Finding the Light at the End of the Tunnel – a Post Marathon Reflection

All I remember, is burying my face into a dry wash cloth and sobbing.

I had just crossed the finish line of the Tunnel Light Marathon and I was exhausted – mentally and physically.

I’d finished in 4:40:03.

And I felt like a failure.

I knew I could’ve performed better but I let my mind win in the last 10K. I’d allowed myself to walk, which triggered a calf cramp. The isolation and loneliness I’d felt on the course had dragged out my depressive tendencies.

I’d let mental weakness win.

“You’re just not cut out for this,” I told myself. “You’re not a natural athlete. You overpronate too much. Your flat feet are too weak – no matter what you do.”

Today, it’s almost two weeks since the race. The soreness has subsided and so has my sadness.

When I started this journey a year ago, my goal was to finish uninjured and to overcome my fear of running another marathon.

My first and only marathon in 2013 had left me injured and sidelined for months and I was terrified of going through that again.

So, at Tunnel, I had in fact far surpassed my goal! The opposite of failure.

Why was I being so cruel to myself? Where does this harsh and eager-to-punish voice stem from?

I ran 26.2 miles on a flooded forest trail through relentless rain, mud, and rocks. I ran two of those miles through a pitch-black tunnel. And I finished 35 minutes faster than I had 6 years ago – on a perfect sunny day in Pittsburgh.

And I learned a lot about myself.

I learned that I really rely on people. On their energy, eye contact and smiles.

I may be an introvert – but I need assurance. I need to know I’m not alone.

That I can dig deep and bounce back. At mile 20, I’d dropped from a 10ish min pace to a 14 min pace – but each mile after, I crept back up, finishing my last mile in 10:17.

And I learned that I really don’t like running on uneven ground.

At the finish line, as I sobbed into the towel, my husband Tommy embraced me, and I wept into his shoulder.

“That was so hard,” I kept saying. “I’m never doing that again.”

A few days ago, sitting on the couch, I found myself googling 2020 marathon dates.

“Hey … I’m going to enter the lottery for the New York City Marathon,” I said to Tommy. “I know I said I’m never doing that again… but I didn’t mean it.”

He looked at me and laughed, “Oh, I already knew that.”

Richmond Miracles and Calzones: The time I broke the 2-hour half marathon

I was sitting in the lobby of a Hilton Homewood, staring at my calzone, when my running miracle happened.

It was the eve of the Richmond, Virginia half marathon – my break 2-hours goal race. A goal that I had shared with too many people … and on social media.

Here I was, 1300 miles from home, surrounded by the excited chatter of my best running friends, glaring at my pre-race dinner choice and questioning my life decisions.

I had gone to the dark side.

My goal suddenly felt impossible. How am I going to run a half marathon with a 9min average pace? I’d never even run a 10k that fast! Oh, I’m not close to ready. This is terrible.

Six weeks earlier, I had signed up to train with a running coach. I’d followed almost every workout to the exact detail, gleefully logging my miles and paces. I even ordered gold stars from Amazon Prime to reward myself in my running journal. And when I really nailed a workout – I would text it to my coach the moment I got back in my car. The buzz of her affirmation of “AWESOME JOB, ”would be all the motivation I needed to set my 4:45 a.m. alarm the next morning to run. But just a few weeks before this night, I’d gotten an ear and sinus infection and I had missed a week of workouts.

“Yup,” I thought as I swallowed a blob of oily white cheese. “The stupid ear infection was my undoing. If only I hadn’t missed that week – I would be in great shape.”

Earlier that morning, my friends and I had gone on an easy run alongside the James River to peek at the race’s finish line. We took pics in front of a massive gorgeous mural of a regal owl who must certainly be the queen of all owls. We ran across a footbridge that told the story of the fall of Richmond during the Civil War through the use of quotations of both Northern and Southern witnesses. The air was cold and the sky overcast and when we finished our run, it began to rain.

Queen Owl

It rained all day.

It was still raining as we ate our dinner. I had ordered tomato soup to dip my calzone in – which was a weird thing to do since it came with marinara sauce. I’d probably eaten fewer than 5 calzones in my lifetime and at least a thousand pieces of pizza.  But no, I chose to play pre-race dinner roulette with my stomach.

Then through the foggy glass of the lobby’s gas fireplace, I got a glimpse of her. I’d never met her – but I recognized her immediately. I knew she’d be in town for the race – but I didn’t expect to see her until the race after party. Almost choking, I stand and point. My mouth full of my questionable life choice.

My friend Ashley shouts, “HI BECKI!”

It’s my coach, Becki Spellman.

My running miracle.

“I’m Valerie,” I gurgle as she gives me a hug.

“I know who you are!” she laughs. She stands at our table asking everyone how they’re feeling… if they’re excited. She just happens to be staying in our same hotel.

My eyes suddenly feel really large. All I can do is stare. You would’ve thought Michelle Obama had entered the room.

She gives out a few bits of advice … reminds us all to have fun.

I feel tears welling up in my eyes.

And then like that, she’s gone.

And I cry.

My mental sunshine is back. I’m excited for the race.

Becki and me after the race.

The next morning, the rain had vanished. The air was a clean, clear 40 degrees. I wanted to wear tights, long sleeves, and a vest but my roommates talked me down to a compromise of arm warmers, my Oiselle singlet, and tights. They are always right.

I lined up behind the 2-hour pace group with my friends Julie and Heather – two runners and dear friends who I’d been training with during the past year. “Just hold on for as long as you can,” I told myself. “Just go mile by mile.”

And so I did. Miles 1-4 flew by as we ran past antebellum mansions and modern condos. When we hit the 10k crossing, we were in the middle of a park speckled with fall leaves. I check in with myself. Breathing is good. Legs feel good. OK – let’s keep going. I drank water at every water stop but then sprinted to make up time. My pace group was slowly creeping away from me, but my watch showed me on target. “You’re OK, just don’t lose sight of them,” I coached myself.

When I hit mile 8, I slurped down a Honey Stinger Gel and a salt tab. I still hadn’t lost sight of the pace group … hell, this could actually happen.

At mile 10, I felt in shock. I’m still hitting my paces… this could happen.

This could happen … this WILL happen …

At mile 11, I started to feel tired. Real tired. My friend Julie, slowed down to run beside me. “You’re going to do it! I won’t let you slow down!” I muster an appreciative grunt.

It’s somewhere around this point that I began to have an almost out-of-body experience. It’s like my body decided that no matter what my brain might say –I wasn’t going to slow down. I was watching myself run.

At mile 12, the course shifted to a screaming downhill … I was on track for a 1:59 finish. It’s going to happen. You’re going to do it. Just don’t fall down.

And that’s when I RAN. I caught up to the 2-hour pace group, and then I passed them.

I ran my fastest mile of the race and finished in 1:58:35. And when I stopped my watch, I cried again.

You’ve got to put in the physical training to hit hard goals. But you’ve also got to conquer your mental barriers. I won’t always have “running miracles” to drag me out of a pre-race depression. I love the Oiselle mantra of “Head up – Wings out” and I’ve been wearing it on hats and shirts and saying it for years.

But I never lived it until this race.