By Eliot Godwin
The modern marathon as a sporting event was inspired by the fabled story of Philipedes, who ran from the battlefield at Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory over the Persians. After uttering his last words, “joy to you,” he promptly collapsed and died. When I ran the L.A. Marathon earlier this month, I wasn’t bringing any news to anyone in particular, but I certainly felt like collapsing and death was probably in play at some point.
You see, I took the marathon lightly. I went to the weekly training sessions because my counselor suggested I get involved in any and all physical activities offered at Beit T’Shuvah. Running a few miles on Sunday mornings seemed like a logical extension of that. I’d train for the half-marathon and just run the full on race day like no big deal. I rarely considered the marathon as an actual task; in my mind it felt more like just the end of my Sunday running appointments.
Even on race day I complained about having to get up so early (4:30 A.M.) and tried to sleep as everyone else stretched and got excited for the race. When the race finally started, I felt great and decided I’d have no problem keeping pace with my friend who had been training seriously for months. This went against everything our coaches had repeated week after week, but I was a lifelong athlete, I’d played a Division I sport in college (12 years ago, mind you) and how long is 26.2 miles, really?
It’s long. By mile eight, I’d given up on keeping pace with my friend but I still thought I’d be able to finish no problem. At mile ten the five-hour pace runner had come and gone and I started feeling…a little less confident. At the halfway point I was supposed to stop and take a van to the block party at mile 19 but something about that just felt wrong. Get in a van while my fellow runners continued to suffer? Quit halfway and go party? It seemed like a metaphor for how I had lived my life thus far. I’d take a passion project lightly so when I inevitably quit halfway through, my lack of follow through wouldn’t carry much sting.
I was drawn to gambling because there was little effort and/or preparation required but lucrative, tangible results were attainable. No effort, cash reward? Sign me up! But I soon found out the principles of life don’t change just because you’re in a casino. Add compulsive addiction to the mix and I was licked. Preparation and discipline are key to any type of success, they just manifest in different, sometimes more subtle ways. I thought I could get by on my wits and guile, like a college student who shows up to a sociology midterm half-drunk expecting to ace it. But college and casinos aren’t real life until you leave.
At Beit T’Shuvah I’ve learned that pain and hardship are inevitable. Our impulses can often be damaging and will always be there, but preparing accordingly to deal with them will afford us a healthy, balanced life. Sitting with discomfort is possibly the most important part of overcoming addiction. My sojourns to the casino were attempts to not only completely escape the difficulty of life but to live life on my own terms, without the pain. And what did I eventually find in the casino? Pain, destruction and misery on a whole new level.
At mile 15 the pain was so great that I convinced myself I wouldn’t be able to finish. After all, I had only trained for the half-marathon, was it so bad if I stopped at mile 19? 19 miles was a lot, a terrific accomplishment. But when I scoffed my way through the halfway point I had committed to finishing. They say running a marathon is more mental than anything. At that point my body was telling me to stop and my mind was agreeing wholeheartedly. I was convinced I would need a wheelchair for months and that my knees would be irreparably injured. But something inside of me kept whispering, “finish.” At the 19th mile block party, stopping was never a real option as my friends cheered me on with hugs and high fives. The surge of confidence and adrenaline I got from this brief interlude carried me until my mind again intervened with the realization that “you’re almost there!” really meant, “you have more than seven more miles left.”
Through miles 20-23 I saw multiple people carried away on stretchers, heard people talking about a 28-year old male who had a heart attack (I’m 34), and was passed by the older brother of Rip Van Winkle on one crutch. Still I persisted. The pain was unbearable but I bore it proudly like the medal of supreme achievement that would soon hang on my neck. After a few more miles, I could see the finish line! When I finally finished and obtained one of the few remaining medals, a race volunteer promptly removed it from my neck and replaced it with the half-marathon medal that matched my special yellow bib. The look of confusion and exasperation on my face must have been enough to persuade one of the blithe, less-experienced volunteers to give it back.
I’ve always thought my shortcomings were the result of my refusal to finish what I’d started, not a lack of confidence. I thought I had confidence in spades and I just didn’t care enough to follow though on anything meaningful. But really I didn’t believe in myself enough to allow myself to fail. I was scared of what would happen if I finished something I cared about and it wasn’t all that good. I finished the marathon in six hours and 45 minutes. Over that span, the winner of the race could have run three marathons and still have time left over for a shower, a shave, and a leisurely cab ride to the airport. Instead of being upset with myself for taking so long, I am filled with confidence because I finally committed to something and I followed through to the end. It may not have been the Greeks defeating the Persians, but it was definitely a joyous occasion for me.
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