I have never been an athlete. I was always the last chosen for elementary school PE games. And even when a team captain finally gave me a nod and a wave over, I usually wanted to respond, “No, really, you don’t want me.”
I couldn’t do a pull up or a push up, and I could only do one half sit up. I got winded easily – actually had a cardiovascular birth defect that was surgically repaired when I was 19. But the physical limitation wasn’t what held me back. I just wasn’t sports-minded. I would flinch every time a round object headed my way. My arms didn’t know to rise and catch. They still don’t. I duck and cover. To this day.
Until a year ago, doing a marathon was outside of the realm of any of my desires or thoughts. When my walking partner proposed we go for doing a marathon in 2007, my answer was simple, “No.” Only I didn’t want to appear closed off, so I probably said, “Wow! Interesting.” But inside, I was definite: No. We started to train anyway, just to explore the option. I had no idea walkers did marathons. I thought it was strictly for real athletes. Runners. People who look like this:
Yep. That was me, June 3, 2007. Doing it. Still brings a happy half sob to my sternum to type those words, Doing it.
Here’s the thing. I went 18. Not 26.2. I didn’t stop at 18, I took this special option written about in the fine print of the marathon’s website:
Participants not upholding a 17:26/mile marathon pace at mile 13.4 will be rerouted to the finish line and complete an 18 mile course.
During training, I was all worried about how that happens. So I emailed the marathon staff in the months leading up. I got a very kind email back explaining that at mile 13.4, there’s a detour that hooks up with the main course at mile 21.6. And then, these slow pokes (my term, not theirs) get to do miles 21.6 through mile 26.2 along the same course as everyone else.
I was scared. I didn’t know what my body was capable of. In training, my pace fluctuated anywhere between 18 and 15-minute miles. The idea of doing the reroute brought on the anxiety that I would get in the way of the real athletes during those last few miles. But it seemed doubtful to me that I could maintain the pace required to go the full distance. The whole thing was a big unknown.
My walking partner had an injury and had to take time off around March – so I proceeded to train alone. Saturdays were consumed with endless laps repeating the mile surrounding my apartment building. It was a dreadfully tedious loop, but I didn’t want to stray too far from home — staying hydrated for 4 hour walks requires regular potty stops. I lived by my stopwatch. My feet were ugly. Every training walk became a dress rehearsal.
On the day of my 18 mile training walk – the longest dress rehearsal yet – when I didn’t hit mile 13 in time to make the cut off, the discouragement was palpable. So real that I actually fell down and skinned my knee.
During the fall – it’s funny how they happen in slow motion when they occur – I thought two crucial things: God Dammit! and I didn’t want to do this fucking marathon in the first place. Once on the ground I thought – in my tiny little girl voice – “Andy!” I wanted him to come rescue me. But instead of reaching for my cell phone, stood up quickly and kept walking. I was angry.
I walked the remaining 5 miles to finish the 18 and then I stopped training. It’s amazing how mental it all is.
I no longer wanted to complete a marathon, I wanted to end the constant anticipation. I wanted the event date to come and go so I could never think about doing a marathon ever again. I vowed to show up in San Diego. To pin the bib on and to cross the starting line. I gave up on everything else.
I have never been so nervous as I was the night before the marathon. Alarm clock set for 3:45am. Sleeping pills not an option. It was really only prayer that helped me get to sleep. That, in itself, was an amazing life lesson.
Finally, after 100s of miles of training, we stood there in the corral on that morning. My walking partner rallied & stood by my side. She had had foot surgery days before the event and still showed up to be there. She ended up completing the half marathon course that day – awesome.
While we stood waiting for the starting gun to go off, I remember trying to remain still because an experienced marathoner friend of mine had cautioned me to fight the impulse to wave and cheer at the start of the race. She said to conserve every possible calorie. So I stood there with my hands at my sides trying to calm my breathing. We were shoulder to shoulder in a crowd of thousands. I’ve never been so high.
As we approached and passed under those balloons, I felt a sensation I never imagined was possible. There really was an actual energy coming off of the people around me. Yes, there’s a logic to the fact that these were thousands of people with a common goal, yadda yadda, but this feeling transcended logic and words. It was glorious. It was akin to that rock & roll high you get from a really good concert – tribal dance unity – or something like that. But it was so. Much. Bigger. And better.
A few hours later, when I approached the cut off/reroute at mile 13.4, I was 15 minutes early. Impossible. Not. Possible. But it was reality. I was there walking and I realized that I had completely underestimated my own capability. No one could have ever convinced me that it was possible until it actually happened.
So I had choice to make as I approached mile 13: should I go the full 26.2? I hadn’t thought I would even get the choice. I hadn’t prepared. I didn’t know what to do. Walking, walking, approaching, I had to make a decision. I thought about phoning a friend. Literally calling up Andy or anyone else who might pick up, I imagined asking, “Hey, so yeah, should I go the full route?” I knew, though, that I couldn’t put that responsibility on someone else. So I asked God. I was there walking, approaching, happy that I’d been so much faster than I ever thought possible, and I thought, God, what do you think? Should I go for it? And what came back was clear. It was: Ruth, only you can make this decision. And I walked with that for a minute. And then I thought, today is an 18 mile day. It’s all I’ve planned for. And it’s good enough.
But I was still 15 minutes early. The detour was not yet open to race participants; so, perhaps it was cheating when I continued going straight and everyone around me turned right. I actually heard someone say, “Hey, where’s she going?” So I jogged for a little while to avoid getting caught. And I laughed. It felt good taking a different path.
When I got to the point of the detour that matched up with the runners at mile 21.6, I stayed to the far right where I couldn’t possibly get in anyone’s way. It was amazing to be inside of this thing, to have a front row seat near these runners who were all doing something so amazing.
And I learned a surprising fact: runners walk slowly! And they do walk. They got in my way! It was delightful to be passing all these people who were starting and stopping.
The fans were amazing during those last 5 miles. They taught me that I was engaged in a real sport. I’d been so worried about being found out as an imposter. On the contrary, the fans seemed to know (better than I did) what I was doing. Several women yelled out, “Walkers Rule!” Wow. It felt good to rule.
In the days after the marathon, I couldn’t shake feeling good. Feeling good in a new way. I remember thinking, I feel good because I did something good. What a concept. It sounds elementary. But I couldn’t think of any other way to describe it. Every other time in my life when I’ve had a good feeling, it always had a different quality. If I got an A it was because the teacher deemed my work worthy of that grade. If it was an A on a math exam, it was because I lucked out and happened to study the right material. If I felt good because someone loved me, it had nothing really to do with me — I wasn’t responsible for their feelings. Basic sources of pleasure – deep dish pizza, sex, a good margarita, amusement park rides, Judd Apatow movies – had nothing to do with my accomplishments and more to do with either physiology and/or being a beneficiary.
But walking the distance involved one step in front of another for months on end. Nothing subjective about it.
Shortly after the San Diego experience, I wrote on a public web board that I’d be going the full distance – the 26.2 – in Portland in October. I took one training walk in the (not so bad) Santa Monica summer sun, and that was all I needed to “decide not to do it”. It’s with that in mind that I feel a slight apprehension in posting this today. I know it’s all mental. I love how mental it is. And I’m concerned with how mental it is. I know that a marathon is not 26.2 miles. It’s actually hundreds of training miles. The 26.2 are nothing but one long finish line. A super fun finish line.
Frankly, I’m afraid the training is going to mess with my newly formed & fragile writing schedule. But I also feel deeply that the personal transformation (more mental and spiritual than physical) that this thing called a marathon brings about is what will make me a better writer. A better person.
Even knowing that, I’m afraid of starting something I won’t be inspired to finish. So here’s my resolution: This month, I’m going to attend one of Team In Training informational meetings.
I’m going to keep this thing small. One step at at time. One mile at a time.
FEBRUARY UPDATE: I’m back in the game. Check it out.