Every single breath felt like it would be my last. I gave myself desperate commands: “Breathe in, breath out, one foot in front of the other, just keep moving, please get ahead of the woman pushing the stroller.” I had been running twenty minutes in my very first 10K race, and since I was just out of college and had never researched just how far ten kilometers really was I had no idea how much further I had to go.
San Diego offered up its best weather for the day, which I appreciated. Arriving at the race I was instantly charged by the energy of the beautiful Californians all pumped up with healthy food and fruit juices. I, of course, had sucked down a Coke and granola bar. As I lined up with the masses of humanity my heart was pounding with anticipation. I instantly located a group of Marines that were dressed alike and already yelling out some inspiring cadences. I decided I would run with them.
The gun sounded and I took off with my Marines, thinking that because they were running in boots I could keep up with them. Since my brother-in-law was a Marine, I should have known that there is no species on earth in better shape. These are people that run fifteen miles a day with full gear on, and after about a kilometer I realized that while they were still chanting in booming, deep voices, I was gasping for air. So, I slowed down.
I was sure, because I had been training, that this race would be a breeze. What I didn’t count on was the fact that I’d never done this before and I didn’t know how to pace myself. I wasn’t familiar with the course. I didn’t realize the impact on the body and the psyche when initial adrenaline dissipates. And I would charge down hills with great energy, failing to prepare for the next. As I got past mile five, every hill slowed me down further. At one point a man on crutches passed me, and my self-esteem hit an all-time low.
What seemed like twenty kilometers later, I saw the stadium – the finish line!! Even with labored breathing I managed a little “yeehah!” as I picked up my pace. Once I realized I was approximately a kilometer or two from the goal line, I started to sprint. I passed the eighty-year-old man (who had passed me earlier), the woman with the stroller (who had passed me earlier), and the dude on crutches. I might not have been the foot solder equivalent of Lance Armstrong, but I felt strong and proud.
As I sprinted into the stadium, I saw that it was filled with lots of friends and relatives cheering their racers on. I smiled, though the sprinting had created a fierce side stitch and my gasps for air made me look a lot like a Grouper. I desperately looked for the finish line, but couldn’t find it. Finally I asked my eighty-year-old friend who was shuffling past me again – “Where is the finish line?” He looked at me and smiled. “Honey, you have to run four laps in the stadium for your last mile. The finish line is on the other side of the stadium.”
Are you freaking kidding me? I sprinted what I thought was the last mile, and now I had another to go? Shaking the thoughts out of my head, I put one foot in front of the other, and moved straight ahead. I looked up as I heard the “da – thump, da-thump” of my friend on crutches cruising past me, again. Next came the cheerful face of the woman with her ridiculously happy baby in the stroller. I wouldn’t have been surprised if that baby would have popped out of the stroller and passed me as well.
I was humiliated, and tired, and slightly dehydrated, but I kept going. I didn’t look up for four laps. I watched my feet, and celebrated each time one was put in front of the other. I motivated myself constantly, celebrating each inch closer to the goal. I decided to quit competing with those around me, instead being happy for them as they reached their own goals. And, by golly, I finished. It may have been several minutes behind someone with no legs pushing a wheelbarrow filled with cement, but I finished.
Sometimes moving forward happens when you look at your feet rather than the goal line in the distance. Moving forward happens when you stop looking from left to right and just listen to your own breathing. Incremental change is how you move through something new or different, and it happens one step at a time.