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What I Learned at Mile 24 of my First Marathon

I walk down the hill onto the soccer field. Assemble myself at the line, wait for the whistle to blow and walk. My head’s on a constant swivel, waiting for Mrs. Eldrige to look in the other direction long enough for me to make a break for it–and by break for it, I mean waddle across the middle of the field before she has a chance to notice something’s up. These shortcuts exhaust me, and things conclude the way they started–slow, anxious and embarrassed.

Another year, another mile portion of the Presidential Fitness test in the books.

This was a routine event every year, where the husky children are weeded out from their athletically superior counterparts. A chance for those out of shape individuals to really have their obesity emphasized on a public stage. Growing up overweight there were a lot of things I wanted. I wanted to be skinny, I wanted to run fast, I wanted to hang one of those fitness certificates on my family’s fridge.

For the past few years, I wanted to accomplish the feat of running a marathon. I wanted to take all the progress made from losing weight and transfer it into the ultimate accomplishment by running 26.2 miles. If you’ve noticed by now, I’ve used the word want and accomplishment more than a few times, that’s because when people talk about accomplishing something, it’s usually because they want to do it, not necessarily need to do it. What they really want is the recognition that goes along with accomplishing something. If adulation is your motivation for accomplishing anything, the odds are in favor you don’t really need it.

When I signed up for the Sugarloaf Marathon last October, I still didn’t need to run a marathon. Honestly, I just wanted to sign up and share the screenshot of my registration email on social media. Absorbing all those likes and praises for committing–letting that IV drip of dopamine replenish my ego.

This type of motivation lead to a really poor experience while training, and I was miserable from February all the way through to May 21st. My biggest problem from the get-go was wanting to have such aggressive expectations for my first marathon. My target finish time went from sub 3:50:00 in February, to 3:55:00 in March, to sub 4:00:00 by April and eventually to ‘just finish the damn thing’ once May rolled around. I ignored training plan recommendations and failed to value what I should have the whole time–embracing the experience (more on that later).

People at my work would often ask, “How’s training going, Ken!?”

The typical retort to their inquiry was a harsh glare and a snarky remark like, “It’s my first and last marathon.”

By comparison, my attitude during those months made Eeyore look like captain sunshine of the 100 Acre Woods. I continued with the training and self-torment though, because, and here are those words again–I wanted to accomplish a marathon.

At this point, if you’re having trouble understanding what I mean–let me try to explain by breaking down what this post is really about, mile 24.

Mile 24 changed my life.

Heading into the day my plan of attack was to run 20 miles as fast as possible and then let the rest of the cards fall where they may. Finishing the race and grabbing a medal was the only objective. I was tired, beaten up physically, emotionally and really wanted to get this whole endeavor over with. Long stor… run short, I knocked out 20 miles way faster than previously thought possible with a time of 2:39.00. After crossing the 20 mile checkpoint things started to break down, aches and boo boo’s became accentuated–finishing the day became a dream scenario. I was able to trot myself to the next water stop around mile 22, where I grabbed every available cup of liquid–attempting to pour anything down my throat while stumbling past volunteers. Cramps caused me to pull up on the side of the road, where I crouched over and waited for that final nail to close the coffin.

But before the last hammer strike could land, something happened–I got pissed.

Pissed that this is how everything was going to end. Pissed that my hard work didn’t pay off. Pissed that I’m still that anxious, embarrassed fat kid who couldn’t even jog out a mile behind Oak Ridge Middle School.

This anger was enough to prop me up. Once standing, I started to limp forward. With every step, my quads and calves would voice their opinions to me, “slow down, stop, not another inch.”

As their conversation grew louder, a visceral grunt was abruptly blasted towards the sky–which shook my legs free.

Then, the haptic feedback on my Garmin informed me that 24 miles had been slain.

I’m now going to do my best to explain what happened next, but essentially; In a matter of a split second, a mental inventory of all my problems, past failures and regrets were taken, compartmentalized into the appropriate recycle bins, then emptied onto the road behind me.

I pulled the shirt off my back, tucked it into my running belt, looked forward and sprinted.

Body image disorder cripples me daily. It’s something I’ve touched on before in my posts, but no matter how open I’ve been about it, deconstructing how I appear each minute of the day has hindered many life experiences for me, even after losing so much weight. It wasn’t exactly a conscious decision or one that was pondered much–the act of removing my shirt was sudden. I stopped thinking.

Escaping into another world where negative thoughts are extinct–I let a smile raise on my face, allowed my eyes to water, and let faith take control.

Faith is a funny thing when you’re not a super religious person. Putting so much stock into something that’s not tangible seems ridiculous until you experience it. At mile 24, faith was the only thing I had–the only thing I needed.

As I crossed the finish line, my body went limp and hunched itself over the orange gate that corraled runners to paydirt. Landing back on planet Earth, and realizing my chest was bare–the natural reflex was to clothe my back as fast as possible, but I hesitated, walked around the corner and embraced my friends. It wasn’t until post race photos when I retreated back under my shirt, but from the moment it came off until that first photo, it was ecstasy. It’s a feeling I’m going to chase for the rest of my life, one that I don’t want, but need.

That’s the best way I can define want versus need, accomplishment over experience. You might want to accomplish something, but that doesn’t matter unless you need the experience. At mile 24, I realized just how badly I needed that experience.

From mile 24 till the end of Sugarloaf, not only didn’t I care who passed me, or how much faster another person was than me–I didn’t care what they thought of me at all. Their opinions weren’t going to dictate my happiness, my experience.

That’s the word I want to circle back to, EXPERIENCE. What made mile 24 such an awesome moment for me, was the series of awesome moments that took place leading up to the race that weekend. Being able to share that weekend with old friends and some new ones is what truly made everything special.

The discussions, meals cooked and adventures to small corner stores–instilled all the vibes needed for a special day to happen. Accomplishments are dope and everything, but it’s the experiences that give them any value at all.

Stop worrying so much about what you want to accomplish, and focus on discovering what you need to experience–go find your Mile 24.

I may have just gone off on a bunch of different tangents trying to convey what all of this was like for me, and if it didn’t make a ton of sense or accomplished anything by reading it, I can only offer this reply….

I don’t care, I needed to write it, I enjoyed the experience.

Ken Vetrano

About the author:
Ken Vetrano

I’m not a nutritionist or a personal trainer, just a former fat guy with a lot of size 44+ pants in his closet. That’s not just a tagline I use, it’s the truth. My posts represent an individual experience that might not work, or be appropriate for everyone. But my hope is that the journey I’ve taken can jolt people into realizing it’s never too late to make a change and get healthy.

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