Perhaps you’ve heard the popular turn of phrase “work-life balance”? You can find innumerable advertisements, books, YouTube videos, blogs, and even podcasts providing tips, tricks and hacks to acquiring and maintaining a “healthy” work-life balance.
The older I get, I feel like I’m learning how a work-life balance fluctuates, because it’s never going to look the same for everyone. Now somebody might read my previous statement and think, “well of course it’s not the same for everyone, because we’re all different…” which is true, but hear me out.
In the fitness and sports industry, there’s different ways to quantify “success” and/or positive results. It can be the amount of weight someone lifts, or loses. It can be how far someone ran, biked or swam, and how fast they covered a set distance as well. Success can be the size of their biceps, in both the inches gained and lost. How many reps completed, how far under or over par; how many assists, field goals, at bats, stolen bases, rushed or loss of yards.
My point is simply that there are two sides to every construct; so why is it challenging to understand and accept the many ways that life situations can change?
When I ran my first marathon 9-years ago in 2013, my life was different. I had 5 children ages 14-6, living at home, and was a full time mother. My youngest had just began 1st grade, so between the hours of 7:45am – 3:00pm, my schedule was largely up to my own discretion.
Fast forward nearly 10-years, many, many races later and my life is very different. My two oldest kids are in college, and I’ve gained a wonderful son-in-law. My third child will be leaving for a 2-year LDS church mission in less than 90 days, and my 2 remaining kids are both in high school.
I still cook, clean, shop for groceries, take my non-driving teens to their appointments and do volunteer church service and coaching. Up until a few weeks ago, I was also working full-time. After 2 1/2 years at a really good job I enjoyed, I made a very difficult decision to leave. I feel like the best decisions are often the hardest ones, and so it is with life. Success can be measured in many ways, especially depending on what is happening in your current life situation.
I went into the 2022 St. George marathon feeling well prepared physically but strung out emotionally. Six weeks before the race, I accompanied my boys to Minnesota for an end of summer Ultimate frisbee tournament, and ended up pretty sick with an upper respiratory infection. It was not Covid-19, but it caused me to miss an important 20 mile run in my training block.
I was scheduled to pace the Pocatello half-marathon in Idaho a few weeks later, so when a full pacer dropped out, (and they really needed more full marathon pacers) I opted to switch to a much slower 4:15 full pacing slot, so I could get a good long run in this training cycle and also give back to the running community.
Unfortunately for me, and everyone else running the Pocatello Marathon, race day ended up being hot, with temperatures in the mid 80’s by the time the race finished. At the end, I was literally toasted; but I did end up passing out a lot of salt pills and helping many runners complete their very first marathon.
After Pocatello, work and life stress really took over. My son was struggling to finish high school by his September 30th deadline, and work was to the point where I had to decide how much spending time with my family really meant to me.
When I toed the start line on October 1st, I was ready for my marathon to be done, so I could have one less thing to worry about. I’ve run the St. George marathon twice, and have earned a new PR both times. I love the race course; it’s rolling hills mimics my home training area. The stunning views of desert sandstone and red rocks are beautiful, and the St. George community has been taking great care of athletes for over 40 years.
My racing strategy was to run according to feel, and just enjoy myself- but also go for a PR if my body was able too. I was cruising along when I saw an assisted wheelchair athlete tackling the big hill at Veyo- just after mile seven. As runners were going up the hill passing him, they would lightly tap his shoulders and cheer him on. It made me emotional as I watched him push, and I realized he was a living metaphor of what I felt like I had been dealing with lately.
At mile 12, my body started to feel fatigued. Surprised and a little discouraged, I knew it was way too early in the race to feel that tired. Mentally, I went through my options.
I could drop at the half and ride the SAG wagon back to the finish and be content with a half-marathon, or I could keep running and see what happens. I reasoned the second half of the marathon course is easier than the first, and the rolling hills would be to my advantage. In the end, I opted to keep going.
By mile 17, my guts were constantly aching and I was reconsidering my earlier choice. I had started walking each aide station and taking in as much water and salt as my body would handle. At mile 18, the nausea was brutal and when I puked, I didn’t even feel better. I shifted my focus again to just run at a pace that I felt I could maintain.
At mile 19- my guts ached so bad they felt like they were sticking together and on fire. The morning was warm, and when I puked a second time, I was surprised that I had any fluid left in me that hadn’t already come out. Running hurt my intestines so bad that I shifted to shuffle. Shuffling uphill was manageable, but the downhill was horrible. Frustrated and in pain, I started to cry as I began walking. My fellow runners started encouraging me as they passed, and several asked if I was okay. I decided to walk for a bit and see if it would help me feel better.
There is a beauty in pain during a race as it breaks you down and brings you to the core of what you want in that moment. As I approached the mile 20 aide station, I considered my options. I knew my body was ready to be done. I was hot, cramping, nauseous and not keeping any fluid, fuel or salt down. While I’ve walked in a marathon before (the last 2 miles in the 2019 Boston Marathon to be exact) I’d never walked an entire 10k. (6.2 miles) I knew I could walk the distance, but I wasn’t sure I actually wanted too. Pro-athletes drop out mid-races all the time, was a DNF really that big of a deal when your body’s done?
As I mentally reasoned and walked, I cried again as one of my best running friends came up from behind me. As soon as she saw me, she knew I was in trouble. If I’m completely honest, I’m fairly competitive when I run. I’ve been placing for my age-group consistently for the last 5 years in every distance I’ve run. I’m used to not only doing well, but feeling happy, positive and highly motivated as I grind my races out, especially as I near the finish. I realized I had forgotten what a truly lousy, miserable and painful race felt like.
She stopped running and walked with me. After a brief check-in, she asked me what I wanted to do? Frustrated but feeling safe enough to be vulnerable with some one I know cares and will always be honest with me, I told Rachel I wanted to finish the race. She told me to get some ice and see if that helped. I thanked her and told her to go on ahead. She promised to have an ice cold coke waiting for me at the finish line and took off running again.
Mercifully, the race had sandwich bags of ice at the mile 20 aide station. I popped a few cubes in my mouth, filled my hand held bottle up, and shoved the rest of the bag in my sports bra. Ice is an absolute miracle in a hot race. It has the ability to cool you both internally and externally, quickly bring down a hot core temp. I was hopeful that if I could get a little cold fluid in me, I might be able to run again in mile or two. Turns out, consistently running the rest of the race was not going to be my reality.
Miles 21-26 felt like a grind as runner after runner passed me. The ice cooled me down, but the cubes I sucked on were not enough liquid to help my dehydrated intestines recover adequately to run again. My self-talk finally shifted as I remembered my “why” the many runs and races long ago when I was sick, full of inflammation and my goal was to complete a run without a bathroom stop for diarrhea. I had forgotten what it felt like to be weak, struggle to finish a race, the pain of my early running journey that began 15 years ago. I told myself that today was about finishing what I started, because it was the only thing I could control in my current situation. I knew there’d be another race, some other day and that eventually, I would physically feel better.
As the minutes ticked on- I realized this would be my slowest marathon ever. No shiny new PR, just the memory of knowing what I am capable of running on this course when I am physically, mentally and emotionally healthier. I didn’t lose my confidence, but I did give myself grace to remember what a terrible race day can feel like… and why the marathon is universally challenging, no matter the talent of the athlete participating; because running 26.2 miles is hard.
When I made the left hand turn onto 300 South- I wanted to try and run the entire finish chute, located 2 blocks away. I shifted my walk to a shuffle, and locked eyes on the balloons that line the top part of the finish line banner. With my hand, I squeezed my left side muscles which helped deaden the pain running brought my intestines and repeated the mantra, “I can do anything for 2 minutes..” over and over. As I finally crossed the finish line, I was grateful to be done.
Towards the back of the finish corral, I found the wheel chair athlete Eric Eblen, that had inspired me 19-miles earlier. When I saw him, I started to cry. I was emotional because my race had been hard, but I realized my few hours of struggle were nothing compared to the difficulties he has faced as a disabled athlete. I stopped and chatted with him, learned his name, and he kindly consented to take a picture with me. After we parted, and it came into the runners finish area, there was a Rachel with my promised ice cold Coke in hand. She gave me a hug, and told me she was proud of me. I thanked her for her friendship and support; she always knows the right things to say and do to help me feel better.
As I sat down and started to recover, sipping on my Coke, I looked at my finish time of 4:55:49- with an average pace of 11:14 per mile and knew my race was about more than completing a marathon, it had to be the impetus for what needed to change in my life.
I realized quite candidly, that for the last six months I had been functioning at a metaphoric pace that I could not successfully maintain any longer. I had finally run my body into the ground because I was too afraid to look at the things in my life that I needed to change and more importantly, have the courage to act on it.
Ironically, it took an event I love doing and spent 4 months training for, to realize I couldn’t “run away” from the changes I needed to make. I was relieved to have the clarity, and humbled that it took such a struggle to actually own my reality. By accepting my choices and holding myself accountable, I’ve opened a new chapter in my life. I’ve also remembered how important it is to maintain a healthy work-life balance while accepting the truth, that “balance” is not going to look and stay the same for myself, and that is a beautiful reality.