Monday, May 3, 2010

Thoughts on the Finish Line

Everyone starts things. From college, to home improvement projects, to novels, to arts and crafts, many of us start long-term projects with no deadline or end in sight, and many of us leave those things undone and never finish. In my case, I have at least three unfinished counted-cross stitch projects in a drawer someplace, many poems that have never left draft form, and a garden that I continue to pull weeds from yet never get around to choosing and planting real plants. We all know someone who never finishes anything, having college debt for degrees they don't have and half finished basements. Perhaps it's because seeing something through to the bitter end means another responsibility is right around the corner, or now that the degree is awarded one must attempt to find work in their field or somehow succeed in it. That alone comes with fears of success, or lack thereof, or simply the unknown in general.

Last weekend I had a first experience of standing at the finish line of a local 10K/5K race my in which my friends were participating and I was not. I stood in the rain for well over an hour, under an umbrella, schlepping their warm-up clothing and goodie bags from the starting line to my car after the start gun. Then I went to settle in at the finish line and watched all the runners finish their race. There were so many of them that I could barely identify my com padres, but it was fun to see people finishing and cheer for total strangers putting in the final burst of energy to shave a few seconds off their time. I felt a sense of pride for each and every one of them, because I know they came from all levels of training and what it takes to finish a race, especially your first one.

Yesterday I had my own opportunity to cross the finish line, as a runner, in my first half marathon. When I first started entertaining the idea, I went to the race website several times but never signed up. I printed the registration form and let it sit in my desk for days before filling it out, filled it out and let it sit again for days before mailing it. I was terrified to commit, because I knew it meant I had to finish. The training lasted about two and half months and had its ups and downs, fears, tears, and joys. In the days leading up to the race, I was ready. Still scared, but ready.

Everything went wonderfully until the very last mile. I was pushing hard to stay on target to meet my time goal, and I was exhausted. My legs were burning and felt like they were full of buckshot. My breathing was difficult to control, and I was starting to feel light-headed. With light-headedness came a touch of fear that I might pass out. With that fear came extreme nausea and I was certain I was going to throw up at any second. I had to pull back and walk, with only a half mile left! I don't know for sure if it was fear that made me feel so sick, or if it was the sheer physical challenge of the run itself, or my failure to properly fuel myself during the run with electrolytes, but my way of contending with the nausea was to walk it off.

At the finish line, just a minute over my time goal, I was extremely disoriented yet euphoric at the fact that I finished. Since it was my first half, and the longest run I'd ever attempted, I decided not to beat myself up over the lost minute and simply be proud of all the training hours and the overall quality of the run, which far outweighed the lack of quality in the last seven minutes or so.

Now that I have finished a half-marathon, I need to look forward and figure out my next goal. A new goal means a new training schedule, and something else to accomplish. Maybe that's why some people have trouble finishing things: finishing something inevitably leads to starting something else. It means new endeavor, new unknowns and fears, and going through the whole process all over again. But running has taught me that while the workouts change and the challenges seem more daunting, each new goal builds on previous goals and leads to a new and beautiful experience. I can't explain why we feel fear for a new stage, and why we often resist going to new stages and pushing our own growth, often relying on external motivators to change instead. But I do know that using internal motivation is a lot more satisfying and leads to a greater sense of control and empowerment than simply floating willy-nilly on the river of life. Sometimes, that means crossing a finish line.