Provision #409: Painful Pleasure

Laser Provision

April 18, 2005 witnessed the 109th edition of the Boston Marathon, and I stood at the start with more questions than answers as to whether I could finish the race. An injury several weeks earlier had still not healed completely, and only time would tell as to how my hip and legs would hold up. One thing for sure: it was going to test my mettle the entire way. Want to know how the story ends? Read on for the blow-by-blow description.

LifeTrek Provision

I had not planned to interrupt this series of Provisions on spiritual wellness with yet another race report, but my experience on Monday at the Boston Marathon was profound enough that I just can’t help myself. So, once again, with apologies to those who have absolutely no interest in running, I want to share a few reflections on the experience. As will become obvious, they make their own contribution to this series.

For those who don’t know, Boston is both the oldest continuously running marathon in the world (since 1896) and the only one to require a qualifying time to enter. Based upon your age and gender, you have to run a particular time in another certified marathon to be accepted into the Boston race. And that time is a tough standard, representing about the top ten percent of marathon runners.

I ran my qualifying time in December at the White Rock Marathon in Dallas, Texas. I actually missed the time by 2 minutes, finishing in 3 hours and 37 minutes, but the Boston Athletic Association graciously let me in anyway. You may remember my description of both the run and the unexpected acceptance in my Provision, Unpublished Grace Click.

My running and training for Boston was right on schedule and very encouraging until just a few weeks ago. That’s when I pulled a muscle in my lower back that led to hip, gluteus, and quadriceps problems on my right side. By employing a combination of rest, cross-training, stretching, icing, deep tissue massage, and visualization of the race itself, I did my best to heal up in time.

Nevertheless, the day before the race, when I went for a walk and a short jog, my hip was still pretty uncomfortable and unstable. Having run Boston once before, that made me pretty nervous as I stood in line at the start. This course pushes runners who are in their best shape, let alone those who are injured.

I was nervous enough that I had mentally prepared myself to drop out of the race at the halfway point, where the friends I was staying with lived, if the situation became desperate enough. I had no idea what to expect. The only thing I knew for sure was that this marathon, like many others, would be a kind of painful pleasure in which I, as well as many other people, would push ourselves to the limit for reasons never fully known.

How do you explain, for example, the experience of William Coulter? This was his 22nd Boston marathon and is very likely to be his last. Coulter has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. The 70-degree Fahrenheit (21-degree Celsius) conditions meant that hydration and overheating were problems for many runners. All the more so for Coulter, whose condition makes it impossible for him to take anything by mouth. The solution? Coulter stopped every two miles to hydrate through a feeding tube inserted in his stomach. He finished in 5 hours and 41 minutes.

Or, again, how do you explain the 30-year-old tradition of “Team Hoyt,” the father-son team that competes in countless athletic contests including marathons and triathlons. What is unique about this father-son team is that the son is confined to a wheelchair. Son Rick was born in 1962 with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, leaving him unable to talk or walk. But in 1977 they stumbled upon a release.

The local community was raising money through a 5-mile benefit run to support a local lacrosse player who had been paralyzed in an accident. Son Rick told his father that he would like to participate, and father Dick agreed to push him around the course in his wheel chair. So Team Hoyt was born.

“I don’t feel handicapped when we are competing,” Rick reports, “I feel just like the other athletes.” Dick Hoyt is now 60 years old and a heart-attack survivor. But they keep right on going with 50 athletic events scheduled for 2005 including this, their 24th Boston marathon. The wheels on Rick’s chair were imprinted this year with the exclamation, “It’s a Good Life!” And they ought to know. They finished in 3 hours and 41 minutes. (

Or what about Brandon Stapanowich of North Carolina, who collapsed just before the finish line after running a spectacular race. Unfortunately, collapsing before the finish line is not to finish, no matter how spectacular the run. So, under the watchful eye of race officials and security, Stapanowich got himself together enough to crawl across the line, on all fours. It made for a great photo opportunity. He finished in 3 hours and 10 minutes.

And then there was the one-legged runner who I passed at mile 25. That meant that for 25 miles this man was running faster than me, with one leg and a prosthesis. Talk about pushing oneself to the limit! Such events are filled with as many questions as answers.

That is certainly how I thought of the race as I took my first few tentative strides shortly after 12:00 noon under bright, sunny skies with a mild headwind. Was my injury healed enough to permit me to finish the race, let alone to run strong? Or was the pain going to prove too intense for either one? Time would tell, soon enough.

Especially since the first mile of the Boston Marathon is the steepest downhill grade of the course. Running downhill makes every stride even more jarring, not to mention stressful to the quadriceps, which could well have aggravated my condition. You can imagine my delight then, when I got to mile one in relatively good condition with a relatively good time. “Wow!” I thought to myself, “maybe I can do this.” So on I ran.

Unlike most other marathons, Boston is fully Web enabled. Every 5 kilometers you run over a pad that detects a computer chip attached to your shoe laces. This records your time which is then uploaded instantaneously to the Boston Marathon Website. I knew that family and friends around the world, including my wife, would be tracking my progress on line. And that brought me great joy.

As I went over the 5K, 10K, and 15K sensors, I thought of the people watching me online. My wife tells me that it was exciting, almost like being at the race (with none of the logistical challenges). At one point, she and a colleague whose son was running compared notes on how their runners were doing. I felt the encouragement and support of my family and friends as if they were on the sidelines cheering for me.

This year’s race was won by an Ethiopian, for the first time since 1989. Speaking through an interpreter, he described his experience in these terms: “I have made a big preparation for Boston. I participated last year, but I was not up to condition. For this year, I had a long thought and I practiced day and night. I was dreaming of winning the Boston Marathon, and I did what I was dreaming.”

That pretty well summarizes my experience as well. Running a marathon takes many “long thoughts.” It certainly takes practice. And where would we be without a dream? In my case, the long thoughts required me to constantly revise the dream. One month ago I was running so freely, quickly, and easily that I imagined beating my time from 5 years ago.

After my injury, I imagined healing up sufficiently to finish without suffering as much as I did one year ago when I ran another tough and hilly course on an equally hot day with a similar injury at the Big Sur Marathon in California. That day I finished in 5 hours and 10 minutes, having to walk in from about mile 19 (Big Sur Story). Would the Boston Marathon produce a similar result? Not if my long thought, practice, and dream had anything to do with it.

This is where I have gotten smarter over time. Seven years ago I would have pushed myself harder in the weeks leading up to the race. If the schedule called for 8 miles, I would have run 8 miles. And by the day of the race, I would have been good for nothing. This time, instead of running 8 miles I went for a 30-mile bike ride. Instead of doing hill training, I went for a walk. I made constant adjustments to give my hip every chance in the world to heal.

And the adjustments continued right through the race. Whereas I was surprisingly on pace at the halfway point to achieve my original goal, of breaking 3 hours and 48 minutes, the increasing pain in my hip made it clear that the dream had to be revised. I wanted to finish, regardless of the time, without hurting myself further.

So I paid attention to how I was feeling, consciously relaxing my gluteus and quadriceps muscles as much as possible. I also took delight in the sights and sounds of the race.

After we had crested Heartbreak Hill, around mile 22, I overheard one runner saying to another, “We are on pace for a 4:05 to a 4:10 finish.” At that point, I looked at my watch, did a few mental calculations, had a long thought, and said to the guys next to me, “Not if you stay with me. We can still break 4 hours.” At which point I took off with a new challenge that was just within reach of my abilities.

That’s the formula, writes University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, for finding flow. And that’s what I found at the end of the Boston Marathon. My running was not exactly effortless, with my ever-increasing amount of pain, but it was within my grasp to achieve my revised dream. And nothing else, at that point, could have gotten me to pick up the pace. Instead of self-destructing, like I did at the Big Sur Marathon, this identification of a challenge that was just within my reach became a rallying cry for greatness.

So I took off with renewed energy and resolve. I knew what I had to do, and mile by mile I determined what adjustments needed to be made in my pace. I also determined that I would do well not to walk again through the water stops, since there was every chance in the world that if I did I would not be able to start running again.

To my surprise and delight, I was able to get faster and faster. My mental imagery lifted me up and pulled me forward. Whenever we passed a building that cast some shade on the course, if felt as though the coolness was a gift being offered to me and me alone. When we turned the corner on to Boylston Street, with only 3 tenths of a mile left to go, the arch of blue and white balloons marking the finish line was calling my name.

I finished in 3 hours, 59 minutes, and 19 seconds. Goal accomplished. Race won. I, like the Ethiopian, did what I was dreaming. My hip was throbbing painfully, but at that moment all I could feel was pride for my strong running and finish.

So that’s the life lesson I took away from my experience in the Boston Marathon. Sometimes painful pleasures are the best. They may take long thoughts, much practice, and big dreams • they may have to be revised in mid stream based upon your awareness of current conditions • but when you can get yourself into that zone where the challenge is just within reach of your abilities, well, it doesn’t get any better than that.

Coaching Inquiries: When was the last time that you had a long thought? Is there anything worth practicing for, day and night? What are you dreaming of? What sacrifices might your dream require? How can you avoid either overextending or underextending yourself? How can you get into the flow of the trek of life?

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LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob..

I was watching your times yesterday at the Boston Marathon and, when you slowed down, was wondering how you felt about it all. Sounds like you had to “go deep” to make it. Congratulations on your accomplishment and determination. It takes a lot of grit and faith to pull that off.

Thank you very much for your review of the Provisions you’ve covered so far concerning spiritual wellness. It was nice to read them all together. The Provisions made me think of someone who consistently reminds everyone of her many sacrifices. She keeps a tally of all that she does for people, leading to the superior thinking and negative thinking modes as well as the anxiety mode while demanding everyone else become miraculously cured success stories by thinking positive.

As I read your Provisions, I really thought a lot about how much energy she wastes on being superior, negative, and anxious as your Provisions make abundantly clear. Thanks again for a wonderful newsletters and the well thought out Provision series. It is definitely a keeper!

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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