My First Marathon

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I’ve written here before about what writers can learn from long-distance running. But now, having survived my first marathon, I can speak with a little more achy-muscled authority on the subject. Because while there’s a lot of wisdom to be gleaned during the months and months of training, it turns out there’s plenty more to be gathered up on the warm and sunny day that all that training – in the snow and ice and sleet and frigid temperatures – led up to.

Below, I’ve posted a sort of retrospective journal of the race, a guided tour through the course. And while the experience – I immediately admit – is challenging to relate, I hope the reading of this account will give you something of a taste of what it’s like. Maybe it’ll even get you out there running.

. . .

Mile 0

It’s difficult to describe what it’s like to wait at the start line of a marathon. I’d say it’s like being at a concert – that crowded, almost claustrophobic sense of anticipation – but that’s not quite right. Maybe it’s more like being in the crowd at a concert, but one in which you’re the main act. Except that’s not quite right, either, because running a marathon – for me, at least, and legions of other amateur runners – you’re not out there performing for anyone but yourself. All of which leads me to believe that waiting at the start line of a marathon is an entirely unique experience – incomparable, that is, to anything I’ve ever been through. It’s ruled by heady, constantly shifting mix of emotions. There’s excitement and nervousness and discomfort and relief – plus about eight-dozen other seemingly conflicting and contradictory things.

That being said, as I stood there just behind the start line, waiting for the horn to blow, nervousness definitely reigned supreme. I must have checked the clock every twenty seconds. I barely heard the loud, bass-heavy music coming from the sidelines, and barely heard the blared words of lady standing atop the speakers with a megaphone in her hand. She was shouting at us, trying to pump us up. But as the clock crept toward 7:30, I was trying to stay calm, trying to conserve my energy.

That’s the key to running long distances – or one of the keys, I guess. Conservation of energy. Think of it like climbing a mountain: if you immediately sprint up the first few hundred feet, the rest of the hike – spent trying to catch your breath and get rid of the stitch in your side – is only going to be that much harder. Thanks to my fiancée (she’s run the Boston Marathon twice with a coalition of charities), I’ve been lucky enough to listen in on some exceptional running coaches’ pep talks, and this a theme they touch on frequently. How you run the first five miles of your marathon, they say, dictates how the rest of your race will go.

But shouldn’t I have been running – conservatively, of course – those five miles by now?

I checked the clock again, and saw that 7:30 had come and gone. Then 7:35 ticked by. Followed by 7:40. And then 7:45.

It was around 7:50 that the lady with the megaphone let us know that the race would be starting a little late. Thanks, megaphone lady, for the heads-up. I was frustrated, as were the runners around me. I silently cursed the faceless “race organizers” who clearly didn’t appreciate how perfectly calibrated my pre-race breakfast was. I’d eaten all that peanut butter in anticipation of a 7:30 start!

But my frustration faded once I heard why the race was starting late. There’d been a car crash (a minor one, fortunately for those involved) on the course. It was a reminder that almost nothing in life goes as planned, that reality has a way of rearing its head at the most inopportune moments. This, as it turns out, is a very good kernel of knowledge to take with you when setting off to run a marathon.

The course was cleared. The music was cranked up a little louder. Megaphone lady went about pumping us up again. Then the horn sounded, and the race was officially underway. And maybe it was the delay – or maybe the anxiety caused by the delay mixed up with the standard pre-race excitement – but nearly all the runners blasted off. Even some of the runners around me who I’d heard talking about starting slow and steady practically sprinted out of the gate. I fought back the urge to join them. I thought about conservation of energy. About being the tortoise, not the hare.

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I fell way back behind the pack. I was with a couple of older women who appeared to be speed-walking the course. But I was also among some very serious-looking runners, people in much better shape than I was who were probably aiming to qualify for another, bigger marathon or maybe even set a personal record. At one point, one of these runners glanced over at me, breathing carefully and running conservatively nearby. He gave me a smile and a little wink. And as solitary a pursuit as running a marathon can seem at times, this moment of camaraderie gave my confidence a bit of a boost.

At the 1-mile marker, I passed a spectator holding up a poster that read:

Just think of it as 1 mile . . . a whole bunch of times.

And that’s what I was doing. Nestling a series of smaller goals into that single, larger, looming one. Being the tortoise, not the hare.

Mile 5

Passing the 5-mile marker, I let myself pick up the pace. Not a lot. Just a little. Even so, I began passing scores of people. Some of them I’d expected to, but many were strong-looking runners. I saw a few hunched over at a water-stop, catching their breath, and a handful dragging up a hill, favoring an obvious stitch in their side.

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Now, I’m not some kind of sadist. There was no schadenfreude out there on the course. I don’t run and participate in races in order to beat others, and I didn’t enjoy seeing people frustrated and in pain. If anything, knowing how long and difficult a journey training for a marathon can be, I felt bad for these runners. Terrible, even. But I’d be lying if I said that the sight wasn’t validating. It was. And it gave me another little boost of confidence as I ran by. Score a point for Team Tortoise.

Mile 7

Runners often talk about walls. They don’t mean actual, physical walls, of course (though getting over these walls is a demanding physical feat). A wall, to a runner, is any point during a run at which – because of your training, what you did or didn’t eat, how much sleep you got the night before, the weather, or any other number of factors – you feel as though you can’t go on. Running a marathon is, essentially, the climbing of – or, perhaps, the plowing through of – many such walls, the pushing back of limit after limit.

On my longer runs during training, I found that I usually hit a small wall after three miles, and then another one after six or seven. It’s there that my feet began to ache, that I started to feel my energy draining. And it’s entirely possible that there were similar walls down there in Providence near the course’s 3-mile and 7-mile markers – but if there were, I didn’t notice them. This is because I was lucky enough to have my very own cheerleading squad.

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My fiancée and her parents spent the day hopping from spot to spot along the course, popping up along the sidelines when I least expected it – and, as it happily turned out, often when I most needed it. It’s a good reminder that nothing – not even an activity as seemingly solitary and private as running 26.2 miles unaccompanied – is accomplished alone.

Mile 13

I was keeping track of my pace and overall time using the same phone app I’d used throughout my training, and at the 13-mile mark, I decided to check my time. I was surprised, even shocked, to see that I’d made it halfway in just over two hours. The shock wasn’t because of the time, exactly. I’d known I could run a half-marathon in two hours – and knew, too, how worn-out I’d feel afterwards. But that was just it – I felt great. I couldn’t believe how much energy I had left.

This prompted a quick, radical, and downright arrogant reassessment of my expectations. It was all done using some deceptive logic and basic arithmetic. Because I’d just run a half-marathon in two hours flat. Meaning all I had to do was do that again – and then maybe really gun it for the last mile or two – in order to run a full marathon in under four hours. No problem, right?

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You don’t need to have run a marathon – you don’t even need to be a runner – to know that this was foolish of me. I’d ignored the context, avoided all practical considerations – forgot, basically, about how life almost never goes exactly as planned, about how reality has a way of rearing its head (and then giving you a smart slap on the cheek).

But in a way, I think I needed to be an arrogant idiot at that moment. I needed to defect – albeit briefly – from Team Tortoise. I needed that hare-like chutzpah, that unfounded confidence, to propel me forward.

The day after the marathon, lying down with my sore legs and battered toes propped up on the arm of the couch, I listened to an interview with the writer T. C. Boyle. He was asked about his life as an aspiring, not-yet-published author, and he attributed much of his eventual success to this same kind of brazen, reality-ignoring thinking. When he told people he wanted to be a writer, they often scoffed at him, said how unlikely it was that he, of the countless individuals chasing the same dream, would ever make it come true. One a million, they said. But instead of letting these naysayers deter him, rather than let the cold hard facts prematurely change his chosen, desired direction in life, he said, One in a million? Fine. Why can’t that one be me?

And so why couldn’t I run a four-hour marathon? Based on my training, the strength of my knees, and the state of my toes, it was improbable. But at that moment – 13.1 miles in, with 13.1 left to go – thinking that it was not only possible, but also likely, was the very thing I needed in order to keep myself plowing on.

Mile 18

Although the course remained more or less flat throughout the three miles between the 18-mile and the 21-mile marker, running it felt like climbing a series of hills – or, to once again use one of metaphor-loving runners’ favorite metaphors, a series of walls. They were big, these walls, but not insurmountable. Conquering them required the making of more, even smaller goals. Instead of pushing myself on to the next mile marker, I began pushing myself to that turn in the course up ahead, that road sign, that oddly shaped tree. I also paid more attention to what I was listening to. I skipped certain songs on my iPod, sought out the ones that were capable of giving me the biggest boost. The angry, the upbeat, the emotion-drenched – anything that could dump a little adrenaline into my blood.

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It was toward the end of this three-mile stretch that my need to pee, previously a background annoyance, became un-ignorable. It made sense – it’d been nearly four hours since I’d gone last, and I’d been drinking water throughout that time. The last thing I wanted to do was stop, but I also understood that, if there were an element of my physical discomfort that I was able to do away with, I needed to do away with it now. (Plus, I didn’t want to have to smile at that woman holding the “Smile if you peed yourself!” sign.) What I didn’t understand was that this was only the beginning, the gentle prequel of my body’s pissed-off insistence that it be paid attention to.

Mile 21

Mile 21 is where I learned what a wall really was. Those cute little things I encountered back at Mile 18? Those weren’t walls. They were anthills. A toddler’s pile of toy blocks. But this – this was a mountainous structure, an epic, Game of Thrones-style WALL.

During training, I’d done a 21.5-mile run, and afterwards, while tired, I’d felt like I could’ve kept going. What I didn’t know was that I’d been just a few strides away from a physical limit, a place where the various parts of my body – the battered toes, the whining hamstrings, the aching knees, the straining lungs – would all band together and say, Enough.

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I reached for my iPod and started punching buttons to skip songs, searching for one that could help me ignore my body’s complaints for just a little bit longer. But this was a hopeless task, and I knew it, too. Deep down, I understood that even the most carefully constructed playlist couldn’t help me now. At 21 miles, I was alone in a way that I’d never before been. It was just me and this damn wall.

And the wall – it turned out to be a big one. It was nearly five-miles long. Some parts were easier to climb than others. More than once I wondered, What the hell am I doing out here? And other thoughts came to mind, too. Some major, some minor. I found myself thinking about the future, about what I wanted it to be like – but I also thought about whether I’d brought enough boxers so that I’d have a clean pair to wear on the ride back home.

Trudging onward, my body continued to vie for my attention, new aches and pains sprouting up here and there. But it couldn’t cloud my mind. It may sound strange and even paradoxical, but along with the shallow thoughts (Yes I put an extra pair in my backpack, Why do we need toenails anyway?) there was a lot of deep thinking going on during that five-mile stretch. I mean, it only makes sense. You’re out there on the course for hours – sooner or later, your mind’s going to work its way around to the big stuff.

It’s partly this that makes me tempted to go a few steps further and say that, just as running a marathon shreds up your muscles and feet, your soul gets a little shredded up along the way as well. I guess there’s nothing like a grueling physical endeavor to put your values and priorities into perspective.

For me, the soul-shredding began around Mile 22.5 or 23 – right when the spectators lining the sides of the course, and even some of the cops halting traffic, start cheering you on using another one of runners’ favorite metaphors. To quote another poster:

Dig like a kid looking for buried treasure.

It’s an apt turn of phrase. Because you really are looking for buried treasure. You’re digging, tossing aside everything unnecessary and extraneous, searching for the little flame inside yourself that flares up when the going gets tough, the piece of your heart or soul or whatever you want to call it that refuses to be beaten back when an obstacle – even a preposterously humongous and widely believed to be insurmountable one – stands in your way. Against all odds, you finish the marathon, you become the writer – you make a dream scoffed at by others come true. It’s hard for me to think of a more powerful and profound declaration of one’s humanity and strength.

And yeah, sure – you’re hurting. You might be in quite a lot of pain. But you’ll heal. Your body will swallow up this experience, and like any other, if properly processed, some good can be squeezed out of it. And in the case of running a marathon, there’s plenty good to be had.

Mile 26

Toward the end of every race I’ve run, the same thing always happens to me – I experience a sudden surge of energy, like I’ve grabbed a set of jumper cables and I’ve got electricity pouring through me. Sometimes it happens a mile out from the finish, sometimes two miles. During the marathon, it happened the moment I saw that 26-mile marker. After having come all that way, I now had only a thousand more feet to go.

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I’ve heard people talk about getting a “runner’s high,” about the flood of endorphins that launch your brain and body into a sort of euphoria. And maybe that electric jolt I experience toward the end of a race is only that. I don’t know. All I can say is that the feeling is unlike anything else. It’s like you’ve just spent hours (or months, if you count all your training) picking apart a knot of conflicting emotions – joy and pain and awe and lonesomeness – and now you’ve got this smooth strong rope leftover. The pain’s gone. You may as well be floating over the pavement. And you get a firm grip on that rope, you hold on tight, and you let yourself be tugged forward until you shoot past the finish line. It’s the closest I’ll ever get, I think, to childhood’s fantasies of flying.

And then comes the reckoning.

My hamstring seized up seconds after I passed the finish line. The woman trying to hand me my medal lunged toward me, thinking I was going to collapse. I didn’t. I stayed on my feet, thanked her for the medal, and then hobbled over to my family, the pain and exhaustion I’d briefly left behind catching back up with me, mixing in with the relief and elation. But it was over. I did it. I was done. I knew I had blisters ringing my toes. I knew I’d lose a few toenails. But I’d gained so much along the way – and I couldn’t wait to do it all over again.

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