As I walked through the American Discovery Trail Expo, I noticed a table with various stickers, including one that read, “Marathon Freak.” I laughed to myself knowing this sticker did NOT describe me, but rather should have read, “Freak Marathon,” which is what I was about to attempt the following morning.
Coerced by my friend, “Scrappy”, who insisted upon completing a marathon before his 50th birthday, I had reluctantly signed up for a race without ever having an ounce of desire to run 26.2 miles. Even with a one year warning, I refused to increase my runs or even glance over a decent training plan. In fact, due to a new job and various life demands, my general exercise and fitness as a whole was in a steep decline. My preparation consisted of a couple of silly obstacle/mud runs, two ill-prepared half-marathons, a few 3-6 mile runs on my treadmill and some random spinning classes along the way. As the marathon drew closer, I dreaded the event and wondered why in the world I had signed up and paid good money for something I had NO desire to do. My longest run ever was only 15 miles and I had walked the last two of that. Even my half-marathons had been my slowest times ever and I walked at least the last two miles of one as well. I knew there was no way I could complete a full marathon and the only question in my mind was how miserable this experience was going to be?
A few days before the race I decided I’d better start preparing – if not physically, then at least mentally. So, of course, I headed to the store for a cute new running outfit and bought four gel packs because I’d heard these were a good idea during marathons. I’d never used them before, but had tasted enough samples to know that I liked them almost as much as I liked chewing my old running shoes. As a former trainer and coach, I was aware of the serious rule against trying new things during a race, but my thought was that this event was already a disaster in the making and I could hardly make it worse. I threw the gels in the bag, along with a brand new running bra that promised to prevent the dreaded nipple revealing race photo that all women fear. I was certainly ready now.
The day before the race, my ever supportive boyfriend and multiple marathoner, Andy, began insisting that I drink ridiculous amounts of water, knowing that I frequently have trouble with hydration during endurance events. I absolutely despise drinking water and prefer to drink beer instead, but gave into the pressure and choked down two Nalgenes and a few extra glasses of water with my pasta dinner as a pre-race effort.
I woke up early the next day, donned my new outfit, stashed the four gel packs in my pockets and carefully placed ten Endurolyte tablets, my Blackberry, and a tube of lip gloss in my race belt. Luckily, Andy would be prepositioned at mile 15 with a Pabst Blue Ribbon and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (in case I couldn’t stomach the gels), so I was satisfied with my race prep and off I went.
The start of the race was a bit chilly (kudos to the new bra for helping me out here), but luckily we didn’t have to stand around long as the mass of marathon freaks headed down the trail promptly at 6:30am. Scrappy pledged to maintain an easy pace and settled into somewhere between a 10-11 minute mile. Our pacer and true marathon freak, Matt, was outfitted with a Garmin and frequently gave us updates on our distance and speed as we cruised along chatting about movies, the weather and other meaningless topics. I found that I enjoyed having no grand expectations for the race and resigned myself to what I called “a long day at the office.”
We cruised past each mile marker, stopping to take pictures at most, and Scrappy was diligent about announcing our one hour marks, at which time I would force myself to ingest one gel pack and a couple of Endurolyte tablets for good measure. I grabbed two cups of Gatorade at each water station and was amazed at how good the deliberate eating and drinking regimen seemed to work. I felt curiously strong at mile 6 and even though I had a long way to go, something inside me said that this was not my usual day.
During any of my short, sporadic “training runs” I was typically annoyed and discouraged at even the 2-3 mile mark, but today, I was surrounded by beautiful views, fantastic weather, good friends and a fierce determination to finish the task. I stopped thinking about how fast or far I was going to go and just maintained our comfortable pace and enjoyed the run. The mile markers flew by and as we approached mile 13, I realized that I had already beaten the time of my last two pathetic half-marathons and still felt good. The confidence filled inside me and as I began to imagine the wonderful PBR that Andy would have waiting at mile 15, my pace quickened from a meager 10:30 to a strong 8:30. Matt laughed as he followed me down the road, wondering why he hadn’t thought to preposition Andy at every other mile with a beer, if this was the effect.
As I saw Andy’s station up ahead, I was not only excited about the refreshment, but also ecstatic knowing that after I left him, I was in unchartered territory. I had never in my life run more than 15 miles and I still felt good. I chugged down the PBR (yes, the whole thing), decided against the PB&J, gave Andy a big hug, and trotted off down the path – this time back to my slower pace and right alongside Scrappy and Matt.
Realizing I’d never been this far without either walking or cramping, I was giddy with excitement at the fact that I still felt good, had some energy left in my legs, and hadn’t barfed up those disgusting gels that I was dutifully consuming on cue. I was baffled where this energy came from, but didn’t want to question my good fortune and just kept running. It seemed the longer I ran, the stronger I felt. Looking back, I believe that my happiness and strangely good attitude kept my body in motion and fueled more of the same.
By mile 20 we caught up with another friend who was struggling with injury and Scrappy was having some mild discomfort in his knees. I’m not sure if I began to run faster or they simply ran slower, but with Matt there to keep the others company, I found myself running ahead. Alone.
I know that the company of friends (and a PBR) had gotten me this far, but this last 10K was just about me and the demons I faced as an athlete. I had lost my confidence over the last year as I watched my fitness decline and I frequently wondered if I’d ever make it back. Now, I was only six miles away from successfully completing my first marathon and the mix of joy and validation felt euphoric. I’ve never been one for yoga, but it’s the only way I can describe those last few miles. There was a peace and strength that I knew would carry me to the end and I became so consumed by my own meditations that the miles quietly disappeared and I almost missed Andy standing alongside the path at mile 25 with a cowbell, waiting to accompany me to the finish.
I was happy to see him and realized that the finish to this soul searching endeavor was right around the corner. I gave him a quick recap of my run since I’d seen him last and he seemed amused at my success, knowing how I had dreaded this day so much over the last several months.
As we turned into the park, Andy peeled off and let me have the stage for the last .2 miles. Now able to see the actual finish line, I picked up speed, enjoying the strength I still felt in my legs and heart, and sprinted for the finish. I heard a few friends call my name along the short stretch, but I had one goal in mind – the race clock.
I finished in 4:40. Not an elite time, but far better than I had expected. My freak marathon was over. Along the way, I experienced the joy of friendship, the incredible blessing of health, and a peacefulness that I haven’t felt in a very long time. I learned that sometimes, you can accomplish the impossible if you just open your heart and try.
I’m not sure if I’ll ever become a true marathon freak. Although I am signed up for another marathon next month, it really is only because a friend promised to make it a 26.2 mile pub crawl, which is hardly an athletic endeavor. Do I recommend marathons to others? No, not really. But I do believe that everyone should follow their dreams and remember that most times, the only obstacle to success is you. No matter what you do, remember to dream big, love deep and always run hard to the finish.