Just over a year ago, my sister Tracy (@running4twv) and I announced our entry into the 2019 Berlin Marathon. And last Sunday marked the 6 month anniversary of the race itself. It seems somehow impossibly distant and remarkably recent at the same time. And, aside from writing a letter to my supporters at the end of the year, I have really taken very little time to reflect on the experience. Probably to an unhealthy degree. Because if I'm honest with myself, Berlin nearly got the best of me.
That's hard for me to grapple with. I had a great training season. The Summer was mild, I wasn't really pushing for a pace goal - instead I was really enjoying running with friends and family. And yet, my long runs continued to improve and I was feeling great! For the first time since I started running, I got into the rhythm of hitting negative splits, sometimes managing to put in a final 2-3 miles that would get me winded in a 10k. I found that I really enjoyed the feeling of keeping something in the tank for a strong finish. Then a little carelessness knocked me down a few pegs.
I had been dealing with some hip pain, which was unusual for me. I had noticed more blistering and callus building on my left foot than my right, particularly after a wipeout I had on the sidewalk one day.* It didn't keep my from finishing off my 8-miler, but it did send me to the chiropractor for the first time in several years. In any case, that wasn't the fateful occasion that haunts my runs to this day. No, that came a couple months later when I was finishing up a mid-distance run on a weekday evening. I usually end my mid-week runs on a bridge not far from my home, which also happens to be the outlet of a subway train station. My run had been great and, wanting to finish strong and not lose my pace, I was pushing hard over the bridge. But to my dismay, a train had unloaded a brief moment earlier. Unable to run in the street due to the dangers of the bridge, I was trucking down the sidewalk when suddenly blockaded by commuters. Rather than slowing at all, I gave a shout and made to pass the pedestrians on a narrow leeway of curb. But I lost my balance (or maybe I was shoved, that makes the story sound more exciting...) and had to catch myself from falling into the street. In doing so, I took a couple of awkward steps half on the curb and half in the street. I felt my lower back twinge and my first thought was that my chiropractor was going to kill me when I came in with my hips all out of whack again. But the next morning, getting out of bed, I could hardly bare to put weight on my left foot.
*Side note: I haven't done any research into this, but I really hope the average runner is as accident prone as I am. Because I think I trip and fall an average of 1-2 times per marathon season - and when I say fall, I don't mean I misstep and have to catch myself. No, when I fall while running, I'm like a sturdy tree hacked down at the base. And I land hard. But I have that runner's instinct to spare my knees at all costs... the costs usually being my hips, arms and shoulders.
At this point, dear reader, you're likely to be drifting into apathy at the apparent irrelevance to my Berlin run. So let me skip through a few nail-biting months and tell you that several doctor visits, an x-ray and an MRI eventually revealed a Morton's neuroma (pain from an inflamed nerve between my toe joints). I didn't go see a doctor prior to the Marathon, because I knew the answer would likely be "running is making it worse." But approaching Berlin, though I still had a couple of great long-distance training runs despite the foot pain, I was still getting sharp pains every time I ran. I had even been forced to switch out some of my runs for time on a stationary bike to try to give my foot more rest.
So going into race weekend, I really didn't know what to expect. But I still hoped for a PR because, well, I thought I had it in me. Now, there's a lot more to running a race for Team World Vision than getting a PR, for sure. I had been "putting in the miles" on my fundraising efforts as well, and I had managed to secure sponsors for 20 kids in impoverished, disadvantaged communities - a number that still astounds and humbles me. So I had something to celebrate, whether I finished the race or not. But I didn't want to just finish, I wanted to perform.
Now, I'm a fairly regimented person, and the week leading up to a race I border on religious adherence to diet and activity guidelines. But spending a couple days in Berlin before a race. I had to give myself a little latitude. There were some meals out. But I didn't splurge - no beer and pretzels, and that took willpower! We did take a bike tour around the city, in a downpour; of course there was the race expo; and there may have been one meal of pork knuckle two nights before race day (a guy's gotta eat!) Tracy and I took ourselves on a little tour of downtown, but that was mostly conducted by scooter (which we definitely didn't have way too much fun with). All told I was darn-well behaved, and decently rested.
And then the weather turned. All season I had been practicing my pacing, and my first half of the race was almost perfect. I started easy, gradually increased my pace - what I remember having a hard time with was passing. The field of runners was so dense that it was nearly impossible to go faster than the crowd. People were jumping up onto sidewalks to pass. I never did this; I tried to be smart and only take opportunities when they arose. But in general, my starting pace was spot on. Then it was right around the halfway point that the rain picked up, the winds started to blow, and a chill started to set in. I remember at one point, still trying to keep my pace, I tried to step off to the side of the pack and pass some people on the outside. As soon as I reached the edge, the wind hit me with force, like an attack of cold and fatigue. I quickly moved back inward. Gradually the fatigue increased, along with the self-pity. I was no longer appreciating my situation - this magical, incredible experience only made more surreal and exciting by the sheets of rain. No, I allowed myself to feel miserable, to let the water dripping from my cap and soaking into my shoes determine my mood. And I started to lower my expectations. With lower expectations came slower paces. By km 24, I slowed beyond my starting pace, never to recover.
That's what carried me to the finish line. Those 6 km were not easy. In fact km 35 through 41 were my slowest of the race. But it was the knowledge of the life change those 6 km represented - I knew if they endured and overcame 6 km day after day, month after month, year after year, I could endure those 6 km to make it stop, to remove that burden from them. It was making those 6 km about someone other than myself that allowed me to overlook my pain, fatigue, and physical discomfort.
What's next in this journey? That's been announced elsewhere and will be featured at length in later posts. I'm sure you'll hear from me soon. What I do know is that, despite continued foot pain, despite the punishment of a Chicago winter, heck, despite the scourge of COVID-19 keeping me under house arrest, I will press on for the opportunity to continue bringing hope and joy and love to children I will never meet but care about just the same.