The crescendo of pain and joy

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On a sunny Sunday morning, thousands of people crowded the space underneath the Sydney harbour bridge—the starting point of the Sydney marathon. Last time I had run this event I was right at the back of the pack, hoping to finish the race in under five hours. This time I was a bit more daring and started moving through the crowd, chin up, looking for the pacesetter with the 4:15m flag. I didn’t think I had trained as much as did for my first marathon three years ago but considering that I had finished that event in 4:04, my goal seemed realistic.

I found a spot near the pacemaker and started to remove the layers of warm clothing to throw away—I was wearing an old thermal shirt and a worn out jumper over my running shirt. The forecast was for a warm day but at 5AM when I left home it was only eight degrees. But in the crowd, body heat emissions kept me warm. In my position facing the start line, I took a deep breath to focus on the 42.2Km road ahead in the company of energised strangers and yet, solitude. It was going to be just me, my GPS tracker and my thoughts. There was nothing else. No Facebook, emails or SMSs from friends and family. I enjoy the silence, that’s why I don’t listen to music when I run, it’s a break from the chaos of modern life. It makes me feel much more in tune with my body. I pay attention to the sound of my feet hitting the pavement, my breathing, my surroundings.

The countdown began and my heart started to beat faster, I thought of my training and how I should have trained more and harder. I feared I wasn’t carrying enough food, maybe I had not drunk enough water, maybe my insomnia would make me hit the wall. Then I heard the gun and snapped back into reality. Enough, I was ready enough.

So, the race began, it’s always an amazing feeling, the realisation that you signed up to endure hours of discomfort, that months of preparation have come down to this moment. The vibe is energising, people of all walks of life, shapes and sizes trying to do their best. I passed interesting individuals dressed in superhero costumes, business suits, rhinoceros – I don’t know how they can endure 42km of running covered in so many layers, it’s amazing what one does for a cause.

The first two hours were easy, the third not too bad. At the next water station, I stopped to eat a banana and I saw when the 3:45 pacesetter passed me by. I could not believe I had been ahead of him—the GPS watch is never that reliable on race day—but would I be able to catch up? I kept going, my legs were starting to hurt, thankfully, lining the sidewalks, strangers were screaming, cheering the runners on. There was also live music at some points and people holding encouraging signs. I recall one that read, “If Trump can run, so can you.” All that was somehow re-energising.

At the 38Km mark my legs were burning, every step now was an escalating crescendo of pain. I had just finished the Barangaroo section and was running towards Circular Quay. The view of the harbour was a welcome distraction. I could now see the Opera House, there was hope, I was going to make it, I sped up a bit, my mind was telling me to do it. My body didn’t want to obey but somehow, it kept going. Almost there, I could see the finishing line, tears streamed down my face, I made it, I made it, in 3:48:49s.

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Marathon and the long road to sleep

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After three months of training, four bottles of shampoo and conditioner, and, for my standards, an exaggerated amount of animal protein, I’m ready for the marathon. Today I began my taper week so, when I woke up this morning, instead of my running shoes, I reached out for my laptop—I finally have a bit of time to write and reflect on my training. I’m still in bed, the early morning sun is shining through the spaces of the Venetian on this glorious Sunday, I hear the birds chirping and feel itchy to join them outside like I did every Sunday for almost 12 weeks. The birds have been my companions throughout this training season as I attempted to incorporate some meditation during my runs—I’ve tried to attend to their sounds instead of the unwavering thoughts that keep buzzing around seeking my attention.

Most of the time, I failed, the voices in my head spoke louder than the birds—my endless to do list, work stresses, kids’ homework battles, an upcoming small surgery, mum and her dementia—a symphony of anxiety was constantly brewing in my head. But still, the training for this marathon made me reconnect with my meditation practice. You see, I did the mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) program four years ago and felt, first hand, the benefits of meditation. During that time, my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer and I started to suffer from insomnia but thanks to meditation, I was still able to look at life with equanimity during those difficult times. Mindfulness meditation taught me how to pay attention to my thoughts, feelings, and emotions as if I was watching a movie. There I was, lying awake at night thinking about my sister, knowing that I could not change her diagnosis, the unfairness of it all, feeling helpless. Prior to the MBSR, I would have felt panicky and anxious but with the help of meditation, I was feeling more compassion than fear. And although many times my mind would not let me go back to sleep, I was able to accept my states on consciousness, both the good and the not so good, and soldier on.

That was four years ago. Unfortunately, little by little I started slacking off on the practice of meditation. Life got in the way, thoughts got in the way and eventually, I went back to being more on auto-pilot, highjacked by my mind. Since then, my practice has swung back and forth and prior to start training for this marathon, it was not really top of mind.

Until, and, much to my surprise, I started to have bouts of insomnia again. Even though my body is exhausted from training for the marathon and wants to rest, my mind isn’t. I haven’t had insomnia everyday but a couple of nights per week is enough to cause havoc to your life and there is the odd week in which I battle with this dragon almost every night.

So, I took a reinvigorated interest in meditation. I’ve practiced it formally almost everyday, even if only for 10 minutes. It hasn’t fixed my insomnia yet, and maybe it never will, but it is helping manage the rumination as I lie awake at night. When I’m not meditating, I can easily have this type of dialogue with myself: “Rosana, if you don’t fall asleep, you will be feeling crap tomorrow and will be struggling at work and short fused with the boys.” Or “If you don’t sleep you may get sick and won’t be able to run the marathon.”

Of course, those thoughts normally put me in a state of anxiety, I would get out of bed in the morning with a bad feeling that something was going to go wrong. But at present, the nights that I have insomnia and am able to pay attention to my thoughts without getting caught in the emotions, I can see the other side of the coin. Instead of seeing an anxious person laying there, I see myself as someone who wants the best for her family, wants to do well at work and look after her wellbeing. This makes me feel calmer even if I cannot go back to sleep.

At present, I’m doing guided meditations from various sources (Tarah Brach, Dan Harris, Sam Harris, Headspace and others) and when I go out for a run, I try to bring mindfulness to my workout by listening to the birds, my feet pounding the pavement or paying attention to the landscape. I keep getting distracted but I’m getting better.

Preparing for the Sydney Marathon has been an amazing physical feat and this time I feel like I’ve added a new dimension to it by trying to train my brain. I’m looking forward to crossing the finishing line—I’m not going for a gold medal but hopefully, will be rewarded with a good night of sleep. If not, I’ll get up to accept the gift of a new morning even if the night was not what I signed up for.