Sunday, May 2, 2010

Boston 2010 (Part I): Mind over Matter

I was the slowest girl. Always. And it never bothered me. At all.

I had shelves lined with spirit awards and participant certificates, while the majority of my friends had blue ribbons, first-place medals, records, and state titles. The one trophy I managed to bring home is still proudly on display in my childhood bedroom back in Hershey: a hard-fought seventh-place finish at a middle school Thanksgiving cross country invitational. I imagine most of the kids in Central Pennsylvania were enjoying a plate of turkey and mashed potatoes that day, but I couldn’t have been more thrilled.

Sports were never going to be my ticket to college, but it wasn’t for lack of hard work and dedication. By the time I headed off to Penn State, I had fourteen years of (year-round) competitive swimming and seven years of cross country under my belt, but not enough talent to continue in either sport. I took the usual array of deep friendships, lessons, values, work ethic, and memories that kids carry with them for the rest of their lives and, quite honestly, couldn’t have asked for greater gifts than those.

What I lacked throughout those years, besides the sheer strength and body mass most children my age were developing, was the ability to move beyond expectations. I didn’t have that instinct to believe that I could do any better than what the people around me thought I could do. I was expected to win essay contests. So I did. Lots of them. I was told early on that math wasn’t my strength, so I was happy with B’s. Besides an early knack for skiing, when it came to athletics, I was small and slow. And so I always believed I was, well, small and slow. And that was okay.

While I had a competitive streak inside me, it wasn’t often ignited in the most traditional fashion. My coach screaming from the pool deck did little to make me move any faster, but when my biology teacher promised a scoop of ice cream at lunch if I finished in the top three in the 500 freestyle, I came in a surprise second-place at the meet that night, beating a couple of stunned teammates.

I took that pre-existing condition into adulthood, as I eased my way back into jogging regularly. When I moved to New York and did my first road race—the Gridiron 5K on Super Bowl Sunday—I was content to hit 10-minute miles. The 5Ks turned into 10Ks, which turned into my first half marathon, which turned into my first New York City Marathon.

It was the encouragement of good friends, who promised blueberry pancakes after every finish line (noticing a trend here?), that kept me climbing the ladder…at a steady 10-minute-mile pace. It never occurred to me that I could run any faster than that, no matter what the distance. In my mind, I was still small and slow. Any finish time was a good one and a reason to be proud—besides, the New York City lifestyle wasn’t doing my not-as-small physique any favors.

For the next few years I happily marked fall by completing another 26.2 miles. I finished all of them in 4:17. I get points for consistency. During that time, I’d hear friends discussing loftier goals, like qualifying for the Boston Marathon. I never even dared to dream of breaking four hours. The thought of running a 3:40 qualifying time wasn’t even a fleeting notion. I knew my limit and 4:17 was it.

But the more I ran and the more friends of varying abilities I collected along the way, the more running became less of a hobby and more of a lifestyle. It evolved from an interest to more of a passion. Suddenly the determination I had always brought to excelling in other aspects of life, like my career, was trickling into my training. As I ran with the 10-minute pace group, I eyed the 9:30s. When that became too easy, I joined the 9s.

Confidence grew as I immersed myself in training and because of the help, advice, and encouragement of many more people than I could possibly name. Along with it, my running ability evolved. One day I realized that the people I routinely completed long runs with were setting (and achieving) goals like qualifying for the Boston Marathon. Making their goal my own didn’t seem like a silly consideration anymore. I just had no idea what awaited me on the road to Hopkinton.

It would be years. I would live in three different states. I would start new jobs. I would quit them. Extraordinary people would believe in me. Other people would discourage me. I’d have my heart broken. It would mend. I’d celebrate huge breakthroughs. Then I’d get hurt. I’d get better. I'd learn how to take care of myself. I’d be challenged by a new coach to do things I would have once written off as absurd and beyond me.

My life would look completely different than it did that day I finally mustered up the courage to say out loud, “I want to qualify for the Boston Marathon.”

But not once would I ever think of myself as small and slow again.

(To be continued.)