I ran my first trail race (half-marathon) this past weekend in tears. It took four very kind fellow competitors to convince me not to drop out. At the end, because of them, I finished. I did more than just finish- I placed in the top 8 for the under-29-year-old category. It was an astonishing feat- something I am still trying to digest.
I learned two main things from the race: perseverance and support. The race took place in the beautiful mountains of Woodside, near Redwood City, CA, but it rained the entire time. The trails were already muddy and mixed with horse manure by the time we took off at 9 AM. The first winding four miles of the race was an agonizing climb from 3 feet to over 2000 feet above sea level. One misstep meant that you were either stumbling down the slope or you stepped into sinking mud. By mile three, I had slowed down to a walk. Before the race, I had told myself that whatever happened, I could not stop running. I toughened my mind and was determined to make it through regardless. I had my eyes set on the two-hour mark which was also the course record. Yet as mile three loomed ahead, my mental barrier broke. No matter how hard I tried to keep it together, I could not. Even walking up the steep hill was excruciating. I tried consoling myself by telling myself that it was OK to cut some slack since I had crossed 11 time zones 1.5 days ago and was probably still jetlagged (I was). Then I comforted myself by telling myself that it was OK to walk since I did not- could not- train for this race. I had spent three days flying/at airports and Nairobi does not have similar terrain. And I was still recovering from shin splints. The list went on.
Stop. I told myself.
Stop making excuses. Get a grip on yourself. You have to run. At least jog.
I picked up my lead-filled legs and hobbled a couple of steps. A couple passed me. “You can do it!” They yelled at me. I tried to follow them. A few hundred feet. One foot ahead of the other. The air was getting cold, exacerbated by my soaked shirt and jacket. I shivered. I stopped again. This time, two other runners came behind me. “Come on, you can do it. We are almost near the top.” We were. We had a gorgeous view of the entire Valley. Tears froze solid. I didn’t realize that I had started crying. My feet hurt. My legs were heavy. I was getting dizzy. “Hey kid, just think ‘one foot ahead of the other’ Basic human mechanics” The same two runners had stuck with me, even though, judging from their lean bodies, cheeriness, and sculpted muscles, they could have passed me without a problem. Yet they paced me. From mile three to seven, they paced me and cheered me on. My mantra from then on was “one foot ahead of the other. One, one , one”
We finally reached the top of the mountains at mile seven. The four miles took me 50 minutes. The race was not over then, but in my mind I had already won. The rest of the race was 75% downhill. There were still some minor uphills, but if I had already conquered the beast, I can conquer the beast’s bratty kids.
The most touching part from mile seven onward was my fellow runners, especially the four who had egged me on and not give up. I had better techniques thrashing down the hills than they did, but I didn’t want to leave them behind. After all, they didn’t leave me. Loyalty is important, especially in the running community. There is a special bond between long-distance runners. The four runners, however, made me leave them, “go on. You can still place. Go! We didn’t pace you just to have you waste your strength.” After some hesitation, I took off. I ran the last five miles in 30 minutes.
Their gesture truly touched me. Running can be a lonely sport- you compete against yourself and I had trained, for most part, by myself, waking up every day at the crack of dawn before cars ruined the air with their diesel fumes. And I’m an entrepreneur- a lonely profession as well. My family and friends don’t really understand why I run. Save for a few close friends, I don’t ever tell people that I am racing until I’ve finished the race. To receive support from these strangers was truly touching, and after spending the past year in (post) conflict countries where resources are scarce and competition is fierce, my faith in humanity increased exponentially.
I am proud to be a runner. I am still a mediocre runner, but I am happy that I’ve found my running community. The first thing I do when I get off a plane or when I get into a new city is run because I look forward to saying hi and meeting fellow runners on the street. It is almost like we bond over our tolerance for pain. Running is painful, frustrating, but it is one of the best mental exercises and from which I gleam human kindness.