expecting different results.” – Albert Einstein
I am no exception.
Back in 2006 I was pretty out of shape. I started running to remedy this, but like so many other new runners, I did not understand certain fundamental concepts such as proper gear and training. I just headed out the front door and ran with without any real rhyme or reason. I chose a race to aim for, the Colonial Half Marathon in Williamsburg, Virginia, because it seemed like the right thing to do. Besides, a full marathon was too much to expect for a first race, right?
About one month before the race I was out running in the snow. I was on the road and needed to transition to the sidewalk, but there was snow piled up from snowplows between where I was and where I wanted to go. Severely overestimating my athleticism, I tried to jump the snow bank without missing a stride. I landed on the other side, but I felt something get tweaked in my knee the moment I tried to keep running. I cancelled the rest of my run and limped home, but the next day I tried to get back on the road. I did this for several days in a row and aggravated my knee every single time instead of letting it heal. When I finally decided to do the right thing and rest, I was three weeks out from the race.
Here’s the thing: I live in Maryland, so going to Williamsburg was a destination race. I had planned a hotel and a mini-vacation, so I was determined to still go down to the race. By the time I showed up at the start line I was a first-time racer who had only recently taken up running. I was coming off a knee injury that had not had time to heal, and I had not been able to train in the three weeks leading to the race. On top of all of that, I had never really trained properly in the first place. Yet somehow, I lined up expecting that I would magically run the course and cross the finish line.
As can be expected, things went well for the first three miles. A lot of people were passing me because I lined up WAY too close to the start line and well above my ability level, but I was still moving along. All of a sudden, the first big hill in the course was looming in front of me. I made it up, but struggled. At the end of the hill the course turned from paved road into a dirt trail. The scenery was beautiful, but between the exertion of the hill and the changing surfaces I was nearly exhausted. And there were only 9.1 miles left…
Coming down another hill I felt the tweak in my knee I had felt nearly a month earlier. Now I was 5.5 miles into an out-and-back course, exhausted, and unable to maintain a normal stride. The next 7.6 miles became a mixture of trying to run, walking, telling people I was fine even though I was walking like a zombie to keep weight off of my knee, and pretty much being completely miserable. I felt like everyone was passing me, and that was because pretty much everyone was. I finally made it to the finish line at 2:14:59, and out of roughly 1,100 runners I finished 953. I was 52 out of 57 in my age group, and I can’t imagine how bad they must have felt!
There were many lessons I learned from this race, and many of them were self-evident. First, train properly. Since I did not know how, I spent a lot of time scouring the internet, reading books, and talking to other runners to get advice. Second, I learned to let injuries heal. There is a difference between soreness and pain, but unfortunately I was only able to learn this after experiencing them both. If you have pain, rest and heal. Talk to a doctor, and more than anything else, do not continue to try to run while healing; you will just re-aggravate the injury and return to square one.
Lesson three was learning that it is okay to pull out of a race. If it’s a destination race there is no reason you cannot still make the trip, but instead of running you can ask to volunteer or simply cheer on the other runners. Both of these are better options than clogging up the course and feeling miserable for hours. Finally, lesson four was to make a more realistic assessment of my athletic ability before entering a race. A half-marathon was above my ability level at that point in my life. I have built up to marathons and I am considering ultras, but it has taken me seven years to get from there to here.
I recently had the chance to run across the Grand Canyon and complete the Rim to Rim to Rim Challenge, a 46 mile challenge with thousands of feet of descent and ascent. As the date got closer, however, I remembered the lessons of 2006: I had not trained properly and I was overestimating my athletic ability. If I failed on this run I would not have the option of sitting by the side of the road awaiting medical attention; I would be stuck in the middle of the Grand Canyon, alone. Learning from the debacle of the 2006 Colonial Half Marathon not only saved me from being uncomfortable and miserable, but those lessons may have also saved my life.
So, long story short, live and learn. But after you learn, grow from your successes and mistakes. And don’t be afraid to share your failures with your fellow runners. Sometimes the most important and lasting lessons come from failure. Because, like Einstein said, it is crazy to keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect different results.
Einstein must have been a runner!