This article is not about running. It is about 26 years’ worth of worrying about pain and how I overcame that very real challenge in order to complete a [26.2-mile] marathon this past November. My relationship with pain began in 1993, when I suffered a lower back injury due to a barn wall falling on me while I was a college equestrian. Although I have improved my function significantly over the years, I continue to keep my discomfort at bay with exercise. Recently, I realized that I have made a subtle but significant shift in my thinking regarding this struggle. And in doing so, discovered how my inner dialogue had a massive impact on my self-image and ultimately my actions. I wanted to share with you how I shifted from picturing myself as a person who lived in constant fear of hurting my back when I ran—to seeing myself as a runner who is confident she can keep her back sound.
About a year ago, my husband and I were enjoying dinner with friends. I was catching up with my friend, dentist and triathlete Rebecca Angus, and hearing about the events she was looking forward to in 2019. As we were discussing her training, she suddenly looked up and said, “why don’t you run Shamrock with me this year?” She was referring to the Shamrock Half Marathon that was scheduled for St. Patrick’s Day weekend. She was running the 13.1 miles, and was inviting me to train and run with her.
Immediately my old habits of thinking kicked in. Can I do that, I thought? My only experience with distance running consisted of racking up 2-3 miles at a time, 3 times per week–tops! How could I possibly pull off 13? To make matters worse, I knew I had an old back injury that might flare up. I started to get nervous just thinking about it.
“Rebecca”, I said, “I couldn’t possibly afford the downtime from work, if or when I hurt my back…” Rebecca stopped me short: “Aren’t you the person who gets people back into the activities they love? You always say you want to push past your comfort zone and do something that scares you a little…” At this, my husband (who is also a business coach) chimed in, “You should do it because if it does scare you a little, accomplishing it will help you grow as a person.”
That realization and support was what I needed to hear to get me started. I began training in earnest for 4 months. I was always timid about injuring my back, and even though there was a minor setback or two, over time, my confidence began to build. Then, on a cold March day, I did it! I successfully ran the Shamrock Half Marathon with Rebecca. Amazingly I didn’t walk any of it, and finished it with no injuries!
After March I was so pleased that I had run that race with no injuries or pain. My back held up wonderfully, and I felt better and stronger than I had in years. So, I thought maybe I’d run another half marathon in the fall. My husband asked me why I would do another half, and not attempt a full. Once again, I had reasons: I thought of myself as only a novice middle distance runner nothing more; I wasn’t sure my body could handle it; my family needed me around; what if I got injured… But he persisted: “You’ve already done a half, and you were no worse for wear. What about pushing that comfort zone a little further?” “Damn it, he’s right!” I quietly said to myself.
About a week after the conversation, I started training for the Richmond Marathon. There were definitely challenges along the way, but I was ready. I had a support team in my wonderful husband and daughter, as well as my good friends Rebecca and Will Turner (an accomplished Ironman). I worked hard to keep my body healthy, sticking to a daily movement regimen designed to keep me strong and my back healthy. Even the day before the race, I had my doubts. But, when race finally came, I ran hard and well.
When I came across the finish line I wept. I had completed a grueling race. I was full of gratitude and exhausted. It was only after I was having a celebratory adult beverage that it dawned on me: my back didn’t bother me at all during the entire ordeal. Sure, I had some challenges and aches and pains here and there, but I had trained for it; I knew my body, and what to do to keep it going. For the first time in decades, I knew I could run confidently without worrying about hurting myself!
Here are some truths I discovered during my journey that I really want to share with you:
- Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re right”- Henry Ford.
I’ve known this to be true for many years, but nothing highlights it like a difficult physical task. Mindset is paramount to success in pretty much anything. A can-do attitude goes a long way toward accomplishing your goal.
- Your body will adapt to the load over time. I learned this as a young exercise physiologist, but it was reinforced in my medical exercise training, as well as in my experience with clients. The body is an amazing machine. It can and will adapt to training. That doesn’t mean that training will always resolve pain, but it does mean that in most cases, the body will become hardier, more able to handle the task at hand—and that is true regardless of your medical condition.
- A little support goes a long way. I could not have finished a marathon without my support system. Surround yourself with positive people who will encourage you when the going gets tough, and celebrate even the smallest milestones with you. This will fuel your persistence and motivation and keep you moving forward.
What is holding you back from doing something you think is improbable? Put your perceptions about your ability under the microscope. You may find that you are capable of much more than you ever realized if you can just get your head around it!