Did I really just type those words? It’s been almost a week, and it still hasn’t actually set in.
I mean, I know that I ran for a really long time. I know I passed signs with numbers on them reading “23… 24… 25… 26…” I know that my whole body hurt. I know that I stopped running when I went under a sign that said “Finish” where someone put a medal around my neck with a ribbon in my favorite color, red.
That word has so many implications. In my mind it has an almost mythical status. Like people who summit Everest. Or win a Nobel. Marathons are hard! Even though there are more people that do them than those that summit Everest or get a Nobel, they’re still hard. I remember once writing a bucket list that included “be in shape to run a marathon” — just be in shape but not actually run one because, seriously, me? Like I could run a marathon. Me. Ha. Don’t be absurd.
Yet somehow I ran a marathon. Did I really just type that again? Not only do I have a medal and finisher’s shirt to prove it, my time is on the internet. Pain is temporary, but your finishing time is on the internet forever.
My friend and I argued all weekend about whose fault it was that we were doing this marathon. Was it hers — for applying for and being accepted by this program for people benefiting from medical technology to run this marathon — or was it mine — for alerting her to the program’s existence and writing a nomination letter to accompany her application? She told me if she got accepted that she’d bring me along to fill her complimentary guest entry. I guess that means I should have written a lower-quality nomination letter.
But actually if I’m honest, I think it is my fault. Because I think I was up for the challenge.
An actual marathon.
Twenty-six point two miles. Plus all that walking in the starting corrals and after the finish line to pick up my stuff — I really think that should count for something.
I hate anticipation. Hate hate hate it. I get super nervous. I had panic attacks before going to London. I had panic attacks before going to Uganda. Before doing the Pikes Peak Ascent I sat on a curb with my head between my knees gasping. If there is enough time for me to overthink and get stressed about something, I will. I’d rather just be surprised by big things than know they are coming. Unfortunately there’s no way around that when it comes to a marathon, because you need to train for months beforehand. You can’t just wake up and decided to do one. (I mean, maybe if you’re superhuman like Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher…)
So it was kind of surprising that Saturday night I was fairly calm as I laid out everything I’d need the next day. And that night I slept soundly. When I woke up at 5:30 I dressed as though this was just another day.
And then we got on the school bus to head for the start line.
And I lost it.
It probably didn’t help that the heat was cranked up to 120 since heat makes me light-headed. Or that we sat in the last row where every irregularity in the road surface was magnified, jostling the breakfast in my stomach. I leaned my head against the back of the seat in front of us, pressed my hand to the icy window to ground myself, and focused on breathing. My friend — who has seen me freak out about pretty much everything possible — silently rubbed my back.
I just need to start running. Once I start running I’ll be fine. This anticipation is killing me. I just need to start.
Finally we got off that stifling bus. Finally we found the bag check truck. Finally we found a spot in the corral. Finally we started moving in the mass of people toward the start line. And then finally we crossed the timing mat that signaled the end of months of preparation and anticipation, and the beginning of a big day.
And then I was fine. It was just another long run. A long one in a city I’d never been to before surrounded by 12,000 other people — but just a long run.
People say there comes a time in a marathon where you freak out and panic. “I still have 23 miles to go?” “I’m just halfway?” “I’m only at mile 20?” That moment happened for me… never. I know, I’m surprised too. I thought I’d wish I was bad at math every time I passed another mile marker flag and mentally subtracted it from 26. But instead with each one that came into sight I thought, Another mile down! I’m getting there!
Despite this being six miles further than I had ever run in my life, as soon as I started running there was not a doubt in my mind that I would make it to that finish line. The only question was how long it would take me to get there. And how much pain I would be in by the time I got there.
Yes, I was in pain. A lot. I went out too fast (yay, low altitude = more oxygen!) and started hurting at mile three. Each time I passed an EMS station I considered asking for ibuprofen, but I was too afraid they’d DQ me after all I’d been through to get here. My plan had been to run-walk the whole race. By around mile 17 it took just as much effort (and pain) to walk as to run, so I wanted to keep running. I had to force myself to drop to a walk knowing I still had many miles left.
Predictably, I eventually slipped into that zombie-like just-keep-moving-forward state. I had podcasts playing on my phone, but I only passively listened; hearing someone else’s voice kept my mind from thinking too much. Even though we had driven the course two days earlier and seen how beautiful it was, I couldn’t focus enough to appreciate it. There were a fair number of people on the route for such a long course, and my brain was functioning just enough to read the signs that they held. “Hot dog, you’re all weeeners!” “Worst parade ever!” “Motivational sign!” “You think running is tough, my arms are getting tired from holding this sign!” (Been there, and yes, it IS hard — you guys are awesome.)
At one point I ran past two little girls holding a plate of fruit, and it wasn’t until I was five steps past that my brain registered, “Eat that!” — best bite of watermelon I’ve ever tasted. Just as tasty was the orange slice a lady had handed me few miles earlier. I have to say, formal course support was lacking. There was plenty of liquids, but only ONE food station with ONLY Clif Shots, which I already had in my pocket anyway. God bless the spectators with their offerings of random food! Like the mile 15 banana people. There was a mimosa station that I considered just for the OJ — but I knew that champagne would hit my legs like a sledgehammer. Around mile 22 I saw a man on the side of the road opening a box for his wife and she pulled out a glazed doughnut; I considered veering over there and snatching it out of her hand. (I didn’t want the whole thing, but one sticky bite would have been awesome.)
Finally between the trees I could see the dome of the capital building, where I knew the finish line awaited. Then we came out on the top of a hill next to a beautiful cathedral where below me I could see the mile 26 banner and the finish line. Yes, “below me”; the last 0.3 miles was downhill. Praise God, praise God so much!
And then I crossed the finish line. And was given a medal. And my first marathon blanket. I was a little delirious. After running for over five and a half hours, it felt weird to stop. I heard someone yell, “Hey!” and saw a man leaning over a fence holding my bag check; in my stupor I hadn’t seen the signs and nearly walked right past. Someone put a bag of potato chips in my hand. Another person gave me a black shirt and I smiled at a tiny little word on it: FINISHER.
I shuffled toward a striped tent, looking for one person: the person who was the reason I was here. I glimpsed her there in her blue jacket with a medal around her neck identical to mine. She turned and saw me and cried out, “YAY!!!!!” running to embrace me in a hug.
Silently smiling I put my head on her shoulder and I cried. Tears of relief. Tears of pain. Tears of triumph. Tears of joy. Tears of overcoming. Tears of everything. Tears of a marathoner.
We sat down and I pulled out my phone to scroll through the dozens of text messages of encouragement I’d received from loved ones during the previous six hours. Overwhelmed and not sure how to put into words everything that I was thinking and feeling, I just started sending them a picture:
Upon further reflection while typing this and thinking about all of those text messages, I renege my previous statement. It’s not my fault that I ended up in Minnesota at a marathon. It’s hers. And it’s yours, too. You heard me; you’re at fault. All you people who texted me. Everyone who said, “Wow,” upon learning what I was doing, followed by, “Oh, you’ve got this.” All you people who cheered for me via Facebook and prayed for me at kids ministry and Bible study. All the coworkers and colleagues who excitedly asked about my race leading up to it and descended on my office upon my return wanting to know how it went. Everyone who said they’re proud of me. It’s completely and totally your fault. Because you believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. How could I have done something like this without all that love and support?
About one mile from the finish line, there was a spectator holding a sign. It said, “You’re no longer a runner. You’re a marathoner.”
I guess now and forevermore that’s me. Alissa: marathoner.