vision. When I learned that women and children were spending hours each day hauling jugs in search of water, only to retrieve bacteria-infested water from mostly dried-up riverbeds and creeks, I couldn’t shake the horror of it.
When I ran my first marathon, it was the vision of these women with jugs on their backs that pushed me across the finish line. When I hit my wall during my training run recently, I wondered whether these women hit a wall going so many miles each day in search of water. How do they push through? Quitting the quest for water would mean death to their families. For me, quitting the marathon will mean death to families too. By keeping this vision front and center, the wall pushes further and further back for me, and I have a greater reason than myself to break through it.
Walls pop up when we hit our limits, and the lies I tell myself on the marathon course sound suspiciously similar to the lies I tell myself in life. Like when I hit a wall at work and immediately attempt to justify my procrastination with personal affirmations: I deserve a break. I’ve been working hard. . .
And in my marriage, I opt to slack off, thinking I can make up for my relational laziness later: I’m tired of working on our marriage. Dan won’t notice if I spend more time on Facebook instead of with him. I’ll spend time with him tomorrow.
What kind of wall are you facing? Do you have a friend who can help you push through? What small steps can you take to keep moving toward your goal? What’s the bigger vision that’s compelling you to keep going?