Letters of Life

Reflections Upon A Half Marathon

From the book Artwork by the late art director of the London Book Review, Peter Campbell.

From the book Artwork by the art director of the London Review of Books, the late Peter Campbell.

Prior to last weekend, I’d only ever run 10 km races. Last Sunday,  I ran my first, and most probably my last, half marathon. I was one of fifteen thousand who ran in the Army Half Marathon, of which at least ninety per cent were men, and more than half that were serving their stint in the army. Here are some of my thoughts post-race. 

1. Know your limits
A good way to know your limits is to go beyond them. I didn’t know 21 km (13 mi) was beyond me until the twentieth kilometre.  I started feeling the chills even as the hot morning sun shone on my sweat-drenched dri-fit clothes and burned my shoulders. My body was hinting that it was going to shut down if I didn’t end this irrational self-punishment now.

My mind ignored the hints, the threats that there would be hell to pay when all was said and done. The race organisers had placed distance markers 100 metres apart, 500 metres (546 yds) to the finish line. There was a marshall, a guy in army fatigues, at the side at the 140 m mark, who saw us rounding the corner and barked, “ON-LY ONE HUN-DRED AND FOR-TY METRES MORE! COME ON!”  Who can defy such an order? My legs picked themselves up, and for the first time since 4 am that morning, I was glad this was an Army Half Marathon.

2. Timing isn’t everything — even when it’s official. 
By God’s grace, I finished the race with time to shower and change and get to church on time. There, many friends congratulated me. But I felt nothing except a strange sheepishness. Yes, I was relieved and glad I had finished, there was a satisfaction that I didn’t give in and walk the last stretch, that mind triumphed over matter, literally.

But a bottleneck at the ninth kilometre stopped hundreds of us for a good thirty minutes, and this hiccup so early on in the race messed up my finish time and placed me near bottom of the pack.

My friends who were at the head of the bottleneck got at most five minutes of downtime, and were elated at their personal bests and record times. I felt I had (almost) nothing to show for the race except that I had finished it. Oh, and a post-race tee which says “HALF MARATHON FULL EXPERIENCE” at the back in block letters.

3. The payback
Not till today can I contemplate running again.

After the race, I was violently ill, convalescing while the 12-year-old brought me dinner to eat in bed. The thought of running made me nauseous; a part of me was afraid that by taking it too long too far too soon I had killed the thing I loved.

I know now it’s not true, it’s just a violent reaction to having bitten off more than I could chew.

4.  No pain is real gain.
My greatest fear was that I might get injured mid-race, the result of too much stress on my knees or shins. I am grateful and relieved I have suffered neither, not even cramps, merely waves upon waves of lower body muscle aches which have since receded.

If not for this endeavor, I would not have learned so much about myself, my will, nor cultivated a newfound discipline towards fitness. Every step I took last weekend was with profound gratefulness that I could, and as I dedicated a kilometre each to thinking about a particular family member or friend who mattered to me, that sense of  gratefulness grew with every breath I took.

I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder. – G.K. Chesterton

Maybe that sense of sheepishness wasn’t embarassment after all.  Maybe it was astonishment, amazement at myself that I had set off early one Sunday morning, determined to run with endurance the race set before me, and I had finished it. All twenty one kilometres.

So race well. You know you can.

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