December 6, 2011

Everyone has different physical reactions to stressors. Some people have sweaty palms while others bite their nails or crack their knuckles. For as long as I can remember, nerves have always manifest by causing me stomach pain. The discomfort is always present before events like a big exam or interview. Races are no exception. Diet management never seems to help any, it is something I have come to accept. Plus, if not for my tender tummy I would not have had one of the single most spiritual experiences of my life.

The morning of the half-marathon was a bit stressful. Three of us were running and were  all scrambling to get ready and out the door. The race was local so we decided to drive. Traffic slowed to a halt several blocks from the race and the early feelings of panic began to develop. We had all trained our hardest through one of the worst snow seasons in recent memory, and it was quickly becoming evident that we may not be able to physically get to the start line on time.

I started weaving the car in and out of side streets, looking for parking and intermittently getting stopped by the horrendous traffic buildup in the neighborhood. As the mood of my two passengers in the car turned to nervousness, I tried to take a firm tone in order to keep everyone (relatively) calm and figure out how to get us to the race. Although I am sure it was clear to them that I was beginning to feel the pressure as well. We finally just decided to park about a quarter mile away and jog it out to the starting corral. A pressed run from the car to the staging area was not how we wanted to start our day of running. There was no stretching. There was no pre-race ritual. Time was ticking.

Arriving at the athlete’s village area about 10 minutes before the start, I knew I could not start this race without a trip to the bathroom. The stress of parking and jogging to the race with little time to spare had wreaked havoc on my stomach. I knew the only answer was to visit those tiny little plastic palaces they call Porta-Potties. I also knew that the lines would be no picnic in a race with over 8,000 runners for the half and full marathons, especially so close to race time.

Finally walking over to a field with an enormous U-shaped row of Porta-Potties, I fretfully hunted for what looked like the shortest line. The mass of people seemed endless and my anxiousness increased. Everyone was shuffling around in their racing sneakers, envisioning the race ahead of them. After what seemed like a decade of waiting, I finally stepped up and entered the portable toilet.

In high school, there was one specific restroom stall that all the male athletes frequented before games that we referred to as the “fortress of solitude.” Back then it was a kind of joke. Not to mention, there are a plethora of other humorously named Porta-Potties out there. What I came to realize though, is that there is a definitely weird, but deeper truth to our sophomoric naming of that toilet.

While acknowledging some other very deep introspective moments in my life, I really do not want to understate the calm that washed over me as soon I stepped into that snug enclosure. I was all alone and it was quiet. Whatever the hygienic level of that given space was, it did not matter. If you have ever hyped yourself up for anything in your life and then felt stress seem to pull you away from your goal, you know the tension. As weird as it sounds, the worry was gone and my head was back in the right place.

Lest you think I exaggerated the chronology of events, I ran from the Porta-Potty straight to the closest starting corral as the masses had already begun to move onto the course. I darted my way around the hoards, popped up and down curbs, and worked my way to a more comfortable space in the field. After catching up to and passing the three-hour marathon pace group I knew there was still a chance to beat my sub-1:30 half-marathon goal. Though never one to pace out long races very well, I managed to stay calm throughout and stick to my plan. There is no doubt in my mind that having mentally cooled down before the race was the reason it went as well as it did. Obviously, the months of training prepared my body physically, but running a great personal race is only so much of a physical accomplishment. It takes just as much, if not more, mental focus.

Crossing the finish line at just over the one hour, twenty-six minute mark felt greater than any race I could remember. It was not my best per-mile race, nor did I win any prizes. But I certainly felt as if I had achieved something great. I will not soon forget the focus I achieved and the result it produced. And to think, it all came together in those critical moments because of a temporary bathroom stall.



  1. Great writing and great running. My wife and I can empathize with the relief you found in your “fortress of solitude.” As senior citizens we experience those moments more than you want to know. Of course, we’re not prepared to run a marathon or even a half after we feel relieved.

  2. Nice article!

  3. […] cannot figure it out either. We keep at it through cold weather, extreme fatigue, dehydration, and stomach problems. Then there are the injuries. Oh, the injuries. Sore knees, twisted ankles, angry IT bands, and […]

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