A marathoner feels semi-destroyed instead of completely destroyed after running a PR — and wonders what else is possible

For the longest time I’ve prided myself on telling it like it really is when it comes to exercise.

“Brutal” is a choice word. Strenuous, grueling, and “not at all like my couch” are other descriptors.

When asked about marathons, I have readily said that 26.2 miles is a terrible distance to run. Every mile after 22 is torture. The whole race is in that final four miles, I tell them — they’re the hardest, everything breaks down eventually, I feel completely destroyed afterwards, etc.

Anyone who tells you otherwise is either full of it, humble-bragging, or one of those mysterious Alaskans with a pain switch in their brain flicked permanently off (I’m convinced that’s everyone who lives in Fairbanks, and anyone who does mountain races).

But, I ran the Equinox marathon in Fairbanks last weekend and while it was not easy, I felt more competent than ever before.

I’m figuring out what this means personally, and more importantly what it means for my brand (I hope my half-sarcasm is coming through here). If I’m not a champion of the cold, hard truth of physical activity, what do I stand for?

The truth is, I’m increasingly straddling two different worlds. One world is embedded deep in my memory and physical being, and that’s having spent the first part of my life chronically asthmatic and unable to participate in anything physical for very long. The second is the slow, decades-long grind away from all of that — an effort which seems, suddenly, to be peaking.

I now have a physical strength that is not objectively competitive but, by my own personal standards, blows my former self out of the water.

Emotionally, I still very much identify with the first part of my identity. I love the beginner’s mindset. I am so aware of how painstaking my own path to health and fitness has been, and how many experiences and doors it’s opened for me. I sincerely want to see others do the same.

I’m put off by hardcore athleticism, which I see as exclusionary. There are so many ways to be outdoors and active other than the bravado I see in advertising, social media and YouTube channels.

It’s so much BETTER than that! Increasing competence, step by step, is wonderful because the process is so personal. In a world that’s all about consumption, this is one area that offers pure immersion with no need for comparison.

And yet.

I’m not comparing myself with others. I can confidently say that while my competitiveness comes out in Scrabble, I’m racing against myself while on the trail.

But increasingly, I’m curious where this competition with myself can take me.

I ran the Equinox in 2018. I trained fairly well, although I got sick a few weeks before the race and missed one of my long runs. The race is 26.2 miles with about 3,500 feet of elevation gain and loss, and I finished in 6 hours and 20 minutes.

Time has dulled much of the pain, but I absolutely recall using the word “brutal” afterward.

This time, I trained diligently and didn’t get sick at all, although I did take a two-week pause in training to go on a packraft trip. I have lost about 10 pounds’ worth of fat since December 2020 and gained strength through countless jump squats and other high-intensity interval training. I added weekly speed runs to my normal routine.

I was never someone who cared about speed. I threw in speed runs because my training plan recommended them as a boost to my fat-loss goals, which in turn I figured would make my normal running pace easier. I didn’t anticipate I would also get faster as a result.

When I saw that my endurance running pace (the pace at which I can hold a casual conversation) was getting significantly quicker without getting more difficult, I explored the idea that I might aim for a faster Equinox this year.

The goal I landed on was 5:45. That’s 35 minutes faster than last time, which is no small thing — but I had more strength, a lighter body and speed working in my favor. I was pretty sure, based on my training runs, that I could do it.

I finished in 5:35, a full 45 minutes faster than last time and 10 minutes faster than my goal. And, I finished strong! I opened up my pace on the downhills just before the end of the race and smiled my whole way through the finish.

Afterward, I felt semi-destroyed.

Does running marathons faster make them easier? Could that be true? What happens when I reach my overall goal of losing the final 10 pounds — will I get faster, and will it get easier? If I continue my speed runs, will that make me faster, too? What will a marathon feel like then?

What is my new pace on a flat race?!

All of these questions are firing up a whole new era of exploring the possibilities of running for me.

I want to keep going. At the same time, I want to retain my love of beginning. I think I will. But my starting place is changing, and that’s exciting too.

Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.