What I learned from my WVU Medicine 13er experience

By April Henry

As I sit at my computer to write, it is three days post half marathon. If you read my previous post, you know that the WVU Medicine 13er marked the first time I was to run that many miles.

It was the biggest fitness goal I had ever set for myself. Along with that overall objective came two specific personal goals: finish in 2:30 or less, and do not walk. I knew both of those targets were rather ambitious for me, but I wanted to aim high.

I also realized that my thoughts were going to take me farther than my legs, so I practiced positive affirmations during my training. While I was running, I told myself aloud: “You are strong. You have great endurance. You’ve got this.” I repeated this mantra over and over during training.

But before I tell you how things went down – and up – on the hilly WVU Medicine 13er course, I’m going to go back a few days.

Everything started to feel strangely real Friday morning when one of my training buddies Carla 

texted me and told me she had something for me. I stopped to pick up a goodie bag she had filled with sports drinks, energy chews, gum, tissues, wipes, lip balm, and sunscreen.

Then after work, I picked up my 8-year-old son from school, and he joined me on a trip to Mylan Park for packet pick-up. Upon arriving, we ran into Carla and another HealthWorks friend, Wendy. Although she did not participate in the 13er because of a recent injury, Wendy served as a water station volunteer.

I left there with my bib number (628) in my bag and a ball of nervousness in my gut. The anxious emotions continued throughout Saturday. My parents arrived, and my husband Mike updated the iPod, so the half marathon playlist was ready to go.

I woke the morning of the race at 5 a.m. I drank half a cup of coffee and ate a hard-boiled egg, along with half a banana with cashew butter. I got ready and left the house while everyone else was still sleeping or, at least, sleepy. As soon as I turned onto 705 and saw the cones marking the closed lanes, I cried a few tears. I traveled to Mylan Park to catch the shuttle to the WVU Coliseum, start and finish site of the 13er.

When I got there, I met up with Carla and my other training pals. We took a selfie, went to the bathroom one last time and headed to the start line. The race began rather unceremoniously, in my opinion, and we were off. For the first half, I felt great. I mean, really great. I saw my family and some friends cheering for me, and my music was keeping me pumped in between the cheering.

At the halfway point, there was a water station. I slowed down to drink my water and walked for maybe a minute after that. I was starting to feel really tired, and doubt began to creep in. I never once doubted that I would finish the 13er, but I did have trouble believing that I could meet my goal of completing the race in 2:30. And I knew any walking I did would certainly not help my time. As I ran on Burroughs Street, I was speaking my affirmations, adding “You’re over halfway there.” A couple other ladies near me heard me and encouraged me.

When I hit the 8-mile marker, I noticed a small group of people standing near it. They were being quiet and rather, well, boring, so I yelled out, “Yeah, eight miles! Woo!” I believe that reminded them to cheer for us. Around the 9-mile mark, I remember sucking the juice out of an orange slice and drinking a little more water. But, wow, I was struggling through every step. Near the 10-mile mark, one of the volunteers yelled out, “Ten miles is just around the corner!” Thank God, I thought. Turns out, the 10-mile marker didn't appear for about three more corners, about the same time I saw my family one last time until the finish.

During mile 11, I passed my friend Leigh and her family, and then Wendy soon before the 12-mile

mark. I honestly don't remember seeing markers for 12 or 13 miles. Mentally, I was in a bad place. Despite cheering spectators and encouraging fellow runners, the negative thoughts were winning. I was determined to cross the finish line, but I seriously didn’t know if I could run anymore. I was alternating between walking and running, and I was angry at myself for walking because it felt like failure to me.

On the last part of the course – the uphill stretch of 705 toward the Coliseum – I saw Deb, who was a race spectator that day, on the sidewalk to my right. Deb, pictured below, is one of my 5 a.m. workout buddies from HealthWorks. She is an amazing motivator. She has the gift of pushing people in the kindest way. I don’t remember exactly what she said to me at that moment, but I knew why she was there. We made eye contact, and I started running again. She stuck with me, mimicking my pace, speaking the positive affirmations that I needed but couldn’t muster anymore. She got me to the top of that hill and said, “You’re there now.”

I crossed the street and yearned for the finish line so bad, I was angry that it wasn’t in sight. The course looped around the Coliseum parking lot, which felt like a mean joke. I wanted it to be over in the worst way. Somehow, I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. 

Once I saw the red of the finish line, I picked up my pace. My training friends and family members were cheering. I had made it. I crossed the line, where Helen, a race volunteer and HealthWorks friend, gave me my medal. My mom was crying. Although I thought I would cry, I didn’t at that moment. The mental and physical exhaustion was so overwhelming for me; it stunted any other emotions.

In the hours and days following the race, I have been processing that incredibly grueling experience. Many family members and friends have told me how proud they are of me, how I am an inspiration, how I am a positive role model for my children. To be completely honest, it was difficult to accept their praises. While I did finish, I didn’t meet either of my specific goals.

Before the 13er, several people suggested that my only goal should be to finish. At the time, I felt as though that was sort of a lame objective. I already had decided I was going to finish; that was a given. I wanted to set a higher standard. I wanted to challenge myself to do something unknown. Because that’s what winners do. They set big goals because it forces them to work harder than they would if they set the bar lower.

In one sense, it might seem as if I set myself up for failure. And I did carry that burden in the couple days following the race. I had walked some during the 13er, and my time was 2:36. I beat myself up and spoke so much negativity, like “If you hadn’t walked, you would’ve met your goal time.”

But through counseling with my mentors and writing this cathartic piece, I have reconciled my feelings of failure with what I achieved on Sunday. Despite my mental breakdown in the last three miles, I kept going. I didn’t give up. No, that last stretch didn’t go how I planned, but I pushed through anyway. So I didn’t fail. Because the only way to truly fail is to give up.

Winners know that the road to success is full of failures. Author John C. Maxwell is a master at teaching this concept of “failing forward” – learn from the so-called failures and keep going.

The most valuable lesson I learned from the WVU Medicine 13er experience is this: Perfectionism is a joy stealer. I thought I’d kicked my deep-seated perfectionist mindset – and I’ve come a long way over the past couple years – but, boy, did it make an appearance the past few days.

Not only did my perfectionism steal some of my joy, but I believe it tarnished the gifts that so many people tried to give me in the form of hugs or compliments. I was not completely receptive to their praise because I let my perfectionism win.

As I was running the 13er, I thought to myself, Never again. I might have to throw away my running shoes after this.

But Monday morning, as I sat at the table and ate breakfast with my 3-year-old daughter, who was recounting how she cheered “Go, Mama!” during the race, I looked down at my coffee mug. On it were the words, “Carry On Warrior,” a phrase frequently used by author Glennon Doyle Melton.

So I started contemplating my next half marathon. Because I have a goal to reach. Because that’s what winners do. They keep carrying on, like warriors.