Here is one of the productivity mind-games that I play with myself: I think of two tasks that must be completed that day and only do one of them.
Wait, you might be thinking. Doesn’t that mean you’re only half as productive as you need to be?
This is a strategy I learned by taking care of small children. Instead of asking them to come up with something to do on their own – which, if you’re familiar with the amazing and terrible natural creativity of children, could be conceivably anything – instead give them a choice between two plausible options, two things that you’re willing or able to accommodate. It’s a subtle tactic for letting them feel like they’ve made an authentic decision, one within realistic parameters of your choosing. Usually everyone ends up happy.
I guess I need to treat myself like a toddler.
Anyway, knocking out one to-do item every day is a good way to eventually and systematically accomplish all important chores. I find that it encourages me to triage tasks naturally; the things that I think need to be done immediately can actually be put off without consequence. This strategy has relieved a lot of self-imposed stress in my life.
But this post isn’t about time management. You can take that advice with you to the bank, free of charge, a gift from me to you.
For the past few weeks, when I come home from work, I’ve said to myself: okay, you’re either going to write about the big race or you’re going to go for an actual run.
Looking at the date of this post, you can figure out what I’ve been choosing: actually running, every single time. For someone who loves writing and hates running, this has been an inscrutable development. Do I like running more than I think I do? Do I have some sort of writer’s block about the subject of running itself?
I don’t know yet. But the result is that I’ve been running every day, so that’s all right. That’s what I like about this time management technique: even when I’m putting something off, I’m still getting something done.
Today I want to rest, so today I will write.
I trained for eighteen weeks using a program on the Nike running app. I was deployed for all but three of those weeks. I did very little strength training during this time, focusing instead on the four or five runs per week in the program. As time went on, so did the mileage. Towards the end of deployment, on my “long run” days, I was finding myself on the treadmill for two hours or more. My toenails turned black and fell off. I replaced my sneakers and wore down the cushioning almost immediately.
I started to realize that there was a lot more to a race than the big event itself. Preparation demands a huge time commitment.
I’ll come back to this idea later.
It was unbelievably humid on the day of the race, something I didn’t realize until about a mile or so in. I was already soaked through with sweat. The announcer at the starting line had pleaded with participants to stop at each aid station along the way to stay hydrated. I’m glad he did, otherwise my stubbornness and fear of stopping (what if I couldn’t start again?) might have led to very serious dehydration. I grabbed a cup of water or sports drinks from the outstretched arms of volunteers, slowing to a walk while I drank, then launching myself back into the fray before I could talk myself out of it.
I feared, more than anything, my own mental fragility. How easily could I talk myself into quitting?
As it turned out, it was the aid stations that kept me going – not just physically, but psychologically. As faster runners left me in the dust, as my legs and lungs began to hurt, I told myself: just make it to the next aid station. If you need to stop when you get there, you can, but for now, keep going.
Somehow, I did. I threw back the water and kept going.
I had expected the last few miles of the race to be the hardest due to elevation changes; it was a surprise when I struggled throughout the first half. I think I was pushing myself too hard to keep up with other runners. Over and over, I shrieked inside my own head: slow down! Save energy! So I pushed through the discomfort of the humidity, struggling to breathe, and puttered my way around downtown Honolulu. Slowly, willing myself to go even slower.
I started seeing runners coming from the other direction, runners in clusters of twos and threes, surrounded by motorcycles and vans. Cameras and shouts of encouragement from their teams. The real runners, those in the chase, those with something at stake in this race. It was incredibly humbling, and it put things into perspective. What did I have to be anxious about? I was competing with no one but myself. All I had to do was get through it.
By the time we had circled back around and approached the starting line in downtown Waikiki, around mile eight, I started to feel better. My pace felt comfortable and sustainable. At the same time, though, I dreaded what was ahead.
And here it comes, I thought, seeing Diamond Head looming in the distance. The first big hill began at the nine-mile mark, where an aid station offered nutritional gel packs. My sweaty hands struggled to tear it open. It made my mouth feel like glue, but it worked: the runners in front of me started to stop and walk up each of the hills around the crater. I kept going. My run had slowed down to a degree that was almost cartoonish, but I was still running. I didn’t stop. I was passing more and more people.
By the ten-mile mark, I realized there was only a 5k run left to go. “Only” a 5k! I felt a surge of adrenaline when I realized that I was going to finish. It helped that the worst was over; the elevation began leading downhill, and I was seized with giddiness. I road it out all the way to the finish line. But by the time I slowed to a stop, I didn’t feel much of anything at all. Just glad, I think. Glad that I did it, and glad that it was over.
My goal time was 2.5 hours, factoring in a very slow pace. I worried that if I got ambitious, I would burn myself out too fast and might not be able to finish at all. Given the weather conditions that day, I’m glad I allowed myself to freedom to be slow. Crossing the finish line, I saw a time below 2.5 hours. I didn’t care about anything more specific than that. When they put a medal around my neck, it said “Finisher,” not “Finished but did it real slow.” All that mattered was that I got there.
And I did it! I didn’t stop, I didn’t quit, and I maintained a consistent pace. I was proud. I am proud. I had never run at all before I went to boot camp. And now here I was! Your body can do a lot more than you think it can. It was a great experience – challenging, especially at the start, but worthwhile.
So now that I’ve run a half marathon, the next step is to go for a full marathon. Right?
At the start of this post, I mentioned how time consuming it is to train for a long race. I hadn’t realized it until I had gotten myself pretty deep into the program. The question, to me, isn’t whether or not I want to run a marathon. I do. I would like to, someday. It seems like a tremendous accomplishment. The real question is: am I ready to invest the time into preparing for it? And right now, the answer is no.
This happens a lot. I meet some goal, and although I feel happy and proud, I find that the journey to that point burned me out and makes me want to avoid that thing in which I’ve saturated my life. It happened with weight lifting, then swimming. Now running, too. I still run, but even on the best of runs, after 30 or 45 minutes, I think, all right, that’s enough. I want to do something else now.
The race itself – the experience, the medal, the photos – it is just the final, visible, demonstrable product of months of unseen effort. The resulting pride is rooted not just in that one run, but in all the runs that led to that finish line.
What makes distance running so special – something I knew factually but realized on an emotional level standing in the middle of a crowd of ten thousand runners, people of all ages and ability levels and backgrounds – is that any able-bodied person can do it. Any age, any income level, any range of athleticism. All one needs is a pair of sneakers and time and willpower. Running is an astounding equalizer. I felt swallowed up in that crowd, like I was being carried along on a flowing river. And it felt good.
As long as I have legs to carry me forward, running will always be there. Even if I put it aside for a while. I will get older and I will get slower. That’s okay. It doesn’t have to be about the time on the clock. It’s about how the journey to the finish line changes you, changes how you think about yourself. There will be a time in my future when I need that change. God willing, my body will let me run through it.