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When Things Get Hard

About a thousand years ago, I ran a few marathons. They weren’t fast runs, and they weren’t exactly what I would call fun, but I learned a lot—mostly about myself. Fortunately, some of that knowledge has remained with me today, despite me being a slower and lazier runner than ever. And in a way, that’s kind of the point. On so many levels, running is metaphorical for me.

Throughout those five or six marathons, I experienced all of the same things I go through in my real life, only condensed to 26.2 miles. Standing in the early-morning dark waiting for the race to begin, I felt nervous, but excited. It felt like rain, but it was hard to tell in the damp, cool air. I felt proud of myself standing there. I was ready to give this my best effort. I chose to do this, prepared myself for it, and sat with my anxiety when I was worried about whether I would make it or not.

It’s on those extra-tough days that I have to remember the wall, and that it really just takes putting one foot in front of the other to move to another place.

For the first seven or eight miles of a marathon, it feels almost easy, if there aren’t a lot of other problems, like bad weather, a stomachache, or knee pain. Overall, I feel good at this point—proud of myself, encouraging to the people around me, optimistic about the next few hours. I love this part of my regular life, too—the early hours, when I still feel rested and confident that the day will unfold without problems. By the time six things have not gone the way I imagined they would, I start to feel annoyed. Like in those marathons, when the people around me are talking too much, or running too close to me, or just being irritating. I’m tired now and I’ve definitely begun to lose my sense of humor. It’s also when I start to feel stupid for even attempting something like this. My confidence begins to lag and all I want to do is go home.

Everyone who has ever read about a marathon knows about “hitting the

wall,” that feeling you get at around the 20-mile mark when you still have another six to go—which means an hour, if you’re a slow runner like me. Anyone who has ever hit the wall knows exactly why it was called that. Whatever energy and enthusiasm you once had for this activity is long gone. You’re physically exhausted, you feel sorry for yourself, and you can’t imagine how you’re going to finish or ever feel better, or even take one more step.

I’ve seen this metaphor play out in my daily life in recent weeks. Work is particularly busy, the excitement of the new semester has worn off, I’m tired, and I am easily annoyed and irritated. After a long time in education, I definitely see a semester like I do a marathon. There are highs and lows and at least one wall, if not more. It exists in the natural unfolding of all of our pursuits—whether it’s work, relationships, raising children, or running long distances. We reach a point—or several—at which going forward feels nearly impossible.

Once, during the California International Marathon in Sacramento, it rained for 20 of the 26 miles. By the time I reached the wall, near Fulton Avenue and Fair Oaks Boulevard, where my mother was going to be waiting to cheer me on, she had been forced home by the weather. If I hadn't already felt filled with pity, not seeing her there was all it took for me to want to find the sag wagon and head home. I’d love to attribute my finishing that run to some internal strength or even some higher power. But really, who knows what kept me going? I know I walked a little, tried to calm myself and encourage myself in whatever way I could. I also knew that, within a few minutes, I’d probably start to feel better. It's just what happens.

I’m mustering some of that marathon energy this weekend. I’m tired, I have a cold, and I have a lot of work ahead of me before the semester ends. I know that going to that place where I start to lose my confidence is the last thing I need to do. The wall really calls for what we all have inside ourselves—our own, private reserves. It’s what has gotten us through third-grade bullying, crazy adolescence, uncertainty in college, marriages, body issues, loss, depression, anxiety, and bad hair days. It’s what we have in us. We developed it ourselves and, if we’re smart, we have learned to cultivate it and draw on it when we need it. On most days, I know very clearly that I can make it through hard times. It’s on those extra-tough days that I have to remember the wall and that it really just takes putting one foot in front of the other to move to another place.

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