Today, I told myself that I was going to the gym.
I have a teaching observation coming up, and I reasoned that there is no better way to remedy slight anxiety than doing a quick 5K before hopping into the gym’s Jacuzzi. I was determined to finish teaching, spend some time greeting my roommate just back from work-related travel, and then take my problems to the treadmill with me.
However, after I was planted in my spot on the couch, I found it difficult to motivate myself to leave. It had been over a week since my last run. I tried using this piece of information to guilt myself to the gym. I reminded myself that I have told multiple people I was losing weight here, so I needed to have something to show for it when I got back to America. I even went so far as to suggest to myself that my body would eventually forget how to run while my butt remained rooted to this seat. My back and posterior would meld with the faux leather of our couch, and I would have to be surgically removed from it, bringing shame upon my family. My feet would turn into tentacle limbs, and no one would want to be friends with me.
The product of an overactive imagination, these hyperbolic assertions did encourage me to leave the couch…and walk straight to the fridge to eat some leftover pasta as a pre-dinner snack.
Seems as if I am shameless.
In truth, I could not use guilt as a motivator in this specific instance. I felt no remorse or misgiving about skipping this week at the gym because it has been an exercise in practiced stillness, in bodily healing, which was much needed after the previous weekend.
On March 12th, I ran a half-marathon.
From reading my previous blogpost about my 13K, you might be able to gather that, before coming to Taiwan, I was not what Eric would call a “Runner for Funner.” I don’t really think that I would assign myself that title even today. But, after having trained for various races during the eight months that I have been living in Taiwan, I have developed a certain appreciation for running. It clears my head, calms my needless worries, and allows me to eat however I wish.
However, training for a half-marathon was a new experience altogether. A 5K at the gym did not count as training anymore; a 5K was not even one-fourth of the distance I would travel, on my own two feet, for the half-marathon. I would literally have to quadruple that distance, and that would still not be enough.
This revelation catapulted me into a new relationship phase with my workout routine. Whereas before I felt equal parts soreness and satisfaction after some time at the gym, now these increasing demands created a combination of hopelessness and general distaste that I refer to as Gym Resentment.
Gym Resentment is not the same thing as its close cousin, Gym Avoidance. Oh no, I was committed enough (or my roommate peer pressured me enough) to visit the gym on a somewhat regular basis. Gym Resentment is just the sulky product of wishing it could be Gym Avoidance. Gym Avoidance stays at home and feels justified because it had a “long day,” while Gym Resentment goes through the motions of gym attendance thinking only of all the Sherlock it could be watching instead.
However, I did not have the luxury of skipping gym days. With two weeks left the go before the race, my furthest distance was only 13K. This was crunch time.
Even with that knowledge, Gym Resentment would not be deterred. It dripped into my workout routine like the sweat beads that dripped from my face, pooled on my arms, and trickled into my shoes during a run. Everything in my nature told me to stop running at the 13K mark. My feet were always blistering, and my calves ached pretty continuously. One of the most disconcerting new developments was the pain that I felt in my hips after every run, a dull throbbing pain that I felt in my joints and would not relent even after taking an ibuprofen.
This really doesn’t sound like a problem I should have at 24.
It was only with two weeks left before the race that I realized: The secret to training for a 21K was to temporarily descend into madness. Our modern human bodies reject running these types of distances, especially not without something predatory and/or monstrous chasing after us. Running for over two and a half hours is nothing short of insanity. When would a prehistoric human ever have to run for that long in the wild? Not even the hungriest of saber-tooth tigers would chase us for that long.
But I willed myself to defy this instinctive logic time and time again, until one day I broke my own record. I ran on the treadmill for 16K. Never mind that my feet became two giant blisters and my hip bones felt as if they would give at any point. I was one step closer to the completion of a half-marathon. Only 5 more kilometers to go.
After reaching this new milestone, I experienced a flicker of that old satisfaction I had once felt after time at the gym. This was completely shattered, however, by the realization that 16K was only a little over 75% of the race. I still had an entire fourth of the race ahead of me, which would arguably be the most difficult stint in the entire half-marathon. This was not a time for self-congratulation. I couldn’t even feel proud for more than a few minutes, before waves of worry crashed into my small and ever-shrinking pools of optimism.
Eric, my constant cheerleader through the ups and downs of training, even expressed his own concerns. This was when I knew I was in deep water.
It was time to phone a friend.
I calmly decided to ask my running partner, a Taizhong ETA named Tawni, how her training was going. Tawni and I signed up for the half-marathon together, hoping that this would encourage us to devote more time to the gym in preparation.
I confessed to her that I had not trained for as long as I had wished and that my goal would be completion within the time frame of three hours. I waited for her response, and within minutes, I received this reply:
“Oh good, we’re pretty much on the same page…don’t you worry.”
I took that advice to heart. I continued to push myself at the gym, but I never reached the 16K mark again. I had been told not to worry, and for once in my life, I decided to listen. In my mind, the half-marathon was now some vague goal that I would only seriously consider on the day of the race, when my feet were actually hitting the pavement.
Fast forward to the day of the race, my when my feet were actually hitting the pavement.
The super prepared and punctual lot that we are, Ross, Jon, Tawni, Shelby and I rolled up to the course with twenty-seven minutes to spare. We used this time to check our bags, safety pin our numbers to our shirts, and wait in long, long lines for a pre-race pee (and, if I am honest, poo). I took a quick picture with the girls, bent my knees a few times in a poor excuse for stretching, and then the whistle blew.
Off to a great start.
We worked our way through the masses until the runners evened out and the scenery came into view. I have often told Eric that I do not enjoy running outside because the outside world distracts me from the mental clarity I am trying to attain within while running. This is also why I choose to not listen to music during a race. I like to be left alone with my thoughts, allowing my mind to wander from topic to topic without discretion. Even though Tawni and I exchanged a few choppy comments throughout the first half of the race, I would be hard-pressed to find a time when I was completely pulled out of some subterranean corner of my mind to reconvene with reality.
But any Taiwanese person would agree that Taidong, the city hosting this race, is known for its natural beauty. Tawni and I began our race running through what appeared to be orchards, a carefully manicured path in the midst of close-growing trees and various hues of green. We rounded the bend in the road and looked upon the physical manifestation of our impending doom: a mountain, its peak shadowed by clouds, looming over the race. The course would lead us up this mountain until we reached the halfway mark of 10.5K, and from there, it was all, as they say, a downhill battle.
I asked Tawni if she had ever seen The Emperor’s New Groove? When she replied in the affirmative, I asked her if she remembered the moment when the two main characters, Pacha and Kuzco, found themselves tied to a log, floating down a raging river…
Kuzco: Don’t tell me. We’re about to go over a huge waterfall.
Kuzco: Sharp rocks at the bottom?
Pacha: Most likely.
Kuzco: Bring it on.
I told Tawni to look at this mountain like Kuzco looked at the waterfall. Bring it on, baby. Bring it on.
Here, I will spend a few lines detailing to you, curious readership, the particulars of running a half-marathon in Taiwan:
Water Stations Abound
In true Taiwanese fashion, it would be extremely impolite of the race coordinators to allow their runners to feel thirsty or hungry at any point, at all, whatsoever, during their race. That is why there were approximately 143,832 water stations positioned along the course, where chipper workers handed out water, Taiwanese Gatorade, and a various assortment of Taiwanese snack foods.
While the number of stations might be slightly exaggerated, the smorgasbord of goodies was not. At every station I encountered, I paused to drink a cup of water and eat at least three small crackers before resuming my run. There were also watermelon slices, cherry tomatoes, and pineapple cake bites on display for any runner who needed a quarter-race pick-me-up. I expressed my appreciation for the water and crackers to Tawni, who was keeping pace beside me and was not even fazed when I chose to speak with my mouth full.
But as time passed and the frequency of water stations increased, I remember questioning my decision to stop at every station. The amount of water stations was genuinely excessive, even for Taiwanese standards. However, I was always afraid that I would skip a station and then there wouldn’t be another for miles and miles, in the exact time that I would desperately need something to drink. This was an irrational fear, considering how many stations there actually were and the likelihood that I would be that thirsty so quickly after just drinking. But this fear spurred me to stop at each station nonetheless.
This proved problematic, however, as I continued on my run. After having completed about 15K, I realized that I needed to use the bathroom.
Port-a-Potty: Because Who Takes this Race Seriously?
Visiting every water station meant that I was pretty full of liquid. But, stopping to use the bathroom was quite detrimental to my overall running time; adding three to four minutes when every second counted felt wasteful.
I remember thinking to myself, there is a way. There is a way to relieve myself of this need, ever-increasing in its urgency, without wasting any time. Plenty of cross-country runners, and even NFL football players, admit to peeing on themselves during a race or competition. With the amount of sweat pouring out of the body, pee would hardly be a recognizable addition to the grossness of half-marathon running.
But, in the end, I just could not bring myself to do it. Priding myself on my civility, I chose to pee in a Port-a-Potty instead. These, too, were neatly lined up along the race course, because Taiwan values its civility just as much as I do.
I waited until the last possible second, and then I dashed into the blue, plastic cubicle of a bathroom. I reached for the strings of my shorts, and, in my eagerness, fumbled with the knot that I had tied to hold my pants up. In this moment, it seemed as if entering the Port-a-Potty would be in vain; I would end up peeing myself anyways. But eventually, I untied my pants, used the facilities, and then bolted from the door to catch up with the people I was originally running alongside.
I powered through to regain my spot in the midst of worn-down runners. I forced myself to keep pace with a man wearing a Taipei Marathon shirt, who seemed to understand exactly how running (and life) worked. But just as I reached my place in line behind him, Taiwanese weather gods issued their daily “Poo You” in the form of a steady drizzle.
Taiwan is Spelt R-A-I-N-Y
The rain itself was not an issue. Living in Taiwan had forced me to become comfortable with constant dampness and the integration of the raincoat into my everyday attire. In truth, the rain added a splash of drama, turning my run into a victorious struggle from a sports movie. We all know the scene; the breakthrough point for most sports teams seems to be a rainy practice, where mud slings and friendships are cemented. The rain would have even been refreshing, if I had not been forced to run in my glasses during the race.
A few days before the race, one of the teachers I work with noticed that my right eye was red. She told me to see a doctor, and I told her that, if it was not better by Friday, I would consider getting some eye drops. This is a cultural difference between the Taiwanese and most Americans: I hold off going to the doctor for as long as possible. I wait until I am the most miserable I have ever been in my life, and then I make the appointment. But here in Taiwan, because their insurance makes healthcare so affordable, people tend to see a doctor for even the slightest aches and pains.
When my eye was still red the next day, she expressly drove me to the doctor, and for 150 kuai (about five American dollars), I saw the doctor and received three different eye drops and ointments to treat my “eye strain.” This meant that, instead of wearing my contacts as usual, I was forced to run in my glasses, which do not, unfortunately, come with built-in windshield wipers.
I ran probably two or three kilometers with speckled vision, raindrops obstructing any clear view of the course in front of me. It was only when I was sure that the rain had subsided that I took my glasses off to clean them on my now soaked shirt. I chose to view the rain as just another part of the race, an additional obstacle that I would overcome for the half-marathon. But I am sincerely glad that it was nothing more than a drizzle. I was now running through pain.
After all the water stations, and stopping to pee, and running through the rain, the final and most challenging of obstacles was running with pain. Throughout training, I had experienced blistering, soreness, and even a few cramps. But, race time meant that, even though I was hyperaware of the pain, it was important that I mentally overcome it. The twinges in my side, the persistent blistering on my feet, the ache in my right knee, it was nothing more than a feeling, a mental barrier between me and the finish line.
Ignore the pain, finish the race.
Ignore the pain, finish the race.
Ignore the pain, finish the race.
I came to my first sign. 3K. Only three kilometers left. I had completed 18K.
Next sign. 2K. I had completed 19K.
Next sign. 1K. A few tears trickled down my face as I realized that I had just completed 20K. It was a beautiful thing, knowing that I could push myself to lengths greater than I had once thought possible.
And then there was only 500 meters left. I picked up speed. I pushed through, rounded the bend, and met Eliza and Celia, waiting there with expectant smiles and words of encouragement. I continued to pick up tempo, when I heard Karen, and saw Eric, and watched the ruckus they made as I neared the end. Neared the finish line.
They screamed words I couldn’t quite make out as I sprinted past a few people at the very end of the race. And then, I was done. I had finished a 21K. I looked around and offered up a quiet prayer of thankfulness. Then, I was engulfed by love and hugs. I held on to Eric in all my sweaty glory, but unlike my 13K, I did not need someone’s presence to momentarily support my weight. I had shed all my tears at the 20K mark.
The last kilometer was my victory lap.
And even though it has taken a full week to recuperate from the race of my lifetime (so far), I recognize that running a half-marathon was a lesson in perseverance. Because goals are attainable partially through preparation, and partially through the belief that you can, and will, be victorious in the end. I realized that I do not have to become a “Runner for Funner” to finish races or feel accomplished in my running. I realized that taking pasta breaks is just as important as a good distance run for being the balanced individual I hope to become here in Taiwan. And, I realized that there are few things more satisfying in this world than running a good race, finishing strong, and having some of the best people in the world meet you at the finish line.
So I will contentedly park myself on this couch and count my blessings, because today, I am not going to the gym.