When life gives you lemons … suck it up. Isn’t that how the saying goes? Well, at the Scotiabank Vancouver Half Marathon last weekend – my second barefoot half – I sucked it up and it was sour.
The saga began a few weeks prior, when I was spontaneously struck with debilitating chest pain. It gripped me intensely, leaving me barely able to breath and fearing a heart attack. An X-ray showed a healthy heart, lungs and ribcage, yet the pain persisted for weeks. Massage, active release and chiropractic adjustments brought some temporary relief, and although I’ll never know for sure, I now suspect it was a strained pec or intercostal muscle. Many days, running was impossible. On good days I could eke out a short, slow, uncomfortable trot. To make matters worse, the stress and tension in my chest and back trickled down to knock the rest of my body out of wack. My opposite leg felt weak and limp, as if it were dragging powerless behind me … as if it belonged to someone else, completely out of my neuromuscular control. As race day neared, I began to abandon my hopes of running at all, mentally preparing for a restful vacation exploring a new city.
Come race morning, I convinced myself anything was possible and knew I would regret not at least trying. The gun went off and to my great surprise, my chest quickly loosened up and my breathing was fluid. My right leg, on the other hand, forgot how to move. For the first seven miles, it took every ounce of mental focus to coerce my muscles into lifting and propelling forward my dead leg. The sun blazed as the pack of runners hugged every smidgen of shade to escape the 80 degree heat. My battle to maintain a semblance of a functional stride intensified as I pranced precariously over nasty stretches of gravel. Eight miles in, a tiny stone sent a zinger through my toe and I pulled to the side for several minutes waiting for the ache to subside. I fought the discouraged voices rationalizing an early finish and pushed ahead. The toe pain gradually dissipated and I even enjoyed a brief surge of strength and fluidity.
But by that point, it was too late and the damage from my wonky gait coupled with the hot, rough and canted roads, had been done. My right heel began to burn and I felt an escalating squish as my bare foot struck the pavement with each step. I refused to inspect my foot and acknowledge that a monstrous blood blister had developed, with four miles still remaining. I refused to focus on the distance ahead, allowing myself to think only of the present moment. “Just take one more step. One step is nothing. Then, just take one more.” I convinced myself that the pain was illusory – that it only existed if I gave it life – and somehow, this denial empowered me through, single squishy step by squishy step. As I sprinted to the finish, a huge smile was plastered on my face and a flood of endorphins masked the havoc I had wreaked on my body. And just like Cinderella at midnight, as I crossed the finish line and broke that invisible endorphin wall, my ecstatic sprint transformed into an awkward hobble over to the medical tent.
As I saw my finish time, I was surprisingly unfazed by learning I had raced my slowest half ever. Those 13.1 miles were more painful than any I had raced before, but they hurt far less than a DNF or worse – a DNS. Despite the physical pain and frustration, I genuinely enjoyed almost every moment. There is a reason runners return again and again to race, through heat, injury and fatigue … the energy of the running community, the intoxication of the journey, and the discoveries along the way entice us back as addictive rewards.
Several years ago this race would have devastated me. Indeed, by dwelling on insignificant matters of time and speed, racing can destroy a runner and quench the very passion that fuels us to run. But by embracing each experience as a novel opportunity for growth and self-discovery, we can only evolve into better runners – and better human beings. For me, the aggregate challenges of my years of running have reinforced one invaluable lesson. We runners are so much stronger, and our bodies capable of so much more, than we’re aware. Our power is only bounded by the limits of our mind and the integrity of our spirit. To paraphrase a particularly accomplished marathoner, my fastest days may be behind me, but my best running days lay ahead.