I ran a marathon. It was horrible.
Over five years ago, my lovely girlfriend and soon-to-be wife, Sarah, decided to sign up for the Chicago Marathon. The challenge and the training and the culminating event were going to be representative of life’s roller coaster ride. It would be a test of her physical and mental will; a battle over the proverbial obstacles of stress and struggle at that time in her life.
However, after months of training, just two weeks before the marathon, she opted out. While fighting constant knee pain, she couldn’t put her body through the mileage that was beating her down with overuse injury. It was a tough choice but the right one, proving intelligence and foresight for future joint health. Smart.
That’s where I stepped in.
Why let the registration go unused? Or, at most, why sell the race number to someone else?
“I could run it,” I thought.
I had already completed a few half-marathons. I had been running with my young athletes while coaching Cross Country and Track. And I was keeping up with strength and conditioning in my CrossFit workouts.
“I can do this,” I convinced myself.
So, in the two weeks leading up to the Chicago Marathon, I upped my mileage a bit with a vision of completing the 2010 race. And then, without a training run longer than 10 miles, I set out that Sunday morning ready to take on the long road ahead.
Mile 1: This is easy.
There were so many people present that it took at least 20 minutes to approach the starting line, even after the race began. Sarah was able to walk with me for a while as I neared the big banner overhead. Once close, we said goodbye, and I knew to look for her around the 10k mark.
My timing chip crossed the threshold and off I went, pulled along in the herd of humans– we were so close to each other that I’m not sure my feet touched the ground. The pack of bodies charged forward to sideline cheers and cowbells and Rocky theme songs. Willing or not, I was along for the ride.
Mile 3: Hmm… this is still easy.
Hitting the 5k mark, I remember feeling so strong and confident that I picked up the pace. Water? Gatorade? No thanks; not needed. Zigzagging the masses, I was on a mission.
Mile 6: There’s Sarah!
Finding my favorite girl through the crowd wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. Actually, she spotted me first. But after a quick hello, I was off, wrapped up in athletic bravado called “pace.” Our next check-in would be at mile 11.
Mile 11: It’s getting pretty hot, isn’t it?
At the hour-and-a-half marker, a sickening realization set in like the warm sun overhead: I hadn’t been drinking enough water. Uh oh. Sarah was there and she jumped in with me, grinning and excited and inspired by all whom she had already seen in passing. The plan was for her to join me for a bit, so side by side we ran, taking in the sights, already in awe at the experience.
Mile 13.1: You’re halfway done!
The marathon world record is just under 2 hours and 3 minutes. That’s a pace of 4:43 per mile. Times 26. Needless to say, the winners were almost done by the time I hit the halfway point.
My parents helped watch my two oldest children that morning, and my mom was able to get my daughter through the crowd at the midway mark for a quick stop, a reluctant sweaty hug, and well-wishes onward. I will never forget the pride I felt at that point. Seeing my little girl sparked motivation in my belly, and the adrenaline temporarily curbed the impending doom of dehydration. Fittingly, I will also never forget the dread of realization when I heard, “Keep it up… you’re halfway done!”
Mile 16: Oh my quads.
Away from my family and big crowds, the backstretch through Chinatown was a furnace. Horribly full of concrete and obscenely lacking shade, I went to a dark place in the mind. Why did I say I’d do this again? Gatorade and water were no use; my body was an arid desert floor in the dead of summer. Fluid evaporated immediately, the heat picked up even more, and my quads locked tight like two pillars made of stone. All I could do was roll them along as boulders in a pained shuffle jog. Sarah was my only light, still running alongside me amidst my compulsive dismay that I somehow needed to run another 10 miles to finish this damn thing.
Mile 20: This might be it.
Sitting down on a curb to massage my legs and contemplate the meaning of life, it was at this point that I officially gave up worrying about time. 6 miles to go? Maybe back-peddling will work better. Hallucinations were setting in, but Sarah’s voice rang true in my ears. It was her constant positivity had gotten me this far, yet it was the simplest statement of the day that got me off my ass. “Scott, you can’t sit down in a race. Get up.” She was right. I could take one of two forks in the road: stop and walk away defeated, or stand up and finish what I started. I got up and I ran.
Mile 25: One mile left!
Complaining my way through the roaring 20’s wasted time, in a good way, and got me to a point where the end was in sight. Sarah needed to leave the race in order to let the finishers finish, so she veered off and there it was: the final mile. The end of the Chicago marathon is uphill. Truth. It’s gradual, but at that point it might as well be Everest. Why they do that to the runners is beyond me, but it brought on a bitterness that allowed me to keep enough focus to claw my way forward, if only just for spite. Maybe that’s the exact reason why it’s set up that way… as an extra kick to the kidneys to see who’s tough and who’s not. Or maybe it’s just better viewing for the spectators. Either way, some hipsters in bathrobes raised their coffee mugs my way and told me a grandma had passed a few minutes ago. So there was that.
Mile 26.2: Victory is mine.
The end stretch was an epic duel between me and my log legs. And? I won. Stiffly, I finished in a frankenstein walk through the chute. That was that. I had done it. I saved the feeling of accomplishment for later, focusing then on staying upright, getting food, and lamenting my poor choices in life. Plus, after looking at the time, we needed to run to catch the train back home. Literally. I had to run to the train station.
Back at home that night, safe and sound and sore as shit, I weighed myself.
I lost 8 pounds that day.
We endure marathon sessions in all we do. In essence, we are a marathon. We are a series of trips and tangles and small victories at each mile marker we pass in the road race of life.
Sarah ended up running most of the marathon with me that day. She may never fully comprehend what that meant to me, but I’m sure I would’ve quit if it wasn’t for her. Turns out she could have completed that race after all… and in less time than I did, no doubt.
In the end, running a marathon proved many things, particularly here in hindsight. It represented so much more than just cardiovascular endurance or muscular stamina. It signified the struggles of that point in my life… of all points in my life. It let me know that I can’ t do anything alone; I need my family and my loved ones to help me through emotional times. It stood as a reminder that I am human, and I can be defeated just like anyone. It also remains as a motivator that if I can withstand 26.2 miles, I can withstand a lot more in life. That race reflected the barrage of self-hate, the feelings of ineptitude, and the panic of second guesses I had always known, and will continue to know, in my journey of mental health.
That marathon will always symbolize the long road of life and the ups and downs of daily living.
We may not always make the right decisions, but we sure as hell live and learn and we keep, keep moving.