Every summer, as I repeatedly wake at five to head out for my long run before it gets too hot, as I chafe every conceivable part of my body, and as I carry my running shoes with me on vacation so I don’t lose any fitness, I tell myself that this will be the last marathon. As fall approaches and my joints begin to ache from the hours spent on the roads, I find myself repeating this mantra over and over again. I say it with conviction because I believe it. This will be the last one. I will train for shorter distances and focus on speed work and resistance training. The shorter distances will be easier on my body. I tell myself that I have nothing left to prove.
During the sixteen weeks of training, I repeat it to myself and anybody who will listen. Their reaction is always the same, a slight shake of the head and a smile that says it all, “Sure, just like last year’s and the year before that and the two that you did the year before that.” Still, I repeat it on race day as I wake three hours before the race to get dressed and fueled.
It is not until I am standing in the crowd of anxious runners, waiting for the gun to go off, that I change my mind. That is when I remember what I love. It certainly is not the twenty-six-point-two grueling miles, the pains in my joints, or the chafed spot just above my bra line. It is the other runners.
Within minutes of arriving at a marathon, they are milling about, tying and retying their shoes, applying Vaseline to all the pertinent spots, and talking to each other as they wait in line for the port-a-potties. The first-timers and the oldest veterans are the chattiest.
The first-timers talk to salve their nerves. They ask questions and are impressed with the seasoned marathoners, whether veterans of one or fifty marathons before this one. They just want to personally know someone who has made it mile by mile, finally crossing that finish line. They want to know that it really can be done.
The older guys, the true veterans of the sport, are chatty because they know it is just for fun now. They chat with the first-timers to reassure them, encourage them on a quest they may have started thirty, forty, or sometimes fifty years before, but they are really there to be with the other old-timers. They reminisce about the good old days when they finished the race an hour faster than they do now, or when the race was run on a completely different course.
The rest of us are quieter. We have been here before but we still believe we can be faster. There are better days in us yet. Marathoners are friendly folks, so we will respond if approached, but those of us who fall in the middle are a little more circumspect, a little more focused. We are ready for the race to begin, and we still believe it is a race.
These people are part of the reason I come back every year, but the rest of the reason is that I know there is a gem in this crowd. There is one runner who will entertain me with his or her life story. Over twelve marathons I have never failed to run with one of these gems for a good portion of the race. Like a good book they share their stories. The beginning of a marathon reminds me of Christmas morning, as I stand at the starting line anticipating what the present will be this year.
Louise was running her twenty-second marathon when I met her. She started marathoning when her husband was in hospice. As she sat beside his bed, they watched the London Marathon. Louise, who had not even been a walker before then, told her husband, “I can do that.” He told her to go ahead and do it. That very afternoon, she laced up a pair of sneakers and headed out for a run. Her husband died before she ran the first marathon, but she didn’t quit training. He believed she could do it, so she did.
In one race I impersonated a therapist to some degree, as a woman poured her heart out to me about the new man in her life. He was ten years younger and wanted to get married. I listened for more than an hour as she discussed all the cons of their relationship and none of the pros, then advised her to follow her gut. I saw her almost eight years later. Unfortunately, she had taken my advice, followed her gut and was now divorced. I do feel bad for her but part of me loves the story I got out of it, loves having been in on her private thoughts more so than even her future husband.
Over the years I have run with pregnant women trying to squeeze in one last marathon before mommyhood changes their lives forever. I have run with men whose wives are sitting at home with a newborn, seething because he just spent four months training and is now going to be out of commission on the parent front for the rest of the day. I have run with people of every shape and size and I have shared an experience with them that most of their spouses will never share. I have heard their stories and listened to their secrets and their hopes. I have watched them struggle and watched as they crossed the finish line in triumph.
These people, over all of these marathons, are to blame for the looks I will receive from family and friends next year, as I once again swear I will never do this again. But I forgive them, because these are the people who have pulled me through twenty-six-point-two miles – and over those very same finish lines.