As I watched the New York City Marathon today, November 4, I remembered my own running of this venerated race. It was over twenty years ago, and there were “only” 25,000 runners. The thrill of crossing that finish line is the same for the elite runners like Greta Weitz, Mary Decker Slaney, and Shalane Flanagan as it is for a back -of-the-pack runner like me.
A number of years ago, on the occasion of another NYC Marathon I wrote the essay below. It expresses what every long distance runner learns: the limits we can endure in life.
I have a T-shirt that says, “Running is Life. The rest is just details.”That’s not true, of course, but running a marathon is an apt metaphor for how to run your life’s race. Of course, you don’t think about that as you put one weary foot in front of the other through each grueling mile. You are just focused on finishing, or maybe –if it’s a good day –on having a “personal best”time. However, when I look back, I realize I learned more about myself after taking up the sport and preparing to run the 26.2 miles of a marathon than I had learned in the previous fifty-one years.
When I first began running thirty-some years ago, it was for sanity, the kind of sanity being alone could bring. At the time, I lived in an unraveling marriage and had four teenagers. Running took me away from the ever-present stress. It was a form of escapism, and it worked. I’d rise early to run the roads near home. At first, I ran two semi-rural blocks; then four; then a mile. Houses were just awakening. Cars were few and far between. My family thought I was nuts; but it gave me time to myself, just to think, to be in the now, not worrying about what to cook, how to pay the bills, how to deal with rebellious sons, an angry husband, my day job. Of course, I often did think about those things, but watching each footfall to be sure you don’t trip in the gravel berm, or listening to the rhythmic sound of your own breathing provides a different focus, and centers you in the act. I had no running goals, back then. I simply ran.
A few years later, divorced, and living in another city, I entered a 5K race. It was only a bit over three miles, but I had to walk much of it. I won no medal, had no personal best; but afterward, someone told me I looked like a runner. To me that was a high compliment. I demurred, said I did it for fun. That day, I vowed someday I would be a runner. I ran more, but without a plan, or a goal. Then I moved to Atlanta, home of the Peachtree Road Race and a running club of 25,000 members. If I was going to be a runner, with a capital R, this was my opportunity to get serious. But, it was August, a hot time to start a regular running regime, so I procrastinated.
The following February, my only sibling, a brother who also lived in Atlanta, moved to Tokyo, a long-term relationship ended, and my father died. Bereft, with only a few friends scattered across that massive city of two million souls, running became my salvation. I’d mapped out a three-mile route from my apartment through the neighborhoods of Dunwoody with good intentions, but had not yet run it. When my grief and loneliness threatened to overwhelm me, I would lace up my shoes and strap on my running watch, eager to escape my apartment and my situation. Crying, and often gasping for breath, I’d run. Reaching the next telephone pole or driveway was my goal. By the time I returned home, I would feel better. Each day, I made it to one more pole, one more driveway. Each day, I cried less and breathed more evenly. Each success taught me something else, however. I came to realize that, although I didn’t have a steady job, was self-employed, and had contracts promised for only the next six months, I would make it. If I could master running, and conquer depression in the process, I knew I could tackle and succeed at this new life.
A few months later, I set a new goal. I entered the July 4th10K Peachtree Road Race: tough hills, Southern heat and humidity, and all. That was twice as far as I’d run previously. A friend offered to run it with me. He was a veteran of the race, and knew its pitfalls. I trained, going farther and farther each week. I mastered important breathing techniques. I thought I was prepared. But, when race day dawned hot, and muggy, I knew it would be a tough race. In the first few miles through Buckhead, I was able to talk and run –a good sign, I’d learned. As we reached what is not-so-laughingly called “Cardiac Hill”at Piedmont Hospital, I began to falter.
“No walking,”he said. “Just take it slow and steady. You’ll make it.”
“Don’t give up,”I thought. “It’s what divides winners and losers.”
I kept on, albeit more slowly. Still, it could have been considered running. On the other side, it’s mostly downhill to Piedmont Park. I was elated as we topped the crest and I could see Midtown ahead. I hadn’t remembered the elevation around the High Museum of Art, however. As we climbed that hill, higher than the first, I was losing steam. My legs felt like lead.
“I can’t do it,”I said, chagrined.
“Sure, you can,”he shot back. It’s less than a mile. Here, I’ll give you some of my energy.”
He reached over, grabbed my hand, and squeezed, hard. As I looked up, his smile said, “You’ll make it. I know you will.”A renewed sense of strength surged through my body, and I sped up a bit. As the finish line loomed, I tried to smile for the camera, but the tears came anyway. I’d made it, with a little help from my friend. I was a Runner.
“Well, I hear you’re a runner,”said an old friend I’d become reacquainted with. “Are you going to run a marathon next?”
I exploded with laughter. “Are you kidding? That’s insane. I’d never run that far.”
That was before I joined two running clubs, made friends with several women runners my age, and witnessed marathon fever. Suddenly, everyone I knew was training for one marathon or another. Shorter races were only a preamble, a training run. By now, for most of us, the 10K Peachtree was a social event; but 15K races were still a challenge. I ran five miles each Wednesday night through the hilly neighborhoods of Marietta. Sundays were for long runs. We ran Kennesaw Mountain’s trails or the loop trail along the Chattahoochee River. I learned where to hide water, carried Powerbars for energy, and knew where to stop for potty breaks. And, I looked forward to rewarding myself with waffles afterward.
Running waslife. I read books on the subject, and ate with a purpose. After all, food was only fuel, I reasoned. Stretching became a daily ritual, like brushing my teeth or showering. I devised, and followed a strict running schedule, recording my distance, time, and remarks about the run. I organized my work schedule around running. When I traveled, running gear was packed first. Once, I ran for forty-five minutes around a motel parking lot, because the neighborhood’s heavy traffic made road running close to the property too dangerous. Okay, maybe I was obsessed, but I was getting to know a part of me that I’d never consciously acknowledged before. I knew I was pretty task oriented, but this was different. Until now, I’d let life happen. Now I set goals and learned what it took to reach them. If I entered a longer race, I trained harder. If I over-trained, I learned how to soothe the sore muscles. I found these lessons worked in real life, as well. As a free-lance event planner, I worked months in advance for each special occasion I was tasked to create. Additionally, I had to constantly market myself to new clients for the unknown months ahead. If I wanted this career to sustain me, I had to devise a plan, not unlike my running regime. For me, that meant dedication to the sport, or to the job, and a commitment to something larger than myself. For some, that sort of commitment is religion; for me, running became my religion.
Just before Peachtree, my friends began talking about running the Atlanta Marathon on Thanksgiving morning. I had caught the fever. At fifty, I was going to run my first marathon. I filled out the registration form, and set a training regime in place. Three of us committed to training together, and the veteran among us planned the schedule. I bought a book, On Running, by fellow Atlantan, Olympian Jeff Galloway, and followed his advice on training for thirty weeks to finish a marathon. In it, he assumes you can only run two miles at the start. However, since I could already run six miles, our long runs increased from twelve to twenty miles over the course of the next six months. In his plan, you run the entire distance once before the race. Neither of my partners wanted to do this, but I felt I had to know I could do it before race day.
Two weeks before the race, on a chilly Sunday morning at 7:00, one of my partners drove me to the starting line in the suburb of Lithonia, and let me out. “I’ll meet you in Piedmont Park at noon,”she said, before she drove away. I checked my shoelaces, pulled tube-socks over my hands and arms for warmth, and punched the start button on my watch. The miles were a blur, although the markers were already painted on the streets. When things got tough, I told myself, “I can do anything for another mile, or another thirty minutes, or another hour.”Whatever it took. It was like the first run: setting a telephone pole, or driveway in my sights as the finish. I talked to myself like my friend had done during the Peachtree, entreating my body to never give up. I envisioned crossing the real finish line on Thanksgiving Day, and saw myself with the finishers’medal around my neck. As the day heated up, I shed the socks, and wished I’d hidden water along the route. As I entered Virginia Highlands, about six miles from the finish, I was becoming dehydrated, which could lead to leg cramps. I had to stop, if only to get some water. Manuel’s Tavern loomed, and I prayed they were open, even though it was Sunday. Luckily, they were preparing for lunch, and I was able to get a glass of water before lurching back to the sidewalk and the last leg of the route. I’d forgotten an important rule –plan your route and prepare for the unexpected. Of course, on race day, water stops would be in place, but not today. I struggled through Virginia Highlands, and didn’t reach the park until 12:30. There was my friend, patiently waiting.
“What took you so long?”she joked.
Yet, she never said she didn’t think I’d make it. She knew I would. And, so did I. Running is as much a mind game as it is a physical one, and I’d learned the limits to which I could push myself. I was ready. Race day, I was ready. I was back on the route I’d run before. Every hill and pothole would be familiar. If I did it once, I could do it again. The gun sounded, and we punched our watches. We ran together most of the way, talked, laughed, enjoyed the run. Around mile fifteen I saw a woman who had given up and was walking. As she trudged along, she was crying, clearly defeated by the miles. While I couldn’t know exactly what stopped her –cramps, blisters, or simply fatigue –I was grateful that although obviously a decade her senior, I could still press on. As we passed her, I remembered something I’d once told my now grown daughter who had two children of her own. Frustrated with her sudden role as a single mother, she had asked me how I managed with four, who, at one time were all under the age of six. I said, “I simply got up each day, did what I had to do, went to bed, and got up and did it all again.”One day, one block, one mile at a time.
As we passed the nineteen-mile marker, my legs began to rebel. It’s where many runners hit the proverbial “wall”when their legs refuse to go any farther. I was beginning to lag. We recited the mantra, “The last part is ONLY a 10K race,”as if that would make our legs behave differently. I told my partner to go ahead and bid her goodbye, for I was slowing her down. She waved and eventually moved out of sight.
Soon, I rounded a turn and saw an amputee on crutches, slowly making his way to the finish line, a big smile on his face. Although he might have been a half-marathoner, on-lookers bowed and removed their hats as he went by. I thought, “If he can do it, I’ve got no excuses at all.”I told myself to keep on running, and re-envisioned crossing the finish line myself. Soon my legs responded. Determination and persistence can overcome obstacles that, at first glance, look impossible.
Finally, I entered the park. Race officials make it clear that they ask volunteers to stay only five hours so they can enjoy Thanksgiving with family, and it was beyond that deadline. I worried that the clock would be down, the volunteers gone. I shouldn’t have. My son and mother had come from Florida for the holiday and to watch the race. I crossed the finish just ahead of a man whose feet were bleeding through his tennis shoes. The clock was still there. It read 5:19:06.
Later I learned that officials had started taking down the clock, but my son insisted they leave it. He told me he said, “My mother is out there and she WILL finish. Leave it up.”They did. As the medal encircled my neck I cried, again, this time from joy. I’d done it. I knew from this day there would be few obstacles I couldn’t handle. Plan your race, and race your plan.