2018 Boston Marathon-Always Have Choices-And Other Lessons Learned


Valerie Hartman, Career Development/Life Coach, Motivational Speaker, Connector
shiftintofifth.com (www.shiftintofifth.com)

May 5, 2018

I’m standing on a veranda over looking the iconic Boston Marathon Finish Line.  Invited to a Race watching party directly over the Finish Line, I am filled with such excitement. The wind is howling, over 30 miles per hour. Yes, the calendar may say mid-April (spring), but the temps are hovering in the upper 30’s. And sheets of rain are pounding down from all directions.  The midday Race watching party at this warm, fabulous penthouse apartment is in full swing inside-and I am standing alone outside in this crazy weather trying to get a glimpse of the finishers. My umbrella has blown inside out multiple times, and my pants and feet are soaked through my boots.  I am intent to spot my sweet friend complete her journey amongst the throngs of weary runners below. Dressed in layers of clothing, I am shivering and my teeth are chattering as I watch hundreds of drenched, exhausted and disoriented runners make it over the finish line of the 122nd running of the Boston Marathon. Truly inspiring! How did I get here?

As I have shared with my Shift Into Fifth family, almost a year ago, I decided to take my own coaching advice.  That advice? To embrace the choice of change-to see it as a gift and an invaluable tool to shift energy, strengthen different muscles and create new possibilities.

I decided after 25 plus years of living in Atlanta, Georgia, that it was time to shake things up.  And so I did.  I picked a totally new city, Boston, and moved there to start a new chapter of my life.  And haven’t looked back.

So lots of firsts for me as I explore this charming, historic and vibrant New England city.  One of the firsts that I most looked forward to is the running of the Boston Marathon (as a spectator:-). I love running and have seen first hand the power of a great road race to galvanize and to bring out the very best in a city/community.  Personally, I have never run a full marathon (on my bucket list) but have run countless 5 and 10k races (including almost 10 midnight New Year’s Eve runs in Central Park (NYC) and 14 Peachtree Road Races in Atlanta on July 4th) as well as a 1/2 marathon and a few sprint triathlons.

I have complete admiration for those who do run marathons. The training is grueling and the race itself is a true test of physical and mental strength. The Boston Marathon, with its heartbreak hill and major undulations, is known as one of the toughest tests of stamina and endurance.  And this year, definitely did not disappoint. 

With 30 mile an hour winds in the faces of the runners almost the entire race, driving sheets of rain throughout and temps in the upper 30’s to lower 40’s, it was truly brutal...actually, borderline, insane.  The crowds are normally thick, boisterous and supportive.  And this year, marking the 5th anniversary of the tragic bombing at the Boston Marathon finish line, the emotions and intensity throughout the Boston, especially along the Marathon route, were palpable. 

While I was excited to cheer on the runners and experience first hand the energy of the Race, I was even more pumped as I had a dear new friend running in the race.  An elite runner and mother of 5, she is my first full-fledged new Boston friend that I met during this new chapter in my life.  A native and proud Bostonian, this was to be her 17th running of the Race.  Running with the mighty warriors of the Stepping Strong Marathon Team, a group founded by a survivor of the 2014 Boston Marathon Bombing dedicated to raising money (over $2 million dollars to date) and awareness for the Stepping Strong Trauma Innovation Center at Brigham And Women’s Hospital, she was racing and raising thousands of dollars for an important cause.  And having suffered a completely torn ACL a bit more than 12 months before, this was also her major comeback. 

Throughout the days/weeks/months, I witnessed her steadfast dedication to her training schedule. 5 miles, 10 miles runs, 15 mile runs and a few 20 mile runs thrown in for good measure.  Rain or shine-below freezing temps and sometimes even ice and/or snow. On the weekend before the race, as the weather forecasters locked in on their predictions of the awful conditions expected for Race Day, it became painfully obvious that this was going to be a particularly challenging Race. There was chatter throughout the city about who would even show up to race under such horrific conditions. There was real concern that these were downright dangerous conditions.

On that Saturday before the Race, I could see the worry in my friend’s face and feel that same energy. The Boston Marathon under perfect conditions is a major test. Under these conditions-hard to fathom.  We spent time visualizing, talking through the various scenarios, doing the “what if” game.  We focused on super positive thoughts and actively connected with her inner core belief in herself and tapped into her confidence.  And we framed the overall “success” of this endeavor as the bigger journey-the training, the showing up, the giving it her best, the raising money for charity, the coming back from a major injury...and understanding that if stopping along the way was the prudent thing to do, it might be disappointing BUT not in anyway a failure!

Monday morning of the Race was worse than predicted.  As I watched the runners on tv at the start, you could see how miserable they were-totally drenched and shivering before it even started. I was excited to go see my friend at the finish line but definitely worried how her tiny frame with almost zero body fat and newly rehabilitated knee would fare in the Race.  The one thing I never doubted was her physical readiness and her mental toughness.  With 16 Boston Marathons behind her, watching her rigor and discipline as well as her steely focus in training, I was certain that she had all she needed mentally to endure. I just had no idea whether hypothermia or the slippery conditions might be insurmountable obstacles.  I am happy to report that I watched her cross the finish line in 3 hours and 21 minutes (well off her pace-like ALL the racers-including the elite runners-but still truly amazing).  A truly astonishing accomplishment under brutal conditions. 

As we all met up later that afternoon, and raised a glass of champagne to celebrate her wonderful completion of the Race, I was struck by her candor and self awareness in reflecting on the Race.  She talked about the brutal conditions, particularly the cold temps and the relentless headwinds.  The most striking thing she shared was how many times during the race she almost gave up...BUT made the conscious decision to keep going.  And it is this choice, made multiple times throughout the course of a 26.2 mile race, as in life in general, to keep going, to push through, to dig deeper, to adjust, to endure the intense discomfort and pain, to stay laser focused on the goal, that made all the difference  

I love sports-both as a participant and spectator.  And I especially love sports as it serves as a perfect metaphor for life.  I have listed some of the keys of my friend enduring and completing the Race-as they are keys to enduring and completing so many tasks in life:

Key Lessons:

1.     Proper, Consistent and Strategic Preparation and Training (conditioning, nutrition, sleep, hydrating, stretching):  No matter how mentally tough you are, if you’re not putting in the hours and properly training for the race, as in life, you’re not as likely to complete the task.  This takes planning, discipline, intentionality and a can do attitude.  There will be times when it will seem totally not worth it, and you will ask what’s the point.  And many times you simply won’t feel like it. But you’ll manage to push through it and just do it, day in and day out. Under terribly difficult circumstances, brutal in fact, it was the solid and consistent physical preparation that helped make the difference between trying to finish and actually having enough in the tank to get it done.

2.     Non-Attachment/Loosening the Grip/Focus and Visualize the Journey, Not the Outcome: As I discussed above, I spent time with my friend visualizing the race.  Positing different scenarios and ultimately asking the “what if” questions. She had put in the training time, eaten right, hydrated, slept and was physically ready. But the stream of negative thoughts and clenching onto what “it” had to look like was not serving her well.  Loosening her grip on the outcome and staying focused on the process of the journey helped shift her thoughts and energy to a more positive and energetic place. It also allowed for her to be more open to adapting to the conditions along the way and in the end, completing the task-crossing the finish line-a victory in and of itself.

3.    Adaptability, Staying Present, Defining Success and Self Compassion: The conditions were brutal. Thoughts of disaster and catastrophe were flooding my friend’s mind-What if I get hypothermia? What if I slip and injure my knee again?  What if I have to run the entire race with a 30 mile an hour headwind? And on and on.  Truth is, all of those things were possible BUT fixating on them and worrying was not going to change anything.  Staying present in the moment and not allowing her mind to wander off to all of the catastrophic possibilities was essential.  Defining success as showing up, starting the race, taking each new step gave her a sense of accomplishment at every turn.  Having self compassion, understanding at each moment that she was doing her best and giving it her all allowed her to stay fluid and not get stuck in the negative energy of resistance.  With such self compassion, she could stay open to the possibilities in the moment and adapt accordingly- and saving up, harnessing and accessing essential energy for the last push to finish.

4.    You ALWAYS Have a Choice: At every juncture, one has the choice to keep trying and to stay in it.  As my friend said quite candidly, there were multiple times during the Race where quitting seemed a very viable option.  And at each turn, she had to make an affirmative choice to keep going.  That’s powerful on multiple levels.  As in life, it is all a matter of tiny and grand choices that we make (even the choice to not make a choice, is in fact, a choice).  Understanding that at each moment, we actually have a choice in how we will handle a situation (with attitude and effort always in our control).  Understanding that we get to choose is a potent realization in allowing us to take back our own power and direct our path forward.

5.     Pain is Absolutely Part of the Process-the Suffering is Optional: This is a Buddhist precept, and it pertains to the fact that pain is indeed a normal part of life.  We cannot nor should we expect to be happy every moment. Some (including me) posit that pain/discomfort is the price of growth and a core element of a well-lived life.  The suffering?  Well that is optional-a choice. It comes from the expectation that there should never be pain.  It also comes from a grasping/attachment to specific outcomes. A rigidity that takes us away from the present moment and puts unrealistic expectations on things we have no control over-the end result.  My friend experienced pain-quite a bit as a matter of fact.  She also experienced great joy and satisfaction as she loosened the grip on the outcome.  And through her choices and actions, she opted out of the suffering.