I’m a runner, but not a real runner. I get imposter syndrome from time to time, maybe because I only started running 4 years ago in my early 30’s. I wriggle at seeing myself as part of the club of real runners. Some of you can probably relate. I’m not fast, and I don’t always love it. But often when I do run, albeit slow, I feel something that I only feel from my two feet treading ground.
It’s not about where we go physically, it’s about where we go internally.
A wild rush of euphoria quells the noise in my head and viscerally connects me with my animate surroundings, a sacred experience that occasionally moves me to tears. Whether it’s running the same familiar trails of Austin, around my current home of Madrid, or covering new ground as I travel (literally running around the world), this intense yet comforting, fleeting feeling always finds me.
On a perfect sunny day in April 2016, I comfortably finished the Madrid Half Marathon. I felt what many runners feel after an enjoyable finish: post-race euphoria. Later that night, despite the fatigue, I started fantasizing about the next race, and running a full marathon (26.2m/42.1k) consumed my thoughts. So, I pulled the trigger and registered for one of the world’s most iconic marathons: The Athens Authentic Marathon, a legendary route from the town of Marathon to Athens.*
This would be my second marathon (my first was Austin 2014) and my first destination race. Visiting Greece had been on the top of my list ever since I saw pictures of Mykonos and Santorini, way before my running days. It’s one of the few European countries along the Mediterranean that I had yet to experience. Back then I originally saw myself spending a few weeks of vacation island hopping, beach bumming, mingling with fellow travelers and locals, adventuring till the wee hours of the night. Instead I found myself taking a solo weekend trip to run the streets of Athens. No beach, no islands, no late nights…just sun, sweat, and tears.
Six weeks before race day I hit a mental block that I wasn’t strong enough to overcome. I didn’t want to train anymore. My mind started to resist long runs, waking up early, and allocating hours of weekend time for training and recovery. So I stopped. Although I knew I was setting myself up for failure, I was at peace with my decision and accepted that there would be consequences for entering a race unprepared. I reassured myself that my body would find a way to the finish line, even it if meant walking a large portion of the race. I had faith that I would find strength in the suffering.
The original allure of running a marathon may have been the challenge of completing the distance. However, what now attracts me to the race is the journey through the distance. I have discovered that the slow and steady intensification of physical pain opens me up to an abyss of emotion and a dimension of my being that isn’t readily available. To uncover who I am, I run distances that I never imagined my mind and body could do.
“Pushing your body past what you thought it was capable of is easy; the hard part is pushing yourself even further… past what your mind wants to let you. That’s what…running is all about; introducing you to a self you’ve never known.” – Rex Pace
For me it comes around mile 20, when my body starts to break down and my mental strength quickly dims, but I know giving up is not an option. With six miles to go the magic starts to happen and I’m transported to an internal cavern where I feel my vulnerability, the cold darkness and rawness of my inner self. The self-loathing thoughts enter my mind, and as I hold the space for this darkness and succumb to feeling my way through it, I know it’s only a matter of minutes or miles until the tidal wave of intense emotional pain caused by the trauma of life rushes to the surface and finds a physical form of release down my face.
As the suffering and emotional eruption abate, the focus shifts from inward to outward as I begin to observe my surroundings and marvel at the runners and spectators at my side. The collective energy of that moment, our shared experience, brings about a feeling of divine connection and unleashes a flood of gratitude that flows under and over me. This is the wild rush of euphoria I spoke of. Its intensity exacerbated by the mileage, spreads like an anesthetic over my physical pain. Here, I tap into a reserve of strength that fills in for my lack of training, and for the last hour and a half of the race, I am consumed by this cycle of suffering to elation and back. I imagine myself as a pile of ashes, scorched by agony then reborn to unfold and rise mighty and soar like the phoenix, again and again until I cross the finish line.
I finally cross the finish line, 5 hours and 17 minutes later. The typical external motives: the accomplishment of running an impressive distance, reaching an impossible goal, a medal to hang on the wall, an event to cross off the bucket list, are meaningless compared to what happens internally within those 26.2 miles.
That is why I run. To feel the purity of light, the sensation of floating on air, and to explore the depth of emotions that are trapped, buried, wound up tight and tucked away somewhere at the bottom of my heart, dormant and lying beneath all the other emotions I am able to access and feel with ease. It’s therapy.
With a medal and photo op at the end.
Do you know why the marathon is called a marathon? Back in 490 BC, there was a battle called the Battle of Marathon (you may remember the movie 300) where the Greeks defeated the Persians in the city of…Marathon. As legend has it, a messenger and ultrarunner named Pheidippides was instructed to send word of the victory to Athens on foot from Marathon. The distance between the two cities is about 40k/25m, more or less the distance of the modern marathon. Message delivered. Mission completed! However, this story doesn’t have a happy ending. Upon arrival to Athens and exclaiming the good news, Pheidippides collapsed and died.