Last year, I trained for, and ran my first marathon, the Flying Pig in Cincinnati. Since the Pig is in May, and I really, really hate treadmills, this meant a lot of long, cold, dark, lonely winter miles. Race day was amazing. I finished strong and beat my goal time. This, however, is the story of one of those small moments of mini-triumph along the long, hard road to race day. We all have them. We all need them. These are the moments that make it possible to go on and run another day.
I had been following Hal Higdon’s marathon training program, which was great so far. I had done some weekend long runs of significant length, but was now facing a mid-week longish run of nine miles. I am not sure what it was about the number 9, but that seemed like a big distance for mid-week (even though I had run eight miles the previous two weeks!) It really got into my head. Nine miles on a Wednesday? Nine freaking miles?
Previously, I had been heading home after work to do my mid-week runs, but this week I had decided to change it up. I was going to change at the office and run from work before heading home. I misappropriated some work time that morning to plan a route. Even though I had never run in this area before, I had driven around the area daily for years and definitely knew my way around. I hit upon a combination of right and left turns that put me back at my office at exactly nine miles. It was all set!
After changing clothes, and stashing a towel and dry sweatshirt in my car, I headed out. Did I mention this was in the dead of winter? It was very cold and very dark at 5:30. It had been cold seemingly forever, so even though the roads and sidewalks were clear, grassy areas and yards were still blanketed with snow from weeks before. The first part of my run was actually fun! The air was crisp and clean. The muffling effect of the snow cover provided a peaceful quiet. I was carried along by the newness of my surroundings, seeing buildings and houses in a way that you simply don’t experience driving along at 35 mph. I always run with music, but wasn’t really paying much attention that night. In fact I had turned it down to a much lower volume than normal for me. Most of my running playlist was so familiar, it was just a pleasant backdrop to the scenery.
The second half of my run, however, was a different story. The imaginary significance of the mystical nine-mile distance had never really left my brain. Even though I had done a long run of twelve miles the weekend before, I was really unsure of my ability to do nine miles mid-week. The longer and farther I went, it seemed like the farther I had to go. Not being able to visualize the rest of the route from a runner’s perspective was really giving me troubles. I knew exactly where I was geographically, but felt like I was lost. Even though I love winter running, I was getting cold. The recipe for runner’s doubt was coming along nicely. All the ingredients had been added and were now being stirred well.
It was somewhere around the seven-mile mark. The two miles left seemed like an eternity. I was running a long, straight stretch of road that I had driven many times, but was now completely foreign to me. Deathly quiet suburban houses set back from the road lined the right side of the road, with no signs of life except the occasional chimney offering up a curl of smoke to the night. Across the road, farm fields lay empty, the wind whipping miniature snow squalls across my path. For whatever reason, no cars had decided this stretch was worth driving that night. That same clear, cold quiet that I had enjoyed earlier was now overwhelmingly isolating. If I could only see a car … or a person … or a dog … or anything, I might be able to make the last two miles.
I needed something, anything … and I got it. An old, familiar, musical friend came to help me in my time of need. The unmistakable opening organ riff of “Baba O’Reilly” invited itself into my headphones. As I cranked up the volume, some pep returned to my step. It might just be okay after all. Then Pete Townsend’s opening guitar came flooding into my ears. The cold chills I had been feeling were replaced by another chill … the good kind of chill you get throughout your body. Stronger yet! It was actually all I could do to keep from doing windmill air guitar as I ran down the sidewalk! Keith Moon’s drums tumbled into the party in my head as I became a runner again. Even though I had heard this song 1,293,476 times in my life and knew the words, I never really related to Roger Daltry’s lyrics until that moment:
Out here in the fields,
I fight for my meals.
I put my back into my livin’
Newly energized, I carried on … all the way through the frenetic ending of the song. Then … silence. Uh oh. What do I do now? The space between songs had never been so apparent, so utterly silent in all my life. I instantly began to get cold again. While help had come when I needed it, that song wasn’t long enough to get me to the finish and back to my warm, dry sweatshirt. What the hell do I do now?
These thoughts raced through my head for what seemed like hours, until the next sound I heard was another opening organ … although much different than the Who’s before. It was lower and slower, but still, it built up until familiar, comforting lyrics (with apologies to Yankees fans) chimed in …
Where it began,
I can’t begin to knowin’
But then I know it’s growing strong
Was in the spring
And spring became the summer.
Who’d have believed you’d come along.
While I was able to resist my best Pete Townsend air guitar moves previously, this time I didn’t hold back at the refrain, shouting out responses to the night air: “OH! OH OHHHH!” and “SO GOOD! SO GOOD! SO GOOD!”
I ran along, buoyed by the music in my head. I wasn’t even noticing as houses and fields turned into apartment complexes, which turned into office buildings. Without another thought about how far nine miles is or isn’t, or how cold I was, all of a sudden, I realized I was in the parking lot of my office, opening my car door. After I changed into my sweatshirt and sat down behind the wheel, I paused a minute to remember that run … to remember the two extremes: the feelings of despair and the feelings of elation.
We all have disastrous runs that make us want to throw away our running shoes. We all have good runs that make us want to head out again as soon as possible. I had never experienced them both in the same run before. Whether you are devout in your belief in Our Holy Lady of Shuffle Mode, or you are more inclined to credit that Great Cosmic DJ, one thing that I learned from that run is that a mindset is a powerful, powerful thing.
I also learned something else that night. Something that would help me in many training runs and ultimately on race day: while a mindset can be very powerful, it can also be changed, in the positive direction (not just in the negative direction) by very little if you let it. A beautiful sunset, a thumbs-up from another runner, a funny or encouraging sign on race day, running past your elementary school, a friendly wave from a motorist … or even a simple song, or two, can make all the difference and help get you there.