I am training for my 4th marathon. On October 28th, I will be running in the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC. 16 full weeks of early mornings, hot, humid and muggy runs, not to mention tons of fuel and remembering to stay hydrated and well fed. Yep just like a plant.

I’ve got some goals attached and I’ve kept it close and guarded. Shared with a few, but even that often has come with some hesitation. They say you should share your goals and let others know. Part of it is they can help to keep you accountable, but also motivate you and keep you encouraged when all you want to do is hit snooze when the sun is barely even up.

I often fear (yes that word) sharing my goals, not just in running, but also in my career and personal life. The ‘fear’ of well what if it doesn’t happen? What if I miss my goal? These same questions I often ask or think of when it comes to my future and my career goals. What if none of this shit works out? I tell myself well it has always worked out. Some way, somehow, it has always worked itself out. Believing it isn’t always the easiest.

I ran my first marathon in the second year of my doctoral program. Personally, shit was hitting the fan left and right and I needed something to keep me upright. Running became my therapist. It didn’t judge. It made me do the hard work and the heavy lifting. It also gave me a sense of control back while also reminding me that well dear, some things you truly cannot control. My goal for my first marathon was to just finish. I trained-ish. Seriously, all I wanted was to stay on my feet. It became my mantra. “Stay on Your Feet”. No matter what. Worry about the mile you are in. All I had to do was 1) Beat the Bridge and not get picked up by the bus and 2) Finish.

To this day, my favorite part of the Marine Corps Marathon course is coming around at Mile 19 and hearing from the distance the Batala Washington drums- a group of women (ALL WOMEN) beating the drums. To this day, anytime they’re at one of my races, it fills me with excitement to hear those drums. It’s battle time. Those drums become my war cry. I am ready to bust through any efforts the dreaded “wall” tries to throw at me-cramps, heat, fatigue, doubt. I throw up a huge middle finger to it all and keep repeating. “Stay on your Feet.” The most memorable moment, the one I will cherish and keep close to my heart forever and along with my mantra I use both on and off the pavement came in the words of “Leave nothing here today.”

I was headed up the hill (who puts a hill at the end of a marathon?), my body pretty much giving out. I could see the finish line arch just right around the corner. I just had to get up this hill. The sides were lined with marines cheering everyone on, reminding us to dig deep, telling us we got this. Now I am a big believer in guardian angels and the universe looking out for us crazy humans. A woman marine (sense a theme here?) leans out, looks me in my pain filled face trying hard not to give up and says — “Don’t you leave ANYTHING out here today.” To this day it brings me to tears. The fact that a stranger could believe in me. The fact that this person saw me and knew what I needed to hear, even if they didn’t really know. To this day I thank her for reminding me that I can get through the pain. I can get through the fear. I can fight through the doubts. I can fight through the depression, the anxiety. I can get through anything the wall of life throws my way.

While I kept doing other races, I didn’t do my second marathon until about two years later when I felt ready to train again. It also was at a point where I needed something to focus on so that I could feel that sense of control, that sense of pride, and I was in desperate need of structure and release. Life once again was a whirlwind of chaos. To be honest I was feeling cursed. My grandmother had been in and out of the hospital, a friendship was presenting its challenges, relationship challenges, school and work, comprehensive exams, and then the woman I love most on the planet, my mother, was hit with breast cancer. Let’s just say God and I had many, many conversations. This time training was different. My goals were different. I had already proved I could run and finish. Now, my goal was to finish stronger, and sure a little faster-but most importantly I wanted to run it knowing I gave every.single.ounce.I. had. I laid out my goals, I asked for help and met my ‘track pack’ (they truly are badass). I planned, but most importantly I stuck to it, kept going and I executed. And oh boy was I on cloud nine when I crossed that finish line. It was the cherry on top for the year. The other challenges didn’t go away, but it was the necessary reminder that you are one resilient motherf^&#@% (sorry Mom). I was a hungry beast. She had been awakened.

Marathon training/running keeps me together. It gives me structure when everything feels out of control and out of whack. It listens. It teaches. It coaches. Most importantly, it never makes me feel less than. It helps me to not compare. It never makes me feel like I’m a burden or hard to deal with. It is the time when I can truly tell my brain-filled with it’s anxious ruminating thoughts focused on the past and unknown future-to quiet down and it does. Even when it doesn’t, it is the time when I allow myself to feel and allow them to come on in, sometimes even cry, and I don’t feel the need to run away. It is when I am running that I am reminded of how far I truly have come and all the things I have to be proud of. It is during running that I can be most honest with myself, feel and truly believe that I am capable, worthy, strong and resilient. It also whispers-hey girl-you know you can feel and know all these things when you aren’t running?

Post-grad life has been a roller coaster of emotions and challenges for me if I’m being honest. I put so much weight on my goals for my doctorate. When it didn’t neatly end as I had hoped and dreamed and in the way that I had strived and worked my ass extremely hard for-I’ve yet to actually enjoy the fact that just like those marathons-I had finished. I crossed the finish line. That’s what is most important and it is something to be extremely proud of. These days, my life is full of trying out new things completely out of my comfort zone, meeting new people, making connections and a whole lot of praying. In my days of looking for a job, figuring out how to make my next dollar, pay rent and bills each day. In my days of beating back the onslaught of negative ruminating thoughts, the should haves and the could haves. In my days of feeling like a burden to family and friends, or struggling with not being understood -running is what gets me out of bed. It helps me remember my ‘why’. Those hard runs where I’m wondering how in the world will I be able to keep a pace that fast. Those hard runs where I have to keep repeating stay on your feet. Marathon training brings the balance. It brings me joy. It brings me peace when nothing else seems to work. It helps me stay the course. It gives me hope. It is truly the gift that keeps on giving.

At almost the end of week 11 of training-I am physically exhausted, on top of being emotionally and mentally frustrated and fatigued. But like my training has shown and taught me over these past few years, some days/weeks are great, while others just downright suck. However, training has taught me to listen to my body and my needs. Normally I would have pushed myself and told myself I didn’t deserve to take a break. But I kept in mind the bigger picture and so I rested and now I am ready to get back out there. The gift that running continues to give and bring to me is that during that time when I’m out there on the pavement or on the track-I don’t compare. I don’t overanalyze. Like Nike-I Just Do It.

I am grateful for running because it has taught me self-love and self-compassion. It helps me clear my overstuffed head. It helps me let go. It helps to remind me how blessed I am. Most importantly, it reminds me how far I have come and how much I have endured. I am lucky to be able to get up and run. I get to see all of the beauty around me. It gives me a reason to keep on living.

Running has also gifted me a great tribe. A tribe who reminds me that anything is possible and the fact that they want these goals just as much as I do makes it even that much rewarding. They help me through those difficult runs. They remind me it’s okay if the paces are off here and there. They remind me to slow down when necessary. They, like running, always remind me and continue to show me that I always have a little more left in the tank even when I feel completely on E. I don’t know what it is, but I feel strong as hell on my feet. So in about 50 days, when I get to that starting line, no matter what the outcome-I can rest assured that I truly left everything out on the pavement. One thing I know for sure. I’m a fighter. And no one or anything can take that away from me.

The beast is hungry. See you MCM ‘18. Looking forward to making you my best one yet.

Follow along with me on this journey and let’s chat. I’m Dr. Tiffany Gray. Public health nerd and coffee lover, chasing marathon goals and setting out to do some good and make some change in the world around me. I think. I run. I do. Find me on twitter @drgrayhealth, LinkedIn, and at drgrayhealth.com

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