On Sunday my friend Laurel and I ran our first ever long distance running race, a half marathon. I had approached her about the idea of running a half-marathon together last spring. Neither of us had ever attempted anything like this kind of race before, and yet, I really felt like we could do it. At the very least, I thought, I'm sure we could walk 13.1 miles if we had to.
Most of all, I've always wanted to cross the majestic Golden Gate Bridge, by foot--and I thought that doing it as part of a group would solemnize it.
You would think that two novices would create a plan about how to meet this kind of challenge, but summer came and and the one thing we had done was meet every Sunday morning for a comfortable jog. The majority of Sunday mornings we ran 10 minutes and walked 2 minutes, for about as long as it took us to run four miles.
Meanwhile, in the few weeks leading up to the race, my friend Brette sent the link to Jane McGonigal's most recent TED talk, in which she tells the story of how she created a game to help herself heal from a concussion. I found the talk so compelling that I ended up reading her book, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us better and How They Can Change the World. Many things about the book have stuck with me, but one of them was her description of fiero:
"it's possibly the most primal emotional rush we can experience. Fiero is the Italian word for, 'pride,' and it's been adopted by game designers to describe an emotional high we don't have a good word for in English. Fiero is what we feel after we triumph over adversity. You know it when you feel it--and when you see it. That's because we almost all express fiero in exactly the same way: we throw our arms over our head and yell. The fact that virtually all humans physically express fiero in the same way is a sure sign that it's related to some of our most primal emotions."
From her description, I knew exactly what she was talking about. And I realized, I actually had not had that many experiences of that feeling in my life, I was curious if, now at the age of 40 as a mom, if I was likely to encounter fiero in my path. It seemed unlikely. Life was about to set me up for something interesting.
Fast forward to the week before our race. To manage some pre-race jitters, Laurel fell into a an effective longtime coping strategy, which is to read, voraciously read about our race. She mined the following important nugget:
Do I need to complete the course by a specific time?
Last Updated: Jan 30, 2012 02:24PM PST
Yes, the Half Marathon course will be open for 3.0 hours. You must finish your race by 10:00 AM to receive an official time and official finisher’s medal.
That discovery changed the race completely for us.
We had been running 10 minutes and walking 2 minutes, four miles at a time for about three months. We had previously approached the race knowing that we could walk thirteen miles if we had to; we had no idea the race would have an official end time. Not only that, in an other area of the site, the explained that stragglers would be picked up off the course by a bus in some kind of sweeper shuttle.
We had no idea if we could pull it off. Ala Jane McGonigal, the game was ON!
The thing about the sudden last minute constraint was that it was right in our challenge zone. It would require us to clock 14 minute miles, which we thought we might be able to do. It was right there, on the edge of what was possible for us.
With help from my friend Katherine, a seasoned runner, who happened to be in San Francisco instead of New York where she had been signed up to run the New York marathon, we collaborated on a strategy in which Laurel and I would run 5 minutes and walk 2 minutes for the duration of the race. This was a gentle sustainable pace we thought would keep our bodies safe and healthy, but also get us close to finishing on time. The idea was to use absolutely all the time we had, but not be picked up in what had come to call "the granny bus."
We were blessed with a perfect Bay Area day.
The course was much hillier than expected.
And the bridge, which I thought would be so amazing, literally brought to life my worst fears. I don't why I hadn't thought of this before, but I have a recurring anxiety dream about getting caught in precarious places on bridges, and as soon as I stepped foot onto the bridge I instantly felt woozy and uncomfortable. I even said to Laurel, "Do you feel that, the bridge is moving?" Laurel did not feel the bridge moving.
Do you see me there, gripping the bridge for life?!
But it was beautiful. And I got used to it. By the time we were on our return across, I felt much, much better.
At the nine mile mark we started to need some mental power ups. Right at the moment we were talking each other through feeling light, like we were held up by balloons, my mom texted me to say that she and the girls were sending us "jolts" of energy. We felt them!
There was a patch there where we were feeling elated. Tired and working hard, but light, energized, inspired.
And then we hit mile 11. I would have thought at mile 11 we would have been ready to fire up one last time, but there was a little pain in Laurel's knee, and my own legs were feeling like lead. If we weren't trying to make it in three hours, I'm sure we would have walked through mile 11. But at 11.5 miles we had 25 minutes in order to make our time. We could do it, but we could not walk. We had to keep running, at least some running.
There was one huge hill at the end. And then a steep downhill. For our own health and safety we felt we had to walk those--and honestly, I don't think we could have run them.
And then it was us and the finish line. One foot in front of the other.
The middle aged ladies could have used some glasses, because I could just barely make out the finishing clock. "Laurel, it still says a 2 in the beginning...we could do it." So we picked it up for one more short stretch. But when we crossed beneath the finishing clock, it said 3:02.
We were disappointed--and we could barely move. Our legs seized up and felt like they were full of rocks. The four blocks back to our hotel room were so painful that in my mind I was comparing them to laboring through my two natural births without drugs.
I finally laid down on the floor of our hotel room and wondered if I'd ever be able to get up again.
Laurel, who had been functional enough to work her cell phone, who had been able to figure out how to download a QR cod reader, and then had figured out how to use the QR code reader, focused her phone onto her official bib, and Voila...read aloud our official result:
With a mere 47 seconds to spare, we accomplished our mission!
I lept from my fetal curl, threw my hands up in the air, and there it was...my very own FIERO moment!
So, why tell this story? What have I learned and how can you benefit from what Laurel and I managed to accomplish?
1. All in one day, we won and we lost. We experienced the disappointment of failure AND the thrill of fiero. The reward of victory was like a lightening bolt of emotional and physical energy combined. It is a unique and powerful positive feeling, no surprise that people get addicted to it. But I would do the race again, even if we never had the chance to get our fiero moment. That was a momentary jolt, but having completed the thirteen miles is an accomplishment that is now in the cells of my body, the mindset we embraced to do it gently and without injury will reinforce how I live day to day.
2. Breaking a large goal into bite sized chunks made it possible. The race was possible for us, because we broke it down into small bits of running. Five minutes at a time followed by two minutes of walking. It felt like we did this tiny practice an infinite number of times over the course of thirteen miles. Each cycle felt different. Sometimes we were elated. Sometimes we were in a shadowy place running in a direction that was literally going the opposite direction from our final destination. And many times we simply failed to complete the cycle, walking through patches that didn't feel quite right on our bodies, tucked behind other people, ducking into the bathroom. At the same time, we were very aware that every step counted for us. Throughout the race we worked hard at staying on our pace, not going too fast in the beginning, and getting back to our little practice as best we could when we had fallen off. Our effort was gentle and consistent, our execution was far from perfect. But in the end, it was not one single cycle that made or break the race, it was the collection, the tapestry of tiny cycles that added up to a beautiful thirteen miles.
3. And finally, for me, like most other things I can think of, it was possible only as part of a team, and sweeter in the sharing with someone else. For some reason, the interconnection of it all was so obvious during the race--being a part of a large event did actually have the effect of solemnizing my bridge crossing. Throughout the race Laurel and I were so grateful to the volunteers to cleared out the traffic, the volunteers handing out water, the policemen keeping cars out of our way. Our moms took our kids so we could run our race. A long time ago, many folks came together (and some died) to build the bridge we ran across. And, as far as having the gumption to sign up, run every Sunday (even though that is a paltry training), and get through the thirteen miles--I was grateful and glad for the company all along. I'm sure if our lives depended on it, Laurel or I could have done the race by ourselves, but the company made it an experience I will savor for a long time to come. And, I know, from here on out, we will be road-race sisters--bonded by all those steps we shared one morning in November 2012.