The Pains of Eighteen

“Failure lies concealed in every success, and success in every failure.”  —Eckhart Tolle

Yesterday, I completed eighteen miles.  The first seven or eight were easy.

The rest were as torture: emotional, physical, psychological.

I’m not convinced I can complete 26.2, especially after what yesterday delivered to my left knee.  Not only have I been ignoring my ITBS (Iliotibial Band Syndrome) which isn’t the smartest prep, I tumbled on my bad knee yesterday while avoiding a car.

All in all, instead of feeling well-trained and strong going in, I feel exhausted and discombobulated.  I should, in ideal worlds, have in at least two 20 miles stints before attempting 26.2, but that’s not happening.

Somewhere about mile ten, or so I think it was, I broke down sobbing in the middle of the woods.  From what I understand, this is a common phenomenon when undertaking any distance attempt, foot, bike, swimming, the stress often eliciting strong emotional reactions.  The roots are biological, a catharsis of mind and spirit given by the body.


Two events triggered the sobbing yesterday, that I didn’t put together until about one a.m. Sunday morning.

The first was my impromptu stop into the local farm stand.  Since my place is on route to the owner’s home, she kindly delivers my pesticide – insecticide free fruit and vegetable bounty.  After hurriedly loading up my box and going to the register, the clerk, who I’ve come to know over the past month, asked me when I was doing the 26.2.  I said the 27th.  Another woman said, “Oh, is that a half-marathon?”  “No,” I corrected, “13.1 is a half marathon.  I’ll be completing the Boston Marathon route, the hardest marathon route in the U.S.”

The farm stand is about three miles out. The next four were easy.  Then the cloud cover started parting.  Soon, I was under the full sun on one of the route’s worst parts.  No trees beside the road.  No cloud cover.  My heart rate spiked.  I turned on a back road, one of my favorites, near the village where I used to live.  The woods there are like friends that I have missed, but my heart rate would not go down.

There’s a lake on the road, where I used to meditate.  It’s a private boat club, but if you’re not using a boat, no one bothers to card you (so I tell myself), even though the sign says, “PRIVATE BOAT CLUB, MEMBERSHIP PASS REQUIRED.”  There’s a port-a-potty that the boat club puts up from about May or June until September or October.  I counted on it being there, thankfully it was.  Before stepping into the potty, out on the docks, in the lake, I noticed a girl and her father playing, enjoying the sun, swimming in the water, relaxing.

I guess doing what kids do with their parents.  “Oh, that is how it looks, that’s what fathers and daughters do.”

Overwhelming pain hit me as I entered the portable green commode.  Where was my childhood?  Grief over a childhood denied, made visible in the love of a father enjoying a Saturday afternoon with his daughter.  This is an old reaction, one I’ve not had in a long time.  Seeing fathers with their young daughters always used to send me into a spin, constrict my body in pain, make me wrench in nausea.  The loss wasn’t just about my father, but about a childhood that in too many respects never existed.

“Why,” I asked, “why is this happening.  What can I make by revisiting these feelings, now.  What is the point?  Why here?  Why now?”

Meanwhile, my knee was on fire, my bra straps cut into my shoulders, my heart rate would not go down, and I was a mile to the half-way mark, and only then could I loop back home.

My mind was all over the place.  All the practice I’ve had on “process,” “presence,” breathing in the moment, taking my self to unexplored regions of open awareness were shot to hell.  Because it was hell, right then and there.  There was no being present, I was in pain, all of it.  Physical pain, psychological pain, emotional pain, and I was less concerned with some great catharsis than getting out of the pain.

Which was probably the point: no choice but to deal with the pain, no running from it (literally and figuratively), no hiding, no diversions, no instant gratification, no emotional numbing way to deal with it, on the road, in the middle of nowhere, no ability to do anything but live in it and through it.  Ten more miles to go.

I’m not certain, but I believe it was about this time I broke down sobbing, sobbing, sobbing.

And until I fell, which was probably about 16 miles in or so, the rest was living in pain.  Ironically, the fall on my bad knee delivered me from the hell of psychic pain, aroused me from the psychic morass into which I sunk, making the last two miles of physical pain relatively more bearable.

Despite the physical and mental anguish, a voice behind me removed from the turmoil gently kept saying, “You’ve got this.  You can do it.”


I came home convinced that I would not do 26.2, and started drafting this blog entry in my head.

The knee injury, the pain, the self-inflicted masochism necessary to complete the task, not worth it.  Just no.  And I have no intention of doing long term damage to my left knee, which is the most pressing issue.

The original title was “Making It A Half,” for I decided that come September 27th, I would only do a half.

My mind wandered back to the conversation at the farm stand, “The Boston marathon route is the toughest in the U.S.,” and I thought, why did I need to say that?  What was the point in that “it’s really hard, but I am doing it” identification?  It certainly wouldn’t matter to anyone who didn’t know the difference between a half-marathon length and a full marathon length.

The observer in me noted: why do you make your narratives about the toughest, the hardest, the most difficult?  Why do you keep doing this?  If life is about being present, just enjoy it.

I then remembered my port-a-potty questions, “Why is this happening.  What can I make by revisiting these feelings, now.  What is the point?  Why here?  Why now?”

Perhaps, the thought came, because life is too short to worry about the toughest, the most demanding.  Just do your best, and your best doesn’t have to measure up to anyone else’s standard: there’s no compensating for deprivation or pain, pushing back at the world doesn’t change the past, and it won’t make life better.  It’s a bad habit, time to drop it.  If today shapes tomorrow, then making unconscious, poor choices based on the past doesn’t help.

Without awareness, it’s an empty fight, a meaningless push against one’s self and one’s self only.

Not coincidentally, when I came home, the Eckhart Tolle quote waited for me in my inbox.

I then remembered my Harvard graduation.  I remember thinking how “hard” I worked for that success, measuring myself by that G.P.A., always sure to remind myself that I received only “three A minuses during my graduate school career, the rest were A’s, and two of the three were from the thesis adviser from hell, who had to give me an A on the thesis.”  I remember the years of hacking out sentence after sentence, the weeks without sleep, the drive to make sure I met the goal.

Then there is the story about how my thesis was on “one of the most difficult texts in modern literature, it’s so difficult that no one writes on it.”

The drone of the difficult.  A meaningless narrative.

So what?  Who cares?

The better story is how much I loved my thesis work, how much I loved writing insightful and well written papers, and loosing sleep seemed a small price to pay for the result, papers that I deeply immersed myself in, that every so often flew off the page with their own wings.

There’s a saying much like the Eckhart aphorism that came to me in my recovery hours: sometimes what we think are our greatest successes are our biggest failings, and what we think are our greatest failings emerge as our greatest successes.

When I left Cambridge, I felt a complete failure.  My life and identity washed up on an unknown shore.  In addition to leaving all my future ambitions for an academic life, a life for which I was poorly suited, I remember throwing away the medals and celebration beads from the previous three times I participated in The Jimmy Fund, thinking, “you’ll never do that again.”

Of course I can do it again, if I want to.

And it doesn’t have happen this time around, barring major illness, the 26.2 is always there, if I care for my flesh and blood vehicle with love and compassion.  Until then, the training itself has been the gift, immersing myself again in a physical challenge to make my life better.

Seeing a girl with her loving father, and me breaking down in waves of loss as I trained for an event that I’ve dedicated to my absent father, was a circumstance not lost on me.  I don’t know the meaning.  I am too close to the emotional and behavioral layers, as well as the beautiful unfolding enveloping my life.

But I came to understand last night that if I only do 13.1 that is no failure, and doing the harder thing isn’t itself success, or demonstration of a life well lived.  The mileage is an arbitrary marker, and as the Tolle quote intimates, success and failure are fluid, relative states related to our awareness, which is life’s substance.  The life we’re born to live is one that is aware, not one that is “successful.”  Success can blind us to awareness; failure can open us to it.  If training opened me to insights that I’ve long-buried, made me stay with pain for longer than I would have liked while delivering something brilliant, it achieved the deeper goal: peeling away layers so that I am more aware.

A half-marathon, five miles, one mile, with and for my father is the gift, a gift that I’ve come to understand.

That I have legs, lungs, a heart, arms, and can undertake two miles, five miles, thirteen miles, or twenty-six miles is relative.   Whatever contributes to my unfolding development is long enough.  I don’t have to prove anything any more, nor do I need to injure myself needlessly while worrying about not measuring up.

Being fully present while being alive is the real distance.

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