With my legs and head two weeks away from our great Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) ride, I lined up for the Abebe Bikila Half-Marathon, an out-and-back course along the C&O Canal. I had been running some before we left and definitely ridden a lot of cycling miles in our lead-up to the big dance in France.
I was in no shape for a full marathon, but felt confident I could pull out the half, provided I listened to my body and took it slow. What it would feel like so soon after PBP was unknown, but I had paid my entry fee so I was getting out there.
Felkerino and I rode the 6.5 miles to the 8 a.m. start of the event, which takes place along the forgiving hardpack surface of the C&O Canal towpath. I threw on my running shoes and the race director sent us off, with Felkerino and a few other spectators cheering us on.
I found myself feeling fairly lively and propelled myself through the first half with my heart rate in the 160s and my pace hovering between 8:45 and nine minutes per mile. Fast for me, especially so soon after PBP.
The day warmed as the sun rose higher into the morning sky. My energy dipped somewhat, but I continued to push and realized that if I kept at it I could finish in under two hours of clock time (since the event was not chip timed), something I’ve never done before.
I focused on the hardpack of the C&O, willing myself forward. At mile 10, growing discomfort in my body as a result of the effort led my mind to start in with some very unhelpful commentary.
You don’t have to do this.
You are not a fast runner, what are you thinking?
You could walk a little and that would be totally okay.
Finishing in under two hours, who cares.
These voices were so loud. But an even bigger voice in my head urged me to work through the discomfort.
I’ve been feeling some frustrations in other areas of my life and wanted to prove that I was on top of something. I reached back to two weeks ago on PBP, and how Felkerino and I had willed our bodies forward through four straight days of sleep deprivation and growing fatigue. Damn it, if I could do PBP, I could do this.
I told myself not to walk, but to instead slow down a little so I could catch my breath and get on top of my pace. I told myself that I had it in me to leg out the last three miles of this run. My pace dropped about 30 seconds for the next two miles, but a look at my watch told me that sub-two hours was still in reach if I just kept going.
My head had dropped and all I saw was the light brown surface of the C&O. My legs churned and the voices started up again, telling me to slow down. Who was I kidding, I couldn’t run a half-marathon in two hours.
I reached the final mile and heard a voice yelling “Go Mary! Go Mary!” I looked around and saw that Felkerino was cheering me on from the Capital Crescent Trail, which looks down on the C&O at that point. His cheering fueled me, and I lifted my head.
With one mile remaining I began to believe that surely I could do it. If Felkerino and I could finish PBP, I could surely endure 9 more minutes of discomfort and finish this.
The finish came into view, and I heard Felkerino cheering. I turned my feet over as fast as I could as I tried to catch a glimpse of the finishers clock. Was I going to make in under two? The clock looked back.
I had done it! I had squeaked past the finish line in under two hours! I was simultaneously elated and nauseous. A volunteer put a medal over my head and Felkerino came over to congratulate me. I celebrated my achievement with a glass of water and a banana.
My legs were not the freshest, but all the riding we had done for PBP had the unintended benefit of really toughening up my mental game. PBP – and all the rides this year leading up to it – had taught me how to grind through difficult and uncomfortable moments.
I continue to be amazed by how powerful the mental aspects of physical events are. We are often stronger than we know, but we have to believe in and hold onto that in order for it to manifest. I found that belief during PBP and carried it through to this half-marathon. I’m so grateful.