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Can a Personal Worst Be a Personal Best?

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Running the 2015 Kenosha Marathon

Yesterday my brother stuck his head through my window in the Hebrew school carpool line and asked if I'm ready to quit. Like the rest of my family, Jeff doesn't approve of my marathon habit, and while he hasn't yet staged a full-blown intervention, he asked me the same question after my first one. And second. And third.

I get it. I used to think people who ran marathons were insane. As recently as last Tuesday, I hated marathons. I approached them with dread. I suffered mentally for 26.2 miles and it was pure stubbornness that kept me going. I even announced my retirement on Facebook -- while still in an active state of bonk -- last October after completing Chicago with a 4:33 personal record.

Granted, I registered for Kenosha the following week, but not because of adrenaline, masochism, or the need to shave three more minutes off my time. But because I realize I have so much left to learn. With that, I set my next goal. Figure out how to enjoy a marathon.

My original vision entailed a Swiss cheese costume, something so absurdly out of character that it would be a constant reminder not to take myself, the run, or life too seriously. While I can get pretty literal with my symbolism when it comes to holes and imperfection, I couldn't quite figure out the logistics of foam. So, over time, my vision morphed into a glittery, yellow tutu I made myself and a Swiss cheese bow tie. I debated to the very last second whether I'd have the guts to actually wear it.

The Tuesday before the race, I attended my first Jewish meditation sit with Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell at the Center for Jewish Mindfulness at Orot (www.orotcenter.org), who talked about netzach -- endurance.

He said, "For this week, set the intention to endure -- to return with energy and confidence, over and over to your intentions, to that which is important. And, notice if this kind of persistence leads to unnecessary hardening. When this happens try to add a gentle softening, a dose of chesed, lovingkindness."  

I haven't decided if it's the ultimate cliché, or ridiculously timely, but this shifted my mindset. I was no longer dreading a marathon. I was curious if I could experience it as a 26.2 mile meditation -- with the intent to feel blessed that I could run long distances, to enjoy the nature and sense of community, to contemplate netzach rather than negativity, and to be carried along by the energy of the universe.

Can a Personal Worst Be a Personal Best? photo 1

I set out to run a 10:10 pace in my glittery yellow tutu and a cheesehead bowtie. 10:10 because it's symmetrical and slow; the tutu and bowtie as reminders not take myself too seriously.

Can a Personal Worst Be a Personal Best? photo 2

In purple Sharpie, I wrote the word chesed (lovingkindness) on my right hand and netzach (endurance) on my left hand.

So was it 26.2 miles of peaceful bliss? Hardly. My legs were heavy from the start. By mile 1, I was hot; at mile 7, I was a few gulps of air away from a full-blown panic attack; at mile 10, I was -- in the words of my dear friend Brian -- six seconds away from shitting in my pants; and at mile 13, I considered dropping out. By mile 16, I'd swallowed enough air to inflate a large inner-tube, and a gigantic bubble formed in my chest. The downward pressure made me nauseous, the upward pressure constricted my breathing, and running became damn near impossible.

But I also had meditative moments and during those moments everything shifted. I heard the sound of the pack, feet hitting pavement, collective inhaling and exhaling, as though the marathon itself was alive and pulsing. Sometimes I looked down at my yellow tutu and smiled in spite of myself. I loved my damn tutu. "Hello, Yellow Tutu Woman," said someone. Sometimes I thought of my daughter Emma who would be starring as Maria in The Sound of Music that night and I borrowed from her brave. On one out-and-back, I passed half a dozen participants in wheelchairs, one after another, many with giant grins, all being being pushed by runners -- and I borrowed from their brave. Sometimes I looked at the Hebrew words in purple Sharpie on the back of my hands, and silenced the voice that was saying, Your time sucks and listened to the voice that was saying, Run your own race, Dana. Don't stop.

That's when I came to terms with everything. On any random spring morning, I'd be all in if someone said, "Want to go for a walk?" To my surprise, Kenosha is far more than a bunch of outlet malls off of I-94. Think miles of lakeshore including a lighthouse, quaint shops, beautiful homes, subtle rolling hills, green fields, and quiet. Everything I'd want in a Saturday morning nature walk, with the added bonus of an occasional stranger offering me a banana and saying, "You're awesome" as I stroll on by. I decided to enjoy that stroll from mile 17ish to the finish and unlike Chicago, there were stretches where there wasn't a soul in sight. I loved it.

So no, my dear brother, I am not quitting. Thanks to netzach (and my friends), I didn't quit at mile 13. And thanks to chesed (and my friends), I enjoyed it. It was 72 minutes slower and 72 times better. I've already registered for Kenosha 2016, which gives me plenty of time to practice breathing with my mouth closed. And this time I learned the following: Sometimes conventional measures of success, like a marathon finishing time (or hitting every note in The Sound of Music) are secondary. Or even inconsequential. And it takes a yellow tutu to remind you of that.

Can a Personal Worst Be a Personal Best? photo 3

It takes truly dedicated friends to wake up at 4 a.m. on a Saturday morning, schlep you across the state line to run excessive distances, pop up at various points (4.5, 13, 18, 22 and 26) across bumblefuck (albeit beautiful) southern Wisconsin for five-plus (+++) hours, and haul your stinky, nauseous ass back home. And offer to do it again next year. Thanks, Sarah and Pat.  

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