I told myself, “I’ll just run for five miles -- maybe seven. Just far enough to clear my head.” I hadn’t been gradually increasing my workouts. Hadn’t even really considered running a full marathon. A half marathon at the Avenue of the Giants a few months previously had seemed like plenty. I remember how I resented guys passing me whom I had passed previously -- just because their “bathroom breaks” didn’t take as long. I had felt strong and full of wonder that day, with the giant trees so graciously presiding over the scurrying, busy little humans down below.
This, however, was the day of the annual San Francisco Marathon which takes you through Golden Gate Park, along the ocean, and then back into the park again. My thinking was that once a little deep breathing and purging sweat had me feeling better, I’d find a way to get to the finish line in time to cheer my boyfriend over. I didn’t expect to run with him even at the start. We trained together most days but he always kept a faster pace during a race.
After I’d run about 3 or 4 miles, I found myself having a conversation -- between breaths -- with a very young, boyish and sturdy Irish rugby player. We seemed pretty well paced for each other -- so we just kept running along side by side, sometimes talking, sometimes not. My knowledge of rugby went from zero to minimal in the next few miles.
Then much later a strange thing happened… Well, two strange things: One, I was still running at mile 18 -- and two, the mega-muscled young rugby player hit the proverbial wall that runners talk about, and called it quits at one of the water stations. All those huge muscles that served him so well in rugby just locked up and refused to move him forward anymore.
So I waved and flew by -- an almost 30, hung-over, under-trained and cranky (initially) woman -- finishing my first marathon in just under 4 hours.
Much later in life it hit me. A robust young athlete has limitations. I have limitations. Everyone has limitations. (I was really feeling mine at about 2 pm the morning after my triumph. Getting to the bathroom required climbing three steps. I crawled.)
Seems obvious -- we all have limitations. Of course, or this would be a peaceful world full of soaring accomplishment and uninterrupted joy.
But we all have genius too. Seems like it should be a law of physics: “All organic beings are flawed and limited. However, these limitations are equivalently counterbalanced by the potential for brilliance and the compulsion to grow wherever we place our focus.”
Sounds too simple to say that we can just choose a new direction and stick to it and we’ll excel. No, I’m not saying that I could ever have competed and excelled in a Rugby match, or have taken technology to the next level, or taken up photographic safaris for a living... or any number of other magnificent things people do --just by shifting my focus. Native ability, talent and inclination have their place in our destinies too.
But I do believe that focus has magic in it. The list of miraculous arrivals of people and stuff and fortuitous 180 degree turns have been too frequent in my life.
I still have to remind myself that if I’m running a race, whether it’s running down the road or running towards a freer, more purposeful existence -- that it’s not about my limitations -- or my preparations -- half so much as it’s about where I’m focused.
Am I thinking about, talking about, planning for not making it to the next “finish line”? Or am I thinking about, talking about, planning for breaking through my current limitations and running towards a greater and greater sense of freedom and creativity?
I believe this is the right question to ask myself -- regularly! The challenge comes when I intermittently don’t listen to myself, and start listening instead to all the distracting, disturbing, unceasing noise out there.
So grateful that I’ve listened over the years to so many great thinkers who pull me back from the brink of going deaf to my own best voice.