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You Can Do Hard Things (and 13 Other Lessons Running is Teaching Me)

When I was a sophomore in high school my PE teacher made my class run one mile every Friday. It was terrible. After only a couple of laps around the gym, I was a sweaty mess and felt like I was going to puke. I *might* have found some creative ways to occasionally miss class on Fridays.

Fast forward 19 years. My sister Abby asked me to train for a half marathon with her. I love the idea of a good challenge and am always eager to spend time with my sister, so I agreed. I had no idea how I was going to run 13.1 miles, but if I've learned anything since becoming a mom it is that I can do hard things.

And I did. I crossed the finish line of the City of Trees Half Marathon last October. It was hard and slightly unpleasant and pretty fantastic all at the same time. So I signed up for another race and then another and another. Things were getting serious. I started reading about running, picking my runner friends' brains for tips, and joined Fit4Mom Boise's running club. And I ran. A lot. Many days that initial mile was still rough, but it has been worth it. Running has given me time -- time for reflection, time to chat with running buddies, time to lose myself in my music. It is also teaching (and constantly re-teaching) me important life lessons. Predictably, I have learned the most from the toughest runs. And this last race -- The Famous Idaho Potato Half Marathon -- well, it was a beast.

Mile 1: Believe in Yourself

This race, like most late spring and summer ones, started at 7am. I am not a morning person. But in order to eat breakfast, drive to southeast Boise, catch the shuttle to Lucky Peak, and warm up, I had to rise and shine at 4am. By the time I reached the start line, it felt like half the day had gone by. I surveyed the mass of people getting into position. There were signs indicating where you should line up, depending on the pace you intended to run. If I wanted to achieve my goal of finishing in less than two hours, I would have to average nine minute miles. I should start between the eight and ten minute mile signs. But as I made my way there, I hesitated. There were many people who just seemed like they should be faster runners than me lined up farther back. Was I really sure I could do this? After a few minutes of fighting self doubt, I put in my ear buds and got ready to run. This is what I had trained for. I could do this. And that first mile felt better than a first mile has ever felt. I took in the beautiful scenery and got a little teary as I enjoyed running in the midst of hundreds of people. We were all doing this crazy, hard thing together.

Mile 2: But Don't Get Cocky

My watch beeped, indicating that I completed my first mile. I smiled with satisfaction as I noted that I hit my goal pace right on the nose. Maybe I could even finish in 1:50! Dreams of surprising my family and friends as I crossed the finish line ten minutes earlier than anticipated must have distracted me, because when I looked down at my watch after the beep of another completed mile, I was dismayed to find that I had run the second mile thirty seconds faster than I had planned. This would be a happy surprise at mile eleven or twelve, but if there is one piece of running advice that everyone agrees with it is not to start off too fast. Rookie mistake.

Mile 3: We Are So Lucky

Only halfway into mile three and I was already paying for my error. I attempted to find my groove again and tried not to worry about the handfuls of people pouring past me. A memory from the first and only other half marathon I'd ever run kept playing in my mind. I was nearing the end and really struggling. A woman who just radiated joy passed me and exclaimed, "We are so lucky!" I smiled and managed to gasp, "Yes." To have the strength, the time, and the support to undertake this challenge . . . very lucky indeed.

Mile 4: You Can't Change the People Around You, but You Can Change the People Around You

Before I could get too Zen, I came upon a fellow runner who was running at exactly my goal pace but who also happened to have three gels tied to her belt. With each stride, the gels would bounce up and down. The rhythmic swoosh, swoosh, swoosh . . . swoosh, swoosh, swoosh . . . swoosh, swoosh, swoosh almost sent me over the edge. I had two options: accept it or find new people to run by. I sped ahead and enjoyed the newfound quiet.

Mile 5: Don't Be Dumb

By the end of mile five, I was tired. I had been running less than an hour, but the 4am wakeup was catching up with me and I was desperate for an energy boost. I thought of the two "just in case" gummies I had tucked into my hot pink flip belt. When I had experimented with different energy sources during my training runs, the results had never been good. Gels made me super nauseous, bloks bounced around my stomach, and gummies didn't sit well either. Ignoring common sense, I popped one into my mouth. Not only was this a mistake because I knew my sensitive stomach doesn't do well with them, but I was especially dumb not to at least wait until a water station. A couple of sips of water might have helped it go down more smoothly. Not even halfway through the race and my list of mistakes was already starting to add up. Many things are out of your hands when you run, so it is particularly important to be smart about the things you can control.

Mile 6: Finish What You Start

Speaking of control, I admit that I'm a bit of a perfectionist. I was the kid who threw away coloring books when I messed up a page and tore up journals because I was dissatisfied with an entry. One of my strengths is creating a clear vision for what I want to do, but I don't often handle it well when things go astray. So when I saw a lawn chair with a sign that read "Dare you to sit!" there was a part of me that wanted to plop down and quit. I felt way more tired than I should have for only having run six miles. Could I just stop and try again in a couple of weeks? But then I saw her: an angel holding a tray of little cups. I knew that it wasn't an official water station, so it must have just been some nice Boisean out to support the runners going through her neighborhood. Perhaps it was the same person who put out the lawn chair! Still feeling the gummy pinging around my stomach, I gratefully reached for a cup. Just as I put it up to my lips, the lady yelled, "It's beer!" I thrust the cup back at her. That could have been bad! I couldn't help but laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation. I had been taking myself too seriously (a reoccurring problem of mine) and needed to lighten up. I might not be running my ideal race and it was looking like I wouldn't reach my goal, but I could and would finish.

Mile 7: Drink Water (or Don't Be Dumb, Again)

If you have given birth, you probably identify with my concerns about running or jumping or even sneezing with anything at all in my bladder. (Do your kegels, ladies!) So I tend to be overly cautious when it comes to drinking water before a run. As an evening runner it's not usually a problem for me because I can drink water throughout the day and then just stop about an hour before running. But the early morning start time threw me off. I drank three glasses of water with my breakfast and then didn't drink anything at all after 4:30am. Another mistake to add to the list. When my hands started to feel prickly, a headache came on, and waves of nausea overtook me, I cussed myself out. I'll leave the specifics of that internal monologue to your imagination. Maybe I should have just had that beer!

Mile 8: Run with Friends

By this point of the race I was in a pretty sorry state. But then I turned a corner and saw Joslyn and Hayley. Coaches for our run club as well as wonderful friends, these ladies are strong, smart, and total badasses. Their cheers lifted my spirit and reminded me that I can do hard things. Seeing that I was struggling, they offered to join me for a bit. My friends distracted me from the pain with a few funny stories and lots of encouragement. Running is often a solitary endeavor, and sometimes that is exactly what I need to recharge after a hectic day. But running with friends -- especially through the hard miles -- is the best.

Mile 9: It's Ok to Slow Down

Before Joslyn and Hayley left me to finish the last few miles on my own, they told me that I could run ten minute miles for the rest of the race and still meet my goal. This was incredibly reassuring. I had hoped to be running quite a bit faster at this point, but it was ok that I wasn't. I would still finish the race in under two hours!

Mile 10: Pay Attention to the Important Things

I couldn't be more grateful to see Curt, Asher, and Annabelle as I headed into mile ten. My incredible husband had gotten the kids dressed, fed, and across town by 8am. Their smiles and cheers gave me the boost I desperately needed to keep going. After passing them, I briefly thought of the people who weren't cheering me on, who didn't even realize how important this was to me. My stomach isn't the only part of me that is sensitive, and my feelings get hurt more often than I'd like to admit. But instead of getting sad, at that moment I decided to embrace the challenge of paying better attention to the people I love. How many moments have I missed because I just didn't realize how important they were to my family and friends? I am so grateful for a husband who teaches me by his example how to pay attention and show up for all the important things.

Mile 11: Visualize Success

I continued down Park Center to Walnut Street and then on to Warm Springs. Running down these tree-lined streets felt like home. I had run this path multiple times during my eight weeks of training, preparing for and imagining this moment. When Blink-182's "All The Small Things" blasted into my ears, I felt another surge of confidence. I thought again of Curt who convinced me that this catchy song (that we've been listening to since it became popular 17 years ago during our freshman year of college!) is the perfect running song. He had helped me carefully select thirty songs and arrange them to coincide with the various parts of the race. I began with a few slow yet uplifting songs, included ones with faster beats throughout the middle, and finished with two of my all-time favorites. In the days leading up to this race, I listened to the playlist many times and tried to imagine where I would be on the course when each played. This visualization paid off; my body needed to be strong to complete the challenge, but my mind needed to be even stronger.

Mile 12: It's Not Just a Competition

Running is different than so many of the other endeavors I've undertaken. Multiple apps can monitor my progress, tracking pace, distance, heart rate, and cadence. And while it is incredibly empowering to put in the hard work and see immediate and concrete results, it's also tempting to get lost in all the numbers. And then there are all of the people running with me, running past me. I'm not going to pretend that it isn't disappointing to get passed, that it isn't a bit discouraging to realize that I will have to scroll through dozens and dozens of names before finding mine on the results page, but those things really don't matter. I am stronger and healthier and happier than I was when I started running one year ago. That's what is important.

Mile 13: Celebrate

With only half a mile left before reaching the finish line, I focused on a powerful memory I have of running the Hobble Creek Loop. Close to my house, it's a half mile circle around the fields behind the West YMCA. I run this path multiple times a week, but about six weeks ago I realized that could run it fast. Like really fast. Joslyn and Hayley had instructed me to incorporate speed work into my training schedule, so one evening I passed the double stroller to Curt and took off. My goal was to run half a mile as fast as I could, run the second half of the mile at an easy pace, and then repeat the pattern several times. I don't think I had ever tried to run really fast before. It felt incredible, like I could do anything. With the end almost in sight, I channeled this memory and gave the last leg of the race everything I had. I crossed the finish line and immediately found an empty patch of grass to collapse onto. All of the mistakes and little disappointments faded away. It was time to celebrate.

I can do hard things.