It took two attempts.
I picked up running in 2008, mostly as a way to keep myself in (vague) shape, and because it was something new and different to try. I chose running because it was the most low-maintenance workout I could think of: All you need are shoes, right?
I started with the popular Couch-to-5K program and eventually graduated to running anywhere from three to six miles on a regular basis. At that point, I declared myself A Runner. After the novelty of that wore off, I decided I could probably run a marathon. First, I ran ten miles to see how that would go. It went fine, so in February 2011, with snow on the ground, I registered for the 36th Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC.
I trained all summer only to be sidelined six weeks before the race by an IT band injury that just wouldn’t let me run farther than fourteen miles without massively distracting pain in my right hip and knee. I ran what I had planned to be my “warm-up” half-marathon at the beginning of October — very slowly — and realized there was no way I could do double that distance in just a few weeks. Massive fail.
I tried again in 2012.
The training experience for a marathon alone changes your life a bit — I had to ease back on my Friday night plans so I could undertake the dreaded weekend long runs of 16, 18, and 20 miles. I learned how painful chaffing can be (and, consequently, what Body Glide is). Though I ran all of my training runs solo, I high-fived lots of runners on the trail. I ate a lot of Clif Shot Blocs and pasta and burned thousands upon thousands of calories. I got a serious shorts tan.
I ran on beautiful days, I ran on days so humid you could chew the air, and I ran when I didn’t feel like running. I was faithful to my training schedule, and it got me to the October 28th, 2012 starting line of the 37th Marine Corps Marathon miraculously injury-free.
If you are good with dates (or if you live in New York City), you might remember that this was the day before Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast. Washington, DC was covered with clouds and starting to get breezy. Some fellow racing coworkers and I fretted over the forecast, wondering if they would cancel the race. We kept a positive attitude:
The day before the marathon, I picked up my race packet and spent a ridiculous amount of money on schwag. Hell yes, I said to my friends when they asked me if I really spent $200 at the expo. Hell yes I bought a shirt, two jackets, a “26.2” sticker, and a pint glass. I might not do this again, so I want to make sure I have proof that I did it once.
The morning of the race, I schlepped to the holding pen through misty rain with tens of thousands of other runners in the dark, ridiculously overprepared with three different changes of clothes and enough food for four people in my drop bag.
I wasn’t running with friends or a group; I didn’t have a clever T-shirt or message or cause to support. It was just me in my Brooks Adrenalines, about to run a marathon because I believed I could.
If you are slow like me, the starting gun at a marathon is a bit anticlimactic; I don’t think I crossed the official start line until about twelve minutes after the gun went off. But once I was running, I fell into my long-run zone. I’d done this every weekend for the past eighteen weeks. I’d started many runs in the dark, or the dawn, water bottle in hand, prepared to do the distance. I felt good; I felt prepared.
The crowd support at the Marine Corps Marathon is great. Everyone has signs, there’s lots of cheering and encouragement, and you never feel like you are running the race alone (for better or worse). I saw a guy wearing a shirt that said it was his 100th marathon. I saw a guy in an Elvis costume (all polyester, I might add). I saw a used condom and a dirty diaper. I saw a guy juggling. I saw more tutus than I can count (what’s up with that?).
I ran solid for about fourteen miles, then I started to get nervous about the remaining distance. I saw a few friends along the course between Miles 12 and 20, which helped. It also helped to think about how grateful I was that I was even able to run a marathon, or to run at all. I thought about people in wheelchairs, people who had been in accidents, or become paralyzed, or lost their legs. It may seem dramatic, but thinking about all of the people in the world who couldn’t do what I was doing even if they wanted to helped me keep running.
By Mile 20, we were heading across the 14th Street Bridge to Virginia, and I was feeling drained. Nothing hurt more than it should have; I was simply tired. I was so tired I started to cry, and I didn’t ever really stop. I told myself that six miles was really not a long distance, and that I could do it. I held on for another two or three, but by Mile 23, I was pretty pitiful. I started a new rhythm of run for a couple of minutes, walk for a couple of minutes. This meant the next two miles went by really slowly. I ran and walked and cried. I passed a lot of Marines, who gave me high-fives anyway and told me I could do it.
I mustered myself a half-mile before the finish and ran the rest of the way without stopping. The tenth of a mile right before the finish line of the Marine Corps Marathon is a cruel uphill sprint, but I zoned out and simply made my legs move. Before I realized it, I was crossing the finish line, and my marathon journey was literally and figuratively over.
I had done it. I finished. I ran a marathon.
I felt simultaneously empty and full: Empty of energy, sweat, and tears, but full of pride and a sense of accomplishment. I have never really loved my legs — I have fat ankles and ugly knees — but after I finished that marathon, I realized it was time to give them the respect they deserve. After all, they had faithfully carried me for 26.2 miles, after a summer of training that added up to more than 450 additional miles. My legs are awesome, and now I am thankful for them every day.
Past the finish line, I accepted a recovery jacket, two bananas, a box of food that I tore open immediately, and a bottle of water. I kept moving. I walked in the direction everyone else was walking, stuffing bagels and pretzels into my mouth until I saw my friends, who had planned to meet me at the finish. Initially, they looked at me as if I were a bit of a time bomb — I’m sure I was unsteady, and I know I said some strange things. We found a wall to sit on, and I ate whatever was in front of me until I felt normal again. My friends took some unflattering, commemorative pictures of me, and we all braved the crowds home.
The high of finishing the race waned as the soreness settled into my muscles over the next twenty-four hours, and though I remained immobile on my couch for the following two days, I had not one ounce of regret. I worked hard, and I earned those sore muscles, those blackened toenails, that 26.2 magnet on my fridge, and that huge, gaudy finisher’s medal.
Some serious racers complain that the marathon field has become “cluttered” with amateurs and bucket-list crosser-offers. To them I say, Fuck you. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt more proud of something I’ve done than I was after I crossed the finish line at the Marine Corps Marathon, 5 hours, 27 minutes, and 36 seconds after I had crossed the starting line. I chose my battle, I prepared for it — sacrificing, doubting, crying, persevering — and I won. I ran that fucking marathon, and it was one of the best experiences of my life.