For several years my running pals tried to woo me into running a marathon with them. I was diplomatic in my rejections – that kind of training would ruin my already fractured writing life; I was worried it would turn running into a job; I really liked the half marathon distance. Also, I’d been at the finish line of other marathons cheering friends on, and what I’d witnessed there was a lot of crying. More than a few runners would cross the finish line, get their foil blanket thingy, and then break down, some of them falling down, sobbing. It didn’t seem like the kind of activity for me.
At some point last year around my birthday, when I was feeling fragile and mid-life-crisis-y, I realized I COULD run a marathon if I wanted to, and that I probably SHOULD do it soon since I wasn’t getting any younger. Just once. The sisterhood could drag me across the finish line if it came to that. I signed up and paid the eye-watering registration fee for the pleasure of torturing myself. And also for some pretty good bling at the finish line, according to my friends.
So began the training. It was thrilling to declare and strive for such an ambitious goal. I spent a lot of time in the woods, running on back roads and trails, and the marathon was a good excuse to stay in the forest longer.
Then the long Sunday runs began. 15 miles. 17 miles. 18 miles. 20 miles. Allotting that much time of course was an issue, though we made a point to begin early in the morning and be finished before lunch. We staged water and fuel stops. Even when someone wasn’t feeling great, someone else was, and that person would chat the rest of us along until we were finished. Almost worse than the runs themselves was the week of dread leading up to them. There was no sleeping in the day of a long run. We had to beat the heat. So each week I stared down three or four or more hours of running that began before dawn.
I tried to keep the whining to a minimum, because, really, you sound like kind of an asshole when you complain about something you’ve chosen to do on purpose. It occurred to me not too far into the journey that most people would be hard-pressed to devote enough hours for such a feat, and that I was lucky to be able to make the time.
We trained through the spring and summer together, while I battled the dreaded Piriformis Syndrome. There’s a smart medical definition, but the short version is this: there’s a muscle in your ass that can wreak havoc up into your back, down into your hamstrings and calves, and through your groin and inner thighs if you are fond of long-distance running or prolonged sitting, both of which I was enjoying in copious amounts between running and writing. Some days my legs felt so tight it was like wearing a really tight climbing harness while running. The Piriformis announces itself for many runners, especially if they are not good at stretching. Which I am not. Because I used to be able to do athletic events off the couch, and really, feeling young at heart has gotten me this far.
I forced myself to be better at stretching, and it worked. For a while.
After I moved and was without my posse, I wasn’t nearly so diligent at either stretching or running. I’d get up late and have to run in the blistering heat, then get bored almost at my goal of 20 miles and stop at 17. Or 14. I’d go for a swim in the river instead. I drank more beer than I should have – not during running (Well. There was that one time…), but after. To rehydrate. I’d lie down to stretch when I got home and then get distracted by something shiny – People Magazine or gardening or the dog biting at my head. Meanwhile, the big day loomed.
The day of event bands along the route and the big-hearted crowd with their snacks and cheers and good will felt more like Carnival than an athletic event. There were aid stations every two miles with electrolytes, gummy bears, pretzels. I had my running pals, some friends who jumped in to run along the way, my cousin, and others who had Cheezits just when I needed them.
My old nemesis Piriformis announced herself at the beginning of the race, but not so badly I couldn’t ignore her. Besides, it was entirely my fault she was still with me. Until about mile 19, life was good. 7 miles to go and the harness was cinching and there was another hour of running and I couldn’t remember why I thought running a marathon was a good idea or even fun. Crying, quitting, hitchhiking with that nice motorcycle guy who weaves in and out of the race, or joining one of the front yard red solo cup beer parties all seemed like reasonable choices.
But there I was, doing my just once marathon, my one and done, and I’d be damned if I was going to quit. I wasn’t the only one feeling the burn. Around mile 21 people around me began to walk, limp, stretch, lie down, you name it, it was happening. One guy was throwing up gummy bears into the bushes. Another took off his shoes, threw them on the sidewalk, and kept running in nothing but socks.
My cousin stuck with me, and I did more listening than talking; I don’t remember much about the last five miles, and then we were across the finish line, and someone was draping the foil blanket around my shoulders, and someone else gave me a medal, and I followed the line of finishers to the food station. My friends and I wandered like zombies, dried sweat crystals on our faces and our lips pale.
I remembered about the crying from other events and understood, finally, that the tears are born out of relief and gratitude and exhaustion and exertion. I didn’t cry but I did sit down and watch other runners making their way through the feed zone. Only a few were crying. Wrapped in their blankets, dazed, most of them looked as if they’d sustained some kind of trauma.
Friends have told me that after their first few marathons, they were so burned out they couldn’t bring themselves to run again for several months. This urge hasn’t come for me. What’s followed the event is pride in finishing, even though it took longer than I’d hoped, and a deep gratitude for running pals — I’d probably have abandoned the mission without them. After a few days I hit the trail and shook out my legs. They felt surprisingly good.
Still, I think I’m going to hang up my marathon shoes, stretch more and dump that bitch Piriformis, get back to the kind of running I love best – on the trails, with the dog, without a watch. It’s a good pace for living.