By Rebecca Kukla
On Saturday, I ran my third half-marathon, the Potomac River Run. Both of the other times I trained for a half-marathon, I was incredibly disciplined about training, driven largely by a fear of collapsing half-way through the course. I had all sorts of rituals: not only an elaborate weekly schedule of four to five runs, but much fussing over the details of my playlist, purchasing new shoes, collecting up the perfect set of snacks, planning out my water breaks, and so forth.
This time was different. Partly it was because for the first time I was not going to be running with my wonderful friends, FFI bloggers Tracy and Anita, so I didn’t have our shared enthusiasm and peer pressure keeping me on track. Two of the four in the group of us who planned to run this race together dropped out. My remaining racing buddy, Joseph, while a dear friend, was a man in his 20s who can run twice as fast as me while drunk and with a giant sea turtle strapped to his back. Partly it was because this year I am commuting between New York and Washington, DC every single week and taking a full graduate course load on top of my full-time academic job, and still training in two other sports, which in New York involves commuting to my boxing gym an hour and fifteen minutes in each direction almost every day. Something had to give. I was overwhelmed.
I ended up doing something like two thirds of my planned runs, and many of those I cut short or did at a slower pace than I planned because I was just exhausted or out of time or both. A couple of weeks I skipped altogether, because of travel, family illnesses and who knows what.
Long story short, by the time race day came, I had given up on any hope of a PR. I felt totally unprepared, and my trial 21K two weeks earlier had been my worst time ever. All was chaos. I forgot my running belt in New York. I woke up the morning of the race and realized I had no snacks to bring, and had done nothing to update my tired playlist since my last race. I had no idea where the course was. Indeed, we got lost three separate times on our way to the race. I wrongly thought that the race ended in the middle of DC, so I left all my things in my boyfriend’s car and planned to take the metro home at the end, but once we arrived we found out the course was actually an out-and-back. We were stranded in the chilly forest with no coats, and we had no way of getting home from the wilds of Maryland where we had been dropped off.
When I looked at the course, my heart sunk further. The promotional materials had promised a totally flat, fast course. I had assumed it would be a smooth running path along the river. One glance showed me that the course was actually a rough, uneven trail, and that the organizers’ conception of ‘completely flat’ was significantly different from mine. Mentally, I adjusted my finishing time up yet farther. We found out there were no bathrooms and no mile markers on the course. We had no water and no snacks. We started to joke about leaving and getting brunch instead. The colder we got, the less joke-y our jokes became.
Finally the race began, and I took off at what I thought was a light slow jog, trying to warm up slowly, as is my practice. After half a mile, my app informed me that I was pacing slightly faster than what was supposed to be my target pace – the pace I had long since given up hope of achieving anyhow. I was surprised and assumed GPS error. But no, after a mile I was still at that same pace. I considered slowing down on purpose so as not to burn out, but really it felt like I was just jogging comfortably. I couldn’t see any benefit to slowing down. I decided that I’d just keep up that pace as long as it was comfortable. I wouldn’t speed up, and I’d slow down or take a walk break if I needed to. I assumed I would need to, since I was pacing just around 9 minutes a mile, which is quite fast, for me. (I have very very little legs!)
I kept running, and I never felt the need to slow down. Water stations came and went, and I felt no need for them. There were some small hills, but they didn’t make me want to break stride. I made it to the halfway mark in just moments under an hour, and decided it was time to re-up my expectations. I had long wanted to finish a half-marathon in under two hours, and I was on track to do it! So I decided to just stay on pace and not slow down or walk unless I really needed to. And I didn’t. My pace was weirdly consistent, mile after mile. I made it through the whole race without a water or a walk break of any kind, and cruised through the finish line just seconds under 2:00, giving me a PR and meeting a goal that had felt totally unreachable a week before.
As I sat with my friend at the finish line, the overly enthusiastic guy with the microphone whose job it is to keep everyone ‘amped’ called out, “And Rebecca Kukla wins a prize!” I was baffled. I went up and asked, “Why, what did I win?” “YOU WIN A HAT!” he bellowed into the mic. “Um, that’s great, but why did I win a hat? What for?” “BECAUSE YOU’RE AWESOME,” he roared back. “Thanks!” I said. “But seriously, I don’t understand what I did that’s awesome. What did I win?” “YOU WIN A HAT!” he yelled back happily. I gave up and took the hat, which I dearly needed, since as I noted we were cold. The next day I found out that I had won second in my age group! I still don’t quite understand how that’s possible, but I did! It was a good day to be a woman in my 40s! I never expected to win any kind of prize for running, especially not yesterday.
What’s the moral of the story? I think just that bodies can surprise you. Who knows why they do what they do. All our neurotic efforts to discipline them and make them predictable are built on an underlying morass of chaos and contingency. I woke up the next morning, post-race, and felt great. I was in the gym boxing by 10 am. I have no idea why that all went so well. But goodness, there’s no better feeling than your body suddenly becoming dramatically more powerful and able than you had any right to expect!
Rebecca Kukla is Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University, and also a graduate student in urban geography at CUNY-Hunter College. She is a competitive boxer and powerlifter, a dedicated bike commuter, and a runner of wildly varying enthusiasm. She lives in Washington, DC with a passel of excellent human and non-human animals.