Pulling into the aid station at the half-way point of my first (and so far only) half-marathon – my legs exploding in pain – I know I’m in big trouble.

Me:  “If this was just a training run instead of a race, I’d definitely stop right now.”

Girlfriend:  “Geez, that sounds tough.  On a scale of 1-10, how bad does it hurt?”

Me:  “I’d say a 7, edging up to 8.”

Girlfriend:   “We can certainly quit if you want. There’s no shame in injury.”

Me:  “Nope, I’m going to try and gut it out.”

It isn’t supposed to be this way.  Not at all!  During the last two months of training, my girlfriend and I had been doing everything right:  eating healthy food, getting lots of rest, warming up before and after our runs, increasing the distance incrementally.   By all measures, we were ready for this half-marathon.  What we hadn’t calculated into the equation was the hills on this course — more specifically, one long, nasty, eternal downhill that we had to do not once, but twice (!) during the race.

As any trail runner can tell you, it’s not the ascents, necessarily, that get you; it’s the steep, bone-jarring descents.  And it’s not just your knees that flare up when you’re dropping elevation; it’s your “IT-band”.  For the uninitiated, IT stands for “iliotibial”.  The iliotibial band is the ligament that runs down the outside of the thigh from the hip to the shin, attaching to the knee and helping to stabilize and move the joint.  When this “band” gets tight or inflamed, running becomes a true misery.  And what tends to set it off?   Downhills of course!

So again, there we are at the half-way point of our half-marathon, my IT bands screaming like teenage lovers at a horror film, and all I can think of is, “How am I going to make it another 6.5 miles?”    I definitely don’t want to quit; we’ve been training for this event for months.  And I’m certainly not going to walk!   What to do?    It’s right about this time that I recall a TED talk I had listened to this summer from Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth on the topic of GRIT.   Duckworth had been studying the variable test results of a group of middle and high school math students. Pondering why the best students weren’t always turning in the best work, Duckworth concluded that the most successful students had an indefinable quality called “grit”.

Doing well depends on more than IQ… it depends on more than merely your ability to learn quickly and easily.  Grit, it seems, is the real predictor of success.   Having talent doesn’t necessarily make you gritty.  Grit owes more to the individual’s personal stamina –to his or her willingness to stick with their future for years, working hard to make that future a reality.  In other words, life is a marathon not a sprint.

If I’m going to finish my own half-marathon, it won’t be because I’m in better shape than anyone else.  It won’t be because I’m more talented.  It won’t even be because of my vegan/gluten-free diet.  No, what’s going to get me to the finish line on this hilly trail from hell is pure, unadulterated grit.  I’ll need to stay in the present, concentrating on each step, using my mind to overcome my discomfort.
And that’s pretty much what I do for the next hour and a half.   Whenever my brain bombards me with negative messages — that the pain is TOO much — I calmly note to myself, “These thoughts and feelings are bound to change.   Whether they get better or worse is beyond my control, but I’ll certainly be feeling different in a moment.  Let’s see how I’m doing around that next bend, and the next one after that.  Perhaps I can adjust my gait a smidgeon to provide a bit of relief. Anything to get me a little further along the trail.”

Expectations are a funny thing, aren’t they?  I had expected this race to be a joyous experience, a confirmation of my excellent fitness and hard training.  I had even fancied myself celebrating at the finish line upon learning that I had taken the top time of my age group (early 50’s).   Never would I have guessed that my girlfriend and I would come in second to last amongst the 100 people on the course!    But you know what?   In a strange way, it was joyous.    During those 13+ torturous miles, I came to learn about what I was made of!   Time and again, my mind claimed victory over my fears and emotions.  I didn’t give up!   In the future, I have absolutely no doubt that this will be an experience I can to draw upon repeatedly, especially when things get tough again (as they inevitably do).  In a word, I know I have grit.