Life Lessons From My First Almost-DNF

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I was running around mile 16 of the 2018 New Jersey Marathon when I pulled over to the side of the road, slowed to a walk, and started unpinning my race bib.

I didn’t want to be running this race anymore; I wanted nothing to do with it. I had been gunning for a sub 3:15 marathon time, and after a very on-track first half marathon, my mile splits were getting longer and longer, and my legs were feeling heavier and heavier. My goal time had slipped beyond my reach, and my determination to run had slipped away.

I had no positive thoughts in my brain — which isn’t that rare. But usually during a marathon, I can will myself to keep going. Today felt different, though.

I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. I’d been in this position before… In fact, I’d been at this exact point of this very race several times before: The New Jersey marathon was my second full marathon and my first Boston-qualifying race back in 2013. It was the marathon I ran in a downpour in 2016 after the person I loved broke up with me outside of my apartment after I had rushed home from a long bike ride to be with him. On top of all that, I had just run the Boston marathon a few weeks earlier. I knew I was very capable of finishing. But at that moment, I felt I had nothing left to give.

I pulled out my phone from my race belt to text my coach, Chris Baker, who was waiting for me at mile 20. 

“I’m not finishing this race,” I told him. “I just took off my bib.”

I started to cry, because I felt like a failure — and a bad trainee, and friend. It was Baker who had helped me train for that year’s Boston marathon with a determinedness, dedication and effort I had never exerted before. It was his workouts that made me feel like I had a reason to wake up in the morning, motivating me to put one foot in front of the other even when other aspects of my life seemed bleak, mundane or meaningless. It was Baker who pushed me to pursue goals I never thought I’d be bold enough to chase. And it was Baker who planted the seed in my ear after the monsoon-like downpour and heavy winds had destroyed my PR goals in Boston: “What do you think you could do if you had better weather?”

I don’t remember his exact response, but it was enough to get me moving again. To pin my race bib back on my t-shirt and pretend I had never fantasized about walking off the course at all. (Well, it was his response and the fact that I realized that my car was miles away and the best route to get there was to finish the course). 

The rest of the run wasn’t easy by any means, but after settling back into a groove, finding Baker at mile 20, and complaining to him almost through the finish line, I wondered why I had been so dramatic in the first place. Sure, I wasn’t going to reach my goals that day, or even come close. But that didn’t mean the race was in vain. I ended up finishing with a decent time, celebrating with Baker and some other friends past the finish line, and feeling proud of my accomplishment — even if it wasn’t exactly what I’d hoped for. The race had been worth running, after all. 

I remind myself of this moment often, now that I’m in physical therapy school. Metaphorically, I have slowed to a walk, retreated to the outskirts of the course, and started to slowly unpin my race bib many times. It’s always for a different reason: I’m not smart enough, my brain doesn’t work as fast as my classmates’ seem to, or certain complicated topics just won’t register or cement in my mind. I feel for certain landmarks, bones and muscles with unsteady hands, and sometimes don’t know what I am even feeling for. Even the terminology feels like learning a foreign language, sometimes. 

Some days — most days — I’m certain I’ll never be able to diagnose and treat patients the way my professors, and sometimes even my fellow classmates — seem to do with ease. In so many different ways, I feel like a failure.

But, as I’ve learned, that does not mean the race is not worth running. I may not be the best, or the smartest, or even intuitively understand the human body as well as most of my classmates do. Yet, I have been blessed with a new reason to be determined, dedicated, and motivated — and that reason is my future patients and my future career. Not to mention all of my amazing friends, family and boyfriend who have been supporting me through this adventure.

Running will always be important to me, but one thing the pandemic has reminded me is that it’s just an activity. Without racing, there is no glamour of qualifying for Boston or churning out a shiny new PR. There are no group training runs to enjoy. The lack of racing has revealed running to be what it has been all along: the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other. The joy or revelry in perseverance of a solo endeavor. Effort without an audience.

But it is worth doing, and worth doing well — whether or not you have the race results to prove it. 

At this point in my life, the race I’m choosing to run is the marathon (ironman, maybe?) of physical therapy school. Most of my efforts are behind-the-scenes — the only audience is my professors, and as soon as one grade is returned, several future exams are already scheduled.

My focus on school will continue, even after races return. But the lessons I’ve learned from racing are helping me embrace the challenges that come with school. In tough moments, it’s worth remembering: Put your race bib back on, and move forward.

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