A couple of weeks back, during week 10 of marathon training,  the long Saturday run was a scheduled 15 miles. Fifteen miles, I thought, is only 1.9 miles longer than I’ve ever run before–1.7 if I count that during one of my half-marathon races, my watch calculated I’d actually gone 13.3. One-point-seven miles seemed very doable, and I thought about it all week long. I thought about it during my morning 7-miler on Wednesday and while I was working on syllabi on Thursday. I thought about how to calculate 15 miles on a road atlas when I was making dinner. I imagined a 15-mile radius around me from a birds-eye view as I did my daily errands, keeping track of how far I’d have to go before my apartment wasn’t in my bubble any more. But I was always safely tethered to home.

On 18 August, my partner and I drove down to a canoe drop on the Des Plaines River Trail about two trail miles north of Old School Forest Preserve. (Most definitely more than 15 miles away from our apartment.) We planned to run to the park (2m), run around the larger outer loop adding the small pond mile (4m), run the inner loop (1.5m), run the fitness loop twice (2m), run the inner loop one more time (1.5m), and run enough of the outer loop to be back at the Des Plaines around mile marker 13 so we could end at the car. Neither of us had been to this park before. We chose it because we wanted to run somewhere we hadn’t already run approximately 45 times before in the three years since we’d lived near the IL-WI border. We also wanted somewhere safe we could leave water bottles on the path, and somewhere with lots of shade. Old School delivered. And yet, despite Old School’s beauty and protection from the sun, while completing our first inner loop–about mile 8–things started to go south.

Traditionally, this is the moment in a half marathon when my mind starts to get the best of me. When I’m at 8 miles, I’ve been running for over 75 minutes, my arches are starting to hurt, my hips have been screaming since mile 5, and I try to console myself with the thought that I only have 5.1 miles left. And then my mental-heart breaks. Five-point-one miles seems very doable when I’ve been running for 2, and impossible when I’ve been running for 8. But not today, not for me at least. My mental-heart is light, so light that I’ve turned off my music and am  just enjoying the scenery and the quiet. The idea running through my head at the time came from Cheryl Strayed’s Wild:

Foot speed was a profoundly different way of moving through the world than my normal modes of travel. Miles weren’t things that blazed dully past. They were long, intimate straggles of weeds and clumps of dirt, blades of grass, and flowers that bent in the wind, trees, that lumbered and screeched. They were the sound of my breath and my feet hitting the trail one step at a time and the click of my ski pole. The PCT had taught me what a mile was.

For me, training for this marathon was reminding me each day of the lesson I had to keep learning: what it means to run one mile. And jogging under the protection of those woods, while working my way up to the longest I’d ever been out on my feet, I could tell that I was working hard but I was happy.

*

But at 8 miles, D is not enjoying anything. We stop and talk about it, but she sees no way out of the mental hole and I fail to say the right things. And then I fail to do the right things. We keep pushing into the fitness loop, tension building like a finger pushing into a blown-up party balloon.  We stop three or four more times before we hit 11.5 and decide to go separate ways: me, back on the inner loop and toward the car with that 2-mile stretch of path in the sun through fields and hills, while D opts to keep running more flat fitness loops in the dense part of the woods. We make a plan to meet back up and then we disappear from each other.  Sometimes it is easier to push through something when you are alone–when there is no other option but to rely on yourself.

At this point, I have been thinking about the number 15 all week, but now I’m just thinking about water. I take a long drink from the nearest fountain, run to the next fountain a half mile ahead–my water bottles are all on the outer loop, which is now out of the way. When I see a fountain for the last time before getting on the Des Plaines trail, after I’ve been running for over 2 hours, I tell myself that I won’t need any more water, that I’ll push through and make it. The water bottle back in the car is the foremost image in my mind’s eye. Even though it feels like my body could overheat at any step, I don’t.

*

15mileField

This pic was taken by some random Google user, and it is a pretty accurate view of the Des Plaines trail that links up with Old School, about .2 miles from the opening of the park. This field was an ocean of yellow on both sides when I was panting my way through it, looking at my watch. It was here that I took my first steps past the longest distance I’d ever run. In that moment, even though I couldn’t stop to saver it, lest I not be able to get my legs working again, I felt like Sam in Fellowship. The hobbit is intensely aware that if he takes the next step, he will be farther from home than he’s ever been.  It is early in the book, and very early in his journey, but a challenge he must overcome before he can attempt anything else. And then he does. And so did I.

That last hilly stretch after my moment of bliss in the field was primal. I finally stopped thinking about distance and ran toward water. When I reached the car–my watch blinked 15.04 miles. I was beat, but not beaten. I held the button until the display said: END.

During week 11 of marathon training, the long run was 16 miles, and the week-day runs leading up were 4, 8, and 4. I ran my first 4-miler on Tuesday evening, and then got up to run the 8-miler early Wednesday. Afterward, my body knew it was time to stop running. I ended up skipping the second 4-miler, listening to my body and opting for rest. Even though I knew it was the right thing to do, I was sad because it felt like I wasn’t doing my homework and sadder because I felt like I couldn’t do my homework if I tried. I rested up, and D and I ran all 16 miles that Saturday on more familiar ground, together, without music, talking the whole way. While both weeks were challenges to go farther than we’d ever gone, the second week was made easier by the first. We were stronger in many ways. In fact during the 2+hour run, I never once thought about it being the longest run yet–that came later. Out there, in the process, it was simply one mile after the next.

map_DesPlainesRiverTrail (see page 2 for Oak Spring Road and Old School)

map_OldSchool (all the loops)

 

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