“If we were told that we could only run one marathon in our lifetime,” Burt Yasso proclaimed in Runner’s World, “Big Sur would have to be it.” That same January, Forbes.com listed the Big Sur International Marathon as one of the world’s “Top Ten Marathons Worth Traveling For,” and Away.com raved that “[w]ith cliffs and bridges that take you to the edge of the world, rugged Pacific coast scenery, merciless character-building hills, and a tuxedo-wearing pianist on a baby grand at mile 13, this remarkable race will inspire and challenge you like no other.”
For the next ten minutes I was a mad woman, battling the BSIM registration page and 12,198 other participants from fifty states and thirty-two countries for my spot at the starting line. I dutifully clicked in my billing address, my real address, and all twenty-three digits of my payment information into a two-inch wide keyboard. At $130 for the 21-miler, it was the single most expensive race I had ever registered for, and it would become more expensive still when I purchased a $450 non-refundable plane ticket and made reservations at one of the most lucrative camping sites on the California coast.
Fast forward five months, two half marathons, and one full later, and everything had changed. In August, I celebrated my ten-year anniversary of living in Arkansas with my first jury trial as a young attorney. As I introduced myself to the freshly impaneled jury, I felt strong, confident, likable and justified, but still– still then and always an outsider. No matter how much my Denver family teased me for the wisp of a Southern twang I had, no Southern jury would ever take me as their own. That experience lingered with me, and in December I told my boss that I was leaving in April for the beautiful State of Oregon.
At first, it didn’t phase me that this notoriously difficult 21-mile race was just one stop on my week-long, 2,700 mile cross-country move in a car my boyfriend didn’t know how to drive. I likewise ignored my significant other’s warnings that my eight pound house cat probably wouldn’t take kindly to camping at Big Sur and that if she escaped, she’d be a mountain lion’s lunch. Looking back, it was a maelstrom of Irish ego and stubbornness born of generations of high desert women who refused to take no for an answer. I’d run my fair share of long-distance races while battling colds, kidney infections, and hangovers, why should this race be any more difficult or improbable than those?
Where the heart and mind refuse to give in to popular opinion and common sense, sometimes the body provides a blessing (read: beating) in disguise. That March, I fell horribly ill for a number of weeks and in April, as I was giving away half of everything I owned and packing the rest, my poorly-formed kidneys suffered their fifth infection that year. My illnesses had caused me to miss every long run in training save one, and in that run my hopes for Big Sur collapsed. As I struggled through a wheezing, aching fifteen miles, it finally dawned on me that a run at Big Sur would be a guaranteed death march.
Play me off, Keyboard Cat. After four months of fighting and $700 down the drain, it was time to let go. My then-boyfriend, now fiance, bought me a new pair of running shoes to cheer me up and get me back on the roads. Instead I spent all of April and most of May sulking, excusing my sudden non-running stint because I’d moved and was busy, and not because my ego was bruised and I hated starting over.
Getting back on the road or the trails after emotional defeat at a race– whether it be a slower than expected time, a Did Not Finish (DNF), or a Didn’t Even Start– is even harder than running itself. Returning to racing after an illness or injury, the holidays, a baby, or even long-term office life feels like an insurmountable, miserable task. One friend of mine– we’ll call him “John”– suffered a DNF at a marathon three Octobers ago and has never raced again. On the flip side, we have my friend “Avery” who lost a Boston qualifying pace when she became a Tall Building Lawyer who works seven days a week. Avery puts it this way: “I don’t ever want to sign up [to race] anymore [because] I know I’m not as in good shape as I was. […] And now that I’m heavier, it’s hard for me to get motivat[ed] again because I feel almost like I’m starting over.”
The difference between the John’s and the Avery’s of the world, however, is that John hasn’t run or raced in three years but Avery sucked up her pride and signed up for her hometown half marathon, saying that her “fear of not beating previous times really is a silly reason to not do something fun.” Couldn’t have said it better myself, Avery. Here are ten more things you can do if you find yourself missing a big race due to injury or illness, or are starting over from a set back.
1. Suck it up. You’re a Big Baby right now. Now that you’re offended, did you hear what I said? You’re starting over. You have a long way to go, but it’s okay. You’ve done it before, and if you truly want to, you’ll do it again, whatever the distance may be. Would you make fun of or think less of a baby for not being able to walk or for face planting when he tries to walk? He’s not ready yet, but he’ll get there by trying over and over again. You will, too. Forgive yourself and accept where you are.
2. Two miles is better than no miles.
Whatever distance you can do right now, do it. If you’ve got it in your head that you “have” to do five miles but you’ve only got thirty minutes and you haven’t eaten enough food today and it’s about to rain, go out there and do three, two, or even one mile. We have a saying in my family about work that “$7.50 an hour is better than no-fifty an hour,” and the same goes for mileage.
3. Find real inspiration.
Can the Hallmark cards and cue real life stories of people like Sarah Reinertsen. After losing her leg as a child, it took Sarah more than three years to learn how to run. She was the first woman with an artificial leg to attempt to finish the full Iron Man, and the videos of her being pulled off the course in 2004 after exceeding the time limit for the bike portion will literally make you cry. Never one to give up, Sarah came back in 2005 and finished the course an Iron Man. Reverse inspiration also works. For example, “If the former governor of Arkansas/Oprah/etc. can do that marathon, then _______________.”
4. Talk to the race directors.
Talk to the race directors. If you can move your registration to next year or legally transfer your registration to another person, do it. If you can’t do either of these things, they may still have a preference as to whether you should pick up your bib or chip.
5. Talk to your accountant.
Your race registration fee may be considered a charitable contribution, depending on the organization that runs the race. BSIM is one race that, although transfers to other years and racers is strictly forbidden, does allow you to take a write off.
6. Talk to your bank.
If you’ve paid for plane tickets and the airlines aren’t playing ball about transferring dates or cities for future travel, call your bank or credit card company and dispute the charge. Even if you don’t get your money back, the airlines are more likely to give you longer to use your abandoned plane ticket credit towards future flights.
7. Change things up.
If you normally run on the roads, try trail running. If you run during the day, try running at night. Both of these things have a demonstrated scientific effect of making you feel as though you’re running faster (even though you probably aren’t). Personally, I’ll take encouragement anywhere I can get it.
8. Get new gear.
If your running bra stinks up the house and your shoes kill your feet after a few miles, your gear is sabotaging both your run and any joy you might possibly derive from it, making it less and less likely you’ll actually get out there and run. In the immortal words of Liz Lemon, shut it down. Bonus points: new gear both guilt trips you into using it, and makes you want to show it off outside your comfy couch.
9. Shut up and sign up.
Be angry. Be sad. And then shut up and sign up for a race in a feasible distance that’s geographically close, so you have a minimal amount of excuses to prevent you from training or travelling to the race. If you’re just getting back into the saddle after a long time off, save the Disney Princess Half for next year. A local race will be easy to get to, involves no time off from work, will be cheaper overall, and you’ll have plenty of buddies to train with.
10. Everything doesn’t have to be perfect.
This could go under a similar heading entitled “Know Thyself,” at least if you’re like me. Sure, you probably want to come back swinging after a defeat. You want the perfect number of runs, mileage, you’re planning on ACTUALLY doing cross training this time, and you’re going to introduce all those superfoods you’ve been hearing about. If you’re the kind of person who can spontaneously achieve perfection, rock on, Rock Star. If you’re like me, do your best and don’t be too hard on yourself when not everything comes through. See Point #1. Don’t set yourself up for defeat by pretending that victory only comes if you can do A, B, C as well as X, Y, and Z.
Me and everyone else you know are proud of you for just getting out there– discover that pride yourself.