The Hard is What Makes it great

marathonI’m going to brag a little today. I finished the Chicago Marathon this weekend. Twenty-six point two miles of road, bridges, cheering fans, fluorescent signs, balloons, volunteers, music, bananas, Gu, Gatorade, water, sweat, and yes, some tears. 40,000 runners and over a million spectators crowded themselves onto the streets of the city, undeterred by the below freezing temperatures. I ran my first marathon a year ago, the same weekend. I blogged about it then too, but I just can’t get over how much I learn during this process.

Because I’ve got the special kind of crazy that it takes to run a marathon and then think, “Let’s do it again, but try to go faster next time,” I set a goal to improve my time by 20 minutes. Over the past year I’ve lost some weight, my baby has become a toddler–so no more nursing, and I’ve trained and worked hard: speed work, tempo runs, long runs, recovery runs, core workouts, and yoga (all in the early morning before kids are awake). I also prepared last week by going to bed earlier than usual and eating lots of healthy complex carbohydrates (and maybe some candy too).

The result of all that preparation=goal reached! From 4:58 last year to 4:38 this year! And though so much of it was a personal journey as my feet hit the streets over and over and over I kept thinking how I wouldn’t be there if I hadn’t had help. Support from my husband with the kids, help from friends who babysat if Matt had to leave early on a Saturday before I’d be back from my long run, motivation from running partners, love from my mom and dad, and inspiration from sisters and brothers who are training and running across the country in Utah. I did it because of them, for them, with them.

At mile 24 my leg started to cramp, not just tightness, not merely fatigue, but the quadriceps in my right leg were tying themselves into a knot. I tried to send loose thoughts down there and keep going, but it got to the point where I felt that if I didn’t stop and walk it out it might tear. So I slowed to a walk. Tears sprang to my eyes and I started to choke as I willed them not to fall. It wasn’t just the physical pain, but I wanted to reach my goal and I became overwhelmed with discouragement. When your body is that exhausted the emotions are close to the surface and difficult to control. My friend Rhonda, an awesome enthusiastic and chatty mom I met at mile 1, kept repeating words of encouragement, “You can do it! You want that PR! All these people are here to see you!” I wanted to believe her, but my mental ability for positive self-talk failed me. I shook my head and instead of talking myself into running again I started to think of all the reasons it would be okay to just walk and how the under 4:40 goal wasn’t that important. I vowed not to look at my watch again and just get to the finish. Right about then a tall lanky runner in a yellow jersey came up to my side, put both hands on my shoulders, rubbed them for a minute, looked at me and said, “You can do this! Come on.” He kind of pulled me along until I started to run again and Rhonda looked over her shoulder and smiled. I started reading all the signs along the road, putting my name in place of the names of the sign-holders friends and family. “Heather, your feet hurt because you’re kicking so much a**!” (A personal favorite I had chuckled about several miles before.) “Heather, catch those Kenyans!” “They’re running out of beer at the finish.” (That one did little to motivate, but made me laugh.) Then a smaller sign, no glitter or puff paint, just clear black letters on a white poster, “THE HARD IS WHAT MAKES IT GREAT!” I repeated that in my mind over and over until we climbed the last little hill at mile 26, turned the corner and saw the finish. I looked at my watch, 4:36 with .2 miles to go. I lengthened my stride, ignored the burn in my quad and ran!

One of the most common questions I get about running marathons is, “Why do you do that?” I asked myself that same thing at mile 24. And though part of the answer can be found in the paragraph above, you may just have to try it for yourself to really find out.

32 thoughts on “The Hard is What Makes it great

  1. Congratulations to you! I just ran my first marathon a few weeks ago (and frankly the jury is still out on whether there will be any more. I think I will wait until the toenails stop falling off to decide) and the lessons are amazing, I agree. I still have rolling around in my head a sign that I saw about 23+ miles. It said “no one can finish this d*** race for you but YOU.” That is true of so many things, but it particularly ties running for me to the spiritual idea of enduring well to the end. No one else can do it for me. My legs have to do the regular pounding to withstand the mileage of the race. My heart needs to do the breaking and reforming in the Lord’s image to be worthy of returning to Him one day. While so much support is required to finish the race–both the sweaty one as well as the eternal one–no amount of support can finish for me. For me, the idea to run a marathon is somehow tied to the notion that doing so will show me (and help me to remember at a later time) that I can do hard things. Perhaps that’s why I found myself choking back tears at the finish line?

  2. Oh, Heather. I’m so proud of you!! I have different marathons that I run in my life…like the laundry marathon, the getting the bathrooms clean marathon, the get enough sleep marathon, the scripture study marathon…all of those apply to your message. Thanks so much.

  3. I’m amazed by people who run marathons, partially because it’s not something I would (or could) ever do. My body let me know its limitations in that regard years ago, when I triggered an autoimmune disease by pushing myself to increase my running speed. It’s not that I’m unwilling to challenge myself physically, but I’m not able to do it. And even if my body were up for that challenge, I’m not sure I’d be willing to take it to that extent.

    I guess we all challenge ourselves in the way that works for us. The only marathons I’ve ever run have begun and ended in my mind. Not all of them were voluntary (the marathon of living with chronic illness), but some of them were (the marathon of writing a book). Then, of course, there are the marathons of creating and maintaining a successful marriage, giving birth to and rearing children, etc. etc. Most of us get the opportunity to run those races.

    Of course, the biggest marathon is life itself, and I think we all replicate that marathon in diverse ways throughout our time on earth. Maybe the little “practice marathons” of life, if you will, are like the daily runs you and other long distance runners take in preparation for the big event. These sessions tune us up and increase our strength and keep us moving towards our ultimate goal…be it the finish line at 26 miles or the end of our earthly missions at 86 years.

    Marathons are a good thing, whatever form they take. Congratulations on yours! I think you just got a whole lot better at enduring to the end!!

  4. yeah for you, Heather!

    I’m not a marathoner (or even a ’round the block runner), but the ‘take home’ message of “The hard is what makes it great” is so applicable in so many, many areas and can be learned in many venues. Thanks for the reminder!

    And, you rock!

  5. I don’t suppose you or one of the other runners wants to write another of these at the start of April? I always read these and the linked posts and want to get back into that kind of habit (my senior year of high school and freshman year of college I managed to run fairly regularly, though I never got to the “I am a runner” stage), but at 4.5 months pregnant, I probably should be looking at other exercise plans. Come April I’ll be all set both to really think about the marathon of life and be motivated to start running again!

  6. loved reading that– it made me feel like i was out there with you! each marathon has been a completely new and different experience for me, but has taught me something about myself each time!

  7. Count me as deeply impressed. I live in the Chicago area and watched portions of the marathon on TV. It is an absolutely huge deal here. The Tribune publishes a special section with the names of everyone who finishes. I doff my cap to you!

  8. I’ve run two marathons in the past, the second was last year the day after my 30th birthday. I put a sign on my back advertising that. All the volunteers at mile 16 sang to me. It was the best.

    Right now I’m training for my third (and hopefully a Boston qualifier) that will be 29 days after my wedding. And it’s the training that’s keeping me relaxed and calm and eating well and sleeping well while I try to plan a wedding and be a graduate student. Running is my life. Running is my sanity.

    People think a marathon is all about the physical endurance and strength. But at that distance, the physical is only part of it. Marathons are hugely emotional experiences for me. I’ve powered myself through that many miles, with my body, just my shoes and I on the street. It’s an incredible experience. Even the first few miles are amazing when you look around and realize that you are doing something that not everyone does.

    Marathons are physical, emotional, and even spiritual. It’s a whole life rolled into 26.2 miles. And just like life, it’s something you power yourself through on your own, but with a huge support group right there with you to help you get to the end in whatever shape you can.

    I need to get out and do my training run today. Thank you for this today.

  9. I am so dang proud of you! I’ve only been running a couple years, and I’ve only done a 5K–I’m not yet discplined to do longer distance, but dang am I impressed with those who do! Good for you for bragging, we all need to feel other people’s successes to motivate us toward our own. Way to go!

  10. Oh, man! What a fabulous story. I’m so impressed. I’ve run a couple of 5K’s and I was training for a 10K when a move and then a baby put me off running completely. I want to start again so much! Thank you for this –I need all the inspiration I can get. :)

    P.S. Congratulations on making your goal!

  11. Congratulations Heather! You are awesome!!!

    It was hard for me to read this post though. Almost 5 years ago I ran a half-marathon. I loved it and made it a life goal to run more and eventually, when the kids were older, run a marathon.

    Today I’m in physical therapy and the doctors say I shouldn’t even go for a one mile walk. It’s hard to be patient while my body heals. It is also hard to hear some runners not sensitive to the very real physical limitations of others. Sometimes it isn’t just mind over matter. Sometimes it is bone rubbing on bone, sinew stretching to breaking, and a puddle of tears as we ask why we can’t play like everyone else.

    Don’t feel guilty if running isn’t for you, but find something that is. Everyone has something that can make them feel as great as Heather feels about running.

  12. Congrats! I love the way that the marathoners — strangers — all bind themselves together for that time to help each other.

    I’m one who can’t do the running thing, so I will jump in with Sue’s comment and second what she has said.

    Oh, boy…I could get way too philosophical about this, so I’ll stop.

  13. Thanks for the congrats and all of your insights. I know everyone can’t run marathons, but I love Sue’s comment. We can all choose to set goals that are hard and we will all have hard things to accomplish whether we set a goal to or not. Like Angie f. said too, her marathon became a reminder that she can do hard things. And I hope I jendoop I didn’t seem insensitive. I really do understand that not all people can run, no matter how determined they are. :-) Setting an objective difficult goal to reach really does help all of us in the journey to endure well, whatever the task may be.

  14. Heather, I just felt the intensity of your experience. Of course anyone who has such a wonderful experience would want to share it with others – that’s love, right? :)

  15. Good for you, Heather! I just managed to be more impressed with you. ;)

    I needed to hear “the hard is what makes it great” today–I’m wallowing through a bunch of stuff October brings up, and it was good to be reminded that it IS great because it is hard. One foot in front of the other, over and over again. Thank goodness for those people who keep cheering us on, even though they don’t know it!

  16. Thanks for this excellent post! And great comments too.

    I will be quoting “the hard is what makes it great” again and again.

    I love how well you described your experience. I felt like I was there too. Is that why I’m so tired!

    The comment comparing all hard things to marathons was enlightening. I felt my brain wrinkling! : )

  17. Sometimes we get caught up counting the bad apples in the world these days. Kids can’t just play outside like they could in the good old days. Beware of everyone seems to be the message we cling to. I just love that dude in yellow who didn’t know you from Adam, but he helped you out, human helping human. Most of us are honestly trying to do what’s right in life. There are indeed a few bad apples, but there is so much good out there. It was nice to be reminded of that, thanks for the uplifting story.

  18. Congratulations Heather! Amazing Amazing Amazing. People who run marathons over and over amaze me. :) Cheers to another marathon!

  19. Tears in my eyes as I sit here reading and nursing, counting the days til I can run again. I can’t wait to feel the “hard” again.

  20. Hooray for the many lessons learned and all the insights written here. I want to someday write a book on the similarities of Marathons and Motherhood. After experiencing the cheers from supporters at the end of a race I have found myself cheering on moms in the grocery store and at the Dr.’s office, “Wow, look at you you’re making it…keep on trekking!” Or to a friend on an evening phone call, “You’re doing great, bed time is around the corner, you can finish this thing.”
    Thanks for letting us all in to your running world. You are, and always have been amazing. I love ya Sis.

  21. Good for you, Heather! I know Matt is very proud of all you’ve accomplished as a runner, a writer and a Mom! Well done!

  22. Heath-
    You rock! Even though marathoning isn’t for all of us, we all have hard things that nobody else can do for us… or enjoy for us. Your example applies across the board. You know I love you, sister!
    p.s. Thanks for taking me marathoning with you last year. It was amazing!

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