Thanksgiving Marathon – Florence 2014 (Part 2)

The half-marathon mark was quickly approaching. Only half-way? You have got to be kidding me. I wasn’t in pain yet physically, just tired and not caring. I searched inside of me for something profound to drive me on. Nothing came. I’m in trouble, I thought.

So, since I couldn’t pull it together, I reached for some outside inspiration. I remembered the words of the man from Portland. I recalled what my doctor had told me. I thought of what friends have been telling me all my life. Basically, if you don’t slow down and start enjoying life, you’re just going to drive yourself to the ground.

That’s right, and sometimes we do go through life running even when we would rather be walking. We can get so focused on the goal that we miss everything we pass along the way. Oh, another thing my doctor said? That I needed a week-long vacation, away from the pressures of life and work. I haven’t taken more than a weekend away this year. Still, it seems impossible. I don’t have time! Truly, there are things we learn about ourselves during a marathon that we don’t learn anywhere else. There are things that confront us during those hours that we cannot escape.

So this was all starting to feel quite negative, and I still had half a marathon to finish! At this point, my pace was still on track for the time I wanted, but the thought of keeping it up seemed impossible. The initial excitement seemed to have died down a bit around me as well. I was passing people who were already walking. I found my earphones and put them in. The music gave me a little boost. I thought, what the heck, I’m just going to enjoy this marathon like everyone seems to say I should.

I didn’t care about time anymore, I decided to just to glide through to 30k. I wasn’t going to use any more mental energy to calculate my pace and my predicted pace. I even started to walk through the refreshment stations and enjoy a cup of hot sweet tea instead of simply spilling it all over myself. I was still mentally a bit checked-out, and occasionally I had extreme thoughts like, “I have six hours to finish this thing, I wonder if I would still make it in time even if I walked the rest of the way?”

After 30k, I started taking short walking breaks (1-2 minutes) every 10 minutes. Whatever, I didn’t care. Then, something crazy happened. I realized I was at 33k already and I looked at my watch again. It seemed that even with a conservative pace from there on out, I might still be able to finish a few minutes faster than I had in May. This gave me a slight bit of motivation, and although I continued to take walking breaks, I was more motivated to keep a good pace for 8-9 minutes at a time.

Finally, I reached 39k and mustered the strength for a little pep talk that consisted of one word, “BURN!!!!” So I did, I started running again and didn’t stop until I reached the finish line. I passed so many people who were walking during these last kilometers, including the four men in purple shirts, who were clearly struggling by this point. I was glad I still had something left to give, even though perhaps earlier I hadn’t given all I could. Then I started counting down the minutes to myself, knowing when I had only 14 minutes left, ten, five, two… From kilometer 40, I knew when I would finish, and I came in right on the money. WAAM! Five minutes faster than in May! How did that happen??

And then it wasn’t pretty. My head was not happy. I started walking again and realized I had a debilitating pain in my right hip, so instead of walking I was limping. I very nearly burst into tears, but then again, I didn’t care enough, even to cry. I mostly just felt awful. I wanted to get back to my room. I had to get there. The sooner, the better.

My French friends finished before me, but waited in the arrival area for me to show up. I was so touched by this gesture! We were all happy to be done, and we all felt completely spent. We parted ways and I had to find the bag that I had checked earlier. I asked someone and he pointed to some tents that I could barely see. “500 meters,” he said. “No!!! I mean… thanks.” And I limped over there, stopped to take a couple of pictures and then collected my bag.

The next mission was to find a taxi. I didn’t care how frivolous it was at this point, I knew I needed to get back as soon as possible. And by now my hotel was another 2.5 kilometers away. I spent about 10 minutes trying to communicate with Italian volunteers about how to get a taxi. Apparently it was all very complicated because so many roads were still blocked off for the race. I was getting nowhere. Walking to an accessible taxi station would have meant walking too far for comfort in the other direction. The streets were also packed with people, so I wasn’t sure how a taxi would get through. My head started to swim. I stopped and leaned against a post. Then I heard someone next to me saying, “tutto bene?” I nodded my head, I shook my head, and then I signaled that I was dizzy. Finally someone said my best bet was to just walk to my hotel. But I caaaan’t!!!!

Still, I did. I limped all the way back. And yes, it took forever. I was hungry. I was tired. I was hurting. I was also nauseated. I arrived next door to my hotel and knew that once I went up I might not be down again for a while. I needed some kind of fuel, so I stepped into a gelato store for their “Thanksgiving” special (pumpkin-flavored gelato), one of the few things that was at all appealing in that moment. They served me, congratulated me on the race, and then I sat down for a few minutes. I enjoyed a little bit of the gelato, but then I started seeing zigzagged lights, and knew I had to get to my room subito. I took the migraine medication that I had with me, threw out the rest of the gelato and hurried on to my hotel. But the time I reached my room, I couldn’t see clearly anymore. I was conscious enough to change into dry clothes but the next few hours were a blur. To be honest, it was also a little scary.

So, this one didn’t end so well. Maybe I’m not made for marathons? Maybe not, who knows. But I can’t imagine that I will stop here, especially since I’m already registered for the Paris Marathon in April. If I’m going to quit, I simply have to quit on a better note than this.

Post-race, is it possible to still be thankful? Yes, I believe so, if I choose to be. I’m thankful I made it to the start. I’m thankful for my French friends, for my running group in Paris, for the spectators, the volunteers. I’m thankful for the journey God has brought me through. This difficult experience reminded me of more difficult things that I have suffered in the past. I’m thankful to have finished, to have made it back to my hotel safely. I’m thankful for the reminder of the fragility of life. I later learned that a 38-year-old man had collapsed and died one kilometer before the finish line. When a fellow runner dies in a race like this, it affects all the rest of us, too. We can’t help but think, “that could have been me.” I hurt for his family. I’m thankful that God carries us in times when we lose the motivation to keep going. He carried me and protected me through this race, and for that I am thankful. I am thankful for life.

Still, I do need to cool it now for a while. And as a friend corrected me, “you must not just try to rest, you must actually rest!”

Well, at this point, I’m so shot that by default I have no other choice!

2014-11-30 20.07.08

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Thanksgiving Marathon – Florence 2014 (Part 1)

My choice of the Florence marathon was inspired in part by someone I met after my last marathon in May. Having traveled to Europe all the way from Portland, he remarked that I could access so many amazing marathons relatively inexpensively from Paris. He had already run 42 marathons, but emphasized experience over time as his main goal. He said, “I figure that if I just keep going I’ll eventually get faster and stronger. I just don’t want to push myself so hard that I stop enjoying it.”

I thought about that. A lot. And I figured, if I can do two marathons, I can certainly do three. And why not hop over to another country for the experience?

So, this was the first time I traveled internationally for a race and also the first time to race in a country where I didn’t speak the language.

I had never been to Florence, but I already knew that I love Italy. And what better place to carb-load for a marathon? Furthermore, the marathon fell over Thanksgiving weekend, so I was happy for the distraction from the fact that I was far from my family and their traditional celebrations. I made the arrangements five months in advance, which meant I got a great deal on travel, registration and accommodation.

However, it’s been a hard year for me physically and that put a damper on my excitement for this race. Once again, my body shut down a few weeks before D-day. I went to see my doctor and at the first meeting, he said it might not be a good idea for me to run this time. In fact, he didn’t want to renew my medical certificate (required for European races). That was only ten days out and I wasn’t feeling well, so I figured if I didn’t run in the end it wouldn’t be so great a loss. I didn’t feel up to it anyway.

He ran some blood tests and a week later gave me the clearance to go ahead but not without a word of caution: “Just take it easy, whatever you do, don’t go out there and give it your hardest effort. Enjoy yourself. Enjoy Florence.” But when is it ever possible to “take it easy” during a marathon?

I walked away thinking, so I’m really doing this thing? I knew I wasn’t physically in top form, but I wasn’t mentally prepared either. I had burnt out a bit, lost motivation. Hopefully the excitement of it all would give me some energy?

The weekend was nice. I relaxed and strolled around the city. Saturday night I met up with some new friends from Paris. During a training run in Paris a few weeks earlier, we had realized that we were running the same race in Florence. It was fun to have dinner together and talk about the race. I followed their lead for gelato afterwards, although I wouldn’t have done so on my own.

By the time I went to bed, I was getting a bad headache. I tried a hot shower, some standard pain meds, and stretching but nothing was helping. Afraid I would wake up with a migraine, I decided to take my migraine medication as a preventative measure to kill the headache, hoping that the resulting drowsiness wouldn’t get me down too much the next day.

I got a decent night of sleep and was in good spirits in the morning. As much as I try to have things planned out in advance, I left my hotel not quite knowing how to get to the start line, which was 2 km away. I had walked all over the city the last two days, but I just wasn’t convinced that I wanted to tag two more kilometers onto the front end of 42.195, especially since I was already a bit groggy. I thought about getting a cab, but it seemed a bit frivolous. The man at the front desk said I could walk across the street to find a special marathon bus that would take me to the start. Brilliant!

I crossed and saw runners walking this way and that, but no bus and no group of people waiting for a bus. So I asked a couple of runners if they knew where the bus was. “No, we’re taking a taxi!” they said. “Oh, can I share it with you then?” I asked. “Sure!” So I jumped in with them. They were a lovely couple from Austria and this would be their 13th marathon. The taxi dropped us a short walk from the start and the 9€ fare split three ways felt good to me, only that the couple wouldn’t let me pay! So sweet. We walked together and chatted on the way to the start area.

In the starting corral, I met with my French friends and together the time passed quickly as we waited for 9:15 am to arrive. I was a little concerned that I was feeling a bit fuzzy as I waited, but figured it was the effect of the medication and that it would pass. It only took minutes for the 1100+ runners to cross the start line. Yet just after we started our watches, the road got so congested that we had to come to a dead stop two or three times within the first few hundred meters! That was unfortunate. I would have rather waited an extra minute before starting than having that minute on the clock! Finally we were rolling, but as we had decided to join a pacing group, we were elbow to elbow for a while.

The ambiance was fantastic in those first kilometers. The pacers were a bit crazy, yelling and cheering in Italian and even though I didn’t understand a whole lot, they had me smiling and laughing, too. I also quickly picked up on the Italian word, “dai,” which means “come on!” But it sounds like “die,” and later in the race, I wanted to yell back, “Yes, I’m dying!!”

Usually the pace would have been fine for me for a long time, but by 10k, I realized that my heart rate was higher than it should have been and so I started to slow a bit and over the next 10k watched the pacer balloons, along with my French companions, slowly fade away in front of me. I was still in the company of four men who were obviously employing the Jeff Galloway method of running/walking. They were in purple shirts and kept passing me, and then falling behind again when they took their walking intervals. I wondered how this method would work out for them. Eventually they plowed ahead.

I also realized by 10k that I was pretty tired. I shouldn’t be tired already at that pace, or this early in the race. Yet I managed to stay quite steady until 20k. By 15k, I was tired of circling parks and while they were pretty and all, I wanted to be back in the city with more excitement, crowds, etc. When is the party starting? I wondered. I thought they were supposed to have a clap competition here. I don’t see anyone clapping! Maybe they only clapped for the elite runners.

I also realized that I was a bit checked-out mentally. That lack of motivation I mentioned earlier? It was only getting worse. What am I doing here anyway? Whose grand idea was this? Maybe I’m not cut out to run marathons. Maybe I should stick to shorter races. I may have a point there. In any distance up to a half marathon, I can usually predict my finish time within a minute. With marathons, I can be accurate only when predicting within a 30-40 minute window!

I tried to assess where my head was, how I could get rid of the negative thoughts and motivate myself to push forward, or if I even wanted to. And I realized that I wasn’t all there. Still moving, but mentally drifting. It wasn’t like what I had experienced during my first or second marathon, when I was present from beginning to end. It was different, and it wasn’t looking good. I simply didn’t care enough. Oh no, what to do?

Searching for God’s Rest

I’m in a funk. I am exhausted but I can’t sleep. I have things to process but I don’t want to think. I have places to be, but I don’t want to go anywhere. I don’t want to talk to anyone and I don’t want to go on…

This was me mid-June. By that time, I felt like I was just going through the motions. I had made it through a busy year, but I didn’t know how to continue. I was exhausted in every way – emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Problem is, it wasn’t the first time in my life that I’d found myself in such a state. In fact, the feeling is all too familiar. When I’ve pushed myself too far, I tend to start withdrawing emotionally while continuing to go through the motions, so people may think I’m okay. In fact, I may even think I’m okay! Until I break down physically.

So this is the first time in my life that I put the brakes on before I crashed. Every other time, I would continue down this road and then wake up in a hospital bed. I remember once feeling absolutely relieved to be in that hospital bed because it meant that I couldn’t continue to go through the motions anymore. However, spending time in the hospital does not provide the true rest that my body needs (what with nurses coming to take my blood at all hours of the night!) nor was it the place for emotional and spiritual recovery. It was merely recovery from being overworked and, essentially, self-abused. As soon as I had enough energy, I would be back in the race of life (I’ve even being yelled at by nurses for this!).

It’s been a few years since it got that bad, so it seems as though I’ve learned a thing or two about adding more space to my schedule and more room to breathe. I would always say, “I do sleep at least a little every night, er, most nights!” And that is how I defined rest. So I can honestly say that until this year, I have not really understood how Biblical rest applies to me personally. Toward the end of 2011, God impressed upon my heart the need to learn what rest really means. So I took a big step and blocked out four weeks of the summer, went to a location where I knew no one, with no agenda, and asked God what he wanted to show me about rest. Well, first I simply slept for a few days (actually it took me a while to learn how to sleep again!). Then I learned to be still before the Lord, and hear from him. The lessons are many, but here is a bit of what I learned as it relates specifically to rest.

First, I think that there are many illusions of rest in our lives. It’s possible to carve out a lot of time for things that seem restful but aren’t truly restful or sufficiently restful. For example, sleeping every night is a form of rest, but it is a necessary daily rest that is needed in order to function from day to day. It is also perhaps the form of rest that is most severely abused. How often do we really get sufficient rest on any given night so we can function to the best of our ability the next day (which I guess might mean waking up without an alarm clock and being alert without coffee)? Although I don’t work graveyard shifts anymore like I did in college, I still find that my nights are often cut short for one reason or another.

Another form of false rest could be, for example, watching television. Because of my driven nature, I couldn’t bring myself to even engage in this activity until the last few years. However, following the example of others, I started to come home sometimes, feeling exhausted, and figured that watching a movie or TV show would help me “unwind.” While I think this activity can have it’s place, it became for me more of an escape, because by watching television, I didn’t have to face life’s complications (which at times I really needed to do). It can be relaxing, but it’s not the kind of rest that God offers to us. Along the same lines, procrastination is not true rest, either (if nothing else it adds more stress in the long run).

Taking vacation can be restful, but “vacation” does not necessarily equal rest. A few years ago I went on a road trip with a friend. We covered a lot of ground in a short time, had many early mornings, hit as many attractions as possible and spent a lot of time walking and hiking. When I returned home, I was more exhausted than before I left. Yet I was applauding myself for finally taking a “real” vacation! While it was a fun and interesting trip, it could not be equated with the true rest that God intends for us.

The theme of rest in the Bible is extensive and is covered from Genesis (God rested on the seventh day – Gen 2:2-3) to Revelation (the dead will rest from their labor – Rev 14:13). Much of Scripture’s storyline involves rest. God instituted the seventh day to be the Sabbath rest for his people (Ex. 31:15), the Temple was God’s resting place (Ps 132:8, 14) and God was leading his people into a land of rest (Deut 12:8-11). The theme continues throughout Scripture with more instructions along the way and our eternal promise as believers to enter God’s rest (Heb 4). This summer, God has helped me to better understand the following six lessons about rest.

1. Rest is a gift from God

God promised to give rest to the Israelites throughout their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land (Ex 33:14). Jesus also promises rest to all who come to him (Matt 11:28-30). Yet because it is a gift, it can either be accepted or denied. The Israelites did not enter God’s rest because of unbelief (see Hebrews 4). We can only benefit from this gift if we accept it.

2. Rest is found in the presence of the Lord

God told Moses, who was leading the Israelites out of Egypt, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” (Ex 33:14). Scripture also seems to indicate that finding rest in God’s presence involves a movement away from the noise and business of life and toward God. The Psalmist speaks of finding rest through stillness and quietness in God’s presence (Ps. 23:2; 37:7). Jesus calls the weary away from their work and to himself for rest (Matt 11:28-30, Mark 6:31). Herein I believe lies the difference between the superficial forms of rest listed above and God’s rest. We can stop all activity and still neglect being quiet before the Lord. Scripture also seems to indicate a need for time in God’s presence that extends beyond our daily communication with him through Bible study and prayer. Even though I am in communion with the Lord throughout my daily activities, I definitely found something sacred about stepping away from my daily activity for a time of serenity in God’s presence.

3. Rest is personal

Searching for God’s rest is an individual journey. It cannot be prescribed or forced. I think it may also take different forms based on individual needs and life’s seasons. I was blessed to have four weeks in a place of quiet solitude. Yet this would not be possible or practical for some of my friends who are young mothers. Still, they definitely need time to rest in God’s presence, as well. We should all make it a priority in life to rest, but in a way and space that works in our individual situations. God called me to take drastic action this summer to find rest (something like a detox from my normal routine perhaps?), but I also know that it is possible to find rest in places closer to home and on a more regular basis.

4. Rest is life-giving

In Luke 13:10-17, we read the story of a synagogue leader rebuking Jesus for healing a crippled woman on the Sabbath day. The synagogue leader thought the Sabbath was about rules instead of understanding that true rest comes when we meet with God. The woman found the most important aspect of rest that day – she met with Jesus and was set free from her bondage. It’s so easy to start thinking that Sabbath=Sunday (or another day of the week) instead of realizing that Sabbath=Rest.

The time of rest this summer has definitely been life-giving for me as I have met with Jesus. You could say it’s been hard work as he has been showing me areas of my heart that need to be submitted to him. Yet it has truly been life-giving. It has brought me back to the reality that true life, joy, and peace are found in Christ alone and that all the other cares of life should never creep into that sacred place of intimacy with God.

5. Rest is a discipline

In the context of Sabbath rest, not working is associated with self-denial several times in Scripture (Lev 16:29-31; 23:28-29, Num 29:7). It just seems a bit ironic, thinking of the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42), that Mary was the one denying herself by not rushing about to serve Jesus. From a distance, it seems like Martha was the selfless one.

In our fast-paced world, it is not surprising that many of us find it difficult to step away from our work. How easily work can become an idol, a part of our identity, or an obsession. When God calls us to rest, we are denying ourselves of something that is close to our heart – our work, our labour. It takes humility and vulnerability to be able to walk away from our work in order to come into God’s presence and recognize our utter dependence upon him. Consciously doing that on a regular basis requires discipline. Especially for those of us who are recovering workaholics. In Hebrews 4:10, we are admonished to make “every effort” to enter God’s Sabbath rest.

6. Rest is healing

This is obvious when it comes to sports. Any serious athlete knows that ignoring rest in a training regime will be detrimental to their health and physical ability. We also need time and space for emotional and spiritual healing. Like going to therapy, we need time to process the difficult moments of our lives with our Savior and hear from him about what is right and true for us. If we don’t take time for healing when it is needed, we can start to shut down emotionally or blame God for pain and distance ourselves from him. It is easy to run to others with our pain and find an empathetic ear. It can be difficult to go to the Lord where we risk being convicted about our sin, letting go of our idols and forgiving our offenders. Yet Jesus alone can heal our souls and make us whole again. For an amazing picture of the kind of healing that can be experienced through fasting and entering God’s rest, read Isaiah 57-58.

This summer, I have experienced healing in many areas of my life and I feel like I’m in a much healthier state than I was in June. I think that when we have truly and sufficiently rested, we will be motivated to action, recharged and ready for a fresh start. Thankfully, that is where I am now. It’s a new feeling for me, but definitely a good one. And now as I return to the craziness of life, I realize how important it is to escape for a quiet retreat from time to time—whether it be for an afternoon, a day, a weekend, a week—I  don’t want to live life anymore without fully embracing God’s gift of rest.

Lord, I Believe a Rest Remains
by Charles Wesley, 1740

Lord, I believe a rest remains
To all Thy people known,
A rest where pure enjoyment reigns,
And Thou art loved alone.

A rest where all our soul’s desire
Is fixed on things above;
Where fear, and sin, and grief expire,
Cast out by perfect love.

O that I now the rest might know,
Believe, and enter in!
Now, Savior, now the power bestow,
And let me cease from sin.

Remove this hardness from my heart,
This unbelief remove:
To me the rest of faith impart,
The Sabbath of Thy love.