There is no troll under the bridge in this story. There’s not even a trail in this story…
The sun is beating down mercilessly, so hot it takes my breath away. The air is so hot and dry that drinking doesn’t even help any more.
I stop and look up. Runners pass me, heads down, looking defeated. The sun, strangely, looks tiny, a tiny little dot that is taking away every will I have to keep going. Ahead of me is an overpass, promising a brief moment of shade. Beyond that, the road continues uphill. It’s not steep, but at this moment it is just too much. Maybe if I could get just a tiny bit of cool water, instead of the warm water at the aid stations, maybe then I could go on. Maybe some shade, more than the tiny bit that the bridge will offer, maybe then I could go on. But beyond the bridge, the heat shimmers on top of the pavement and the sky is clear from horizon to horizon. I stand as runners shuffle past, and I know I can’t go on.
I walk to the bridge and stop in the shade. A low concrete barrier lines both sides of the road, and I sit down. Here I will sit until a sag wagon comes. I’ll flag it down and climb in. Inside, the air will be cool. Maybe a sympathetic volunteer will give me an ice cold bottle of water. I’ll ride in comfort to the finish line. I know I won’t have to wait long, there are plenty of shuttles, one goes by every few minutes.
As I wait, I think of how long I have wanted to run this marathon. I think of my joy when I made it through the lottery. I think of my training runs. I put a lot into this, my training was perfect. I think of the medal that would have been waiting at the finish line, and of my family, who will be waiting at the finish line. I think of their reactions, surprise followed by sympathy. Like all good families they will help me rewrite this story so that it’s not really a failure. It was just too hot. It’s amazing that anyone finished… and then I’ll try again next year.
I think that’s the thought that got me, waiting a whole year to try again, remembering for a whole year that I climbed into an air-conditioned van instead of finishing what I came here to do.
I start to cry when I realize that I can’t get in the shuttle, that I can’t give up. It’s hard to breathe when you’re sobbing. I think somebody asks if I’m okay, but maybe I imagined that, in any case I don’t answer. I’m not okay.
I stand up and walk through the remainder of the shade, then I start to run. I start at a shuffle, but I gradually pick up my pace and make it over the hill. I’m just past the marker for mile 19 when a shuttle passes me.
Now I’ve completed the St. George Marathon six times, it’s the only road race on my calendar these days. The second time, the bridge seemed to appear so soon, I felt so good! When I saw the bridge, I smiled, probably a big, stupid smile. When I ran under the bridge, I was startled when a sob escaped me, and then another. I had to walk, trying to breathe normally, trying to keep my emotions a secret. I’m not really a crier. A lot of people cry during and after events, from happiness, relief, pain… a section of Daughters of Distance, by Vanessa Runs, is dedicated to this phenomena, and it seems to occur regardless of gender, fitness level or experience in the sport. My daughter cries at the end of most events, something that was pretty confusing for her husband the first time he witnessed it.
“Are you okay? Was it bad?”
“No, it was great! I’m so happy!”
But I don’t really do that. Except EVERY SINGLE TIME I run under that bridge. Six years. No reason to think it will change. Some of the years have been relatively easy, like that second year (the bridge is here already!?!) and some have been closer to that first year (there’s that cursed &#*$&%@ bridge!).
Now the bridge is a symbol to me. It reminds me what I need to do when struggles seem too difficult. That few moments of my life, six years ago, was actually an epic battle of my mind against my body. One of the benefits of endurance sports is that you learn to triumph. You learn to suck it up. You learn to think of that year of regret, and decide that you really can take another step.
Struggling through a marathon isn’t the same as raising a child, making a marriage work, or maintaining a successful career. It’s not the same as having a sick parent, losing a family member, or dealing with illness and injury.
And yet, in a way, it is.
So my advice, take it or not, is this:
When you think you can’t, even when you absolutely know you can’t, maybe just take one more step. Maybe, after all, you can.