I took my position at the start of the Gold Coast half marathon, my first at this distance, with my heart in my mouth, beating a million miles an hour. I was happy to have been able to stand with Sue and Michael for a little bit of moral support. But even so, I was still a little unconvinced that I should be there.
With crazy 80s rock tunes to hype us up, the gun went and I started moving forward with the other 4,000 odd runners. Just shy of the starting line we all started jogging, then running.
I settled into a slow plod and focussed on my plan. I just had to get to the first drink station. Even getting there seemed like an insurmountable challenge – I really started wondering what the hell I was doing here.
I didn’t belong here. I wasn’t worthy.
Thinking about the task at hand just made it worse. But how do you stop?
I did everything I could to take my mind off the fact I was just a few Ks into a 21.1k half marathon. I saw some spectators wearing rugby jerseys, and asked them whether the Wallabies had won their match the night before. (They had.) I put on a brave face when I saw Annie, Ness and Mickey who had taken up residence in a unit about 4ks from the start. They asked me whether there was anything I needed so I ordered bacon and eggs for the return trip.
Even so, I couldn’t find that zing I usually have in a race. All I felt was embarrassment to have thought it was OK to claim the glory of an unearned race finish. I was an imposter. I was fooling myself.
At the 6 or 7ks the field had thinned dramatically. Not many people attempt a half marathon at a speed slower than seven minute Ks. I overheard a marshall say to another,
“These are the ones, mate, these are the battlers.”
It was then that it started to dawn on me that I wasn’t in this alone. I looked around me and saw such a variety of fellow aspiring half marathoners. A few looked like accomplished runners, perhaps plagued with injury. A couple of blokes in footy shorts, knees strapped, doggedly plodded along together. There were a couple of ladies, travelling separately, who both seemed to know a lot of the more accomplished runners, who were now starting to come back towards us.
As we were all stopping to walk when we needed it, we passed each every so often and I started to feel compassion, and even a sense of comraderie for these people. The marshall was right. These were the battlers. Hold on… WE were the battlers.
I started to offer words of encouragement to them. I figured that if they felt anything like I did, they definitely needed it. Soon enough, those words were returned and we started exchanging our stories.
One of the ladies, an older woman, was proudly wearing her running club Tshirt (I think it was the Brisbane Road Runners). One by one her fellow club members gave her a yell as they passed on their way back towards the finish line. As she overtook me on one of my walking breaks, I asked her about her limp. It turns out she’d had bypasses in both her legs. While her days as a marathon runner were over, she put up with the pain to walk some of her favourite events each year.
When I reached the first drink stop past the turnaround, I caught up with the other lady I’d seen a fair bit of in the race to date. She had taken a break at the drink stop – and to my surprise was snacking on one of those cheese and cracker snack packs more commonly seen in kids lunchboxes. She explained that she was pregnant and they were the only thing that stop her from throwing up! She was walking and running to keep her heart rate low to complete the race as she and her running club had travelled from Cairns for the event. She’d trained for months before finding out about her pregnancy so didn’t want to give up on the dream.
“I timed it really well…” she said, with just a hint of sarcasm!
Not long after that I passed an older gent. I slowed down to run with him for a bit, tell him he was doing great. He offered his story too.
“I’ve done ten marathons here, and ten half marathons. I’ve had the flu for a week and a half but I figure it’s only once a year so I might as well give it a go.
“My wife reckons I’ve got rocks in my head” he added just a little cheekily.
Not long after that, I caught up with the footy shorts blokes. More words of support were exchanged before I noticed that one of them was doing it substantially tougher than the other. A bit of probing revealed that the one that was struggling was there only at the insistence of his more seasoned running friend.
“I ran 10ks last week and now, here I am”.
I tried, but I think failed, to console him by pointing out that at least his “friend” hadn’t dobbed him in for it and stranded him – he at least had the decency to keep him company throughout the ordeal.
Later in the race I again failed to make him feel better by telling him that his pain would only last a short time, but his so called friend would owe him one for a long time to come!
If nothing else I hope the runner guy bought the drinks that afternoon.
Another fellow I ran with for the last 6ks or so. Like me the furthest he’d run was about 14ks. While he never revealed what had possessed him, he too had a more seasoned friend who, after completing his race came back to see him through the last few Ks. I’m sure he didn’t bargain on supporting TWO battling runners with his words of advice and encouragement, but he didn’t seem to mind too much. With his help, we broke down the home stretch into “next lamp post”, “next corner” and “next tree” and made it to the line together.
I had a very specific reason for wanting to do this race. And I’m pleased to say that I did what I set out to do when I crossed the finish line in an entirely unremarkable 2:36:51. The reason, though, has kind of faded in to the background. I look back on this race in an entirely different way.
While I’m happy to say that my experience as an athlete has been predominantly the opposite, many of us are quick to judge others that perhaps don’t have the same training ethic or athletic ability as us. The term “weekend warrior” is almost an insult when applied to those who turn up to race without the right amount of training. Whatever that is.
When I fronted up for my first half marathon, I felt like everyone would be thinking that of me. Even though I had a story.
What I soon realised was that everyone else had a story too.
These are stories of triumph – inspirational tales of determination, grit and heroism. They are stories of surprise, and sometimes even disbelief. Sometimes the stories are heartbreaking tales of disappointment, frustration, and even regret. Whatever the theme, all are equally valid.
Whether you’ve trained like a demon possessed and smashed your PB, or whether you’ve rocked up on the day wondering what the hell you’re doing there, to only just struggle to the line, you’ve got one too.
Your story is your own, and you have one for every race you accomplish. Each story builds a thread of your character, which is weaved into the fabric of your being.
Your stories aren’t just about you, they become you. If you look at them the right way, your experiences can mould your view of the world, of others, and even of yourself.
So next time you’re wondering what you’re doing in a race, or wondering what the guy that came in last is doing there, remember… Everybody has a story.