I can tell you without hesitation when and where the four longest hours of my entire life took place. I don’t have to stop and think, I don’t have to go back into the recesses of my memory; I can tell you right now: They happened in Maine, in the rain, and I spent the entire duration of them running.
Now, you might ask yourself, “Gee whiz, that doesn’t sound like a very good day. I wonder why it’s included in this selection of stories?” Your surprise and confusion would not be misplaced, were you reflecting upon the life and interests of someone who hadn’t decided to spend every Sunday for 16 weeks doing nothing but eating, running, and painfully rolling the knots and cramps out of a pair of very sore legs, in preparation for the hugely unnecessary vanity project called “My First Marathon.”
A marathon—unless you are fast enough and good enough at them to be paid for the privilege—is absolutely a vanity project, there’s no doubt about it. Running one doesn’t solve world hunger, it doesn’t inspire peaceful diplomatic relations among warring nations, and often it doesn’t even make a person any healthier or thinner or stronger in the doing. Running a marathon is the kind of thing an otherwise mostly reasonable person will undertake simply for the pleasure of being able to say one’s done it.
When the phrase, “I have run a marathon,” comes truthfully rather than metaphorically out of one’s mouth, one feels morally and physically superior to roughly 98% of the world’s population—but, more importantly, one feels morally and physically superior to one’s own self in the lifetime spent before crossing that start and finish line.
That’s what I was hoping for, anyway.
What finally compelled me to pull the proverbial trigger on registration for my first marathon, I don’t exactly remember. I know that the decision came after a few years of fraught struggles with my health and body, including a bought with a little-known form of disordered eating (orthorexia nervosa) and a walloping two years’ worth of what’s sometimes referred to as exercise bulimia, the results of which had me weighing in at about 93 lbs—a grown woman of 30 weighing less than some midsize dogs, running upward of 12 miles a day and surviving on a steady diet of boiled broccoli and Diet Coke.
Heck, it may have even been the very day my nutritionist said I’d “graduated” treatment, and could now venture forth on my own to pursue my lifelong recovery process mano a mano. I walked out of her office that last time with a spinning feeling in my head: I had come so far (and gained so much, thank G-d), that I longed for a way to mark the progress, to test my ability to live in some sort of moderation, and to achieve something I wouldn’t have been strong enough to tackle 15 or 20 lbs earlier.
Of course, nothing screams “moderation” like training for a marathon. (I can neither write nor read over that sentence without pretty deeply rolling my eyes, but hey: Recovery is a journey, not a destination.)
The marathon I chose was small and specific: a flat-coursed little get-together of about 4,500 people along a mostly residential route in suburban Portland, Maine. The weather was reported to be promising (somewhere in the mid 50°s F, which is a runner’s dream), the spectators sparse but friendly, and Maine being Vacationland and all—as well as home to some of my oldest and best friends—it was easy enough to turn the whole cockamamie idea into as much of a vacation as it had become a vocation.
It’s hard to isolate marathon day as the good day here, because the whole weekend was pretty amazing, but this series isn’t about weekends, so I’ll cut to the (literal?) chase: Sunday, September 30, 2012; 8:30am. The starting gun popped a burst of smoke in the wet air, and thousands of pairs of feet were suddenly tomp-thomp-thomping on the asphalt, splashing in shallow puddles and spraying droplets onto calves and shorts and fellow runners. I was in the middle of a stream of people just like me, flowing deliberately through an orange-cone-delineated artery we had chosen as the expression of one aspect of ourselves—the sheer ability to endure.
“How long is the marathon you’re running?” people ask all the time. Most times I don’t have the heart to answer that all marathons are the same distance, and so I just answer with a shrug, “Oh, 26.2 miles.” Even that’s not the real or most honest answer: The truth of it is that a marathon is hours upon hours of unceasing thought; of self-reflection and self-doubt and self-assurance; of pain and then relief and then pain again. (Like, a lot of pain.)
My clothes quickly soaked through with rain, and I wondered if it would be easier to be running under water rather than just covered in it. My iPod bricked at mile 3, which is just as well because you’re not really supposed to use headphones anyway. (The thought of running all that distance in complete silence, however, seemed a kind of ancient torture method. I’m sure Pheidippides himself would have given anything for a little ABBA on his journey.)
My best friends were waiting at mile 5, and my heart soared to see them clapping and shouting—a sight I didn’t expect even as I was kind of expecting it. Who am I for them to cheer, anyway? I felt shy and humbled. At mile 11, my husband and an old friend of his—who, despite having worked all through the previous night, was now standing exhausted in the driving rain by the side of a small coastal Maine highway, and had made a sign with my name on it—whooped and hollered and pushed me forward: I could feel my step spring a little as I ran on.
I passed people and was passed by them, often with a word of encouragement either way. When a group of Marines in full fatigues wearing 80-lb packs hut-hut-hut-ed their way in front of me, I gaped open-mouthed; when I noticed they were wearing signs on their backs in honor of a fallen brother, I shouted a wholly uncharacteristic, “Thank you for your service.” The marathon had changed me.
At mile 12, I started to mentally list everyone in my life I loved. At first it was a random collection, but soon I started to organize them into categories: family, old friends, new friends, work friends, strangers who had been kind, doctors who had been kind, teachers… Then it descended into a list of miscellaneous gratitude: “Thank you to the person who invented the pencil sharpener.” “Thank you for the person who discovered the speed of sound.” “Thank you for Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Between miles 15 and 17, I began listing all of the foods I enjoyed. At mile 17, I began cursing myself for having made this decision. By mile 19 I’d eaten the last of my expensive fancy endurance food and made the switch to a soggy bag of dates and almonds (neither of which were, by that point, among the foods I was listing as enjoyable.)
At mile 22 I started to think, “Am I literally going to die? Is it possible? Can I please just die? Do I really have to keep going?”
Finally—finally!—the crowds got thick with people again, and those of us still plodding along were surrounded by the noise of love and encouragement and congratulations. Never mind that practically none of it was for me—who are all these people? who are they cheering for? what am I doing here?—there is simply something about being lifted up and carried along on a sea of happy voices.
My legs, dressed in pink compression sleeves which, by the final quarter of a mile were drenched with rain and peppered with road grime, finally chugged across the finish line in 4 hours, 10 minutes, and 31 seconds, stopping short just on the other side, as though to say, “Aaaand, we’re done.” I limped through a tunnel of bodies, my glasses so thickly fogged from sweat and rain and mist that I didn’t see the person who wrapped me in a foil blanket, or the one who handed me a bag of pretzels, or the one who slipped a heavy medal around my neck.
My husband found me in the crowd and, despite my wet and crumpled appearance, swept me into an exuberant hug. “How was it?” he asked, pulling out of the embrace and holding me by the shoulders to steady me on my feet.
“I… it…” Words were everywhere and nowhere; the pain was everywhere and nowhere. I looked up at him through the many prisms of rain on my lenses, and smiled weakly.
“That,” I said with a long sigh, “was awesome.”