Sunday, June 19, 2016

A look back: My first marathon

I wrote this for the Memphis Runners Track Club magazine nearly five years ago. I still like it. :)

I knew I was in trouble at Mile 9.

Masking discomfort during a difficult run is an acquired skill – a skill that got me through eight miles of smiling and waving at every familiar face on the sidelines. But at Mile 9, when a friend of mine yelled from the crowd, “Becky!  How’s it going?” the truth was out before I could stop myself:

“Awful!  This whole race I’ve felt awful!”

The first mile I figured it was nerves. By the third mile I had graduated to a legitimate concern about throwing up. By Mile 9, I was angry at every single person in my vicinity who looked like they were having fun. This wasn’t fun. This was awful.

Mile 10. Mile 11. Mile 12. And there was the turn-off for the half marathon. Taunting me…making a really good case for me to peel off and try this marathon thing another day…a day when I wasn’t on the verge of emptying the contents of my stomach all over Poplar Avenue…

******

Five years earlier, in January of 2007, my friend Megan announced that she had an idea and I was the only person she knew crazy enough to do it with her.

“We should run a marathon,” she said.

Megan had read that a person was at peak physical potential at the age of 25, and it was this that made her start thinking about running. The two of us were, at that time, mere days away from 25 and in the worst shape of our lives. We were sitting at the Flying Saucer, downing pints, and complaining about our jobs, mine requiring sitting at a desk forty hours a week and Megan’s involving roughly that much time in her car.

2007 St. Jude Memphis Half Marathon
Despite our clear need for physical activity, my answer to the marathon suggestion was a flat, unequivocal, are-you-kidding-me “no.” Though I’d run some in college, I’d never progressed past running a couple of miles on the track a few times a week. That, to me, seemed about as much running as a person needed to do.  

But by the time we’d downed a second pint, she’d talked me into a half marathon. (“You can do just half of one?” I’d asked.)

Eleven months later, we walked the St. Jude Memphis Half Marathon, having spent the previous year taking our training about as seriously as I had taken running in college. Our goal was to finish in under three hours. When I crossed the finish line, my watch read 3:05.  

Well, I made it, I thought.  But I’ll bet if I tried that again, I could do it better.

******

The next year, we decided we needed help, and became the only half marathon participants in local running store Breakaway Running’s new St. Jude training program. We were indebted to owner Barry Roberson, who ran with us at 6:00 a.m. most Saturday mornings. He was there the day we ran an hour without stopping for the first time (five doggedly-slow 12-minute miles). He stuck with us when we skipped all our weekday runs because we were “busy,” and when we missed a Saturday or two because we were “tired.” He kept on us, he encouraged us, and when we ran ten miles for the very first time, he was there to tell us what an accomplishment that was.

That year I crossed the finish line in 2:52. I repeated the process the following year, took it just a little more seriously, stopped skipping runs, and finished in 2:27.

******

In 2010, I lost my job. My first book flopped. My best friend died. It was a hard year. Running stopped being something I did half-heartedly and started being something I did to keep my focus and regain my balance. Again I trained with Breakaway. I also started going to evening group runs. I even showed up to Paul Sax’s track workouts at the University of Memphis on Tuesday nights.

That year, I finished in 2:14. And I felt good about it – good enough that, for the first time ever, it didn’t seem like an unattainable feat to run twice that far.

I broke the news to Megan, now living in Texas, over the phone: the impossible had happened. I actually wanted to run a marathon.

******

Most runners I know have never taken four years to talk themselves into running any one race. Then again, most runners I know have a more noble reason for starting to run than “I was sitting at a bar and let someone else talk me into it.”  

For me, a runner of no discernible natural talent and slow to the point of embarrassment, committing to a full marathon was not something taken lightly. When July rolled around, it was with genuine pride that, as the sole remaining original member of the Breakaway training group, I finally moved up and stood amongst the full marathoners. I trained through heat, through illness, through rain, through hangovers (well, okay, just one…that was a lesson learned quickly). I had my requisite injury freak-out after pounding a bone out of alignment in my foot during an eighteen-mile run…but I bounced back quickly.  

I ran twenty miles like a champ. Twenty-two miles like I could have kept going… My training went so smoothly that my confidence going into the marathon was at an all-time high. As someone who not that long ago considered a 35-minute 5K undoable, I could barely believe my progress.  

The night before the race, I wrote in my journal just three words:  “I’ve got this.”  

******

Except maybe I didn’t.

How annoying that after five years of building up to it and five months of sacrificing my Friday nights for early morning Saturday runs, arguably my worst running day of the entire year landed on the day of the 2011 St. Jude Memphis Marathon.

And there was the turn-off for the half, staring me in the face. It was decision time.

Feeling defeated
I did a mental check; my legs were all right, so whatever was plaguing me wasn’t related to my physical ability to move my body forward for 26.2 miles. And I thought that maybe once I got past the mental hurdle of the turn-off for the half (which I knew like the back of my hand after four years), I might feel better.   

So I kept going.

And I felt better.

But not better enough to stop me from doing something I hadn’t done during a single training run: taking a walk break.

There’s an adage that the way you run reflects the way you live your life. In my case, that means relentless, consistent persistence (some might say orneriness), for I can think of no other way to describe my extraordinarily slow but strangely steady climb from sedentary beer drinker to marathoner. That being the case, it felt like a devastating setback – a huge step backward – to have to walk at Mile 14. It had never even crossed my mind that I would be walking at that point. 

It took me three miles just to shake off the shock of it.

Though I finally felt better (what was wrong with me to begin with, God only knows), walking that early meant saying goodbye to my goal of finishing in solidly under five hours. Seventeen miles into even a good run, it’s hard to think clearly, but now I had to completely reassess my strategy for getting through the next nine miles.

Make that eight miles. Seven miles. I was still going. Six miles. Five miles. At Mile 22 there was beer, and I knew I was down and out when I realized I didn’t want any. But I was still going. Not only that, I was marveling at all of the people around me who were going through this with me.  

There was something primal about sharing the pain and the pride and the pure mental (not to mention physical) exertion of willing yourself forward when there was absolutely no logical reason why you should.

Finish line in sight
Mile 23 was another mental hurdle because it marked the furthest I’d ever gone on foot. I had previously found it intimidating (and occasionally irritating) to hear other people’s marathon horror stories, but as I kept putting miles behind me, I kept running into people I knew, and kept telling them my own marathon horror story.  

“I’ve been sick this whole time!”

“I’ve never felt so awful!”

“I’m going to have to walk the rest of this!”

And then I’d find it in me to run a little more. Walk/run. Walk/run.

Mile 24. Mile 25. And there was Autozone Park… With point-three miles to go, I caught the eye of the guy next to me, someone I’d never seen before and will likely never see again.  But someone who, in that moment, probably understood what I felt like better than any other person on Earth.     

“Come on, let’s do this,” he said. “Together.” And we started running…

******

In conclusion, I’ve decided that the Me from Five Years Ago should be given her due credit for her hesitancy to take on a marathon. The experience was, to be completely honest, pretty brutal.

But it’s possible for something to be terrible in a wonderful way. Trite though it may sound, the girl who was sitting at the Flying Saucer all those years ago didn’t have a clue what she was capable of, and I’m glad that I gave myself the opportunity to prove to her that I could do this. Regardless of ability level (or prep time), it is an enormous test of self-discipline to make it to the finish line of a marathon.  

For me, getting there took a little longer than it takes most people. About half a decade, actually, give or take.  

And when I arrived, I looked at my watch.

5:06.

Well, I made it, I thought. But I’ll bet if I tried that again, I could do it better

3 comments:

  1. For me, your first book was no flop!

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  2. Also, thank you so much for posting this! I really honor and respect your marathon story.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you, Miles! On both counts!! And thank you for all of those early-morning training runs for that first marathon! (And the second...and the third... :))

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