Even as a recovering perfectionist, I often keep personal goals to myself. Voicing them aloud means two things: 1) someone else will know I failed and 2) now I really have to try. So when asked what time I hoped to run the Tokyo marathon, I’d say that I wanted to finish. That last year I ran it in around 3:41. That a PR (Personal Record) would be nice.
I wasn’t lying, just not telling the whole truth. Unlike last year, I was not selected by the Tokyo Marathon lottery. This year, I wasn’t running it by chance. This year, I knew what I wanted:
I want to run a sub-8 pace…you know, um, to see if I can qualify for Boston, I finally admitted.
And there it was, once said aloud, a goal made real, accompanied by a surge of hope and motivation… ultimately fueled by fear of failing in other people’s sight.
Failure, no longer abstract or looming, weighed on my shoulders, far heavier than the sandbag sensation that took over my legs around mile 16. My head flopped forward as if for my eyes to better see my legs slow to a walk up the overpass after mile 21 .
Is this me? I thought, seeing my legs more like someone else’s legs, like those I’d seen stopping on the sidelines near the end of two previous marathons, like those I swore I’d never be. It was only a matter of seconds, but in those walking steps the world around me swooned to the sound of a record slurring into a backward loop. In that swooning, my mind pre-played an image of me ending here on this hill, fumbling like a newborn deer learning to walk. What made me think that I – who once (ok..and still) believed marathoners were masochistic maniacs — could qualify for Boston? That I was immune from whatever left others broken on the sidelines as I passed by?
Then, just as I’d watched in utter disbelief as my legs slowed, they again began to trot, until I reached the next overpass. Barely steep enough to notice when driving over in a car, the slight slopes that followed made my legs feel like they were not climbing up and over, but sinking.
So I sank. Deeper into me. One breath at time, one step at a time, I recited in my head, trying not to think about how much further I had to go. Distracting myself with music had worked until my fingers were too tired to hit next on my iShuffle, who unsympathetically announced — battery low.
Though surrounded by thousands of runners and strangers shouting “Gambate” (Go for it!), even drummers and dancers performing on the sidelines, I was alone. Just me against myself. Or, depending on the moment, me for myself. A mental battle I tried to drown out, focusing instead on each breath.
Finally the 40km marker. I smiled, knowing that, yes, yes, I could last that final 2km, just over a mile. Optimism returned and my feet sped up. But no matter how much I wanted to move faster, my mind could not convince my legs to run fast enough. I looked down at my watch in time to see the seconds pass 3:30 and then 3:35. Finally crossing that finish line two minutes later was bittersweet. I had finished; I had failed.
Across the finish line awaited cheerful volunteers handing out towels. Overwhelmed by a fusion of relief, satisfaction, and sadness, I robotically smiled back. A thin fog of tears formed and faded, my body too tired to do anything but stumble on.
Up ahead hung rows upon rows of gold medals, shaped like sakura (cherry blossoms), dangling from purple ribbons.
Above stretched a greying blue sky. I paused to snap a photo. To take it all in.
And then I heard her. Whimpers between struggled breaths.
Turning around, I saw a woman about my age struggling to hold herself up, leaning her forearm against a light pole. Her dirty blonde hair, swooped into a ponytail, was slick with sweat. Her shoes dangled limply in her other hand.
A Japanese volunteer with a megaphone approached her. Could she understand him? And he, her?
I wanted to find Tom and the hotel shuttle, still a 15-minute hobble away. I wanted to get my medal and move on.
But again my legs took over, stepping toward her. My arm reached out.
Want help? I asked, hoping she’d brush me off.
Her eyes locked on mine and her hand too reached out.
With arms hooked at the elbows, bodies leaning, we walked forward, strength combined. Medals were soon looped around our necks, plastic bags put in our hands. Like beggars, we opened them for each station we passed, collecting energy drinks, then bananas and oranges.
I’m ok, now, she said. Thank you.
It’s no problem, really, I said, holding my hooked arm out once more.
Again she linked her arm with mine.
Her name was Anna, pronounced like the last half of my name. Anna was from Russia, but had visited San Diego once before. So like me…she too had aimed to qualify for Boston.
I think I came in around 3:30, she said softly. Words that stung until I admitted mine – 3:37 — and how I failed to cross the line in time.
Without dwelling, we walked on.
Before the race that morning, I’d questioned my crazy goal in my journal. Why did I want to qualify for Boston? For pure pageantry? Or to break this spell of perfectionism that has, since early childhood, kept me too afraid of failure to really stretch the boundaries of myself? Or maybe to keep in stride with my husband Tom, whose newfound (albeit hard-earned) speed held tempting symbolism of me, yet again, being left behind?
A mix of these pouty woes, maybe, but really so much more: The purpose that training provides. The rush of adrenaline. The structure of a marked course, a finish line ahead. Each step movement forward not back. Running has become my life metaphor in this way.
So it seemed fitting that in the midst of my pity party I met Anna, the embodiment of my failure. One of those moments when life checks you, pulls you up out of yourself. Though a slight rub in the face, the humble walk arm-in-arm with another’s success left me feeling lighter. That weight upon my shoulders replaced by a golden blossom hanging around my neck, I walked on.