I was honored to write a chapter for Doug Hay of Rock Creek Runner’s new eBook “The Power of a Running Mantra” about a phrase I used to get me through a particularly challenging race last year. Check out the free book for other inspiring stories and mantra ideas from USATF coach Jason Fitzgerald, vegan marathoner and ultrarunner Matt Frazier (No Meat Athlete), marathon-winning writer Greg Strosaker, triathlete and runner Susan Lacke, and Redwoods and Running author Jennifer Heidman.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. The calming words crept into my head as I took my place at the starting line. I looked down at my well-worn shoes as if they would offer some quiet reassurance that all would be well. We had traveled many miles together, those shoes and I, and today was the day we would try to go a few more. Thirteen point one more, to be exact. The number sounded enormous. Daunting. A mistake. I started to hoard questions and doubts into the lump forming at the top of my throat. Breathe in. Breathe out.
I never thought I would see another starting line. After being plagued with one injury to the next, a torn left meniscus was the final shove I needed to realize perhaps long distance running wasn’t for me. The two years of treatment, recovery, and aqua-jogging were confidence crippling – let alone painful. Could I ever run a race again? Should I? Would, “hi, I’m Meaghan, and I’m a runner,” ever come out of my mouth again? Breathe in. Breathe Out.
And yet here I was, one among thousands nervously jittering at the half-marathon starting line. I had signed up in secret, telling only my family members, desperate to show myself that I could still belong. That I could still be that runner. That that runner could still be me.
The doctor had cleared my modest training plan and offered his cautious support. My knee had healed, but whispers of pain still surfaced from time to time. Often enough to make me question my decision to run at all. But as I put on my race number, I reminded myself that this race wasn’t for a qualifying time or for rank or even for a finisher’s medal. This race was about getting over the starting line. And I was terrified. Breathe in. Breathe out.
I don’t even remember the sound of the starting gun, only the silent panic as I saw confetti fill the air and the masses around me begin to lurch forward. I lurched too. One foot in front of the other. One trusty running shoe at a time until the beep of my timing chip was the screaming reality that I had just crossed the start. I felt warm tears well up against the cold wind whipping my face. This was it. This was really happening. Time to believe or back out. I briefly brought a hand to the crinkled 10782 pinned to my stomach and prayed for faith. Breathe in. Breathe out.
The next 13 miles were full of highs and lows of all shapes and sizes. I re-learned how to bob and weave my way through the heavy traffic of lumbering legs and how to efficiently execute a water stop. I struggled up hills, struggled on flats, struggled to find a pit stop, and struggled to keep going. My knee would, from time to time, remind me of why we stopped doing this in the first place. The firestorm of emotions was completely and utterly distracting. Breathe in. Breathe out.
Without fail, those simple words had the power to bring calm, clarity, and a brief sense of control. I had learned them in yoga class – the only form of exercise I could tolerate in the months after hurting my knee. They made me feel better and had the power to part the sea of anxiety welled up inside me. And like a security blanket, they were the first thing I reached for when doubt, panic, and fear surfaced on race day. Breathe in. Breathe out.
If I could just remember to breathe in and breathe out, I knew the rest would fall into place. I continually focused on repeating the words and repeating the action. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in big, deep, juicy breaths to calm my mind and drown out the orchestra of nerves. Breathe out the stress and “what if’s” and “I can’t”s. Breathe in confidence that I trained the best I could and that I’m exactly where I need to be. Breathe out any excuses to stop, get a cab, and forgo the finish line.
It went that way for 13 miles. Breathe in. Breathe out. That little mantra delivered my doubting, tired legs all the way to the end of the race, where all the breathing in the world couldn’t stop me from crying tears of relief and joy. We had done it. My trusty shoes, tender knee, running mantra, and I. We had become runners again.