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Team IRON EAGLES is a group of friends and family dedicated to fighting Multiple Sclerosis (MS). We join forces to raise money for the NATIONAL MS SOCIETY to support the great PROGRAMS they have available to help members of the community and to support the exciting RESEARCH being done in the field. We blog about why we ride, our experiences at fundraising events, our fundraisers and training tips. We also have links to information on MS and MS research. JOIN US!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Marathon Experience (Article for Rocky Mountain Running Magazine)

Choosing to Fly
By Marianne Hales Harding

I’m used to runners passing me like I’m standing still—it happens on every training run—but it’s an entirely different feeling to have thousands of runners pass you like you’re standing still.

Aerial footage of the start line of the St George Marathon must have looked like salmon swimming upstream around a large rock. A slow runner at my first marathon, all I wanted to do was swim upstream with the rest of the salmon but I knew I could never keep up. Not for 26.2 miles. So I plodded along until the 5 hour pacer approached from behind. I waited for the group to pass, but they kept plodding alongside me. For a few minutes I thought I would actually run a 5 hour marathon, but then they started inching ahead of me. Instinctively I pushed forward to keep up but, again, I knew I couldn’t maintain that. I went back to my pace and watched them creep slowly into the horizon. Farewell, chatty pacer. Farewell, 79 year old woman who ran Boston twice. Farewell, lady wearing a stuffed fox on her head. It was nice knowing you.

I have learned what my body can and can’t do, though, and a 5 hour marathon is the latter. I started learning my limits 10 years ago when I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). In those days my marathon was getting from the couch to the bathroom. It took all of my energy and determination to cross those few feet of carpet. Inevitably I would pace myself too fast and run out of energy halfway. I was overwhelmed by the sudden onslaught of symptoms. The entire left side of my body was numb. I could hardly walk. The stairs were as unconquerable as Mt. Everest. Not understanding the disease, I mistakenly thought I’d never walk normally again. But MS is an unpredictable disease. Crippling symptoms can stay or go, seemingly on a whim. Eventually I learned to take a slower pace but at the time I was always running at full capacity and burning out quickly.

On marathon day my pace was even slower than usual because I decided, at the base of Veyo Hill, to walk all of the inclines. This became less and less indulgent as the temperature in the desert climbed. The heat intensified all of my complaints. I started feeling it in my feet at mile 8. I felt my hips at mile 10, my knees at mile 13 and my Ibuprofen at mile 15. I acknowledged each like children on a long trip. “Are we there yet?” Not yet. Eventually they stopped clamoring for my attention—evidence of the large percentage of a marathon that is purely mental.

When I was diagnosed with MS I had a horrible fear of needles, which was a problem because all of the treatments involve needles. I decided I needed to overcome this fear. For a month, I practiced. I forced myself to look when given shots and I gave practice shots to random inanimate objects. Finally I decided to just do it. I sat down on the bathroom floor and prepared a spot on my thigh. I took a deep breath and slowly lowered the needle, but as soon as it pierced my skin I pulled it back, leaving a little prick of blood as evidence. I tried again with the same results. For 45 minutes I did this, leaving a quarter-sized spot entirely covered with tiny prick marks. When I finally kept the needle in long enough to push the plunger down I wept from sheer emotional exhaustion. Over 3000 shots later, it is no longer a big deal but that isn’t because I have overcome my fear of needles. I simply stopped indulging the fear. I couldn’t spend 45 minutes of every day in terror so I skipped straight to shooting up and going on with my day.

It was that mental fortitude that kept me going mile after mile and I decided the secret to endurance must be simply not indulging in the desire to stop. The reward was the most amazing vistas. At one point a runner said to me, “The best part of a marathon is the finish line!” I said, “Are you kidding? This is the best part of the marathon!” The St George Marathon runs through a breathtaking section of southern Utah’s desert. About halfway through I looked at the red rock towering in the distance, felt the soul-feeding solitude, and considered myself incredibly lucky to be able to be in this moment, to have run the last three hours and to be able to run three hours more.

I am not an athlete. Even before the MS diagnosis I wasn’t one to push myself physically. When I lift heavy objects it is to bring them from the trunk to the pantry. When I swim it is to rescue the beach ball. When I run it is to capture the escaping dog. Serious athleticism was never something that seemed within my realm of possibilities. But I found that you don’t have to be the winner of the race to get something out of it. Emotionally, it felt so good to pound the problems of the day into the pavement. And, physically, I have never felt better. I have fewer MS episodes and recover quicker from the ones I do have. This realization got me excited about athletics. I completed several short triathlons, a half marathon and two 75 mile bike rides.

From those experiences I thought I knew what race day would be like, but I was entirely unprepared for the power of that midpoint in the marathon--for how amazing it would be to feel so in control of my own destiny. Mary Chapin Carpenter’s song “Why Walk When You Can Fly?” played on my iPod and I wept. “In this world there’s a whole lot of trouble; In this world there’s a whole lot of pain; In this world there’s a whole lot of trouble but a whole lot of ground to gain. Why take when you could be giving, why watch as the world goes by?; It’s a hard enough life to be living, why walk when you can fly?”

The finish line was nowhere near as emotional as that moment. Later my nephew asked facetiously if crossing the finish line made me feel empowered. It didn’t. When you a run a 6 hour marathon, the party at the finish line is over. 96% of the runners have already crossed and gone home. Crossing the finish line seemed anticlimactic, perhaps because I was too tired to think about what it meant. Back in the red rock at the midpoint, though, I remembered every step of the journey from the unconquerable stairs to the conquered desert landscape. I remembered feeling beaten down by life and then feeling powerful. I remembered choosing to fly.


  1. great article - thanks for sharing

  2. Fabulous article! I read it aloud to my family sitting in the room with me.

    Almost as an aside - I sort of want to get into marathons now just to be the lady with a stuffed fox on her head.