I ran a marathon today. I ran my first full marathon. I ran my first full marathon at the age of fifty years young. Twenty-six point two miles. Me.
If you told me five years ago that I’d run a marathon I might not have believed you. I doubt I would’ve said, “I can’t”, because I’d already been baptized in the PMA Kool-Aid, but I might have said, “I don’t run.” And then laughed at the mere suggestion of running a marathon.
My day started early. I stayed at a hotel not far from the start of the race. I selected the hotel because they’d arranged for a “shuttle” to the starting line so I wouldn’t have to hassle with driving and traffic and parking. With over 10,000 runners and the road closures that go along with conducting a marathon, you can imagine the nightmare driving oneself there might present. So, I left my hotel room, bundled up against the 18-degree temperature, and found out front, two school buses. Two school busses with snow on top. I mentioned it was cold, right? I boarded the bus, took a seat and that was the beginning of my education. I got schooled today.
As the bus began to fill, a woman asked to sit next to me. I moved my small mountain of gear aside and she sat. We began chatting and during the course of the bus trip figured out we both run at the same “tempered” pace, I admit, I’m not fast, but I’m effing tenacious.
We were allowed, it was, in fact, suggested, that we remain on the nice, heated bus, until we needed to use one of the hundreds of porta-potties, or the race was to start, whichever came first. It is every marathon runners dream, to be blunt, to drop a load, before the beginning of the race. There is nothing quite like running “in need”. We took turns watching each other’s gear while taking care of business. We agreed to try to run together and, after exiting the bus, dropped our extra gear, stuffed into clear bags that had been provided to us, with our bib number adhered to it. Bags were loaded onto trucks based on the numbers. My number was in the 2000’s and hers in the 4000’s, which were to be placed in separate trucks. In the crowd, after dumping our gear, we failed to find each other before the beginning of the race. I wondered for much of the race, how she was faring, this being her first full marathon, too, though a more seasoned runner, than me, and younger by at least fifteen years.
As I waited by the pace sign 5:10, I saw a familiar face hurrying through the crowd. Miles. A quick hug for encouragement and he was off to a far more ambitious pace banner. I hope to run that fast some day. As I waited, hoping my new friend would find me by the pace sign we both noted as the most practical for our start, I was met by a coach and a couple of members of my pace group from SacFit, my running club. They were running a click or two slower than the 5:10 banner I stood by, but I started the race with them, behind the 5:25 pace group. Nearly last, actually, of all the runners who started the race. The race started at 7:00. I take that back. The race started at 6:59:30 for handicapped participants and at 7:00 for the rest of us, with the elite runners at the head of the crowd, so they wouldn’t have to trip over those of us with a more “tempered” pace.
Handicapped runners? Yes. Quite a few. This I was aware of. Last year, in fact, I was at O’Hare waiting for a flight to Sacramento, exactly like yesterday. But last year, in the boarding area, was a blind man and his companion, on their way to run the California International Marathon, with the intent of qualifying for the Boston Marathon. Again. So, yes, I knew there were visually impaired runners, I suppose, that constituting a “handicap”, the word being of use only to those less enlightened, if you ask me.
At 7:06:30, I crossed the start line. I ran with my coach and teammates as the course started out downhill. My “pace group” that we train at is 11:30, meaning we should run at a pace of a mile in eleven and a half minutes. We run five minutes and walk one minute, throughout, so, with walk breaks, our average pace should be around 11:45 to 11:50. We run slower. Which, I will admit, annoys me. Now, on my own, I run between 10:30 and 11:45, including walk breaks. My plan for this race, had I gone it alone, was to try to keep to an average of 11:45 to 12:00, just because of the distance. I’ve never run more than 22 miles before.
At the six mile mark, the coach excused herself to a porta-potty, and as I had a watch that was set to the same intervals as hers, I was “put in charge” of pacing the group. I sucked. We ran at 11:07 and missed the first walk break, but we really covered some ground. At mile eight, I excused myself for a porta-potty and the two remaining team members carried on. I never saw them again. Upon exiting the porta potty, I felt liberated, in more ways than one, and I set off at a comfortable clip. I ran and ran and ran. I felt really good, I was waving at the crowds of spectators, laughing at some of their signs, fist pumping as I passed bands, DJs and residents with tunes playing. I was having a ball! I think I stopped at another porta-potty, I may have over hydrated on the bus, I drained all but a swallow of 1.5 L Smart Water. Upon exiting the odiferous, plastic latrine, there was my coach. We ran together for a bit, she commenting on how we must have been running a bit faster after leaving her at the first bank of potties. I took credit for that, I am always accountable for my actions and inactions, always one to own up to my indiscretions. As soon as we reached the next bank of potties, she, again, broke away to tend to matters. We’d all be Olympians, I’m sure, if not for porta-potties. We’d run like hell if we didn’t have safe, remarkably clean and private stalls to stop at every time we got the whim! Put a big, single bank of porta potties fifty feet past the finish line and watch people run! So, again, I upped my pace and kept plugging away.
I adhered, mostly, to the run five/walk one schedule I’ve used in training. But, now, there were hills, lots of rolling hills. I decided to modify my approach slightly. There is nothing quite so maddening as to run up a hill only to have your watch inform you that you have a walk break at the crest, that lasts for most of the downhill, and, as you begin to run again, the landscape begins to rise again. So, I just sort of altered the pattern a little and walked up the hills and run downhill, letting gravity pull me down. My pace was all over the place between 10:09 and 12:00, the average being right around my comfort zone, 11:07.
Along the course, I saw a couple of familiar faces. A friend, her husband and their daughter. I first met them through Boy Scouting, then, again, in Rainbow Girls, then, again, in the running club. I don’t know why she wasn’t running, but, I got an excited greeting and it made me feel good. I may have had a small, brief pity party a time or two, leading up to the race, at the fact that I had no close friends or family anywhere along the way, and especially at the finish line, to cheer me on. Often, family members and friends will have signs specifically for their loved one and they’ll negotiate their way through road closures to meet them at points along the way, and, finally, at the finish line. My kids live thousands of miles away, as does my Sweetie. Mom, wisely, chooses not to drive as far as Sacramento, and my close friends mostly live in other towns and have very chaotic lives of their own. So, I thrive on reading the signs for the anonymous.
My favorites signs. One I saw several times that said something like, “Go! Random Stranger!” A young lady had an original sign that read, “Hurry! We’re Cold!” Another I LOL’d at, “Make this your bitch” and, not a block later, “It’s long and it’s hard, do it faster!” That one was my favorite. Go figure.
I ran and I ran and I ran. With walk breaks, of course. I ran through a community I used to live in. I ran past the school my kids went to elementary school at. I ran through the village I used to live in where the chickens roam free in the park and cross the street, using the crosswalks. I ran past the park where I used to take my kids to play on the walk home from school, on Fridays. I ran past the bakery we used to stop at first, to get a Danish cookie called a “Hindber Snitter”. I ran past the street I used to turn on to get to my house, the house I used to sleep in on this one Sunday a year when “the marathon” happened. I remember hearing the horns and the bells, the shouts of encouragement from the crowds lining the streets of the village a couple of blocks away, all from the stifling comfort of my house. I ran past the bike shop Santa bought all the bicycles at. Actually, I walked past the bike shop, at mile ten, because that was the steepest hill on the whole course. At mile eleven, I was running again and as I approached an intersection where some Scouter friends of mine live near, I wondered if they’d be out spectating, and sure enough, there they were! A quick hug, including the doggie, and I continued on my way. My friend, Sky, running with me for a short bit to chat, he even took in my next walk break before peeling off the rejoin his wife and doggie. Again, I felt loved!
I continued to run and a few miles on, the family I first saw had made their way down course and, again, I was greeted and cheered on. I ran and ran and ran. I was starting to feel my right Achilles tighten and hurt a bit. My left hip flexor was equally tight and was also beginning to hurt. I crossed the “half marathon” line and kept on going. Stopping here was not an option. I’ve run twenty-two miles and felt, at that point, I could do four more. I was doing this, pain or no pain.
It is at this point when running is much less a sport of physical conditioning and one of mental conditioning. I still felt good, and I just kept telling myself to “stick to the program”. Most of the hills were done with, so it was back to an almost mechanical pace and my run five/walk one intervals. I have always found comfort in rhythm, in cadence. When I backpack in steep mountainous terrain, especially with a pack overburdened with food and water at the beginning of a trek, I find rhythmic breathing to very helpful. And, while I enjoy running with a chatty group of folks, I find as much joy running alone, listening to the metronome like sound of my feet on the pavement. This is “time in my head”. I love that time, when I am physically exerting myself and my brain is just ON!! On with a capital “O”. Or, even, all caps, as I stated above. This is “me time” exponentially. At about mile sixteen, I pass a blind person running. It took me sixteen miles, folks, to pass a “handicapped” person.
I keep running. At mile eighteen, I am beginning to take two sports drinks at the rare aid stations that have any left. I am fatigued. My Achilles and my hip flexor are on fire, and, now, the “chip” that I had to zip tie to my shoe to record my times electronically as I run over sensors in mats at certain points throughout the course is beginning to cause pressure on the top of my left foot. Slowing from a run to a walk is excruciating and the only thing more painful is resuming running again a minute later. But, my mind is more conditioned than my body and I DO keep going. And going and going and going.
At mile eighteen something profound happens. I inch very slowly past a woman, older than me, with a prosthetic leg. And here is my lesson. Who “can’t” do what?
As ten thousand runners ran through Sacramento today, people on the sidelines would shout in encouragement. Often, the encouraging phrases were followed by something like, “I’m glad you’re running because I CAN’T!” Can you imagine what it would feel like to run past these folks, with a prosthetic leg and hear them say, “I can’t”? I’m sorry, I beg to differ. Anyone can, it’s a choice. True, it’s a choice with a great deal of commitment attached to it. But the key there is, it is a choice. People overcome incredible obstacles by choice, but more succumb to the least of obstacles and prop themselves up with the crutch of “I can’t.”
So, why lie? Please. Can we just be honest? How about if we just say, “I’m glad you’re running because I choose not to!” I like that better. Why? Because it’s honest. It’s the truth. “I can’t” is a lie. There was a runner today that was 84 years old. Correction, 84 years young. To be able to run 26.2 miles at the age of 84 is the result of a whole bunch of “I cans”. I know people, my age and younger, who say, with absolution, “I won’t live to be 80.” And, so, they won’t. Their choice.
Let’s talk about respect for a moment. To say, “I can’t” when we can, I think, is disrespectful to people who have greater challenges than we do, and do. The woman with a prosthetic leg who outran me for eighteen miles and chased me for the last eight, we should think of her the next time we catch ourselves saying, “I can’t” for any reason. Yes, we can, we choose not to, so let’s be honest AND respectful. Can you imagine for a moment, having lost your sight, or a leg, and overcoming those challenges to have someone without those challenges whine, “I caaaaannnnn’t”. I’d Kung Fu kick them with my prosthetic leg, and whack them over the head with my white cane, because I know I could!
After my life lesson at mile eighteen, I continued to run, perhaps a tad slower, perhaps with slightly exaggerated walk breaks, and, the whole while, mind was telling body, “shut up, I got this.”
My goal was to finish the California International Marathon, all 26.2 miles. My hope was to finish it within the six hours allowed. My dream was to finish before 5:30. I crossed the line at 5:15:20 and, to my delight, there was Miles cheering me on, a very good friend, indeed. Of course, two years ago, not being a runner, I made myself get up and get ready and drive around all kinds of traffic blocks to cheer Miles on in this crazy marathon at mile twenty, when most runners “bonk”. I cheered as he ran past, but he didn’t even know I was there until I told him later. That’s what friends do. But, it was at roughly that moment, as I waited for him to pass by, as I observed hundreds of ordinary people achieve something their minds told them to do, even if their bodies weren’t so sure, that I thought, maybe, I could do the same. A month later, I joined a running club, on Miles’ recommendation. And I never doubted for a moment, from that instant on that I was a “marathoner”. Today I proved it to anyone who doubted me, which most certainly did not include me.
I just perused the stats. I’m a stats addict. Any stat, I want to see it. Every coach I’ve had for the past two years finished the race behind me. I’m a wee bit competitive, I know, it’s about finishing the race, not beating people. Not beating your coaches. My point is, mind over matter. I suggested to myself I’d finish before 5:30 and I did, I did not know my coaches’ goals or hopes, I only knew mine. I might have suggested my goal, my hope, to myself repeatedly, I might have “envisioned” it a few (hundred) times, but you see? Mind over matter. I was in real physical pain. Now, a few hours later, after a shower and a rest, no pain. I also looked at the stats for my newfound friend from the bus; she quit at the halfway mark and my heart goes out to her. What happened?
For days, weeks, months, people have been asking me, “are you nervous?” Um, no. Why? The only thing I was nervous about was waking up with enough time to pack, eat breakfast, get ready, check out and cram my suitcases in the car before the bus arrived. That was my only stress factor, and it was a stupid one. I never doubted for a moment that I’d finish the race. I vacillated, a smidge, on my ability to run the time I hoped for, or, better yet, the one I dreamed of. Even though I flew in from New York yesterday and fly out, for the east coast, again, tomorrow, I knew with absolute certainly, I’d finish this race. Even though my workouts have been compromised by my travels recently, even though my nutrition has been completely derailed by having to eat in restaurants two meals a day, I knew, absolutely, without a doubt, I’d finish this race today, just like the lady with the prosthetic leg, the eighty-four year old marathon runner and the generous number of blind runners all knew, without a doubt, they would finish this race today. It’s what we tell ourselves we can do, without a doubt, that we do, with joy and ease and triumph. Because we can. Because we choose to.
Next time you choose to use that horrible four letter word, you know the one, not fuck, not shit, not damn, the four letter word that begins with a “c”, the next time you find your mouth opened, gaping wide, and your palette closing to form the ugliest of “k” sounds, the beginning of the most disgusting and sinful word ever, the word “can’t”, remember, first, it’s a lie and second, it’s disrespectful to those who are labeled as less able, but do.
I have to pee again.