Henry David Thoreau tells us: “What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lives within us.”
Never do I experience the truth of this quote with such clarity as while running. But like so much of my life, particularly in regard to anything challenging, my years of running have taught me how to apply endurance to other pursuits.
I don’t race much anymore. I run less for competition and more for the sheer meditative place I find through my runs. But I used to compete all the time. Running is never easy, but then life isn’t easy either. And running has taught me how to embrace this: life can be difficult at times. And we must find ways to live fully in spite of these difficulties.
There’s no way around this.
It’s often mentioned that the last six miles of the marathon are when the race really begins. This is when a fatigue sets in; legs that bounced along effortlessly feel like lead pipes attached to your body, but almost foreign, heavy to lift with every stride. Any minor ache that you had in the beginning starts to be pain, real pain. Your neck is stiff; you may wonder how your head is even still looking straight ahead. Your shoulders are tight. There’s a good chance your stomach feels weird, between the pre-carb load, the extra fluid and the power gels, things might be moving around in there. Everything hurts, even your hair. Then there’s the hunger. A hunger that can’t be satiated with power gels or bananas settles in. It takes strong mental fortitude to keep going.
It takes everything you have, really.
Forget the miles and miles you ran to get to the last part of the race or the last six miles you have to go. No, at this point none of that matters. All that matters is what you have inside of you, what lives inside of you, your resolve, your will, maybe even some stubbornness, your absolute refusal to give into the pain and just to keep going and going. To finish the journey you started.
It has been my experience during marathons that it’s really the last four miles where the pain settles in and you wonder what you might have ever been thinking when you set out to run 26.2 miles. Everyone is different, of course. But for me, it’s always been the final four where I’ve needed every single ounce of psychological strength and will that I have to keep going.
But let’s put the running sneakers aside for now. And talk about life in general.
We set a goal for ourselves. We make lists; develop a plan for how to achieve what we want. Maybe it starts out smoothly; we’re energized and excited by the opening of all the new possibilities. It starts out easy, maybe there a few tiny bumps, but they’re easy to overcome because we have a full tank of reserves to pull from. We’re not weary yet.
Unforeseen obstacles emerge, and we navigate them. We keep going. And going.
We’re getting closer, but the closer we get the harder it becomes. We’re tired, maybe even wondering if we’ll ever get there. Small hurdles feel like mountains and we’re losing our momentum. Maybe we’re not meant to accomplish this. Maybe it’s time to quit.
This is the final four miles. Now, I will put the running sneakers back on, but use them only as a metaphor.
I have applied this final four mile ideology to many life challenges. For example, the last year of my doctorate was a regular nightmare. Exhausted, financially drained, my passion for the research dwindling when I needed it to finish my dissertation, I thought about quitting, dropping right out. Forget the damn dissertation; I’ll work with my master’s degree. Or something. Anything. Anything, just to relieve the pressure I felt that last year.
This was the final four miles.
It was my Mother who reminded me. She said, “Use what you know from your marathons to finish. You can do this.” My Mother was filled with life wisdom. She never ran, but she understood the process of running, how it was a life metaphor for me. She understood the importance of endurance.
I finished my dissertation and earned my doctorate.
I must admit, I’m not one to take the easy route. Even in running, I prefer hilly courses, to flats. But that does not mean that I don’t have times when I want to give up. The aforementioned dissertation hurdle is just one example.
I find this happens when I’m writing a book too. It starts out freeing, exhilarating. I look forward to my morning writing sessions. And the more time I have to write, the better. But right near the end, the last fifty pages or so, my brain is exhausted; I don’t wanna get out of bed. Five more minutes under my comforter. Maybe I should just stop writing this book. Maybe I should stop writing all together. This is really hard.
Then I think of the final four miles.
I put my metaphorical running sneakers on, make coffee and boot the computer up. I write and write until I’m finished.
“What lives within us,” Thoreau said. We all have this ability whatever it is we choose to endeavor upon. We all have this living within us: the ability to run those final four miles, regardless of what comes our way.
And like so many things in life that hold great value, it most likely won’t be easy. In fact if it is easy all the way, than you’re probably not challenging yourself or taking risks. Don’t stop when it gets hard. Please. I have seen this struggle in so many people. Please don’t give up. We all can run those final four miles and finish, no matter how hard, as long as we don’t give up.
Sometimes I get really discouraged. Sometimes I’m really exhausted. Sometimes my pursuits seem so hard, nearly insurmountable. But those finally four miles, the experience of running them, live within me. When I want to give up, I think of them. Take a deep breath and keeping going. And going.
I don't know any other way to live.
We have to let go, believe in ourselves, and keep going toward the things that give our life meaning. Whatever they are, no matter how hard, we have to keep going.
I hope you run the final four miles every opportunity you have.