Thursday, February 17, 2011

Encouragement at Mile 23

This is the time of year when people who are planning to run a spring marathon are out there, in good weather or not, doing their long runs. The long slow run is the foundation of marathon training.

The last time I trained for a full marathon, I was part of a group that met at the Mississauga YMCA. We got together on Wednesday nights for a theory class, and speedwork, and then again on Saturday mornings, for the long run. Over the course of 12 weeks we progressed from an 8 mile run, up to a 21 mile run. The group of about 20 started out together, but after a few weeks we had all found our level, and had partnered up.

My partner was a man about my age, who like me, had already run a marathon, and was looking to improve his time. He was a bit leaner than me, and liked to go fast. If you asked him about me, he would probably say that I had lots of endurance, and could go the distance, but that I needed to speed up. We would see this constitutional difference when we approached hill, or a log flat stretch. My partner would look ahead and feel challenged to go faster. On the other hand, or foot, I would be looking at my GPS watch, monitoring our pace, and holding back from the temptation to speed up.

This difference between us actually made us a good team. He did get me to speed up, a bit, over time. I reined him in, reminding him that he needed to keep something for the end of the race.

On the day of the marathon, we had a plan. We knew the pace we needed to maintain to finish strong. For us that meant having enough left at the end for a heroic dash to the finish line, trying to smile because you know the official race photographer will be there, clicking away.

Our plan was to stick together, stay on our pace, and finish together. But at about mile 21, my running partner decided he want to push harder. He went on ahead, and I stayed with my planned pace. I did not see him again until after the race.

Fifteen minutes later, at around mile 23, I was in trouble. I don’t know if it was heat, or lack of water, or just feeling dispirited at my partner’s departure. I kind of lost my drive. I stopped running.

I was walking towards the finish when a woman I had never seen before came up beside me, and said, “You can do this. I will run with you!”

She did, until we came up on a narrow place on the route, where the park trail was congested with slower runners. We were separated. I started walking again. She waited for me. When she saw me, she gave me this encouraging smile, and said, “I was worried I’d lost you! Are you okay?”

It amazed me that she had waited. She told me that she was running the Mississauga Marathon as practice for the Ottawa Marathon, that was 2 weekends later. For her this was just another long run, and she was more interested in seeing me finish, than in her own time.

This generosity of spirit lifted me up, and gave me what I needed. I dug a little deeper, and found the energy to get moving. We picked up the pace a little. As we rounded the last turn before the straight shot to the finish line, she reminded me to smile, and to “kick it”. That means to use that last little bit of juice you have left, to finish strong and fast. I did, and it felt great. But it meant that I took off on my encourager. She let me go ahead, and have my little moment, and I never saw her again.