I Can Do Hard Things - On the Run With Matt Mcgowan

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On the Run With Matt Mcgowan

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I Can Do Hard Things

Posted by Matt McGowan
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By Jessica Bischoff - Let me tell you about one of the best days of my life. The fact that I’ve been the bride at a wedding and given birth twice since this best day occurred over a decade ago it’s important I use that qualifier, one of, lest I come off as an insensitive jerk. But yes, this ‘best day’ was a turning point for me. It was the day of my first marathon.


                Beyond rounding the bases and sprinting across a volleyball court in my youth, I was not a runner. In fact, if a coach forced me to run longer than 10 minutes at a time, I regarded it as an abuse of power. Who in their right mind would voluntarily run longer? Then, I went to college at one of those big land-grant schools with 35,000 students and athletes on scholarship. Scholarships and Division I team sports I was not qualified for. To stay in shape, I began running with a friend. As so often happens with new runners, I got hooked.  A few years later I found myself making a bet with my roommate the night before the Indianapolis 500 Festival Mini-Marathon in 2001. If I could run the race in 1:50 (a 12 minute PR for me at that point) or under, I would have to run a full marathon that fall. As fate would have it I ran a 1:51 that year at the Mini. To date, and nearly 11 Minis later, it’s still my personal best. Sometimes I’ve questioned the reliability of the chip timing system that year, but I recall that race as one of those rare moments where all the stars aligned just perfectly on race day and the running felt effortless. I was left with a decision to make. Technically, I won the bet with Roommate. I didn’t have to run a marathon. I didn’t. But deep down the seed had already been planted. The bet was my idea anyway, just an excuse to commit. 26.2 miles? Uh… twenty-six point two miles?! Could I do something so hard? The (ever humble, of course) bragging rights of adding Marathon Finisher to my repertoire of conversation starters was tempting. And even better, Oprah said she saw Jesus on mile 20 of her one and only marathon. Amen and halleluiah. Count me in.

                I joined the ranks of fall marathon trainees pounding the pavement in earnest from May to October each year. Except, the ones I passed on the paved trails in my city seemed like they knew exactly what they were doing, or so my insecurities told me. I didn’t. From the Runner’s World website I printed off a schedule titled, “Marathon Training for Beginners”. The schedule congratulated me on the ‘big step’ I was taking and promised me I was ‘on a journey unlike any I’ve experienced before’. Back then I kept a regular journal and I have detailed, scribbled notes on frayed and worn out paper of my training miles and race day reminders. During those 5 months of my bachelorette and childless 20s, my Friday nights included early bedtimes in order to be fresh for my Saturday morning long runs. My daily runs were worked into my schedule rain or shine, in sickness or health. My mirror showed the evidence of my hard work. My love handles were no longer so lovely, my body lean. I spent a few egocentric minutes each day admiring my sinewy calves in the full-length mirror. Every feeling was new and strangely exciting. Immediately after my one and only 20 mile long run I lay down on a park bench not moving an inch for 30 minutes. I staggered to my car, drove myself home and spent the rest of the night soaking in the tub, in awe that I could challenge my body in this extreme way. As race day approached I felt the nervous excitement and anxiety of trying something new. I didn’t exactly know what to expect, but I knew I put in the necessary miles. I was hydrated. I was carb loaded. I was outfitted with moisture wicking clothing. I was prepared for the race. Or so I thought.

                As I drove to the east side of town for the Indianapolis Marathon at 6 am that morning I had butterflies swarming around in my belly. Quite the normal fight-or-flight response. I’m ready to fight dammit! But as I approached the course and saw the orange traffic cones and lanky twentysomething males in tiny shorts doing strides down the sidewalk, I panicked. Flight! Flight! I can’t do this. What was I thinking? Who the hell do I think I am? I’m a fraud. Do I belong here? Was panicking normal? I called Roommate, who was now Former Roommate Living in Boston. She was kind enough to listen to my self-abuse and after talking me down from off the ledge, I was lined up and ready.

                To my credit, I didn’t flee that morning because the race was amazing. So hard. So tough. But so wonderful. Is the road race not the perfect deep metaphor for life’s journey? Sometimes I was chatty with my comrades. Sometimes I was silent, deep in thought. Sometimes there were supportive family and friends along the way. Sometimes I was all alone on the road. Sometimes I bounded along taking in the beauty around me. Sometimes I struggled for every step unable to imagine I could make it another 100 yards.

                Sadly, mile 20 came and went with no sightings of the Messiah, but I did talk to him a little bit. I let myself walk at mile 24.5. But, I knew I wanted to run through the finish line. I desperately, and uncharacteristically, latched on to a slightly stooped older gentleman wearing a headband around his gray hair. I invited myself to run with him, confessing that I couldn’t do it by myself. “I need your help”. Maybe he was annoyed at my intrusion and wanted to experience the last mile for himself, but he didn’t let on. He helped me through that last mile as he scanned the crowd for his daughter and grandkids that came to cheer him on. I will never forget the kindness of a seasoned marathoner like him helping a newbie like me. As I crossed the finish line, exhaustion and euphoria overcame me. I DID IT. Resting on a nearby curb I uncontrollably bawled in front of strangers for a couple minutes. It’s possible a few of my emotional demons escaped that day. I finished in 4:17. An average time for an average girl, but I proved something to myself that day. I can do hard things.

                Later on in the evening, I cried for the second time in public that day when my aching quads and I sat in the 4th row of a large ornate theatre watching a performance of the legendary Les Miserables. I was so close I could see the sweat on Jean Valjean’s face, moved by his story of pain and triumph. It was the perfect bookend to what I had felt and experienced that morning, making it (one of the) the best day of my life.

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