A Little Musing… Thoughts on Running My First Marathon

Disney Marathon

That’s what it looks like when you realize you finally made it!

At 5:30 am last Sunday, my best friend Niki and I threw a jaunty wave at Mickey Mouse as he encouraged us to have a great run. Six hours and six minutes later, we limp-ran across the finish line of our first marathon, both burying our grimaces and tears behind exhausted joy at the promise of sturdy benches and waterfalls of Biofreeze for our aching muscles.

In the first weeks I trained for the Walt Disney World Marathon in Orlando, I decided to conquer this latest challenge with aplomb. People on the internet spout rainbows and puppies about the meditative benefits of exercise, and just before I signed up, the brilliant guy behind The Oatmeal comics published a six-part comic entitled “The terrible and wonderful reasons I run long distances.” His comic prefaced my decision to run. The entire marathon plan sounded aces to me and I whiled away the low-mileage runs in those early weeks listening to the sound of my footsteps and waiting for the promised life-altering epiphanies.

Then my scheduled training runs were longer and enthusiasm for running a marathon wore thin—I berated myself into putting on my running shoes each day. The promised nirvana of meditative clarity eluded me and I regretted the commitment before every long run. I couldn’t let my friend down, so I continued, but for weeks the only delight I felt came during the brief periods of runners-euphoria just after a run.

In the early days of training, I knew it would be hard but I thought: I got this.

Months later, I adjusted my thought: Just cross the finish line.

Lance Armstrong finished his first marathon saying “That was without a doubt the hardest physical thing I have ever done.” Yep. Agreed. Holy crap, I agree. I asked myself why I agreed to do  it in the first place since I am a reluctant runner at best (pretty much only in the face of imminent danger).

Running through NYC

Training runs throughout NYC and in Central Park while I was there on business were a highlight. It was an intriguing lens through which to see areas of NYC and bond with other runners in the city.

And I’ve had many, many (seriously—many) hours to come to a conclusion during my training runs. I ran for the same reason I left to travel back in 2008. And for the same reason I joined a 10-day silent Vipassana Meditation course.

I ran to push myself against a personal wall—”the wall” as it’s called and running—and force myself to the other side.

Travel memoirs speak to the transformative power of traveling, and back in 2008 when I was in a transition in my life, I thought, “That. I want that.” I was not a traveler before I left, so I knew a solo year on the road was a challenge, and I wanted to measure myself against this lofty ambition and see what came out the other side. Vipassana was a similar challenge—I had scarcely meditated a day in my life before I signed myself into a 10-day silent retreat that I likened to solitary confinement in the days after I finished it.

For most of us, life rarely forces us to test ourselves, we choose our physical challenges. Primo Levi wrote,

And I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong, to measure yourself at least once, to find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions, facing blind, deaf stone alone, with nothing to help you but your own hands and your own head…

Early last year, I shared how lost I felt after years on the road with no real plan going forward. I flirted with depression, family things had gone horribly the preceding fall, and my failures echoed loud in my head. An underlying decision in signing up for the marathon in July was to once again meet this wall, this strong resistance, and to remind myself that I am strong enough to come out on the other side of the down times, the sad times, and the failures.

cinderella's castle during our marathon

What adventure would be complete without a jumping shot? We ran through Cinderella’s Castle just after sunrise. We were in high spirits and around the six mile mark–just 20 more to go at that point.

And in the way of lessons, many hitched a ride in the months leading up to that 26.2 mile run (42.2 kilometers) to confront me on the other side of the finish line.

Looking back now, my favorite run was 17 miles spent running through crisp, late-fall sunshine in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. It was the run I resisted most, I delayed the run two weeks because I just couldn’t fathom what I would do for five hours (it sounded terrible). But I  surprised myself. I loved the process. I felt strong on the other side of it. I spent nearly five hours thinking about my footfalls and willing myself through the fatigue and shooting pains in my knee. It took four months of training to realize that the rainbows and puppies were a metaphor for the mental quieting that comes from running long distances. I like solitude and I’m content with my own company more than most people I know. It’s what’s made these years on the road successful. Give me a book, or even silent hours writing, and I’m happy. On those long runs, though, I discovered a new form of solitude. The meditative quality lied within the hours of escape—an absolute void—from the litany of thoughts we all cycle through: work, bills, health, travel, friends, life, family. Focus transforms into an elemental refrain of footfalls, breath, and focus on propelling forward, overcoming pain and fatigue, and finishing. Nothing else exists. Nothing else existed for me on that run.

The runners high was brief, though, and a good run did not magically ease everything after it. Running just existed in my life. I ran on days I hated it all, on rainy days, and days when I doubted my decision. I ran to uphold a promise to a friend. And on race day, I was proud of myself for showing up every single week for six months and pushing to reach this moment. I once again thought: I got this.

At mile 21 though, my emotions tanked and my body broke down. I wanted to quit. I begged my best friend to run ahead without me—I didn’t care if I made it, I just wanted to sit down and cry. Instead, Niki linked our arms, maintained our pace (we did a 3:1 run-walk pace the entire race) and we continued running. As we passed mile 25 (nearly six hours into the run), I turned to her, tear-stains still visible on my cheeks, and admitted that I would not have made it without her.

Disney MarathonDisney Marathon

I don’t often ask for help. In fact I never do. It’s a personal thing, asking for help makes me uncomfortable. And perhaps another lesson in this marathon—if I’m going to read into it, and let’s read into it—is that no great things are achieved alone. I am still learning each day that it’s okay to lean on my friends. The test in this marathon was against myself: could I will through the fatigue, the pain, and the doubt to finish. Needing help did not make the achievement less, it made it sweeter on the other side to come through it with my friend.

Though I had no intention of setting goals and resolutions in the new year, this year I take with me lessons from this marathon. Lessons in patience, perseverance, and friendship. And a reminder that “the wall” may hit in any aspect of life, but I can push ahead.

***

And on a different note, a few reader emails wondered if my long stint in the US (I’ve been stateside since I returned from Panama in July) means I am done traveling—nope. Africa is just weeks away and soon you will see heaps of safari photos and stories of the grassroots projects I hunt down across the continent this spring. This marathon is one of the reasons I stuck around this long, Niki and I have not lived in the same city since I left LA in 2008, and this was a fun way for us to keep in contact and reconnect across the distance.

The other reason is the National Geographic event in two weeks in DC. If you’re in the DC area, tickets are on sale and you can come hear myself and three other Travelers of the Year talk travel.

Then it’s off to Africa (my first time there!) in mid-February with Cape Town as my first stop. I can’t wait. :)


53 Responses to A Little Musing… Thoughts on Running My First Marathon

  1. YaBoiAdam October 2, 2014 at 11:24 am #

    Nice! My mom does a ton of marathons! She loves them!

  2. Jennifer Evans March 25, 2014 at 3:00 pm #

    Congratulations on finishing your first marathon. What a hug accomplishment. I’ve been trying to figure out how to fit distance running back into my schedule, particularly now that I’m traveling a lot more. Thanks for the inspiration.

  3. Bishnu Subedi March 21, 2014 at 9:32 am #

    Great post and great photo. It seem that you enjoy your every trip (viewing your photos). I happen to think that why i did not follow this blog, reading your post related to Nepal.

    • Shannon O'Donnell March 21, 2014 at 10:41 am #

      Thanks for the support and feedback, I like many of the places i visit, and Nepal was beautiful! :)

  4. Konig Ludwig March 18, 2014 at 8:44 pm #

    Thanks for the post. I like your writing style , I will be waiting for your next post

  5. janneke clemens March 14, 2014 at 7:05 am #

    Love your blog and how freely you share your story!

  6. Seriously Spain March 13, 2014 at 10:02 pm #

    Wow, good for you. That takes some guts (and a lot of training :)

    I did a half marathon a few years ago, and thought I was going to die when I finished. Dread to think how I’d feel doing a full one, LOL.

    • Shannon O'Donnell March 14, 2014 at 1:11 am #

      A half is still some serious commitment, so congrats to you as well! :)

  7. Julie Danes February 25, 2014 at 7:35 am #

    I bow in front of your ambition and kept promise. I started aerobics recently, with some tough trainers and I must admit that I have never felt more relaxed after an intense session. I will try to follow your example and challenge myself to a daily routine of morning run. Hopefully, spring will come soon enough and I won’t have the weather excuse anymore. :) Have a great week and looking forward to your next posted adventure.

    • Shannon O'Donnell February 25, 2014 at 12:07 pm #

      Even a routine of a couple times a week is a start! And aerobics is no joke – it can be so hard. Best of luck. :)

  8. MN Travelog February 21, 2014 at 12:04 am #

    Oh wow.. Thats definitely a very nice activity to take part with. I once took part in kolkata, India with my colleagues and it was such a fun. Though i love to walk and run but it was really very real surprise how my 10 miles went in fun. After reading yours i suppose i should try for another and more longer this time…

    • Shannon O'Donnell February 21, 2014 at 1:01 am #

      10 miles is a great run, I would love to do one in India — I bet it had a great atmosphere of fun!

    • Shannon O'Donnell February 21, 2014 at 1:01 am #

      10 miles is a great run, I would love to do one in India — I bet it had a great atmosphere of fun!

  9. Daidri | Thee Getaway Gal February 17, 2014 at 11:55 am #

    Congratulations indeed!!! I am on week 4 of training for my first 5K and can’t imagine running for as long as you did. I kept thinking “wow, that’s dedication!” I also have a hard time asking for help (it’s taken me 45 years to learn it’s not the best of traits) but am learning that there is so much more to gain in life when we do! Happy travels in Africa, I look forward to all the great pics!

    • Shannon O'Donnell February 17, 2014 at 9:30 pm #

      Thank you Daidri! The asking for help has already started to pay off in help and friendships, so I am happy I am slowly pushing myself out of that comfort zone. Best of luck on your 5K — that is huge and I hope the run goes so well. :)

  10. Rebecca and the World February 14, 2014 at 6:22 am #

    Congratulations – you’re amazing!! I don’t know how you did it – six hours??!! After I walked the Kokoda Track I wanted to stay fit so I have started running and agree with your reflections on the meditative state that you get. Although I haven’t ventured past 12 kilometres yet :-) Enjoy Africa – Cape Town is one of my favourite cities in the world, it’s SO beautiful.

    • Shannon O'Donnell February 14, 2014 at 12:29 pm #

      Thanks Rebecca! It was sooo rough, I think I am sticking to half-marathons or less from here on out. 12K is no joke though, I hope you are enjoying the running and that it is going well! Some days, just putting on the running shoes is the hardest part. :)

  11. Bridget @ A Traveling B February 4, 2014 at 10:00 pm #

    Congratulations, Shannon! I love your reflections on the meditative quality that came from your training. It must be such a great feeling of accomplishment after all that hard work. I’ve been thinking of doing a half marathon this year and your lessons from this marathon have proved it is something I not only should do, but could learn from. I cannot wait to read about Africa!

    • Shannon O'Donnell February 5, 2014 at 10:15 am #

      If you’ve been wanting to do a half you should go for it! I really needed that deadline looming to keep me motivated to train and run every week. Best of luck with it!! :)

  12. Noor - Desert to Jungle January 30, 2014 at 5:00 am #

    Great post, Shannon.

    I ran my first marathon 14 months ago and it was an incredible experience. I was on a high and super excited in the days leading up to the race, I felt like shouting from the rooftops that I was in town to run the marathon (I resisted that urge). I ran (and walked) not caring about the time, just knowing that crossing the finishing line would be an amazing victory over my previous aversion to running.

    I’d never really considered myself particularly goal-orientated but during the marathon training I was so focused and so sure I was going to do it. I did a lot of work on mental preparation and it really worked. I started the marathon 100% sure I was going to finish.

    I’m now just at the start of training again and plan to run one or two half and another full marathon this year :)

    • Shannon O'Donnell January 30, 2014 at 11:06 am #

      So wonderful that you happened into something that you turned out to love! Thanks for sharing your story here, and soooo much good luck on the two halfs and the full you have coming up this year; I hope you are able to end them with the same high spirits and joy :)

  13. joanna_haugen January 27, 2014 at 10:37 pm #

    Congratulations, Shannon! I signed up for my first (and only) marathon after a particularly crappy time in my life just to prove to myself that I could be successful at something. I finished the marathon and completed my goal, but it was my one and only marathon. I’ll never do it again. Huge kudos to you. It’s not an easy feat.

    • Shannon O'Donnell January 27, 2014 at 11:37 pm #

      It’s that idea of grit — of having a big success that I too honed in on. And like you, can’t imagine doing it again, but am glad the goal is finished. I hope yours helped you process through what you were going through at the time.

  14. Jodi E. January 26, 2014 at 6:21 am #

    Congrats lady! I’m so proud of you and I enjoyed your retrospective lesson digestion from after the race.

    • Shannon O'Donnell January 26, 2014 at 3:31 pm #

      Thanks Jodi! Hardest thing I’ve done to date, so it took heaps of digesting. :)

  15. Stephanie January 25, 2014 at 1:01 pm #

    Amazing! We went to the NatGeo Traveler thing last year, sorry we will be missing you this year!

    • Shannon O'Donnell January 26, 2014 at 3:26 pm #

      Aw shucks, would have been great to see you guys, but I know you are off on your adventures now. :)

  16. Drew Meyers January 25, 2014 at 11:44 am #

    “I am still learning each day that it’s okay to lean on my friends.”

    Indeed ;)

    • Shannon O'Donnell January 26, 2014 at 3:32 pm #

      Hah, indeed, indeed. Should have guessed you’d pull that out. :)

  17. Megan January 24, 2014 at 2:48 pm #

    You go, girl! I ran a half last May, and my main takeaway from it was that I’ll never do another one again. I’d much rather lift weights or hike things. I have so much respect for anyone who runs these crazy long distances! It’s definitely a huge, huge lesson in persistence! And coping with knee pain.

    • Shannon O'Donnell January 26, 2014 at 3:25 pm #

      Congrats on the Half! I decided if I ever try to run again, I would only do a half (can’t even begin to imagine what those ultramarathoners feel like!). Like you, there are other things I tend to enjoy more than long-distance running. :)

  18. Heather | Ferreting the Fun January 24, 2014 at 2:36 pm #

    My knees ache just reading this, but I love the idea of setting a goal for yourself and pushing through no matter how hard things get. Perseverance is a great skill to nurture. Congratulations on finishing the race!

    • Shannon O'Donnell January 26, 2014 at 3:24 pm #

      Thanks so much Heather — my knees were the weakest link in my training, they still ache ten days later! And I like your use of the word nurture — perseverance is something that builds gradually, that you work on over time. I like it :)

  19. Caroline Eubanks January 24, 2014 at 1:22 pm #

    Congrats! I’m training for my first half in March.

    • Shannon O'Donnell January 24, 2014 at 1:36 pm #

      You’re going to rock it! Hope the training is going well, and that you have beautiful weather for your run! :)

  20. Lygia de Luca January 24, 2014 at 11:26 am #

    You keep such an inspiring woman, Shannon. I’m so happy to have come across your blog and across you in Asia. :) Can’t wait to read about your African adventures! You go, girl! I’m on my way to my first 10k – still recovering from a silly injury -, so it was great to read you once again. Big hugs from Brazil!

    • Shannon O'Donnell January 26, 2014 at 3:33 pm #

      Can’t wait to see pics from your 10K — that will be a huge feat, especially if you are recovering from an injury. I am so happy our paths crossed, and can’t wait until it happens again. Miss you lady!

  21. John January 24, 2014 at 4:27 am #

    Congratulations on your run. Amazing what we can do when it set our minds to it, along with a little help now and again from friends and family.
    Enjoy your travels to Africa – am sure you’ll love it here once you arrive.

    • Shannon O'Donnell January 26, 2014 at 3:34 pm #

      Thank you John! Africa is an unknown, so thus a bit scary, but I can’t wait. Thanks for the support :)

  22. Shannon O'Donnell January 23, 2014 at 11:26 pm #

    Thanks so much! I will head to Kenya in the late spring and will send you an email — I am definitely keen for any contacts you might have!

    • TonjaD February 6, 2014 at 6:57 pm #

      Hi Shannon, I love your blog, I just discovered it recently and have attempted to binge read it. I love San Pancho, was there in 2009, and stayed in the swanky Bungalows Lydia. I thought I saw a post somewhere about city vs. town/country living, but can’t seem to locate it.Do you know which one I mean?? I’m fascinated with your approach to living/working, and have recently been obsessing over expat blogs and the book, How to Retire Overseas by Kathleen Peddicord, but in all honesty would like to do it sooner than later.

  23. Nicole Breitfeller Oman January 23, 2014 at 11:06 pm #

    I love you Shannon! Thank you for this. I had a blast with you. I am so glad we did this together and I couldn’t have picked a better person to share this with.

    • Shannon O'Donnell January 23, 2014 at 11:53 pm #

      I love you too lady! Could not have crossed the finish line without you and am so grateful we did this together. :)

  24. Lights Camera Travel January 23, 2014 at 10:29 pm #

    Wow amazing, congratulations! This is an inspiring, yet vulnerable piece.

    I am looking forward to hearing of your African adventures!

    • Shannon O'Donnell January 23, 2014 at 11:57 pm #

      Thank you! It was hard to process through all the parts of it, and I appreciate you reading along. Africa is a big one — I can’t wait for that adventure :)

  25. Jimmy Dau January 23, 2014 at 8:33 pm #

    Congratulations on the marathon Shannon and beautiful writing as always. Some great lessons for all of us on pushing through whatever walls or transitions in life we may come across. I think all of us can relate in one form or another with this.

    Have a great time in Africa. It’s an amazing continent and one which sparked my intention to travel.

    • Shannon O'Donnell January 24, 2014 at 12:25 am #

      Thank you Jimmy! I find myself loosing perspective sometimes, and this marathon was a reminder that life is full of these transitions and walls. Let me know if there is any one or two things I just should miss, I’ll be traveling lots of Eastern Africa. :)

      • Jimmy Dau January 24, 2014 at 12:57 am #

        I went to Lake Nakuru and the Massai Mara. Both beautiful places. If you want any hookups in Nairobi then let me know as well.

  26. deeve007 January 23, 2014 at 8:17 pm #

    If you want some more grass roots contacts in Kenya email me, spent a couple of years there a while back: http://nakedchronicles.com/category/intokenya/

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