“You may feel you’re done — there’s no such thing;
Though you’re standing on your own, your own breath is king.
The beginning is now — don’t turn around;
Regrets of bad mistakes will only drain you.
There’s another train — there always is;
Maybe the next one is yours;
Get up and climb aboard another train.”
– Pete Morton, Another Train
It was a beautiful Sunday morning in Acton, Massachusetts, in fact, a near perfect morning for the second day of what was turning out to be a spectacular Labor Day Weekend. Along with my CSU teammates and a few hundred other runners, I was in Acton to run in the “Seasons 20K” — the penultimate race in the USATF New England 2015 Grand Prix.
I didn’t know how it would go — I certainly didn’t feel fit enough (or rested enough) to really race 12 miles on a morning when the temperature was in the low 80s — but I was treating the race like a training run, and I knew that I could run the distance so I wasn’t especially worried. I normally do my long runs at 7:30 pace or so, so my plan was to go out a little faster than that, but relaxed enough that I was running without ambition or stress. After 5-6 miles, I pictured myself feeling good enough to pick up the pace and move up through the pack of runners ahead, finishing strong.
It didn’t go exactly as I had planned.
It wasn’t the heat that was the problem. The race had started at 9:00 a.m., and that combined with relatively low humidity, a welcome breeze, and a route along rural roads with generous shade, made the temperature feel manageable, even for a long and rolling course.
But even if the morning seemed pleasant enough, I had other problems. In fact, having run for about fourteen minutes, I was now walking, which is not an especially good thing to be doing two miles into a 12.4 mile race. The reason I was walking is a little complicated, and I’m not sure I fully understand it myself, but basically, I have a breathing irregularity that sometimes puts me in a bad place, running wise. The problem tends to occur at the beginning of runs, and when it happens, it leads to a feeling of profound fatigue and heavy-leggedness. Often, it simply goes away after a few minutes, and I feel great. Other times, I need to stop, let my body reset, and then resume running. Almost always, after the reset I feel fine.
Sunday morning I had to stop; it was the first time I’ve had to do that in a race. In fact, I probably should have stopped earlier. I could tell that I was in trouble about a mile into the race, and had been hoping that I’d be able to run through it. But slowing way down hadn’t helped, and it was only stubbornness that made me continue until I had reached the 2M mark, where I noted that my second mile had been a minute slower than my first. At that point, I’d had enough and I started walking.
It was a little embarrassing, to be honest, to watch helplessly as a parade of runners trotted past me. Without thinking, I had stopped my watch, so I didn’t know how long I had been walking, but it felt like a very long time . It was only after the race that I figured out it was only a minute, but in the heat of the moment, that minute had seemed interminable.
I thought quite seriously about dropping out. I had already quit once by stopping, and it seemed very easy and natural to quit again by turning around and walking or jogging the two miles back to my car. But I didn’t do that. Instead, I started running again, even though I didn’t feel great and there was a long way to go.
As I ran, I had a lot to think about. Having stopped at such an early point in the race, every mile seemed radically out of place, and my normal instincts about how I should feel were useless. For example, it seemed to take me forever to reach Mile 3, and when I did, I felt like I had been running for an hour. It seemed inconceivable to me that I could run another nine miles, but barely possible that I could run another mile, so I focused on that. I remember having a very distinct thought that there would always be time to quit, and, having done it once, it would be easy to do it again.
To make things more interesting, the course was very hilly from three to five miles. With each hill, I slowed way down, thinking that it would be embarrassing to have to walk again. Although I didn’t walk, I didn’t feel like I was being tough enough. In fact, it felt like I was constantly giving up, and then starting again, giving up, and then starting again, my determination falling with every uphill and rising as I found myself safely on the other side.
There were moments when I tried to tell myself that I was brave for not dropping out, but immediately I would laugh at myself for such a thought. If this was bravery, it was a very ordinary thing, because it was simply deciding at any given moment to see what would happen next if I tried another few steps. It must have been during one of these moments that I thought of the Pete Morton song, sung by Sally Barker, in which we’re consoled with the words that “there’s another train — there always is,” meaning, I think, that one way or another, you just need to keep picking yourself up from failures and find a way to keep going, even if — especially if — you find yourself in a place that you never expected to be.
Having been freed from any hope of doing well, I also found myself noticing things that normally might have escaped my notice. I found myself becoming much more interested in and sympathetic with the runners around me, who were, no doubt, all struggling with their own problems. Between six and seven miles, I came up on a runner who had a bib on his back that said “Blind.” I remembered that I had seen this runner with a sighted guide at the start, but the guide was nowhere to be seen now. I assumed that this meant that the visually impaired runner had difficulty seeing peripheral objects (such as other runners) but not with running on a road with no obstacles. I was just making sure that I was well to one side as I passed, when this runner stumbled on an orange cone that had been left a little too far out into the road. Thankfully, it was only a stumble and the runner continued without incident, but for me it prompted a flash of insight, and the realization that I was incredibly fortunate to be able to see the cones, see the entire road, and the quaint houses along the road, if it came to that. Suddenly I realized that I had no reason to be anything other than grateful that I was able to run at all.
From that moment, I had no more mental anguish. I kept “giving up” when the going got tough up a hill, and getting back into it when I discovered I was still breathing freely at the top. In spite of my pre-race determination to run this race like a training run, I found myself running hard in the last mile. There was a final rise in the road just before the finish, and it felt really hard, so I “gave up” and slowed down for the hundredth time that day. And then the finish was right around the corner, so I finished, a little surprised to have arrived after all of that.
I don’t know whether I have the right to preach about determination or mental toughness. I don’t feel like I’m particularly determined or tough. In fact, like many runners I’m a bit of a baby, always worrying excessively about aches and pains, or finding little reasons to cheat myself out of giving less that a full effort. But even if we can’t all be Prefontaines, running every race and workout to see who has the most guts, we all have opportunities to keep putting one foot in front of the other. It doesn’t take anything special, and if you miss the chance today, don’t worry, there’ll be another chance tomorrow.
There’s another train. There always is.