The first time I ran seven miles, I nearly sh%# myself and passed out. Ok, passed out and then sh%# myself. Either way, I could not envision almost doubling that and running a half marathon. A year into the future, I did run that half marathon, and proud to announce, poop-free. People started asking me, almost simultaneously as I crossed that finish line, when I’d run a full marathon. Dear God, no. Double that mileage? Hard pass.
Fast forward two years. One bumbled training cycle in between, thank you, stupid runner’s knee. This cycle was interrupted with a nasty shin splint, but a sweet physical therapist massaged and stretched and coached the injury away. So here I was.
Runners, a lot like other athletes, can be a pretty superstitious bunch. As I lined up with all the other crazies, I found myself clinging to little repetitive actions to calm myself. I jumped up and down, getting the blood pumping. I checked my water bottles (both still there) in my bright orange fanny pack. Reached inside the back pocket and rubbed the tiny silver three-legged pig for good luck. Checked to make sure my snacks hadn’t fallen out of the Velcro pocket. Touched the top of the Mace clipped to the belt and re-positioned it straight again.
The sun was just starting to unzip the sky, giving off a few degrees of warmth. It was almost time to ditch the large fleece jacket I’d bought at Goodwill the day before. It was long enough to stretch down over most of my legs if I bent down and contorted myself just right. Turn Down for What blasted through the speakers (a favorite song at races for some reason, also on my playlist) as the DJ joked with the crowd and introduced the race director. Soon we were all facing the flag, hanging sideways under START in big black letters, billowing around the sliver of sunlight.
Someone sang the national anthem. The neurotic amoeba of runners inched forward. People looked around at each other, silently thinking “What are we doing?” “Are we all crazy?”
The gun fired, even though I don’t remember hearing it. I was positioned in the middle of all those people, so it took me a while to make it to the actual start line. Down the slight incline, we all proceeded cautiously. Of course, I tripped over the carpeted timing line and almost bit it. I realized I couldn’t feel my feet. I couldn’t think about that. I just willed them to keep going. Still numb as I proceeded into the parking lot, I weaved around it, following the crowd.
It’s such a weird feeling, running a race. It’s very isolating, even though you’re so close to all these strangers. You can hear them breathing, feel their sweat hit you if you’re behind them, be the unintended target of their snot rockets if you’re not careful. But then, you’re all alone in your head. Ear buds are in, your mind is closed off. I welcome the isolation. Sometimes though, the people penetrate your little self-imposed bubble.
A small pack of them buzzed around me in those first few minutes, talking like they had cotton balls in their ears. Trading compliments back and forth about their gear. Planning future races or post-race celebrations. I tried to concentrate on the long day ahead, but the loud talkers and frozen feet were gnawing at my brain.
Those first two miles brought the sun out, spilled like paint through the clouds. I smiled up at the sky. My feet started to thaw. Just when I thought I couldn’t stand to hear those voices any more, we came to the split in the road. They went left (they were running the half marathon), and a small group of us went right (we were running the full 26.2 miles). It was my first time.
We turned off the paved road and onto the soft, sandy trail. I relished the quiet, but immediately started talking to myself.
One of my good friends sent me a care package a few days before the race. Inside, I found a brand-new pair of running socks with the words I can printed on the top and I did on the bottom. What a surprisingly inspirational item of clothing! I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t wear them until after the race though. Don’t wear anything new on race day! The socks would have to wait.
She also enclosed two cards, one to read before, and one to read after. The night before the race, I sat on the bed, struggling to concentrate. My mind was pinging, and my stomach felt like I was about to give a speech in front of thousands. Her card had a few mantras to hold on to during the race, but I clung to one.
Mile by mile.
I would take this race in tiny bites and digest it. I would tick off each mile on my mental tally sheet. I was so grateful for her thoughtfulness. Her mantra gave me blinders, a perfect focal point. I would shut out all other distractions. Or at least I’d try.
So when we came to the fork in the road, I pushed play on that one-sided conversation. It was more of a mind game than anything. It would stay familiar and steady almost the whole way.
Finally, I settled into the monotony of my shuffling feet around the fourth mile. This is about the time in every run, for me, where everything switches to auto-pilot. Well, except that one time when I choked on my spit, spastically coughed, and managed to pull a groin muscle. But mostly, this is where I can turn my brain off and enjoy the scenery.
Except for a quick flash of an abandoned-looking trailer giving off serious dueling-banjo vibes, the trail was really beautiful that day. A canopy of oak and birch trees, stretching toward each other like fingers, covers almost all the American Tobacco Trail. A former railroad bed built for a tobacco company in the 70s, it spans three counties and switches from gravely dirt to pavement and back again.
Watching the sunrise through the tree trunks along the trail, steam rolling over the grassy fields, I was humbled. Running while nature shows off is different than running a typical road race. There are no cheering crowds, no clinking cowbells, only quiet, untouched landscapes.
And a few pockets of new home construction jutting out, pushing their way into view. Eyesores, but they pass quickly, and the scene settles back into magical greenery. The interruption is soon forgotten.
About this time, five or so miles in, I remembered to eat. In the beginning, I’d followed my strict, self-imposed rule of eating every five miles, so here I was, opening up the back pocket of my pack and gingerly taking out the plastic bag of chocolate chip breakfast cookies. I took a few bites (it’s hard to eat and run) and stuffed the bag back in, zipping it closed. Washed them down with a few tiny sips of coconut water and kept going.
I like to call myself a delicate giraffe. Whenever I catch a glimpse of my running shadow, my neck is stretched out like taffy, wobbling around, looking for leaves. I feel awkward. I watch marathoners on TV, performing an effortless sprint-glide for two hours. I’m amazed and discouraged. The runner formerly known as Grandma on her high school soccer team (dubbed this because I was always bringing up the rear whenever we ran the mile) consistently finishes races in double the time it takes those marathoners.
Not only am I clumsy, but I’m also slow. Not too slow though. And pretty consistent. I consistently finish smack in the middle of the pack.
This pack had now dissipated into a few consistent bodies trudging along, some pausing at each water stop, about every two miles. I chose to walk through these stops and enjoy a tiny little break. Also, see previous comment about choking.
I was feeling pretty good from mile 5 and beyond. I mostly stayed behind the same pigtailed runner. I found comfort in her. She reminded me of a college friend. Every once in a while, we’d trade places. I’d push ahead, and she’d fall behind.
These miles were unremarkable except for one water stop run by burly men in overalls, their speakers blasting Ice, Ice, Baby. I briskly swept through this one, sporting a very confused look on my face. The next water stop was ladies only. They were dancing and laughing, really enjoying themselves. One of them said “hey girl, I like those tights!” Even on the dirty trail, I guess I still had it.
Soon after the dancing lady water stop, a race official cheerfully alerted me that I’d made it to the halfway point. “Can I quit now?” I joked. But I didn’t. I kept going, steadily ticking off each mile. In my mind, from that halfway point and beyond, time morphed into a blur of robotic movement. Continuous pushing forward.
The farthest I’d ever run before that day was 18 miles, 16 miles in training before the race. When I got to mile 19, I think I said out loud, “Holy sh%#! This is the farthest I’ve ever run!” and then checked around me to make sure I was alone. And checked my little ego boost too. I still had a 10K and some change to log. A little premature for celebrating, as I was petrified of the dreaded “wall” that all the books and articles I’d read said happened to people between miles 20 and 22.
Long before this race, I became a smack talker. I talked smack to hills as I ran up them. “Oh yeah, hill? Is that all you’ve got? I’m about to run up you!” I talked smack to other runners when I passed them too. In my mind, of course. I am still a fine Southern lady. But mostly, I talked smack to myself. It’s my sick little take on encouragement. This day, I decided, I would taunt myself through each mile. “Oh hey, you did five miles? Look at you! Can you do six? Yeah, let’s do six!”
As I started swirling around “the wall” territory, I really dug deep. I was getting really tired. “Ok,” I reasoned, “you did 19 (!!!), so let’s do 20.” Still no wall in sight, I just concentrated on keeping my legs moving, even if I did feel like I’d decided to run this thing in a medieval suit of armor. Just as I was congratulating myself on feeling this good, I passed a man down. Poor guy, he was young too. He was down on all fours. I felt so bad that I couldn’t stop, but I didn’t slow down. Then I found myself behind an old man, bent sideways like a rusty nail, barely shuffling forward. He looked like he was in horrible pain. “Why do we do this to ourselves?” I thought.
“Keep doing it! You’re doing it! Let’s try for 21!” My little pep talks were working. I took another bite of cookie and tried to put it back into my zippered bag. The zipper got stuck, and my world almost came crashing down around me. This thing had now entered serious mind-meddling territory. I finally got it sealed up again and continued along.
That’s when I let my brain entertain thoughts of those at the finish line. My husband, my kids, my friends, my parents. When my face gnarled up into the beginnings of an ugly cry, I closed off the waterworks and laughed out loud. God, I could not wait to see them.
At mile 24, the dwindling trickle of runners spilled back on to the asphalt. The trail’s part had come to a close. I knew it was almost over. I chided myself for overlooking those last few miles though. “You can’t skip over 24 and 25,” I reminded myself. So I backed off and prepared to do the rest of the work.
Finally back on the road, little pockets of people started to appear, all cheering, whistling, some ringing cowbells. Children yelled and waved, sitting all along the grass and perched atop their parents’ shoulders. You could tell even some of the people from the adjacent neighborhoods had just wandered out to see what all the noise was about.
Slowly pounding down the road, I frantically skipped through my playlist, trying to get to my song. I tried to smile at the crowd and not look too crazy. Just as my legs almost melted into my shoes, I experienced literal music to my ears. I heard the quiet start of Sia’s Unstoppable. “That’s right Sia,” I nodded. “I’m so powerful, I do not need batteries to play.” When the song ended, I rewound it and then rewound it again, like a feverish child clutching a blankie.
The sandy dirt had cushioned my feet inside the trail, but now the hard road was not so forgiving. I could feel a blister forming on the ball of my left foot. I hardly had time to zoom in on that annoyance because the wind had picked up to an intensity so high it was blowing the snot straight out of my nose and across my cheek. “This is definitely one disgusting sport,” I thought as I made a quick attempt to clean up my face.
As I took the sharp right on to the final stretch of road before entering the parking lot where the finish line was, I was feeling a little bit more sure of myself. I remembered how close I was because I had run the half marathon the year before on the same course.
I was by myself now. No other runners near my little hemisphere. Still just putting one foot in front of the other. Still mile-by-milin’ it. Though, at this point, I had fewer than one of those calculated miles to go. I looked up and saw a race volunteer waving me on to the left turn into the final stretch. “You are almost there, marathoner!” she said, smiling. She was right. I felt a surge of pride when she said that.
I felt like I could conquer anything! Anything except seeing my friends waving homemade signs about 50 feet ahead of me. Oh no. Ugly cry again. I let it out. I got ahold of myself right before I got close to them.
“Can I get that cheeseburger now?” I said to my friends. They laughed and said yes. One of them stepped into the road and joined me on the course. We started that triumphant decent together.
And then my blister popped. Oof. What timing. I was so thankful I was near the end. I couldn’t have imagined running on that the whole way.
Looping down and around, inching closer, I could hear the music and the crowds growing even louder. I scanned the people, looking for my parents, and saw my stepmother waving like an enthusiastic lunatic.
A few feet ahead, my dad was standing still, hands folded in front of him, stoic as usual. Very low-key proud.
I heard him first. Then I saw my husband cheering and running sideways and recording all at once. “Go Mommy, go! Woo hoo!” My little guy was bouncing up and down, bundled up and clapping. My older one was gesturing like he wanted to join me. I nodded and waved him onto the road with me, unable to contain the awkward tears. “You can do it!” he said as he ran beside me.
The DJ’s voice blasted through the speakers. “Looka here, looka here. We’ve got number 209, crossing that finish line! Way to go, good job!” he announced.
I felt like sludge, granny walking under the giant FINISH balloon, but I had done it. I saw the race director with the medals. When we reached him, he asked my son to award me with mine. He placed it over my head, and it got all tangled up in my headphones. The thing was Flava Flav clock-sized. Ridiculously heavy.
Everyone eventually reached me and swallowed me whole, so many arms stretched out and around in support. What an amazing experience it had been.
“So when’s the next one?” my dad asked jokingly. “Ask me that after I get my cheeseburger and a nap!” I replied, laughing and collapsing on to the sidewalk.