Race Report: 2019 Popular Brooklyn Half

When I told another runner that I had a terrible time racing the Popular Brooklyn Half this year, and started talking about “going to a really dark place around mile eight” he interrupted me. “When you go to a dark place,” he asked, “do you have a tough time running? Or are you talking about something bigger? Are you actually feeling so messed up you’re —I don’t know— about to quit your job?”

I did finish, eventually.

I did finish, eventually.

Well, no — I wasn’t about to give notice, and in fact I had to make that very clear, since I was having this conversation with my boss. But at mile 8 of the race, if he had appeared and asked me if I deserved an exciting, demanding, full-time job with a lot of responsibility, the answer also would have been a quick no. At that point in the race I was in a truly terrible mental place, and as he knew, for many runners, that deep pit of despair doesn’t stay specific to running, racing, or related to physical ability at all. Running is first and foremost a physical act, but convincing yourself to keep putting one foot in front of the other, breathe deep and stay calm, and commit to discomfort over a prescribed distance or block of time is all mental. Learning to distinguish between bodily protests that signal this hurts because of a injury and this hurts when an effort feels too hard but is still possible, is mental. Pushing through discomfort, as any athlete knows, is predicated on ignoring or managing that discomfort — and that’s true for everyone. Great athletes don’t work less hard or feel less pain. The scale and their goals will be shifted, and their threshold of physical and mental struggle will lie at a different point than mine, but at they end of the day every athlete faces the same fundamental decisions: keep going, or stop. The details vary, but the structure is the same.

For me, those details are a systemic feeling of failure. When I am racing or running hard, and I feel my muscles protest and lungs complain, my heart pound and my feet go numb, I question everything. I doubt my goals for that race or workout, and I doubt the training I’ve put in to get me there. I doubt the willpower I have to chase that goal and I doubt my physical fitness, and I doubt myself in a pervasive, dangerous, holistic way. I find myself at a place that mirrors the depths of a depressive episode, overwhelming self-loathing and disgust that I’d attempt something so clearly out of my reach. I berate myself for being so proud, tear myself down, and mentally prepare for what I call well-deserved failure. On those dark days, I want to quit, just give up, crawl off the course and hide from the world, ashamed that I’d believed in myself when clearly I couldn’t live up, and never should have bothered in the first place. I tell myself I can’t do this, and I sure can’t do anything else right either. Work deadlines, relationship problems, family problems, sticking to a budget, poor nutrition, body image, and every other stressor and insecurity I have comes out to play. I’m a failure through-and-through and this is just the latest proof, I think. My body hurts and my mind hurts, and what had been whispers of doubt that I could achieve my goal become overwhelming shouts that if I just stop, I can make some of this pain go away. Just stop — and just admit you’re too weak, just admit you’re a failure and you don’t belong here.

This is not a nice place to be, to put it mildly. Connecting running performance with holistic failure and unworthiness, and using a missed race goal as confirmation that low self-esteem is well-deserved is a nasty and inappropriate train of thought. I don’t think it’s uncommon, either: anecdotally, I think many runners are high-strung, type-A perfectionists who fall victim to these negative feedback loops, perpetual dissatisfaction, dangerous overtraining, eating disorders, and unrealistically high expectations that spiral out of control. Not every race can be a PR, after all. I do think this is changing as more runners of different physical abilities, backgrounds, and goals are being drawn to the sport — and that cultural shift away from focusing on finish times, conforming to a certain thin aesthetic, and celebrating running for its own sake is a positive one. But the growing cohort of runners actively promoting this “new” mentality have to do so because for a long time, running has been results-oriented instead of people-oriented, and it’s definitely still an uphill battle.

Personally, I’ve battled depression and anxiety long enough that these dark places are familiar and scary to be in, but also feel like a fact of life I need to face. Aside from the physicality and enjoyment I get out of running, the reason I keep racing and putting myself on this brink is because I truly believe it benefits me in the long run (ha). I haven’t lost the little spark of hope that keeps me going in the face of all that negativity, and I want to keep it alive. I run to work out my physical muscles, which won’t get stronger unless I test them and push them under tough conditions, but I also realized I run to work out this mental “muscle” and become more resilient. I need to find a way to come back from those dark, dark thoughts and believe in myself. I need to prove to myself that I can run and race without tying my chip time up in my self-esteem. I need to learn that I can hear just stop and you’re not worth it, you’re weak, you’re slow, you’re fat, you’re lazy, you’re never going to amount to anything and keep moving forward anyway.

Miles 8 through 11 of the Brooklyn Half ground me down. After the hills of Prospect Park, the long straightaway of Ocean Parkway should be the place to pick up speed, kick things into high gear, and work hard to negative split this race. In the park, I told myself I could make up for my hard effort and slow miles in the flat second half of the race, but when I reached the parkway I still felt unfit and inadequate. I quickly lost hope in myself and did not believe I’d be able to run a sub-2 hour time, the benchmark I wanted to hit. And the thing that embarrassed me most profoundly in the days following the race was that in those miles, I gave up on myself. I stopped pushing hard and I stopped thinking I could run the necessary splits — along with all the other more abstract insecurities. The only thing that kept me on the racecourse was the knowledge that it would be even more embarrassing to drop out. I’d need to face myself, my partner, the looming DNF — not to mention find transportation to the finish line— if I quit, so I kept going. It wasn’t until I looked at my watch at miles 10 and 11 and realized that I could still finish in less than two hours if I ran 10 minute miles through the end of the race, which felt within my grasp, that I began trying again. I had been afraid to exert myself and try when I thought failure was unavoidable, and only began pushing myself when I thought it could pay off. This conditional motivation embarrasses me, because it’s so concerned with the goal time and goal effort, and so short-sighted — it does not account for hope or for hard work. It assumes weakness, instead of strength, and I want to be the kind of person who looks inside themselves and finds power and resilience, not cowardice and the instinct to quit when things get tough.

Even tough races can end with a beer. Or two. And a photo op for a very persistent photographer.

Even tough races can end with a beer. Or two. And a photo op for a very persistent photographer.

I got it together for miles 12 and 13, and swung onto the boardwalk with one minute left to cross the finish line. I watched the seconds count down as I covered the final tenth of a mile and clocked a 1:59:51, a time that drives home the lesson every second counts. Nine seconds to spare practically feels like rounding error, and when I looked back at the miles where I didn’t push myself or believe I could pull off that time (that I’ve run many times before, and should know I’m capable of) I am disappointed in how close I came to letting myself down completely. I pulled through, and found the strength to drop my pace from 9:44 in mile 11 to 9:08 in mile 12 and 8:52 in mile 13, with an 8:18 pace for the final .2. I just wish I’d pulled myself together earlier, and was strong enough to push even when the result might still be less than I hope for. Even the fact that I want to wish for this, when I know it’s an attitude and fortitude I need to carry within myself, also feels like a failure. But it’s one that I can and should correct myself.

The good runs and the flow state are easy to chase, and those endorphins speak for themselves. I like hanging medals on my wall and feeling satisfied with the number on the race clock or the distance on my watch. Today I’m also learning to find something valuable and satisfying in the races where I didn’t give up, even though I wanted to. I’m not happy that I’ve had a lot of this type of experience over the past year or so, and part of that negative self-talk stems from the fact that I used to be in better physical shape and I’m still comparing my abilities today to my abilities during the year I set all my PRs. My first year running and racing, I felt unstoppable, and I fell in love with what I discovered my body could do. But life happens and I look and feel a lot different now: I don’t want to criticize myself for how I got here or what I look and feel like today. The best thing I can do, I think, is try to use as this opportunity to up my mental game, while getting back to my old racing shape (in a healthy way!) Preparing for my next marathon demands being in good physical shape, but improving the way I approach running and racing mentally is also important and will benefit me too, on and off the race course.

It’s common to hear that “running a marathon will change your life” and I don’t think that’s untrue. The dedication, perseverance, and pain, the literal blood, sweat, and tears that the months of training and race itself will demand, can have a profound effect on a person. The marathon is a long and grueling distance and for most runners, and isn’t one to tackle on a whim; this experience of intense growth is nearly universal because of how much time you spend on your feet during training, as well as the race itself — and that time on your feet also means time in your head facing these demons and challenges. But I think these same lessons can be found at any distance. Running a sub-4 minute mile, a sub-2 hour half, or whatever combination of time and distance taxes you and pushes your body and mind to the limit and then a little further, demands mental and physical strength and resilience.

Uncertain about the future, but going for it.

Uncertain about the future, but going for it.

The other funny thing? Not long after this conversation, I did quit my job. A big, intimidating, exciting opportunity came my way, and I decided to take on that new challenge, even though it scares the hell out of me. It’s not unlike, to be cliché, signing up for my first marathon — on a good day, I’m confident I have what it takes, but I know it’s going to involve a lot of big new commitments all at once, and there won’t be an escape hatch once I get started. On a bad day, I’m worried I won’t have what it takes, and I almost didn’t accept the offer because I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to succeed in the new position, that I wouldn’t be able to push myself, grow, and learn to do something demanding. But after 4.5 years in a job that used to scare me the same way, where I now feel comfortable and confident, and where I’ve broken through all sorts of mental barriers and achieved more than I ever dreamed —and almost as many years running, where the fundamental lessons of perseverance and facing discomfort head-on to grow are the same— I decided to take the new job after all.