It's time to take a (brief) break
The first time I ever ran a full, 26.2-mile marathon, it was 1997 and I was twenty-six years old. The race took place in Bermuda in mid-January. Which means that, back then around this time, we would have been wrapping up the longest runs of our four months of training, and taking a brief rest from running during the holidays.
One of the things I remember most vividly about that time was, whenever I’d go to holiday parties during those couple of weeks of downtime, all anyone wanted to talk with me about was running. They’d heard about how much I was running ever week and what I was training for. “Could it actually be true? Are you really going to run 26 miles?” they would say. “Yep,” I would add. “And don’t forget the point two.”
I didn’t fully understand how difficult those final 0.2 miles could be until later that next year, when I ran my second full marathon. That one was in October, in Washington, D.C. — the famed Marine Corps Marathon, which runs through the streets of the city, past all the monuments. And, depending on where you find yourself in the pack, you might see dozens of Marines running alongside you, in cammies and combat boots.
Nearly all of the race is pancake flat — especially the stretches around the National Mall, past the Lincoln Memorial and the Smithsonian museums, in front of the Capitol and around Potomac Park.
But the last 0.2 miles aren’t. They’re almost straight uphill, as you make your way off Washington Boulevard to the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, where the iconic statue stands of the Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima.
I’ll never forget how I felt when, tired and wet from the drizzling rain that fell on us most of the morning, I passed the mile 26 sign and saw the last stretch of the race ahead of me. The hill I was going to have to climb to get to the memorial. The last push I was going to have to make.
“Are you kidding me?!”
That’s honestly the thought that went through my mind; I was a little baffled that, after all these flat miles, the race organizers put a hill (and a steep one) at the end of the race. What in the world could they have been thinking?
What I wouldn’t understand until I crossed the finish line was, that last hill was perfectly placed. You got to experience one final push before the finish line, one last test of your endurance, before you crossed the magical distance of 26.2 — and got a reminder, in the sight of the statue, of the sacrifices so many who have come before you have made.
I’ve thought about that run a lot in the years since. How you can think you’ve completed something — an assignment for work or school, or worked something out in a relationship — and then another difficulty appears.
I think about it in the context, too, of Covid. The arrival of vaccines back in the spring made it feel like everything was over and we were home free. Then, as we all know, the variants appeared. Which brings us to where we are today.
You think, when you’re young, that someday you’ll come to a point in your life when you’ve cleared all difficulties away, and the rest of your years will be uninterrupted smooth sailing. (Or I did, anyway.)
But there’s always another unexpected difficulty, isn’t there? Another hill to climb that you didn’t see coming? What I found that day was, as tired as I was, I had the strength to climb up and over it. And if I could find it that day, exhausted after running 26 miles, I could find it again, in other contexts and other situations.
And, if I’ve got it in me, you’ve definitely got it in yourself too — all of us have it, I believe. We might discover it when it’s the last thing we’re expecting.
I hope you have a wonderful, warm and connected holiday season. For the next couple of weeks, I plan to take a little time off, so we’ll meet again on Wednesday, December 29.
Until then, have a lovely holiday, however you plan to celebrate it. I can’t tell you enough what a pleasure it is to have each and every one of you in my life as readers and as running buddies, even though we’re separated by hundreds (and in many cases thousands) of miles.
You truly are the best — happy holidays, and a happy new year too 🎄⛄️🎅