A bright yellow banner stretched high above the road ahead, marking mile 22 of the Los Angeles Marathon. I ran toward it, estimating that it would take me about a minute to get there. As I glanced down at my watch, disappointment rippled through me: I didn't have a minute.
I was making my third attempt to get into the prestigious Boston Marathon; gaining entry is a status symbol among distance runners. At mile 20, I had calculated that if I held an eight-minute pace, I could cross the finish line at mile 26.2 in three hours and 40 minutes, the time I needed to qualify for Boston. I passed mile 21 exhausted and 15 seconds off pace. I'll make up the time over the next few miles, I rationalized.
I ran on, my mind wrestling with the concept of 21 miles. Wow, I just ran 21 miles. Then, Only 21? Each mile had settled into my body as well: Mile 18 was a knot on the side of my rib cage; 19 and 20 clung to my quads. As much as I willed my body to go faster, it wouldn't. When I ran under the mile 22 banner 30 seconds off pace, I paused--not in my pace but in my mind, as if choosing whether or not to accept that Boston would not be my next marathon. I tried to avoid the decision as my body ran on autopilot. Denial soon turned to disappointment, then to fatigue. I slowed to a walk.
The chants of cheerleaders--"Yes, you can!" and "We believe in you!"--floated through the 70-degree heat to packs of weary runners. A man stood outside his house holding a green garden hose, spraying cool water for the runners. His son offered orange slices. I resumed my run.
Despite the tiredness still slowing me, I managed to keep running. The words of my coach echoed in my head: "You are not your marathon time." I realized that my desire to qualify threatened to drain the life out of my race. Mile 23 loomed ahead. I looked at my watch, but as I calculated a new finishing time, I wondered if I was setting myself up for disappointment again.
I listened to the sound of my feet hitting the pavement as I inched closer to the end. At mile 23, a long line of people in white "L.A. Marathon" T-shirts passed out cups of water. I grabbed two, gulping one and pouring the other down my neck. I can do another mile, I thought--and when I got to mile 24, I thought the same thing. I focused on the power, beauty, and difficulty of the mile.
Each mile became my moment; I took the remaining ones individually, trusting that they would add up to 26.2. That final stretch pushed me to distinguish between striving for a goal and being defined by it. I understood that aiming for a particular finishing time was not the culprit; being bound to it was.
When the mile 25 banner came into view, I looked at my watch again. Boston was out of reach, but clocking my best time was not. As I ran, I tried both to hold that possibility and to let go of its significance, and I crossed the finish line exhausted and awash in emotion. Disappointment lingered, but it didn’t overpower me. Satisfaction--I had indeed run my best time--and relief filled me too. I came away with two things: a deeper respect for marathons and the knowledge that, Boston or not, I would run another one.
Michelle Hamilton writes, runs, and practices yoga in San Francisco, where she also coaches first-time triathletes through the YMCA. This year, she will again attempt to qualify for the Boston Marathon.