By Veronica Barila, School Counselor
26.2 & My First (and Only) Marathon: The Struggle is Real
Most people would argue that coming in 31,897th place is nothing to brag about. When you run a race and finish a hard three hours behind the the winner, I can see how some folks would feel disappointed by their performance. However, finishing the Chicago Marathon, my first (and only) marathon, was never about winning, timing, or even competition. Instead, I embarked on a journey to cross the finish line healthy, to feel every step, and to accomplish something that always seemed impossible.
One of my favorite running songs by Ryan Mountbleu, “75 and Sunny”, boasts the lyrics, “You better believe I’m living for the moment, but my moment is the whole damn thing.” This refrain became my motto as I trained, reminding me that this experience wasn’t just about the joy and pride of finishing the race. It was equally about the pain, frustration, and disappointment that comes along the way. Throughout this process, I anticipated and relished the moments of suffering, knowing that those emotions were equally important to the positive ones that balanced everything out.
I am not fast. A soccer coach once told me that I move at a glacial pace. While it wasn’t the kindest coaching moment, he did characterize my athletic movement accurately. I also don’t consider myself particularly skinny, nor do I even enjoy running for long periods of time. My idea of a great Sunday morning has nothing to do with running, but is more about sleeping until 10, cuddling with my dog, and eating huevos rancheros. It’s only fair to say that I began this journey with a serious amount of self-doubt over whether I could complete this race. While I doubted my abilities, I also kept in mind that I am athletic, that I am mentally and physically tough, and that I have had a personal goal to complete a marathon. When I read that over 45,000 people complete the Chicago Marathon each year, I figured that if all those people could do it, then so could I!
So I did what any good runner does. I pushed my self-doubt aside, found a novice training plan (through running expert Hal Higdon), bought a fancy pair of sneakers, and read copious amounts of articles on shin splints, nutrition, and foam rolling techniques. I talked with other runners who shared their running routes, music playlists, and favorite fueling gels. Oh, and I ran a lot! I gave myself nearly six months to train for the Chicago Marathon, running four-five days each week with a long run every Sunday. In May, the long run starts at about 5 miles, but by mid-September, I was running 16, then 18, and then 20 miles each weekend. Despite the slow, and, at times, painful process, I always kept in mind that I didn’t have to be the fastest, the best, the strongest, or the toughest. I just had to keep going!
The training wasn’t always easy, and I thought of quitting often. During one 15-mile run, my body stopped. It was a humid August morning; I ran out of water at mile 8, and my head was pounding, and my legs felt like Jello. Around mile 13, I stumbled into a convenience store to buy a Gatorade. When I opened the door, I had the surreal feeling that I was staring in an old Western movie when the cowboy from out of town pushes through the wooden doors and everyone turns, to stare in shock and horror. The moment I walked in the store, the man behind the counter immediately asked if I was okay and if he should call someone. When I explained that I am training for a marathon and needed something to drink, a woman, who was standing across the store, came running down the aisle with a bottle of water. The store manager wouldn’t accept my money, and asked if I was sure I didn’t need a ride home. I declined the offer and finished the run, hobbling, sore, and a bit in shock of how terrible I must have looked. When I got home, I assessed if this was really worth it and if I was even enjoying this process.
My best friend, an avid runner and someone I met on the JV Hockey team during high school, maintains the philosophy to “just keep running.” Much like Dory, from “Finding Nemo,” my best friend taught me that in moments of horrible achy pain and mental anguish, tell yourself to “just keep running.” Eventually, your stride will change, you’ll hear a good song, your body will adjust and things will feel different. After my nightmare 15-mile run, instead of quitting, I adopted this philosophy and focused less on feeling great each run, but just putting miles under my feet and pushing through the challenging moments. It was around this time that I read the following quote, “Suffering is a natural part of what it means to be alive and awake.” It was incredibly refreshing to accept that in each moment of this journey would hold periods of suffering, pain, and frustration, but that I could simply keep running through them. I was running a marathon after all; it wasn’t supposed to be easy!
When I finally arrived at the start line of the Chicago Marathon, I didn’t feel nervous. I didn’t have a time-goal in mind; I wasn’t getting paid to run this race and world peace wasn’t in the balance if I was unable to complete it. My only two objectives were to FINISH. HEALTHY. I actually wrote those two words on my left and right hand to emphasize that while the goals were separate, they wouldn’t mean anything if I couldn’t complete both in tandem.
During the race, I enjoyed myself. I ran several miles with a team from the Middle East and learned about their fundraising efforts to support a children’s hospital in Gaza. I embraced fans who held signs that read “Free Hugs”. I sang out loud to the music in my headphones and wasn’t embarrassed to “air drum” when I felt the urge. When I passed my family along the course, I smiled widely and gushed at how much fun I was having. I wanted to cherish this experience, to embrace the suffering, and to celebrate all of my hard work. At mile 22, when my spirit was being challenged, I was happily surprised when my good friend, and former classmate from the University of Chicago, came out of the sidelines and ran the next 3 miles by my side. We ran mostly in silence, but every few minutes she would whisper “You are a machine. Keep going.” When I crossed the finish line, I cried. I couldn’t believe that I had done it! I ran a marathon!
Often times, in my role as School Counselor, I talk with students who are paralyzed with fear that in order to try something new or tackle a dream, they have to be the best, the most, and the greatest. Before trying something new, they want to be assured that success is guaranteed.
I listen to their woes about trying a new sport, applying to their dream college, or talking to their crush. In these stories, I hear their fear of getting hurt, failing, and suffering. While I validate that doing something outside your comfort zone is challenging, I also want to shake them and tell them that you don’t always have to “Age Quod Agis” your way through life. By only doing things where we are guaranteed to succeed, we miss out on a myriad of emotions and valuable feelings that, by nature of being human, we are supposed to experience. We won’t always be the best at everything we do. We won’t always win the game, land the dream job, or get what we deserve. Sometimes, we will run a race and come in 31,897th place, but it’s okay to celebrate that victory and embrace all the moments of pain, sweat, and frustration that come along the way.
Ms. Veronica Barila is a School Counselor and Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She obtained her bachelor’s degree at Boston University and Master’s in Social Work at The University of Chicago. She coaches the JV Girls Soccer squad, co-facilitates white.spaces, loves chocolate covered pretzels, and lives on campus with her dog Frank.