Running Through the Pain


On the morning of April 15, 2013, I packed a bag of bagels, a Gatorade, a water bottle, five bananas, a few GU gels, my running watch, and my race bib, and I boarded a bus to Hopkinton, Mass. The drive took about an hour, and every minute on the bus carried with it the unfathomable fact that the only way back to Boston was by foot. I was about to run the Boston Marathon.
As I sat on the bus with my fellow marathoners, we listened to the radio to hear the wave of elite athletes take off at 10 a.m. Discussions about nutrition, hydration, anxiety, bathroom necessities, and family buzzed through tiny Hopkinton. 27,000 runners descended on the town that morning, all to run the 26.2 miles through Massachusetts into Boston.
I am an unlikely marathoner. In 2013, I had only been running for about a year. Twelve months earlier, as a high school senior, I had embarked on a semi-insane journey to train for a half marathon in the midst of a New England winter. I didn’t have a valorous reason for taking on the challenge—I needed to satisfy an athletic requirement. After the first few weeks of painful walk-runs, I finally completed a run without walking, a simple four-miler with one hill. I was so proud of myself. I remember later excitedly reporting to friends when I had completed my first 10-mile run, a massive feat for a girl who had only ever run a mile—under duress—during middle school P.E. classes. When the day of the half marathon arrived, I had never actually run a race before. But I chugged along for 13.1 miles with one of my friends, finishing with a final sprint and a huge smile on my face. I wore the finisher’s medal all day, and I wore the race t-shirt to school the day after.
I fell in love with running. During my freshman fall at college, I turned to running as a solace from the difficult transition to a new place. I ran until I was tired. Six to 10 miles became a normal distance for a daily run that fall. My times dropped, and I signed up for another half marathon. I cut my time by almost 10 minutes from my first race, not by training particularly hard, but just by running four or five times a week without a real plan.
I learned to appreciate the challenge of increasing distances and training for a race. I decided to test this romance with running by signing up for a marathon.

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The shape of marathoners has changed over the past few decades, allowing less ostensibly athletic people like me a chance to experience the glory of running. The formation of charity running programs has contributed significantly to this popular shift. Instead of running in major races by qualifying, which requires having run a prior marathon at an elite pace, runners can raise money for a nonprofit in order to enter the racing field.
Susan Hurley, the founder of Charity Teams, was on the forefront of this movement. A former Ironman triathlete, she switched to marathons and wanted to share her love of athleticism with everyone. The director of the Boston Athletic Association (BAA), which hosts the Boston Marathon, asked her to organize and train a group running the 2008 race for charity, and she then founded Charity Teams. Over nine years, Charity Teams has grown from coordinating one charity with 15 runners to 24 charities with over 300 runners, raising almost $3 million for various nonprofits each year. The success of marathons for charity is staggering.

Hurley has expanded her business on the assumption that anybody can run a marathon. “When you look at some of the individuals who succeed at running marathons, whether it’s amputees or blind people, you see that people can do this, it is an achievable goal,” she explained to the HPR. Hurley encourages anyone who is thinking about running to try it. “It’s going to take hard work, commitment, responsibility to yourself, and responsibility to your charities,” she said. “I think it makes you be a stronger human being, physically and mentally.” On her website, Hurley is already recruiting runners and charities for the 2016 race.
At Harvard, this charity running movement gained momentum in the past decade, too. Craig Rodgers, a counselor at the Bureau of Study Counsel, started the Harvard College Marathon Challenge (HCMC) in 2006, modeled after a program at Tufts University. Every year, he and others encourage non-runners to train for the Boston Marathon and raise money for the Phillips Brooks House Association, a Harvard student-run nonprofit organization. Rodgers ran his first marathon in 1996; his longest run before training had been 11 miles, a far cry from the 26.2 needed. He understands what it means to undertake a marathon feeling completely under-qualified, as many students do.
Rodgers cites the importance of non-competitive running for fostering relationships and maintaining a healthy attitude. “Most things on campus have a threshold, some minimum bar, to participate,” he said, but in an effort to combat that mentality HCMC “promote[s] community running in general among students, faculty, and staff.” There is a waitlist every year to run with an HCMC bib, which speaks to the success of the program. The only prize HCMC offers is for the “officially-registered undergraduate runner who crosses the finish line as close as possible to the 6-hour time limit without exceeding it,” which encourages inexperienced marathoners to participate, no matter the pace.
This type of program has enabled many non-runners to take a shot at a marathon, myself included. I ran the 2013 Boston Marathon for the New England Patriots Charitable Foundation, part of Charity Teams, and I raised over $5,000. The commitment to fundraising is as ambitious a goal as the commitment to training, and both prongs are crucial to success in the marathon. Fundraising adds a level of dedication, and it is an extra hurdle to clear. Charity runners are a special breed.

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While running is certainly a physical exercise, marathons require a unique mental capacity as well. When your body is tired, you have to be able to keep going. Susan Hurley repeated a mantra to me and my fellow marathoners, which Craig Rodgers has also used to encourage his runners: one foot in front of the other will get you there.

Running is a mental sport. Every training run requires going farther than you’ve ever gone before; it requires determination and hope, a deep trust in your own ability to surprise yourself. Most runners, then, run for something: for a charity, for a family member, for a cause, for themselves. You need an inspiration to keep going, because otherwise it makes much more sense to stop.
Haruki Murakami, the acclaimed Japanese author who titled his memoir What I Talk about When I Talk about Running, wrote in an article for The New Yorker, “If a marathon is a battle, it’s one you wage against yourself.” Negative thoughts race through your head as your body starts to hurt, and long distances train you to fight the impulse to stop. Susan Hurley says, “Marathons teach you a lot about yourself. Life is like a marathon. Parts of life are not going to be very easy, and parts of a marathon aren’t, either.” Success in a marathon, as in life, is marked by overcoming the hard parts, and that is a battle hard won inside your own head.

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As I ran the Boston Marathon in 2013, I visualized the finish line. Mile 17 was especially hard for me, and I felt my body hit what is popularly known as “the wall”: a feeling of complete exhaustion usually reached somewhere around mile 20, caused

by depleted glycogen stores in your body. Limbs feel leaden, every step feels harder than the last, and your mind reels with the fact that you aren’t done yet. The mental component of the wall is as real as the chemical one, and breaking through it requires incredible determination. Runners speak about the wall with an air of mythical surety and communal empathy, because everyone knows what it feels like but no one can accurately predict when or if it will happen. The Boston Marathon carries an extra difficulty—between miles 17 and 21, the point of the marathon where runners often hit the wall, the course meets a series of hills, each longer than the last. The final one, Heartbreak Hill, is enshrined in marathon lore for its psychological and physical difficulty, not because of its size but because of its placement on the course. I crested the infamous summit at mile 21, breaking through the wall, and began my descent into Boston, weary but determined, monomaniacal in my goal to finish.
In retrospect, I should have known something was wrong. Around mile 23, ambulances started screaming past the runners still on the course, and people were crying around me. But it was my first marathon; I had cried in mile 17, and people probably needed medical assistance at the finish line, I thought, because marathons are hard on your body. So I and thousands of others kept running towards the finish line, unaware.
At mile 25, my parents ran up to me, tears in their eyes, relieved to have found me. I felt delusional when I saw them there, instead of at the finish line. “There’s been an explosion,” they said. “It’s bad. You can’t finish.”

It took hours for me to understand what had happened, and even now, years later, I’m still struggling with it. After 25 miles, my brain wasn’t quite working, and my body didn’t quite understand why the race had stopped. My heart was broken.
The explosions that year irrevocably colored running for me. I barely ran for six months, and then reluctantly began training for Boston 2014. I had to finish the race. I raised another $5,000 for the same charity, and I went through the same mileage. On a beautiful, unseasonably warm day, I finally got my “Boylston Street Moment,” the last half-mile of the Boston Marathon course. Runners turn onto Boylston Street and find thousands of people waiting, even five or six hours after the elite athletes start and finish their races, cheering for you, celebrating with you.
The 2014 race defied the tragedy of the year before and proved that the human spirit is, against all odds, indefatigable. The ancient Greeks used to run athletic races and games at funerals as a way to mourn losses while reaffirming life. The 2014 Boston Marathon felt a bit like that, a reverent homage to the loss of the year before combined with a cathartic celebration of the fact that yes, we can still run, and yes, we will. The slogan “Boston Strong” covered the course, an emblematic reminder that the marathon is a triumph over all hurt. I finished the race, collected my medal, and hobbled to dinner with my family, relieved and proud.
But running one marathon is simply a sip of water for an insatiable thirst. The logo of the BAA, which appears on every finisher’s medal, is a unicorn, an elusive, mythical creature that has long been sought after and imagined but never quite captured, much like the pursuit of the marathon itself. So I decided to run Boston again in 2015, this time for WalkBoston, a charity dedicated to pedestrian safety and accessibility. In 2015, Marathon Monday was pouring rain, and as we bussed out to Hopkinton, the threat of rain and a headwind terrified us all. Having trained through the worst Boston winter on record, we were sturdy runners, but no one wants to run a marathon in those conditions.
But 26.2 miles later, I crossed the finish line again, in a baptismal downpour, witnessing even in horrible weather the celebration that accompanies a marathon. Craig Rodgers says the best part of the marathon is the spectators; they complete the experience, they make it something other than a long run. And it’s true. As you high-five children along the course, and as thousands of people you’ve never met cheer you across the finish line, you feel part of a human family far greater than your own.

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Running has a healing power, a connecting power. Even in ancient Greece, the original marathon runner Pheidippides was running for a purpose, sharing a message of victory on the battlefield, uniting people miles apart from each other. Running is humbling in its power to join, in its power to prove with each step the staggering burden that we all share.
Since freshman year I’ve had this quote taped on my wall:

The longtime runner has negotiated a complicated relation- ship with pain—what it is and what it isn’t, what it does and doesn’t do. … He thinks about comfort as a steady-state that brings nothing to the party and eats all the Cheetos. Comfort is coasting, and all coasting leads to stillness, and he doesn’t want stillness, this friend of mine.

Running any distance at any speed fights stillness and monotony, and it hurts. You are pursuing the impossible, going after the great white whale, searching for the unicorn. Running is proving that you are more than your body, that you can overcome hurt and loss. In your lungs, legs, and heart, you have the most incredible capacity to breathe deep and go, to challenge this body and this life, to tap into a higher reality that ignores the limits you otherwise have to obey. You can go farther and longer than you ever realized, just putting one foot in front of the other, if you’re willing to be humbled by the pain without sinking into it. In striving, you are a runner, so rejoice—you have won.
 
Image source: JD/Flickr

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