Human beings love certainty. That’s why we have comfort zones (a controlled space where we can more or less predict what will happen) and why we put an out-sized value on the past (it already happened, so it can’t change). Uncertainty is nerve-wracking, a darkened path into the unknown that could or could not end well. What is to come is scary because anything could happen and we can’t control it.
Sometimes, certainty is not comfortable or enlightening. This past weekend I ran a wonderful little marathon in Northern Virginia that started and finished at a local suburban high school. The course was a double loop half marathon meaning that I had to run the course twice to complete the full marathon distance. Normally, I like these courses because it helps to know what the second half of the course looks like when I enter the inevitable battle with the mental demons that descend on me around mile 18. Those bastards love pointing out the uncertainty of the course and how it will imminently lead to my failure. With a double loop, they lose some of their ammunition.
The course started like many others – a rush of adrenaline on a luxuriously wide asphalt surface just outside the school. A couple of miles of gently rolling roadway begat more of the same until we entered a wooded trail just before the four-mile marker. This mile-long trek along a peaceful trail through the woods is normally a runner’s dream – no traffic or associated noise and pollution, but this trail had as many twists and turns as a Stephen King novel and meandered through the trees as if some drunken explorer had founded it back in the day. If the twists weren’t bad enough, the amplitude of the undulating hills seemed to accelerate. My legs groaned and the pace displayed on my watch slowed.
After a mile in the wooded path, I plopped back onto pavement, which, although undulating and unforgiving, felt like a relief from the twisting trail I had just left behind. Another mile-long section of trail followed that before I ended up on pavement again. The race course marshal obviously had a sense of humor and a mean sadistic streak, but I hadn’t seen anything truly sadistic yet. Until I did. What followed the short respite of relatively straight roadway was three miles of rolling, twisting trail. I felt like one of those sad, inevitable victims in a slasher film running an aimless path among the trees in hopes that the determined mass murderer wouldn’t be able to keep up with me.
When I finally emerged from the last section of the wooded path on the first loop, my legs and my time had suffered. The slight downhill run on the longest straightaway of the course led me back to where I had started. As I ran by the halfway point, the thought of running through those trail sections again left me with an unsettled feeling. The grind was already wearing on me at the 13-mile point. Normally, I don’t start to feel it until around mile 15 or beyond. In this case, certainty, as in I most certainly had to run the trail sections again, didn’t help me in the least. In fact, it made me very uncomfortable.
The marathon is an exercise in determination, more mental than physical. Certainty helps relieve some of the mental stress in most cases. That’s why many marathoners have specific routines they follow that border on OCD. In this case, certainty didn’t help. Despite the sense of dread that hung over me as I dropped off the roadway onto the first section of trail for the second time, I kept going. The paths were just as grueling as the first time except my legs were lingering near the edge of exhaustion. My pace slowed markedly, but I kept moving forward. I did experience some euphoria when I emerged from the final section of trail and hurled myself down the home stretch. Because I had experienced that about two hours earlier, I knew the worst was over. Finally, certainty worked in my favor.