Here's a big not-so-secret truth:
I was not "born to run."
I was not "born to run."
It all started back in elementary school when I was trying to achieve the gold fitness standards necessary to gain the elusive "Presidential Physical Fitness Award". As a competitive gymnast, in third and fourth grade I had no problem achieving high marks in crunches, sit-and-reach, shuttle run, and pull ups, but the distance run was always my downfall. The run was only 1/2 mile, though it felt like 20 back then. Thus, in third and fourth grade, I could not make the Presidential standard for the distance run, and I received the "National" fitness award, the silver medal equivalent. I was disappointed.
As a fifth grader, however, there was someone else looking to help me reach my goal. My fifth grade teacher Mr. Donnell, a multiple finisher of the New York City Marathon, saw something in me that I did not. While I was never a "natural" born runner, he saw the determination I had to accomplish my goal of achieving the 3:53 1/2 mile run needed for the Presidential award.
After multiple attempts to achieve the Presidential run standard, I could not seem to break 3:53 no matter what I did. But one day, my teacher pulled me aside and asked me if I really wanted this award. I said yes, and he replied by telling me I would really need to work for it. So, he asked Brian, the fastest boy in my class, to "pace" me. I chased Brian around and around our baseball field three times, and each lap felt harder than the last. By the time I reached the final lap, I felt like I was going to die of exhaustion and oxygen deprivation.
But wouldn't you know, I crossed home plate under 3:53 and finally got that
Presidential Physical Fitness Award?
I remember collapsing into the dirt after crossing that "finish line", but it didn't matter if I was sweating on the ground in front of all my classmates, because I had that feeling. Runners know this feeling intimately. It is one that is unlike anything else in the world. It's like love and happiness and accomplishment and relief all combined to form one big ball of radiant energy in your soul. It's better than sex, alcohol, chocolate or [insert your vice here]. I would not experience that feeling again until crossing the finish line at my first 10K, almost 10 years later. I felt it again later after my first half marathon, first marathon, and first 50K.
Ultimately, the most important thing I've come realize over the years, is that the challenge is all relative. Back in 5th grade, achieving the 3:53 1/2 mile was the hardest thing I could imagine. Then while training for my first half marathon, 13.1 miles seemed nearly impossible, until it was done. But I still couldn't fathom the thought of running a full marathon. Until I did it. 5 times. The 50K was unimaginable until it was finished, twice. Right now, the 50 miler is my "ultimate" challenge, but I know I can do it, just as I have accomplished my goals before. It's all relative.
People often ask me how and why I am going to run a 50 mile race. Well, I know I can run 50 miles this Saturday because I have made it completely possible in my mind. Back in fifth grade, my teacher helped me realize that no goal is too far out of reach, no matter how impossible it may seem. I have often reflected on that fifth grade run while setting new time and distance goals for races that once seemed outrageously impossible, and have realized that with enough hard work and mental fortitude, anything is possible.
The why part of my answer is not so simple. The only real response I can come up with, is that I am running 50 miles this Saturday because I yearn to experience that feeling again. It is not a typical runner's high, that anyone might experience a couple of miles into an ordinary run. It is a total unity of mind and body, reached only through complete surrender of one's preconceived limits of pain and fear. It is a feeling that I have only experienced a handful of times in my life, and I can't wait to feel it again this Saturday evening at the finish line of the Stone Mill 50.