Starting this past Sunday, a day hasn’t passed where I haven’t gotten down on my knees to thank whichever deity is in charge making sure your muscles and bones heal after you’ve overused them. (Most people call that deity science or nature, but believing in some kind of magic is far more fun.)
That’s because this past Sunday morning I finally had the time to exercise a bit. It seemed as though a lot of other people wanted to do the exact same thing that I was planning on doing at the exact same time. That is run 26.2 miles in a huge loop around central Austin. So naturally we ran together — all 17,000 of us.
The brightly-colored rows of moving bodies were a dizzying spectacle visually but a familiar spectacle nonetheless (think outdoor concert with extra legroom). But mentally the experience lent no room for comparison. Despite the fact that I had run the very same course alongside many of the exact same strangers the year before, the thoughts that accompanied my nearly four hours of constant running were almost entirely new. And while the pain in my calves hardly lasted longer than a day, the impact the race had on my thinking will likely last much longer.
Among other expressions of bewilderment that people give you when you tell them you’ve done something that they (falsely) believe they never could, a fairly common one is “How’d you do it?!” I usually just say there isn’t much to running, you just keep doing the exact same thing — stepping one foot in front of the other. And then (optionally) stopping when you've passed the finish line. People don’t always take that answer too well so I found better advice in an archived email from an old mentor and a friend who had inspired me to start running marathons in the first place. When I’d asked him how to approach race day, he told me about everything surrounding the day including what to do the day before, what to eat, what to bring — in sum, he said “use common sense”. But the piece of advice that stuck was the piece that wasn’t obviously in-line with common sense and it had to do with the actual running of the race. He told me to take it easy the first twenty miles and unleash all of my remaining willpower the last six.
It made far more sense at the twenty-mile mark than it did when I read it in an email. What I’d noticed was that the hype at the beginning of the race had tricked everyone around me into speeding beyond sustainable measure. The more prepared among us stuck with pace groups or knew how to pace themselves. But even the most meticulous plan for mile time splits and Gu slurping milestones hooked up to voice-guided mobile apps and smart wearables can fail in the face of temptation and pain. It was with the understanding that the internal fuel-engine of both my mind & my body was being tested on longevity that I resisted the race mentality as much as I could. Remaining unfazed as diminishing pools of runners passed me for roughly three hours was certainly not easy. But after mile twenty I was back with a vengeance that could only be summoned after having been forced to watch as hundreds — and eventually thousands — of people passed you by.
I crossed the finish line still able to stand. So definitely a good jog. A few weeks later, my aforementioned mentor checked my results and noticed something interesting. For the first twenty miles, I’d paced decently, but in terms of placement floated steadily around the rank. As it had turned out, I had passed about the same number of runners that had passed me. But during the race all I could see were the people getting ahead of me.
This small insight ended up spanning far more than 26.2 miles for me. People speak often about the dangers of comparison. (Don’t worry, I won’t dwell on it too much.) But the topic seems particularly common in college where just about everyone is running the same well-plotted rat race of traditional successful that generally implies that there's a finite amount of room at the top of hill and in order to be happy it's imperative that you get there first. The physical race was an effective representation of the mindset that I — and I imagine many others — develop in college, though it’s certainly not limited to our time here. It’s a mindset that compels us to looks at the world in terms of who’s passing us and at times who we’re passing. And although most people almost exclusively notice others obtaining the positions, objects, or careers that they had wished for themselves or often are motivated for the sole purpose of outperform their peers, the marathon taught me that neither lenses of thought is healthy. Or even accurate. And while you can’t run with your eyes closed, you can certainly plug your headphones in and keep your head firmly planted on your shoulders as you pace through your own 26.2 miles.
Maybe this insight is clichè, overplayed, worn-out, mundane, or obvious. And as a result, to most people who hear it, it's patently boring. But those are all reasons why it’s probably true.
Thanks for reading. Until next time.
P.S. A less interesting but still noteworthy phenomenon ocurred after the mystical mile twenty mark. My mentor, a man whose love for data has inspired some of my own, pointed out that, according to the time split results, after mile twenty I was passing roughly 100 people per mile. Maybe aiming for redemption isn’t always the healthiest way to go about things, but it definitely feels good to know when you’ve succeeded at it.