5 Lessons I Learned While Training For A Marathon
An earlier version of this article was first published on Bella Naija.com
If someone had told me I would run a marathon across 3 countries a few years ago, I would have laughed till I peed in my pants. Throughout my childhood and most of my teens, I was so overweight that I could barely walk up a flight of stairs without gasping for air. Everything changed one day during my second year in university, when I had to do a Body Mass Index (BMI) test as part of the requirements for a health class. My BMI results shocked me—I was clinically obese. That was my ‘come-to-Jesus’ moment: there and then I decided to get my life together.
Fast forward to October 4, 2014: that day, I ran the Sparkasse Marathon. The 42.1km (26.2 miles) race began on the picturesque island of Lindau (a southern Bavarian city in Germany), and took me through several towns in Austria (Lochau, Bregenz, Hard, Fußach, Höchst), over the Swiss border to St Margrethen (a town in Switzerland) and back to the finish line in Bregenz, Austria.
I spent about 6 months training for the marathon. During this time, I stuck to my schedule even when I had to travel.
The hundred of miles and countless hours I invested in training, gave me many opportunities to reflect—running is such a metaphor for life.
Here are 5 life lessons I learned while marathon training:
1. Just Do It: There were many valid reasons why I shouldn’t have dared to set this goal for myself. For starters, I had battled with severe asthma all my life. To complicate things, I got a lung infection in 2013 that made me unable to do intense exercise most of that year. By the start of 2014, my health was better and I asked myself: What would you do if you weren’t afraid? Run a full marathon was one of my answers.
The first few times I tried to run, I had bad asthma attacks because of the fumes from all the old trucks and cars on Abuja’s roads, but I was determined. I got clearance and medication from my doctor, and woke up earlier so I could run when the roads were clear. I also maintained a pace that I could manage. There were many mornings when the last thing I wanted to do was wake up for an early run, and many more when I was terrified of the running goal ahead of me. The hardest part was always just getting out of bed: once I made it past my front door, 50% of the battle had already been won. What I learned? Discipline and consistency are much more important than intensity. Do it tired. Do it afraid. Pray through it if you need to, but just freaking do it.
2. Be Your Own Cheerleader: 13.1km. 16.25km. 20km—to most, these are just numbers, but for me, those numbers were once seemingly insurmountable running goals. Those numbers represent hours of training coupled with prayer, endurance, self-talk, sweat, injuries, pain and sacrifice. The first time I ran 22km (which is a little bit more than a half marathon) on my own, I was living with my family in Abuja. I couldn’t wait to share my victory with them when I got home. When I shared my news though, all I got was variations of “Oh, that’s nice!” I was furious and hurt. When I calmed down, I realized that my family meant no harm. None of them are runners and they had no frame of reference for what I was doing. I quickly learned that I would have to be my own biggest cheerleader and not wait for anyone to celebrate my small victories. I connected with other runners on social media, pinned motivational running quotes on pinterest and maintained a running journal.
When my family got the hang of what a marathon entailed, to say they were proud was an understatement—they treated me like an Olympian! But before that happened, I had already learned to celebrate myself.
3. Push Past the Wall: Every long distance runner has at some point ‘hit the wall.’ The wall is a period during long distance running when fatigue begins to transition into diminished mental faculties. It can cause dizziness, hypoglycemia and even hallucinations. I will never forget my encounter with the wall. I was somewhere in midtown Manhattan on a 30km run, when I started getting dizzy. I could barely put one foot in front of the other or remember my name. I wanted to break down on the street and just start sobbing. I managed to complete the run at the pace of a turtle, while questioning my sanity and all the life choices that had brought me to that point. After that experience, I took a break from running, and began to reconsider the marathon. Yet, by the next weekend, I found myself hitting the road again (#MindOverMatter). I learned from the mistakes I made the week before, and made sure to stay hydrated and prayed up. I made it through my longest training run (35.5km) without hitting the wall. In fact, I smashed the wall: I felt exhilarated, not exhausted after that run. If I had decided to give up after encountering the wall the week before, I would have never known the joy that was on the other side of it.
4. Visualize The Finish Line: What kept me going throughout my months of training was imagining what it would feel like when I crossed the finish line. On the day of the marathon, every thing that could go wrong went wrong: I got to the start line late (no thanks to an information pack in German and non-English speaking volunteers), I had donuts for breakfast (because, stress-eating), my period started and worst of all, my iPod stopped working (they call it Murphy’s law). Nothing at that point was like I had imagined, but mental images of the finish line kept me focused. By the last mile of the race, my physical tank was on E. Two European women who I had never met (and who didn’t speak English) grabbed my hands and ran with me to the finish line (the beauty of global sisterhood!). It was such a beautiful moment—better than I could have imagined. When I finally heard my name announced at the finished line, it felt surreal. All that I had visualized for months had become a reality. I was amazed not just that I had finished, but that I had found the courage to start.
5. Honor The Journey: Getting my marathon medal was such a proud personal moment, but it was also a fleeting one. What I had spent months preparing for was over in a few hours! In retrospect, the journey was more valuable than the finish line. There were so many small yet sacred milestones along the way. There were the feelings of accomplishment I earned from saying no to the snooze button and strapping on my Nike’s; the highs I got from puffing my inhaler while telling asthma it would not stop me. There were the days when I learned to stay in my lane and not compare myself to other runners, the weeks of finding rhythm in the monotony of consistency and the miles when my definition of possibility expanded. In the end, I learned that these are the moments that light up a life.