I hate running. I was made acutely aware of this yesterday, yet again, when I went back to running my
city’s weekly Parkrun, a 5km race held every Saturday in cities all over the UK.
I wanted to get a good time. I knew I wouldn’t be able to beat my “personal best” time for that race. I hadn’t been running for a full month. I needed the rest and recovery after successfully completing the Barcelona Marathon on March 15. The tendonitis I had for weeks building up to the marathon seemed to have mostly withered away. So I started out the week with a slow 5km jog, added a 15 min faster jog in the middle of the week, and hoped I would be able to do a decent 5km run at the end of it.
Running is such a head-fuck for me. Running races and training for them is probably the only activity I engage in where I usually feel that I need to push myself to my absolute limit. I’m a very competitive person by nature. I used to feel that I needed to compete with all the runners around me. It took me a very long time to realize how stupid that was. I didn’t have their abilities. I didn’t have their strength or speed. I didn’t have their years of training. I had to let go of wanting to be able to beat the li’l ‘ol lady of 65, the tiny 10-year-old girl, the middle-aged woman with wide hips, the blind woman holding onto her training partner, and the 50-year-old man recovering from a stroke (all of these are real examples). It took me a long time to figure out that if I continued to try to beat other, stronger people I’ll just burn out mid-race and never get stronger as a runner. Once I figured that out, I understood that I was competing against myself. What that means, in essence, is that every single time I run for time or pace, I’m competing against the most competitive person I know. It can be very frustrating trying to beat me.
During yesterday’s 5km run, I wasn’t trying to beat the best version of me in that race. I knew I wouldn’t be able to beat my 5km Parkrun best time after being out of running commission for a month. So I set myself what I felt would be a reasonable target. I calculated the pace I’d need to run in order to reach that target. I realized that, because I had been focusing on distance for so many months, I had not run at that target pace for quite some time, even when I was training for my marathon. My marathon pace target was relatively (almost significantly) slower than my 5km best pace. But I decided I would try anyway.
I looked at my sports watch only a few times in the beginning of the run to see what my pace was. Sometimes I was a bit faster than my target pace and others I was a bit slower. I set my average pace in my head, decided not to look at my watch again, and to just try my very best to maintain that pace for as long as possible.
I hated every single minute of it. It was DAMNED hard. Even though I knew I had not been running for quite some time, I kept thinking that running a 5km race, as opposed to running 42.2km (marathon distance), should feel easier after everything I had been through. Well, it wasn’t. Not one single bit. But I kept up that pace as best I could. It felt like there was no way I could ever have run any faster than this. I was pushing myself to my very limit. How could my limit have been more than this a few months ago? Why didn’t the distance training make me feel more “at ease” running a 5km race?
I know the answers. It never gets easier. Ever. Training for one kind of race is not the same as training for another. And as long as I’m running for pace and time, I’ll always be pushing myself to be a few seconds better. So it will always feel like my soul is being exorcised out of my body starting from somewhere in the innermost part of my abdomen.
I crossed the finish line, suddenly slowed down, and immediately gagged. I was going to throw up in front of hundreds of British runners. I walked towards the shrubs, gagging twice, bent over and, luckily for everyone around me, only spit came out of my mouth. A few more seconds of rest and I was feeling significantly better. I checked my sports watch. I did make my target time. But I still had a lot of work to do if I wanted to beat my personal best time. I ran so hard that I almost threw up at the end of this race. I’d have to run even harder next time.
Have I mentioned how much I hate running?
I haven’t managed to write a blog post about my marathon run. That’s mostly because I haven’t known
what to write. I spent months training for that marathon. For me, those months of training were really what the marathon was all about. I learned more about my body and about the training process during those months than I have since I began working out some eleven years ago. I learned that I can do things that I don’t necessarily like doing when I’m convinced it’s necessary for some larger goal. I can run in terrible weather conditions and when roads are wet, muddy, or even icy. I’ve learned so much about injuries, their prevention, and how to deal with them.
After getting tendonitis during my marathon training, my goal went from having a target time to actually managing to get to the start line of the marathon. There were times when I thought I’d have to cancel. I reveled in the pre-marathon party atmosphere in Barcelona. I felt so proud to be part of that crowd. In the few short minutes before the marathon, I danced along with fellow runners to the music blasting at the start line. It was immensely exciting. I left my nerves behind me and just relished living the moment and being.
The first half of the marathon went better than I could ever have expected. My leg was holding up. I had actually worried that it might snap in half, given how bad it had been in the month-and-a-half leading up to the race. I had a plan on what I would do if my leg caved in on me while I was running. I knew where I would go and how I would find my husband. But my leg was holding up. There was some pain, but nothing I couldn’t deal with.
At the 5km mark, a Spanish friend of mine was standing on the side of the road with the crowds to cheer me and her son on. I was so happy to see her. I gave her a quick passing hug and kiss and continued on my way. Shortly after, a young woman ran beside me and asked if I was Egyptian. My husband had bought me a customized T-shirt especially for the race that had my name in the front and “made in Egypt” on the back. She was Egyptian too. We were probably the only two Egyptians running the race. It was so uplifting to meet her and to talk to her briefly. My husband was standing at the 13km mark. I gave him a huge wave. He asked me how I was doing. I told him I was doing really well. Shortly after that, I was surprised to hear my name called out by a young woman wearing a hijab at the side of the road. “Go Nadia!” she shouted. I yelled, “Where are you from?” “Egypt!” she said. I cannot begin to describe the joy I felt at that moment. “Woooooooohoooooooo!” I hooted, waving my hands in the air for Egyptian girl power. And then it was just me and the road for the second half of the race. I would see my husband and a couple of other friends only near the end of the marathon.
I managed to run the half marathon distance in the time my husband and I figured would be a reasonable, if a bit optimistic, goal given my tendonitis and lack of training in the last month and a half before the race. But almost immediately after crossing the half marathon distance everything caved in. Because I hadn’t finished my marathon training, I could not get my head or body to visualize the rest of the distance and remain convinced that I could do it at the same pace I was already running. I didn’t feel that I had the fitness in me. I was tired. So so tired.
My strategy at the start of the race was to walk through every 5km water station. At this point I decided to walk through every 2.5km water station. And then I began walking 200 meters before every 2.5km water station. At every water station, I’d take a sip of water. At a couple of stations, I took a pinch of raisins to get some energy. I couldn’t possibly have eaten more. At one station I ate an orange slice. At a few stations I drank sips of energy drinks. And then, as soon as I had passed the station I would try to continue running.
Running after the walks was painful. It was difficult getting my legs back into a running gait. My hips were hurting. My lungs never felt like they had enough oxygen. Lots of other runners around me were doing the same thing I was. They had the same strategy.
When I started training for my marathon, I was very intent on running the race and finishing at my target time. I told my personal trainer and a few other friends at the gym that if I ended up running for more than a certain amount of time I would be very disappointed in myself. The reality was that I was extremely proud of myself during the marathon. I realized that I wouldn’t get anywhere near my original target time but I couldn’t care less. My goal had changed to actually finishing the race. Despite feeling exhausted I was still running. And I knew that even if I had to crawl to cross that finish line, I would cross that finish line.
I continued my walk/run strategy until the 36km mark, when I finally saw my husband again. Seeing him gave me a lift and a second breath. “You’re almost there, Nadia! All that’s left is a Parkrun (the weekly 5km runs we had so often done in the UK). You KNOW you can run a Parkrun!” he said. He was right. I KNEW I could run a Parkrun no matter how tired I was. I knew I could. And so I did. I ran the rest of the way. Along the way, I saw an Egyptian friend and her Spanish husband, cheering for me on the sidelines. Dalia had a sign that said, “Go Nadia!” I don’t think anyone has ever done anything like that for me before. I was so tired by the time I saw them, but them being there meant the world to me.
And I just kept going. Despite the exhaustion. Despite the multitude of pains. I kept going. Sobs started accumulating in the back of my throat. It was so hard but I knew I was going to do this. I convinced myself to leave the crying for when I crossed the finish line. I didn’t have the energy for it now.
Eventually, I saw it. I saw the crowds. I saw the signposts. I saw the colorful balloons. And I saw my
husband, standing near the finish line, iPad in hand to take pictures of me. And then there it was: the finish line. I put in every last bit of energy I had for a sprint finish, passing two runners who were ahead of me.
The high I felt as I crossed that finish line and for quite some time afterwards is indescribable. I finished in a time so beyond my original target time that it was almost ridiculous. But that didn’t matter a single bit. Not one single bit. I ran a marathon! I am a marathon runner! I did it! Despite everything that happened before and during this race, I did it!! I felt so proud: proud of myself and even proud of my injured leg for holding up for me.
I limped through the rest of the post-race area. I couldn’t bend. I could barely walk. I could hardly lift my leg to get up the curb of the street. I had huge blood-filled blisters on both my feet and I was pretty sure the nail of my left big toe was about to fall off. I made my way towards the place my husband and I agreed we would meet after the race. Every single atom of my body was hurting. And I felt GREAT.
I may hate running, but I am now addicted to the challenge of it. My leg is not yet fully healed. I know
that now because of the pain I have after yesterday’s 5km Parkrun. I’m back to visiting the physiotherapist sometime next week. But I am going to keep this up. No matter how much I hate it I’m going to keep doing it. And one day I plan to run another marathon to get that target time I was originally hoping for. I KNOW I can do it.
I dedicated my training and marathon to a dear friend of mine who was recently diagnosed with myelofibrosis, a cancer of the bone marrow. The campaign I started in order to raise funds to cover the cost of a very expensive drug my friend needs has raised something in the range of just over 9,000 British pounds sterling. To be specific, I received 1,140 US dollars, 54,100 Egyptian pounds, and 3,517.25 British pounds sterling. Every single penny is now with my friend. I am immensely grateful for the humbling generosity of family, friends, and strangers alike. THANK you.