(In January 2015, I completed the Dopey Challenge at Walt Disney World, Florida. I ran a 5K on Thursday, a 10K on Friday, a 1/2 marathon on Saturday, and a full marathon on Sunday, totaling 48.6 miles.)
Mental training began during the weeks before. I wasn’t worried about the first 22.4 miles. Those would be fun, full of interruptions for photos, and completed each morning as easy as sipping a cup of coffee. On my mind was Sunday. Sunday of the final strides. Sunday of the last finish line. Sunday when it mattered. Sunday of 26.2.
To prep, I split the miles into 5 chunks of 5 miles each and a bonus round (1.2 miles). I gave each chunk a theme, a quote, a few strategies, and a mantra to repeat. This wasn’t my first marathon; I knew very well the parts that would make me want to cry. Each chunk came with its own playlist of music fitting to its theme. Never underestimate the power of music to get your body moving (or keep it moving…).
Thursday, Friday, and Saturday happened, just as expected. I practiced a daily ritual: run, ice, bath, stretch. My legs and feet felt loved, despite the miles.
Then Sunday came. I show up before 4am, just like the days before, eat breakfast in my car and begin my preparations. It feels like routine. GU packs, check. Headphones, check. Gloves, check. Eeyore ears and tail, check. Inside I know this day will be different.
Hurry up and wait. We walk quickly to our corrals, then stand to wait our turn to begin. They herd us like cattle. I thank the volunteers and move to the front of section “I”. Glancing around, I notice a pacer in my group. She holds red and white balloons and a sign that reads, “4:30”. I remember the balloons. I chased those damn balloons last year for a mile, finally catching up and successfully finishing the race in just under 5 hours. 4:30? 4 and a half hours? Could I do that? I reasoned with myself. I’ll stay with her for the beginning. If I fall back, I should still be able to finish under 5 hours. Maybe even beat my time from last year. But it’s okay if I don’t either…
Chunk 1: “Feel the race. Feel the joy that is running”
Fireworks blast, again and again. Each corral gets their own. People, this is Disney. Soon enough, I’m up to start. I cross the line, starting my music for miles 1-5. Light-hearted pop songs fill my ears. These miles are the best, that’s why I labeled this chunk “warm up in peace”. The rush of excitement and adrenaline fills me as my feet move with familiar motion. Staying with the pacer is a tricky balance. Slow down. Speed up a little. Don’t step on that guy’s feet again. The races has barely begun and these miles are gone.
Chunk 2: “Dear past: Thank you for the lessons”
My body feels great. I could keep this pace forever, I think. I’ve dedicated these miles to putting my past behind me. Songs that trigger both painful and meaningful memories play through the headphones. I say goodbye. My eyes focus forward. Front foot leads the back one.
Chunk 3: “I’m not giving up, I’m just starting over”
These miles are for me. And I’m loving it. Powerful divas sings words of encouragement to bring me strength and empowerment. I sing along and move with confidence in my stride. A small group hovers around the pacer, a group I’ve come to feel connected to. I realize at this point that I have stayed with the pacer and we’re more than halfway done. Dare I continue? I’ve come this far…might as well finish the race with them.
Chunk 4: “You are stronger than you know, and everyone else believes it”
From miles away, friends and family around the world are thinking of me. Knowing their support gives me new motivation to continue. The songs that play bring the biggest smile to my face, remembering one friend, and then another. I imagine them next to me, cheering me on and reminding me of my strength. My legs are hurting.
Chunk 5: “You don’t have to go fast, you just have to go!”
For Emily. For Emily, who I had the privilege to raise money for through the charity A-T Children’s Project. But not only for Emily. For those who will never run a race. For those who will never run. For those who will never run again. I wish I could say these motivations help me through miles 22, 23, 24, 25… These miles hurt. And maybe that’s the point. I feel weak. I feel myself slipping away from the pacer with each step. Is she sprinting now?? This is not the pace we started with. My mind is clouded with negative thoughts. I attempt to re-focus and forget the screaming pain in my legs.
Bonus Round: “Even though you won’t be with me at the finish line, you’ve given me the courage to know I’ll be just fine”
This quote comes from a song I recently wrote. This last bit is not the end of the race, but rather the beginning of my new journey. I look at the pacer as she moves further ahead. I decide to draw back for the last mile, finishing with a slow and steady pace. My knees hate me. My feet are so over it. My quads? I don’t think they’ll move again. The cheers are getting louder. I know it’s coming. Pass by Spaceship Earth and swing around the corner, that will be it.
I wish I had the power to sprint, but shuffling will do. I take those final step across, catch my breath, and look at the time. 4:31. I actually did it.