On Sunday I was writing an email to a friend of mine who also ran the NYC Marathon, almost a month ago now. I told her it had taken me a while to respond to her because I felt like I still hadn’t collected all of my thoughts from the experience. They are trickling in, day by day, and as they do, I think I’ll share some of them with you as well.
There was something I heard repeatedly from so many other runners; I heard it so many times that I know it has to be true for a lot of marathoners. People told me at the end of training that the hard part was over, that the race was just the cherry on the sundae, it was the reward that came with a medal at the end. Hearing this, I think I began to underestimate not only the difficulty I would have during the actual race, but also the effect that the day would have on me mentally, physically, and emotionally. You all were right–training was a whole journey within itself. I wrote about it for all eighteen weeks I went through it and I was never short on material. There was frustration and triumph and growth–and also, pain.
I know that the training led me to the race. I know it was all that hard work that got me to the start and enabled me to eventually cross the finish line. Still, the day itself was something entirely different. Things happened to me during that race. I saw things I hadn’t seen before. I felt things I had never felt. Now, here I am–trying to unpack whatever all this is–Emotions? Lessons? Gifts?
Until I wrote to my friend on Sunday I hadn’t been able to articulate one of the more uncomfortable feelings I have been walking around with since the marathon. When everyone talks about running 26.2 miles, they inevitably mention the wall–the point you reach during the race, usually between miles 18-22, where things start to feel impossible. After having finally gone through it, I now understand why accurately describing the wall is so difficult. It’s not until it’s in front of you that you fully comprehend that this is a road block you have never faced before, or even approached. Before it I thought, I’ve run when I’m really tired before, I’ve wanted to stop and then run miles past that. That’s all I thought it would be–running past what I felt like I could. I had been doing that my whole life. But this, was not that.
I reached the wall at mile 18, and ran with it in front of me all the way till mile 25. I felt all the things that everyone tells you you will. Everything hurt. No matter what I consumed my tank felt completely empty. The word ‘tired’ took on a completely different meaning. In fact I think at one point I thought to myself, you’ve never been ‘tired’ before, you need to stop using that word so often, THIS is tired.
The wall to me felt like another world. When I recollect those miles I literally see myself stepping into some sort of time warp. The atmosphere is squiggly, I have no history and no future–only an existence in a universe I never knew was there. It was this other world that left me so discomforted. It opened my eyes to the fact that my eyes weren’t all the way open. To me, the wall was this anguishing realization that there was a level of human suffering that I had been sheltered from my entire life. My pain of course has been real, but unknowingly, I had overestimated it’s depth.
I think I’d started this realization of the different levels of pain in my normal life, but I’d largely left it unexamined. It was almost three years ago that my mother-in-law passed away rather suddenly, and I was left to grieve that loss and also be the primary comfort to my husband. So far I’d say that those couple of months have been the most challenging in our few years together. My husband was in an almost debilitating amount of pain, and there was nothing I could do to take it away from him. Most days it felt like I couldn’t even make it better. Other days, I was sure I’d made it worse. He wasn’t himself. How could he be? For the first time in his life, he was existing in a world that didn’t include his mom. On top of all of that, we suddenly had only a couple weeks to pack everything and move into the apartment they owned together that she had lived in. An apartment we always knew would be our forever home, but didn’t think we’d move into for another ten or fifteen years. I think I called my sponsor every other day and through sobs started our conversation with the same line each time: I don’t know how to do this.
When my mother-in-law died I felt desperate and out of control, like there was nothing I could do to make the pain less. That’s how I felt during miles 18-25 too. When I trained for the marathon, I told myself all the time that pain was temporary. It’s true, it is, it was. But the race was the first time I had felt that severity of discomfort, and then had to mentally come to grips with the fact that I had to stay in that place for almost ninety more minutes. It was this impossible feeling–I was trapped in a cage, surrounded by four insurmountable walls. All I saw was steel and impenetrable darkness. Starved of the light–of promise, of hope, I began to feel weaker and weaker. I couldn’t see a way forward–yet somehow, there was something still alive inside of me that said keep going–one foot in front of the other.
When I got to mile 25 I started to see the light again. As I approached the finish line, crowds of people, including my loved ones, cheered me in. As I crossed that threshold and was finally able to walk, the acute pain began to dissipate. I was offered water and gatorade and pretzels. Someone even put a medal around my neck.
I think I’m uncomfortable now because I’m starting to understand that there are people living in that squiggly atmosphere–that other world I only dipped my toe in for an hour and a half. A place where you fight to separate the mind from the body, a divorce necessitated by the impossibility of withstanding the intensity of all your senses together. I got to choose to expose myself to this level of pain, and I was rewarded for my bravery and endurance the moment I reached the previously known and agreed upon marker.
It’s not that I’m judging the different depths of human pain, but I am coming to understand the shallowness of my own suffering. By shallow I do not mean unimportant or not serious. I’m simply recognizing how far below me the state of the human condition has and can lie. There are men in our prison system doing 20 to life for petty drug crimes. There are refugees being sold as slaves in Libya. Rohingya women in Myanmar are being gang raped immediately after witnessing their husbands and children being tortured to death.
There is pain in this world that barely lets up–it remains acute. It’s bearers have no guarantee of a finish line. They are barely able to hope for care and nourishment at the end of their journeys; they would never dream of reward or reparations. And yet, somehow, these people still have that something inside them that whispers, keep going. They follow that bit of light–it keeps them fighting for their lives, grasping for another day.
And so while my new understanding of pain tilts my universe askew and demands that I analyze and accept the profundity of my privilege, it also rocks my world and gives me great hope. Suffering is deep. But humans are strong.
I keep hoping that I will find out what I am capable of–before I am forced to know it.
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