Tuesday, November 1, 2011

From 26 beers to 26 miles: A non-runner’s journey to the finish line

On January 1st 2011 I was celebrating New Year’s Eve with my family at a very nice hotel in Orlando (USA). A case of beer (Budweiser) was waiting for me in my room, so I was ready to start a new year with a lot of enthusiasm. I went to my room, took my laptop and sent some “Happy New Year” messages, while drinking one of those beers. All of a sudden, I realized that I had drunk a lot during the party, but instead of going to bed (like normal people) I was willing to continue the celebration on my own. At that moment, I stopped sending those messages and decided to write my New Year’s resolutions. Most of them were clearly indicating a different life path that I was supposed to embark on as of that moment.

As I went back to Geneva (where I was living at the time) I tried to change my life style. Realizing that you are doing everything wrong is very difficult, especially if you have managed to come up with excellent excuses for everything. I used to say that I was drinking a lot because there were a lot of parties, that I had gotten severely out of shape because of the weather and that I had become a couch potato because 24 was a great show and you cannot stop watching it (this one is true, though). I had to make a decision, I either die at 35 or I change my life. You are reading this because I decided the latter.

With the right motivation and knowing exactly what I could expect from myself, running seemed to be one activity that I could start doing on a regular basis. As I came back to Germany in April 2011 I started training for the marathon. On April 30th I went to Aachen to celebrate my friend Jose’s birthday and that was the last day of the old me.

Physical training

From May 1st to October 23th I ran almost 600 km. I had a plan, I bought books (about running), running shoes, I started to follow people on Twitter, I started to read blogs and the new me was born. I missed many parties and I started to perceive food as fuel. The first day I couldn’t run more than a block, but soon I was running 5 k, 10 k and a half marathon. Once I thought I could, there was nothing that could stop me. I ran under the rain, with gray sky, sun, fog, in the morning, in the afternoon, at night, etc. I ignored pain, exhaustion, demotivation, mood, hunger, thirst, etc.

Psychological training

The mental issue was very important to accomplish this goal. I did extensive research on the topic; therefore running became my new research interest. I was learning about the human body and interesting issues such as the controversial theory that humans evolved to become long distance runners to hunt. I read about the history of the marathon: the legend of Pheidippides, the Greek messenger who died after delivering a message from Marathon to Athens, among other fun facts. I learned about fueling, recovery, clothing, injuries, etc. It was amazing how I could use my nerdiness to become a marathoner. I had my motivational music, motivational videos, documentaries, etc. By the time I had to face the marathon I had already run up to 32 km and I knew all there was to know about what I was getting myself into. The only thing left was the experiential dimension which surpassed every single expectation I had.

The marathon (BMW Frankfurt Marathon: October, 30th 2011)

I approach my first marathon like it was my thesis defense, my first conference or even my wedding. I watched every video on youtube with the key words “Frankfurt…. Marathon”. I trained and trained until my pace was so natural that there was no way I could miss it. I followed all the recommendations to avoid a cold, an injury and to be ready on time. The day before I arrived in Frankfurt, where I stayed at a hotel like 300 m away from the start line. I went to the Fair to pick up my stuff and tried not to walk too much. I just needed to pick up my number, buy my finisher’s T-shirt and get my portion of pasta. At 8 pm I was in bed thinking about the race and revisiting my initial goals. I woke up at 6 am because after all the training and the reading I knew exactly all the right steps to avoid blisters, chafing, sore nipples and other runner's problems, therefore I needed to spend more time in the bathroom than a Latin American woman. Besides, I had to eat three hours before the race because I was planning on attacking that buffet. I left the hotel and while I was heading towards the start line I said to myself: this is it, either glory or an ambulance.

Km 1-30

There were 15.000 runners (at least registered runners) and I was trying to find a group I could run with. I heard some noise and saw some balloons which indicated that the race had started. By the time I was able to start running the Kenyan guy who won was probably reaching the 5-km mark. There I was, running the big event and I remembered one quote from the documentary “Run for your life” which goes “We can’t all be actors, we can’t all be singers, we can’t perform on the stage, but for that one day, for that time you are out there, it’s your stage, it’s your moment… You will go through the good times, you will go through the challenging times, you will go through the five neighborhoods….”. I felt amazing, the egocentricity within me started to push me and I went through the first 10 km like I was going to win the marathon. It was difficult to keep my emotions at ease, a great lesson for my life. I had trained up to 32 km so I was able to enjoy those 30 km and I even performed better than during training, which I assume is normal given the circumstances, the adrenaline and of course, all the pasta and taper period before the race. I had a mental check-list that I would cover every 10 km to monitor my progress both physically and mentally. By km 29 I saw two friends of mine and that gave me a lot of motivation to go on.

Km 30

Every time I ran 30 km during my training period I had a lot of pain, heavy legs, etc. I was a little bit afraid of facing the so-called “wall”. I was surprised to see that I reached 30 km and I was not feeling any pain (just yet).

The breaking point (Km 35)

By Km 35 I felt the worst pain I have endured in my life, incidentally in a place where I never felt pain before (the bones in my feet). It was a terrible situation because I couldn’t face something that I was not familiar with. I had taken care of all the details (hydration, pace, respiration, power gels, etc) so I was still strong and motivated but that pain was beyond my tolerance. I basically started crying at that moment. I had to walk until the next aid station and one lady even hugged me. It was then when the real challenge started because I couldn’t imagine 7 km under that pain. Up to that point I had divided the race into 10 K goals. After this my best hope was one kilometer or so but I was not sure if I was going to be able to make it. I tried to keep it together and analyzed the situation objectively. I looked at the time (4:45 or something like that) and calculated my worst case scenario based on realistic expectations. I didn’t know why I was crying, paradoxically by crying I felt a remarkable release of adrenaline which made me keep strong. It was amazing to face myself and tried to decide whether I suffer and go through the pain or if I fail and suffer even more. So I don’t know what happened but I kept going using the “one foot after the other” principle. I stopped looking at people; the only thing that mattered to me was looking at the floor and walking-running as much as I could. I was not willing to give up after all I had gone through. My mind would ask me to stop and some part of me would disregard. 

Km 40 and the runner’s high

When I reached the 40 km mark, I met my friend Rodrigo again (by chance). I stopped and exchanged a few words while drinking a coke he had bought for himself. I told him that I had like 20 minutes left to make it (there was a 6 hour limit). All of a sudden the pacemakers (5:59) reached the place where I was with my friend and I said “this is it, if I don’t continue with them, I won’t finish”. I approached one of the guys and asked him “are we going to make it?” and he replied “Auf jeden Fall” (something like “definitely”). After that I couldn’t feel anything anymore, I left my needs aside and ran those last 2 km with them as I was a professional athlete from Kenya. Those last meters were definitely the best run I have ever had. I finished in 5:53:03 and after I crossed the finish line I cried like a baby for a few minutes. I had never invested so much energy, time, passion, dedication, motivation and pain in anything.

There are no shortcuts in life, now I understand that and the marathon can be used as a life experiment in many ways. I learned a lot about myself “on the run” because you basically have to be with yourself for 6 hours. You have to be patient and now I feel that I can do pretty much anything, I just have to find the right method. This pain must be felt, the alternative, at least in my case, was much worse. That huge amount of pain is what makes this beautiful, what makes it special, what makes it worthy and the reason why you are reading this. The bright side is that this pain is not alone; it is accompanied by something else. It comes with hope and that is where you are once you finish the marathon. I struggled for almost 6 hours somewhere between agony and optimism and I triumphed over adversity. So, I’m human, I bleed, I cry, I feel but I’m also alive, healthy and that is what we have. 

Thank you for reading this, which is a way to share my experience with you. Many people have asked me "how did it go?", this is the only way I can put that into words.

Until next time...

Jesús H. Pineda O.

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