A few weeks ago, my friend and I planned to go on a long run in order to train for the Cox Sports Providence marathon in early May. The run would be 13 miles — the longest either of us had ever done — and it would be just under half the length of the race. We’re both new runners and had signed up for the race on a whim, thinking that having a goal would keep us dedicated to our fitness. It turned out that the training process was more involved than we’d thought, but the first few weeks still went well. I couldn’t quite keep up with my scheduled four runs a week — work, school, and a long commute got in the way — but I’d been making steady progress. At first, running one mile was a struggle; soon I could run nine. As I got dressed the morning of our 13 mile training, I was somewhat nervous but mostly excited for what was to come. By the end of the day, I’d be halfway through my training. Running the half-marathon is a big training milestone and I expected it to be hard — but I didn’t expect it to be impossible.
My friend was in from Providence, visiting her mother for the weekend. We decided to meet halfway between my home in the Bronx and her home on Long Island. We arrived at the Cross Island Parkway Trail in Queens, shivering in the cold weather and ducking against strong wind gusts. The trail is sandwiched in the middle of the highway and the Little Neck Bay, leading into a park beneath the Throgs Neck Bridge. As we eased into our first mile, the contrast between the two sides of the path became starker. Cars sped by just a few feet to our left, while a quiet bay was frozen — waves spiked in midair and foam paralyzed against the sand — to our right. Our modest pace felt like a balance between the two.
We quickly got to chatting about the latest episode of Revenge and while I didn’t feel “set” — I hadn’t hit a groove in my pacing or my breathing — the conversation was a welcome distraction from the many miles we had ahead. The trail itself is short, so we looped around the nearby park and then explored some of the Bayside neighborhood. The houses were attractive and the peacefulness of the streets calmed me before we headed back toward the highway. When we were on the trail again, we noticed the familiar faces of other runners who were pacing back and forth, an elderly man who was walking the trail and a biker who we’d passed before. A sense of camaraderie filled me. We were all braving the difficult weather and making progress in our exercise. Soon it was mile eleven and I was feeling great. Maybe we wouldn’t stop at 13 miles. Maybe we’d do 15.
Then I hit the wall.
“Hitting the wall” is a phrase many runners use to describe one of their worst fears: reaching the point in a race when they no longer have the physical and mental energy to keep going. Scientists who’ve studied this phenomenon attribute it to a loss of glycogen in the liver and muscles. Sports psychologists highlight the daunted feelings many endurance athletes face.
My wall started with physical pain. The arch of my foot had started hurting a few miles back and suddenly it was throbbing with every strike. My quads were tight. Soon, the wall became mental. The other runners on the trail were still going strong and I’d fallen out of pace with my friend. I could only see flashes of her as she ran ahead. I felt guilt and embarrassment every time she looked back to see if I’d caught up. With a mile left in my run, I slowed to a walk, thinking I’d pick back up after a short break. When I tried to run again, I just couldn’t do it.
Walking the mile back to where I’d parked my car, feelings of failure overwhelmed me. Cars zoomed by, my friend zoomed by and I wanted to crawl under a rock. I was sure at the end of this run I was going to feel like I’d accomplished something big, but in the end, I hadn’t accomplished what I’d set out to do. More than that, I hadn’t achieved an important step toward the ultimate goal: the marathon. How was I going to run 26.2 miles when I couldn’t even run 13?
Later, when the emotions of my disappointment had passed, I started to think more logically about the run. I knew part of the reason I hadn’t succeeded was because I’d been slacking on my training and realized I’d have to get a lot more serious if I wanted to run double that amount. I also knew that I’d had a lot on my plate: working full time, taking a graduate course, volunteering in a research lab and commuting two hours every day.
Initially, I liked the challenge of balancing so many endeavors. I’ve always been someone who takes on a lot of responsibilities. It’s a part of my identity as well as a point of pride. Since moving back to New York, I’d been surrounded by people who were accomplishing so many interesting things and my need to be involved went into overdrive. I realized that I’d been sucked into the idea of being a stereotypical New Yorker: busy, diverse, thriving. My mornings start with a congested commute that culminates in a whirlwind at Grand Central — a rushing crowd of people, subway performers, shoe shiners — and I liked to keep up that feeling during the rest of my day. Rushing home from work to complete a run, doing my class reading on the train and catching up with e-mails on the bus made me feel one with my environment and busy city life.
However, this run was a glaring reminder that I can’t do it all and I don’t really enjoy doing it all, either. I feel frustrated when I can’t give my full attention to something — like preparing for an intense race — and I feel disappointed in myself when I haven’t given something the effort it deserves.
Thinking about the future made me think back to that path along the Cross Island Parkway, the one right between the breakneck highway and the frozen bay. I need to get my life back on that path, back to the middle ground between the hectic and the stagnant. Simplifying my life is important for my mental health and for making sure that the things I choose to do are done well. For my running life, that means running a half-marathon this May and training for a full race after that. If I could run 12 miles while sporadically following an intense training plan, I know I’ll be able to run 13 miles if I run only a few times every week to maintain the progress I already made. For the rest of my life, that means figuring out what is important to me, what I enjoy and what makes sense for my future. That also means thinking more about where I want to be. It’s time to decide if I fit into the busy city lifestyle or would be more comfortable somewhere with a more relaxed pace.