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  • Dylan Roche

Runner’s Warning: Training to Overcome Life’s Challenges

Red sky in the morning, runner’s warning.

Okay, that’s not exactly the expression. But a red sky in the morning is just as ominous to runners as it is to sailors or shepherds. And on this particular morning, it was a warning I wasn’t happy to see.

Make no mistake, it was definitely beautiful. The expanse of fire-colored clouds stretched across the sky over the Atlantic Ocean. It was an image my iPhone camera couldn’t adequately capture, I woefully observed as I stood on the bulkhead looking out over the beach. My Instagram followers would have to settle for a second-rate shot. I lowered my phone and stared out at the sky.

Atlantic City’s casinos and resort hotels stood silhouetted against the sunrise, as did the Ferris wheel on Steele Pier. I still had a few minutes before I had to be down at the end of the boardwalk for the start of the race, so I hopped down off the bulkhead, striding across the beach a little ways to see if I could get a better shot.

It’s only going to take a minute, I thought. And I’m never one to pass up a sunrise or sunset, even if I can never seem to capture their real-life beauty in a simple iPhone photo.

The sand moved cumbersome beneath my running shoes. Even if the dawn air had a slight chill to it — though it was still unseasonably warm for October, perhaps another warning that a storm was approaching — it felt good to be back at the beach. A summer of crippling depression and anxiety had prevented me from getting up to the beach at all, and only now did I realize how much I had missed it. Even if I were here for a much different purpose from surfing or sunbathing.

But if I wasn’t wearing my swimsuit, I was just as happy to be wearing my running gear. Now it was time to do the thing I had come here to do, even if it might be interrupted by rain at some point. I didn’t care. I wasn’t going to let it conquer me.

To think that I was halfway there. It had felt like a month since all of it had started, and it had really been only a day.

Well, that wasn’t exactly fair. The whole thing had started when I registered, and that had been a week before. Driven by impulse, committed to doing something that challenged me to the full extent of my abilities, knowing I was doing this with limited time to overthink it or back out, I had gone on my computer the previous Sunday — only about 156 hours before — and registered for back-to-back marathons. The Baltimore Marathon on Saturday, October 19, and the Atlantic City Marathon on Sunday, October 20.

And maybe the whole thing had started even before that. There had been the nudge that got me to fully commit, the words of wisdom that made me realize what an opportunity I was passing up if I didn’t actually go for this: “If your goals don’t scare you, they’re not big enough.”

I had heard the words on a day as wet and chilly as the morning of the Atlantic City Marathon would eventually turn out to be. How appropriate, in hindsight, that it would come full circle like that.

It was the afternoon I was going to meet the newest member of our local chamber of commerce’s board of directors, for which I served as president. My new recruit was the manager of admissions and advising for the health sciences school at the community college. She greeted me with an enthusiasm as warm and inviting as her office, which was kept cozy by a space heater softly humming beneath her desk.

After the necessary talk about board responsibilities and commitments, we bonded over our shared love of running, and she told me how she came around to registering for a marathon.

“If your goals don’t scare you, they’re not big enough.” She was referring to herself, to her own attitude about marathon registration. But it was an insightful comment, and it wasn’t lost on me. It made me wonder what sort of goals I was setting for myself, and were they big enough?

I will admit that 2019 had already been a pretty milestone year for me in terms of achieving goals. At the end of the summer, I had left my full-time job to pursue freelance writing full time. And earlier that summer, my first novel, a fantasy geared toward middle grade/teen readers, had come out. I was even already hard at work on my second manuscript. This latest project wasn’t a sequel, though so many people had asked me when I was going to write a sequel that I had started to entertain the idea of writing one when it came time for my third book.

I’m not going to lie, those were goals that scared me. Even though I knew leaving my job was the best thing for me, I didn’t like the thought of giving up the security of a steady paycheck and health insurance. But I guess those were small prices to pay for pursuing my dreams. And after a month or two of freelancing, I had my workload under control, and I found that I was making more money while working on projects that really inspired me — particularly the many articles and features I did about health, fitness, and nutrition.

Still, emotional baggage is hard to leave behind, and I still carried around quite a bit of it that I had accumulated while trying to survive toxic office politics. I still felt plagued by the sense of self-doubt that I had developed while working fifty or sixty hours a week, often operating on four or five hours of sleep, skipping meals frequently either because I was too busy or too stressed to muster any kind of appetite.

But even in my darkest moments before I quit my job, there had always been running. Even when I wasn’t making time for sleeping or eating, I was still making time for running. It was how I maintained my strength, both physical and emotional. Every morning, after checking my email over a cup of coffee and taking my dog for a walk around the block, I would quietly slip out into the pre-dawn darkness for a long-distance run along the bike trail.

This is my habit without fail. It doesn’t matter the weather. It doesn’t matter my mood. It could be frosty cold or pouring rain or swelteringly hot. I could be depressed or I could be happy. No matter what, I have to go out and get my mind clear and my blood flowing.

And when life got really tough, I stuck with running. When I knew I had a hard day ahead of me, I always knew I could conquer it because I had conquered my 10-miler than morning. Sometimes I would come home from work, stressed and dejected, and I would go for another run to unwind.

And when I was battling suicidal ideology, when the depression got so overwhelming that I wanted to end it all, I would distract myself with a run. “Just go for a run first,” I would tell myself. “You’re not going to kill yourself without going for one last run.”

Sometimes I would return home angrier or more depressed than I had been when I left. But I also felt reaffirmed. Look at what I was capable of doing — look at the ability of my legs to move one in front of the other, my lungs to fill with air, my heart to carry all that oxygen to my muscles. And look at the strength of will I had to push through so many miles of running.

I’ve always had this kind of relationship with running since I took it up as a hobby my freshman year of college. It’s so weird to think I went for so long without running in my life — that for my first 18 years, I thought I would never be somebody who was physically fit because that just wasn’t who I was. I wanted to be a writer — why did it matter whether I was out of shape or not?

But after my first day of class at the community college — coincidentally the same school where I would hear those encouraging words, “If your goals don’t scare you, they’re not big enough,” nearly 15 years later — I came home feeling dejected and hopeless and angsty. I hated the way my life was turning out. So many other people were off at four-year colleges, pursuing dreams and carving out new lives for themselves. And here I was, stuck at the community college with no idea of what I wanted to do (except for maybe write a novel one day).

Because I couldn’t deal with all the anxious energy I had built up inside me, I went to the back of my closet and pulled out a pair of gym shoes I had never worn. I put them on and went out running. I circled my neighborhood for three miles before coming home and collapsing on my front lawn, breathless and sweaty. But I had tackled three miles. And I couldn’t have been prouder of myself.

In the years that followed, running turned out to be the greatest release I ever could have asked for. It turned into a daily ritual, something that was as necessary to a 24-hour period as eating and sleeping. I found running not only boosted my morale and tested both my physical strength and determination but also gave me time to think and reflect — I had a chance to plan the books I wanted to write, the goals I wanted to accomplish, my feelings on religion and politics, the conversations I wanted to have with people I cared about.

Running has been there for me when I’m angry and sad to help me cope with my emotions. Running has been a means of celebrating when I’m happy about something. Aside from writing, running seemed to be the greatest passion I ever could have hoped for. Above and beyond anything, I had learned from running how to push myself, how to overcome challenges. From running, I learned how to go long distances, both literal and metaphorical, by taking the journey one step at a time.

Keep putting one foot in front of the other. Keep breathing. Don’t give up.

It’s funny because a lot of people will see me out running every day and they just assume that I’m training for something. Sometimes they’ll wave me down when they see me out on my run. Other times, they’ll recognize me in the grocery store and say hi. I try to be as gracious as possible because I know everyone is curious and genuinely means well. They’re not trying to make me uncomfortable.

“What are you training for?” they say.

I shrug. I never know how to answer that question. I’m not training for anything in particular. “Life,” I say.

Nobody really seems satisfied with that answer. “You’re not training for a marathon or something?” I’ve had people say to me.

The truth is no, not really. But when the time came that I ended up registering for my first marathon, I never had to undergo any training for it. I just followed my normal routine and did the thing.

And when I say I did my normal routine, I mean I did my normal routine. As in, I got up early and went for my normal run — my 10-mile minimum — before the marathon. It was a crazy move on my part, but as far as I was concerned, the race wasn’t as important as my run — my personal run, my normal run, the run I reserve for myself when I’m starting my day.

That first marathon I ever did was grueling. This was in the spring of 2016, and even though I had been a runner for nearly 11 years by that time, I had no way of mentally comprehending what 26.2 miles felt like. When I went out and did my long-distance runs, the farthest I would ever go would be about 15 miles, and I was usually gassed by the end of those.

I remember how exhausted I was by the time I hit the 15th mile of my first marathon. By the 20th mile, I was thinking, “Screw this, I’m done!” Miles 20 through 25 were the worst, especially when I thought about the fact that I had paid nearly $100 to be as miserable as I was.

But I still pressed on. I told myself I had to keep moving forward, no matter how much I wanted to give up. And I never slowed down to walk, not even for a little bit. I finished the race in exactly four hours, and I’m going to estimate that I hated about one and a half of those hours with a burning passion.

But you know what? I felt pretty impressed with myself afterward. And with each marathon that I did after that, they got a little bit easier each time, and I managed to take about 15 minutes or more off my time with each passing year.

I eventually got to the point that marathons didn’t suck. My third marathon was the one where I felt great the whole time I was doing it, and I crossed the finish line feeling thrilled and energized rather than feeling like a reanimated corpse.

But at some point, I knew that I needed another challenge or things were going to get stagnant. As most things tend to do if you’re not challenging yourself, pushing yourself, trying to make yourself better. Sure, I still get up every morning to go running before I tackle any other part of my day. It’s how I maintain my sanity. But I wasn’t doing anything that made me feel scared or accomplished.

I could easily reflect on life in 2019 and feel proud of things like my artistic pursuits and my career change. I had challenged myself in ways I never thought possible, and yet still I felt plagued with self-doubt. The only cure I could think of that I hadn’t tried so far was some kind of physical challenge. I had to undertake some test of my strength and endurance that would prove to myself I was stronger and more capable than I had ever believed.

I went on and looked up the Baltimore Running Festival and the Atlantic City Race Series on the evening of Sunday, October 13. That left me five days to count down until the first race. It left me little time to overthink it, less time to chicken out. And almost no time to train.

Fortunately, I was already in pretty good shape from my daily runs. But still, running 12 miles is one thing. Running more than double that — and two days in a row — is another matter! I felt daunted by the thought.

On that Monday after registering, I went out and did a 17-mile track along the bike trail. I still felt good when I arrived back home, and I went back out for another 4-miler that evening before it got dark out. That made 21 miles. It was still less than a marathon, but I knew that if I felt good the next day and was able to repeat what I had done, then maybe there was some hope for me after all.

I managed to do the same 17-mile course on Tuesday, and for my evening run I pushed myself to 5 miles. I found myself living off smoothies made from spinach, berries (a combo of strawberries, blueberries and blackberries), banana, avocado, protein powder (pea protein, which I get at Trader Joe’s), almond butter, and apple juice (for a little boost of sweetness, of course). The smoothies were easy to digest but were a great way for me to get lots of nutrients in me.

On Wednesday of my training week, we had a cool, drizzling rain come through our area, but I still managed to do my 17 miles in the morning and 5 miles in the evening. I told myself this was my last day of intense training — I was cutting back to 12 miles for Thursday and Friday, though I would still do a 3-mile evening run just to keep my blood flowing and my mood lifted up.

It wasn’t really until Thursday that I started to talk a little bit more about what I was planning to do. I made a public announcement on Instagram on Friday, knowing that once I made the declaration, there was no turning back. I headed up to Baltimore that morning to pick up my bib and registration packet. Now the excitement was starting to build. I had come out and said what I was going to do, and I was getting messages from friends offering words of encouragement. Heck yeah, I thought, I’m actually doing this.

I spent the rest of the day preparing for the weekend in whatever way I could, washing my running gear and snacking as much as possible. I consulted an awesome sports dietitian, Lindsey Elizabeth with Rise Up Nutrition, who specializes in running. She gave me a few pointers, not all of which I was able to take because I reached out to her too late. Per her advice, a marathoner should start carb loading three days before the race. This is what a real carb load entails, even though most people think of carb loading as simply eating a bunch of pasta the night before a race.

With a legit carb load, she explained, you eat more carbs, but you need to simultaneously decrease your intake of fat and protein. Most people screw it up by eating more food in general, then feel heavy and weighed down during their event. As a quick example, she suggested Cheerios, low-fat milk, banana, and orange juice for breakfast; a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with yogurt, raisins, and granola for lunch; a sweet potato with brown sugar and almond butter for a snack; and pasta with marinara and veggies alongside a breadstick and glass of Gatorade for dinner. “It’s against all health recommendations!” she emphasized. “But that way, you aren’t overconsuming calories. You’re just way loading up on storing carbs in your muscles.”

She said that for the 20 hours between the Baltimore marathon and Atlantic City marathon, I should focus on keeping my food intake low in fat, relatively low to moderate in fiber, and very high in carbohydrates. Unlike a typical carb load, my eating plan for this day should also have more protein sources.

So that took care of the healthy eating. Then there was the idea of resting before the big weekend. Of course, I was in no way prepared to forgo a nice 12-miler the Friday before the races, but I knew that I did need to take it easy in the evening. One of the weird things about doing marathons — or any race really — is your bedtime routine. You always want to go to bed early so you can be rested the next day, especially when you have to be up early. But it’s not easy putting yourself to bed a little earlier than your body is used to when you also have the nervous excitement making you restless.

My body managed to sleep surprisingly well, all things considered. When my alarm went off at 5:00 on Saturday morning, the day of the Baltimore marathon, I leaped out of bed without any hesitation. I powered up with a peanut butter sandwich and a banana — along with a cup of coffee — before getting in the car to head up to Baltimore.

(As a personal aside, and not that this is wholly relevant to my fitness journey, but I will say that tacky ‘90s synth pop does a great job of getting you amped for a race. Embarrassing? Maybe. But the guy who listened to Gloria Estefan’s cover of “Everlasting Love” on repeat for the duration of a 20-minute drive was able to run two marathons in one weekend — so keep that in mind before you judge.)

Hundreds of people gathered at the start line just outside Camden Yards. I stood among a massive crowd of strangers, yet I didn’t feel alone. There’s a certain kinship among people who run, as I slowly learn with each race I do. Even if you don’t know anybody else who is doing the race, you’re united with them in a shared level of crazy. We had all dragged ourselves out of bed at an early hour on Saturday morning and paid more than $100 to run 26.2 miles. Some people had even traveled for this, as I was going to do later that afternoon for the Atlantic City race.

For somebody who has grown up just outside of Baltimore, I don’t know the city as well as I should. That changed in some small way by running through it. And I mean really running through all of it. I had done the Charles Street 12-Miler at the end of the summer, and even that race had not traced as many neighborhoods or showed me as many landmarks as a marathon did. The route went through the Inner Harbor, Fed Hill, Fells Point, the Maryland Zoo and around Lake Montebello, among other cool sites.

One of my favorite aspects of a marathon is the way the crowd thins out the farther you go. While the race starts out with everyone moving together in a stampede, everyone eventually falls into their own comfortable pace. It’s not fair to say some people speed up ahead while some people fall behind, as I don’t think anyone running a marathon can really be said to “fall behind.” As the miles pass by, you find yourself surrounded by far fewer people. Slowly but surely, you start to recognize a marathon for being what it is: a competition not against hundreds of other people, but a competition against yourself. You’re on this track to challenge yourself and discover just what you’re capable of.

And maybe you’ll set a personal record, as I did at Baltimore. I crossed the finish line at three hours and 20 minutes. I’m not nitpicky or competitive enough at this point in my running career to remember the number of seconds on top of that 3:20 time. All I know is that 3:20 is now my PR.


Knowing that I had conquered the first of two marathons that weekend had me feeling really good, but the reality that I still had a race the next day didn’t dawn on me until I was walking around Fed Hill with a friend afterward and stopped to talk to a passerby. This woman, who was out walking her dog, noticed my medal around my neck. “How was the marathon?” she asked.

“Great,” I replied. “I’m a little sore, but feeling good.”

“So have you decided when your next one is?”

I laughed. “About 20 hours from now.”

You should have seen the look on her face.

I didn’t feel daunted though. I felt pumped as I headed home, made myself some lunch to refuel, and hopped in the car to head up to New Jersey. I took Route 301 through Delaware and Route 40 through New Jersey, and the backroads gave me plenty of opportunities to stop at gas stations and corn fields along the way to stretch my legs so they didn’t cramp up (and, if I’m being honest, get plenty of soft pretzels from as many Wawas as possible, because my body was craving salt and simple carbs).

I stayed at my dad’s house and did my best to put myself to bed fairly early. I was worn out and ready to sleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. And my alarm at 6:00 a.m. came way too early the next morning. I slipped out of bed, slurped down a huge bowl of oatmeal and a cup of coffee, and quietly let myself out the door.

That was everything that had happened to me thus far, up until that moment when I stood on the beach and admired the brilliant red sunrise over Atlantic City. A runner’s warning — a storm was coming. But a storm wasn’t going to stop me. All the storms of life up until that point hadn’t stopped me. Why was I going to let a little rain stop me now?

I drove into Atlantic City and parked at one of the garages near the casinos. The crowd that gathered on the boardwalk was a lively one, and their energy was contagious. I even saw two people wearing shirts from the Baltimore Running Festival. “Hey,” I said, waving them down. “Did you run Baltimore yesterday?”

They said yes. They had run the half. And they were running the half in Atlantic City. When I told them I was doing fulls two days in a row, they gawked at me. It had happened so much to me at this point that I was getting used to it.

The race began well enough. The weather was warm, and even though the route traced through 7 miles of Atlantic City’s concrete jungle before it actually returned to the boardwalk and we were able to enjoy the ocean view, the flat terrain made everything pretty easy.

But when I was running south along the boardwalk, I could see storm clouds gathering off in the distance. There was nothing I could do to change that.

And by the time I reached mile 10, the skies were completely gray. By mile 15, the rain had started — faintly at first, but growing increasingly intense within a matter of minutes, or so it felt. And with the rain, it got cold. I had already taken off my shirt because the 60-degree morning had been pleasant enough for shirtless running. The cold rain was enough to make me shudder, even when I was pushing myself so hard.

But a runner doesn’t give up, and a runner especially doesn’t give up halfway through a marathon. I thought about everything that I had overcome in the past year. Running had been there to strengthen me and motivate me through all of it. I wasn’t going to let something as simple as a little rain stop me from completing this race. It was all a matter of determination, willpower, mind over matter. It was just a matter of keeping your sights set forward and one foot put in front of the other.

Here was the other thing about the Atlantic City marathon that surprised me: I know the island fairly well, having run it many times before when I went to visit family. So when we turned back at the Longport Bridge, the island’s southernmost point, and headed back north, I thought, “Wow, I’ve got this. It’s easy from this point onward.” In my head, I could gauge how far we had to go back to the casino.

Then the route pulled a total mindscrew on me. It veered left and took us down to the bay side of the island, where we would run about 3 or 4 miles through residential neighborhoods. Turns out there was a reason that the straight shot from the Longport Bridge to the casinos seemed so easy — because it was. There were another few miles I wasn’t accounting for, and the route was now going places that I wasn’t expecting it would. And in the pouring rain at that. Whatever. I was just going to keep on pushing through.

It also doesn’t hurt to know that there are people who are cheering for you from the sidelines, even in the pouring rain. At one point, around mile 20, I looked up to see my aunt and cousin in rain slickers, dancing outside their car, which was parked along the street. If you ever find yourself struggling to power through the last 6 miles of your second marathon in two days, I hope you have a sight as great as that one.

I won’t lie: When I got back to the boardwalk, the last 4 miles to the finish line were absolute hell. I was tired and sore. I was soaking wet and freezing cold. I was pissed off that the weather sucked so much. But despite all of that, I felt really proud of myself. Crossing that finish line was a great feeling. I had done it.

(Side note: Have you ever crossed a finish line and felt so strong and so badass, only to look at the photos later and grimace at how awful you look? You see a picture of a scrawny, scraggly, soaking wet drowned sewer rat crossing the finish line, not the invincible hero you thought you were. You know what though? Screw that…don’t think about how you look in the pictures. Focus on how you feel, because that’s what’s really important.)

My second time was three hours and 33 minutes, approximately 13 minutes slower than the day before. I had hoped that the flat terrain and the fact that I wasn’t conserving my energy for anything else would have meant I would go a little faster, but no such luck. I blame the rain.

I wore both my medals around my neck on the drive home from New Jersey to Maryland. I felt pretty invincible. More importantly, I had done what so many people had said I wasn’t going to be able to do. All I had to do was commit to it. And what a lesson I had learned — if I could do this, then I could do anything.

There’s a popular quote by runner Susan Sidoriak that goes, “I dare you to train for a marathon and not have it change your life.” You don’t grasp how true this statement is until you’ve done it — until you’ve set such an ambitious goal and stuck to the rigorous physical training. But what happens when you live your life in such a way that you are ready to run a marathon at any given moment, when you’re, in theory, training for a marathon every day of your life? Moreover, you’re ready to do a marathon on back-to-back days?

You never know what life is going to throw at you. You never know when a red sky is going to give way to storm clouds. You never know when the route is going to take you through a 3- or 4-mile detour. You have to be ready for anything. You have to overcome anything.

And when it comes down to it, you never know what you can do until you try. I posted my photos from the race weekend to Facebook with one of my favorite quotes by Shakesepeare: “Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt.” It was true of this physical challenge I had put myself through. It was true of so much that I had accomplished in 2019.

And here I sit, in the early part of 2020, reflecting on this adventure, because I don’t want to forget about everything it taught me. I want to continue setting more running goals in the year ahead. My commitment is to run at least 10 races in at least five different states. And by the end of the year, I want to have logged 5,000 miles.

So far, as of February, I have done more than 500 miles and am on track to meet one of those goals. I’ve also committed to a handful of races, but not nearly enough. I’ll be sure to write about them so I can continue to reflect on how running strengthens and improves me as a person.

I know running will continue to help me through the hard times in life, and it will be a way of reminding me that I’ll get through them as long as I just put one foot in front of the other. More importantly, I want to remember what this adventure taught me about setting goals. My goals need to be big. They need to scare me. I can’t shrink away from them, and I need to be able to face them whenever they present themselves to me. Just focus on what’s ahead and keep breathing.

Here’s to new adventures. To new races. To new cities that I’ve never explored. Here’s to new novels that I want to write, to new topics I want to cover, to new artistic endeavors I want to undertake. This is the year I don’t let myself shrink back. This is the year I charge forward and see where the route takes me. I’m ready for this. It’s what I’ve been training for every day of my life.

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