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When I decided to run the New York City Marathon, I had just returned from Mt. Kilimanjaro where my 64-year old aunt and I made it to the summit -- the Roof of Africa as it's called. After hiking up 19,343 feet, we felt like we could do anything. So she went back to her home in Louisiana and started raising butterflies to let loose in the wild. She wanted to be one with nature. I came back to New York and decided to be one with cement. My usual three miles -- which have always been grueling for me -- became five, then seven, then eight. And with each mile that was added on, I became more miserable about my undertaking. Then I got a black toenail. Not just a light gray one, but full on black, requiring three coats of fire engine red to cover up.
My black toe and I started training hard in August, three months before the marathon. I didn't get in through the lottery system, so I signed up to run for a charity, Team For Kids (TFK). TFK gets kids in impoverished neighborhoods interested in running and a whole trickle-down effect happens. The kids learn how to set goals, work with a team, eat well, and stay out of trouble. For the runners, we raise money to support their races (minimum of $2,500.00), buy them shoes, etc. The benefit for us is we get great coaches to train us for the marathon and the knowledge that we are running for a cause greater than ourselves. So why was I so miserable in my training?
The real kickoff for me was the Nike half marathon (13.1 miles) on August 2. If I hadn't had that on my radar, I wouldn't have stayed even remotely motivated. As it was, I was vacationing with my husband in Europe for the two weeks leading up and fitting in any sort of run was tough. While my husband and friends partied with the midnight sun in Iceland, I ran with sheep, which happen to outnumber people in this tiny country. In London I ran in the much more civilized Hyde Park. I was feeling pretty good, running about eight 9-minute miles on two different occasions. But then, Scotland came....
The last part of my trip was in, of at all things, a Scotch distillery, where I was forced to partake in the drink -- lots of it. I barely remember the flight home and arrived in New York with Chivas Regal attached to my bloodstream like a friend who didn't want to leave.
I rested and rehydrated as much as I could for 48 hours, took a deep breath and got to the starting line. The run wasn't easy, but I lived through it. Plus, I was able to meet some of my TFK teammates for the first time. They seemed like a cool group of runners and I decided that I'd join them for some biweekly and weekend runs. I still didn't have a deep love of the sport and had never experienced the elusive "runner's high" but figured if I forced myself to dive fully into this venture, I'd come around.
Two weeks later in Central Park I was starting to see a few familiar faces. I had faith that running with like-minded people would make the time go faster and the run easier. We were doing "hill" workouts, in which you "attack" the hill. Legs up, arms swinging, body slightly forward and full speed ahead. It's brutal and found my entire being -- inside and out -- shaking in torture. But it's crucial to do in preparation for some of the hills you hit on the course. One very peppy runner introduced herself and told me her strategy.
"I think of hills as my friends and picture them smiling at me. When I go up, I smile at them. It really helps!" she chirped. I must have looked at her like she had two heads because she quickly added, "Oh, I mean, it doesn't work for everyone, but it works for me. Uh, soooo, do you have a strategy?"
I had to bite my tongue from saying what I felt. Smiling? Friends? Not so much. In fact, I have scowled and spit upon nearly every hill in my life. And, if I'm going to anthropomorphize a hill, it is going to have a fiery rod and horns. It is not my pal.
I made it through the run, cursing at the devil the entire time. But I would have never forced myself to run a hill that hard if it weren't for the team training. And on the subway home that night, I even chuckled to myself about the Ms. Optimistic Hill Girl. Maybe I can enjoy this.
Another one of the biweekly runs. This one was billed as "five miles at a conversational pace." I figured talking was part of the assignment. As I heaved and huffed with members of the group, I decided to make idle chat with a woman next to me. She seemed close to my age, in her late 30s, and I was relieved that she didn't seem nearly as happy as "hill girl." She wasn't smiling, but rather just concentrating.
"So is this your first marathon?" I asked, stuttering on "your" as I gasped for air.
"Yeah, it is," she replied fluidly.
"How are you liking it?" I managed to say, this time trying hard not to choke on my words.
"Oh, I love it. I'm just afraid I'm becoming addicted!" she exclaimed, then picked up her pace and sped off in the distance. Addicted? To cheese and chocolate maybe, but running?
My heart sank. Will I ever get it? As I watched her gallop off in the distance I clenched my stomach and began jogging crooked. That damn doughnut I ate at lunch apparently decided to join me. I am an idiot.
The thing is, I've always had my running. It's been a crutch in my exercise life. My way to burn off the calories I consume in as short of time as possible. Just get it over with has been my motto. My frustration is that running has never come easy to me.
For purposes of full disclosure, this isn't my first marathon. But before you think me a fraud, hear me out. My first marathon was nine years ago. I had a different life and a different body. I was in my 20s and could handle the beating more. I was also newly in love and you know what that does to a person. Makes you feel like magic. My boyfriend (now husband) and I ran the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul together. I was still trying to impress him, which is probably the only reason I made it through. And afterwards? Well, I felt like I had been in a car wreck. I had to walk down my stairs backwards for a week because the pain was so excruciating in my quads. I vowed to never run one again. We eventually got married and moved to New York. The past six years I have been taken to tears watching the 38,000 people run by my block in Brooklyn. Last year I decided the NYC marathon was something I just had to check off my life list.
Less than two months from the big day, on September 15, I joined my team for a 20-mile run. Four times around Central Park, starting at 7 a.m. When my alarm clock went off at five, I looked bitterly over at my husband, jealous of his sound sleep and thought briefly about putting a pillow over his head. But then I'd have no one to rub my feet at night. I hobbled to my dresser and pulled out my running clothes, then sulked out into the Brooklyn darkness. When I arrived in Central Park, it was raining. Not hard, but one of those late summer drizzles that make the air feel suffocating. I saw my team in the distance, their bright green shirts like a beacon of neon under gray skies. As I got closer I saw they were all smiling while doing jumping jacks.
"Are you guys ready to run?" yelled the warm-up coach-turned-cheerleader.
"Yes!" screamed the 50 or so other members. I tried to scream with them, but all that came out was a grunt.
The rain let up and the run began. My pace was off and I found myself between two separate running groups, going at it alone. But on this day, my misery was so great and probably contagious, I didn't want to run with anyone anyway. I put on my iPod and tried to tune out my emotions. As I made it past the first mile, my mind started to taunt me. Nineteen more to go, it said. Ha ha. I told it to stop renting space in my head. But it didn't. The taunt continued and a constant battle ensued for those first three miles. I waited for my hypnotic state to set in; where my mind goes blank and my body numb. It's sort of like my version of purgatory. But on this day, as I rounded the first loop in Central Park, crossing 6 miles with 14 more to go, purgatory dropped me and sent me to hell. My ribs ached, I couldn't catch my breath and I started to doubt my abilities, both physical and mental. Thoughts zipped in and out, none encouraging. Buddhists call this the monkey mind -- the constant chatter that grates at your soul, your purpose in life. I call it my mean mind. You suck. You can't do this. It hurts. I lived with the harassment for three more excruciating miles, hoping that those conniving voices would soon tire and give up. I crossed the halfway point at 10 miles and the sun started to peek out. I dumped a glass of water on my body and another down my throat. I shouted at them -- inside my head of course, for fear of looking like a complete lunatic-- Ha! Your stamina sucks. I will beat you. Finally, as I passed 11 miles, there was no rebuttal. I smiled and ran my way back to purgatory.
By early October I had found people on the team like me who weren't natural runners and struggled through it. Sharing our stories of mutual disdain and pain made me feel not so alone. It became almost a social event, with running secondary. Our longest run yet happened 30 days before the marathon, a tough 23.4 miles in Central Park. I was starting to know every squirrel, tree, and piece of chewing gum. I groaned as my feet hit the pavement and had my usual three-mile meltdown, struggling and heaving with my voices and my body. Aren't you guys bored of this routine yet? I silently asked them. You know you're not going to win... Sure enough 26 minutes in, they were gone.
I caught up with the group of 8:30-9:00 minute milers from my team. As we chatted and laughed I realized that there is no way I could do this without these people and our coaches -- it really does make the time go faster. It was one of those spectacular fall days where the sky was bright blue and sun hit the leaves at just the right angle, making everything look magical -- and different. My usual trees became works of art and I found myself thinking how lucky I was to be running in Central Park. I nearly tripped over myself for being so positive. But that's the thing about running. So much of it is mental. And while I won't go as far as saying I had a runner's high, on that day, I definitely hit a runner's medium.
Ten days out and all I can say now is thank god for my team. The long runs were over and we were into our tapering stage. But the full-on obsession of the race had set in. Everything I did was focused on the marathon.
"Honey, I can't go to our friends' house tonight because what if they have a cold and I get sick."
"Oh, I can't eat that. What if it makes me sick?"
"Can you open the door for me? I don't want to get any germs on my hand."
My husband and my non-running friends had about all they could take. The only people who understood were my teammates. We e-mailed, texted, and talked no fewer than 23 times a day.
"Luke, what are you eating for breakfast on race day?"
"Rachel, have you seen the extended 8-day forecast? What if it rains?" (That discussion alone produced 37 freaked out texts back and forth.)
"Joanna, are you taking the ferry or the bus?"
It was like a full time job, but one that was fun. And then finally....
I am walking toward the start with one of my teammates, Shari. The stately Verrazano Bridge beckons us along with the huge sea of people who are all gathered here for the same reason -- so that our feet can hit the pavement and we can find that deeply personal place where running supersedes all else. The sky is a perfect blue. There is barely a breeze. I feel incredibly blessed and surprisingly calm. For the first time in my life, I am ready to run; to rock this race. For months I have struggled, I have cried, I have screamed in pain and been enveloped in darkness. Now it's time to reach inside my core, where my heart and head meet, and find the joy. This is my day.
The gun goes off and Shari and I cross the start. We are near the front of the pack and grateful that we don't have to wait in the chilly air. We run over the beautiful bridge, trying not to go too fast, just like our coach taught us. You want to hold back in the beginning so you don't burn out halfway through. It's hard though because this wave of energy is so incredibly tangible. If you could translate the energy on this day into kilowatts, you could power New York City for a week.
We finish mile one at around 9 minutes. Right on target. We continue at this pace into Brooklyn. I have stenciled BROOKLYN JILL on my shirt and every time someone screams my name, I scream back a thanks or I wave. I'm worried about exhausting myself with my cheerleading, but I can't help it. This run is just too much fun. Did I just say fun and run in the same sentence? I did!
One of our coaches told us to run the first 10 miles with your head, the second with your personality, and the last six with your heart. I carry that with me as we run into Park Slope on 4th Avenue, which is mile 8. It is here that my neighbors and husband are waiting for me -- on this same spot where I have been a constant for the past six years, cheering on runners. And now, I am the one being encouraged, receiving from the massive crowd their spirit and finding my own state of grace.
My husband jumps in and runs a few blocks with me. He's going to try and find me at mile 14 and run the last 10 with me, jumping out right before the finish. It's called bandit running and while the "official" race people don't like it, hundreds of people do it as a show of moral support.
I tell him I am feeling great and for once I really mean it. He waves goodbye and I am off, feeling the energy surge through me as each foot continues to hit the pavement. I am flying.
Shari and I continue together until mile 18. She is tiring while I am still going strong. We agree to split up but promise to see each other at the finish. I have no doubt she'll make it. By now, my husband is with me and all the negative energy that has held me back in the past has reversed itself into positive. Even those nagging voices in my head haven't made a peep. They know better. If there is such thing as a running miracle, then today I have found it.
At mile 20, as I enter the Bronx and hear the bands, I pick up my pace. Right now is when I'm allowed to unleash if I have the energy, and I do. No more holding back. My shoes must have wings for they propel me forward and I glide. I high-five the crowds. My iPod is in one ear, as Madonna and Maroon 5 push me on, while my other ear listens continually for my name.
"Go Brooklyn Jill!"
"Brooklyn Jill, looking good!"
For this one moment, I am an Olympic Athlete. The world is rooting for me.
We turn the corner and head into Central Park. The final push. The crowds are five deep and my body is starting to feel the fatigue. I wobble and then steady myself. My legs are exhausted. One trip and I'm down for the count. But I'm going to make it. I now know the finish is in my grasp and I begin to contemplate something I haven't allowed myself to think about until now: Boston. At my current pace I am going to be within a minute or even seconds of qualifying for the world's most famous marathon. I didn't even want to put that kind of pressure on myself ahead of time, but with three miles to go, I think I can do it. I pick up my pace a little more. The crowds are going crazy but I don't even hear them. I put my head down and concentrate on my sneakers passing up other sneakers. I meditate on my cadence and allow myself to become mesmerized, numb.
I am panting and my husband leans down next to me, "Are you okay?" he asks concerned. "I have to hop out soon." I nod my head. He knows what I am trying to do. I see his sneakers fade away. I cross the 25-mile mark. I am on my own and no crowd or music can help me now. It's up to me. Pant. Push. Push. Pant. I round the bend at Columbus Circle and head into the heart of the park. Half a mile to go. The stands are full of people cheering. I see the clock. I see the banner. I see the finish. I cross. My time: 3:44:04. One of my life's greatest moments was just created and solidified, but really, it was so much more.
What I now realize is that doing a marathon isn't just about the finish and the time. It's about transforming the way I think and feel about running, because in many ways, running is life. You feel pain, joy, happiness, and sorrow. You struggle, you achieve. It's also a feeling of comfort and familiarity -- to know exactly how it will feel each time your foot hits the pavement, for better or for worse. Just like life, it is a yoyo, complete with the ups and downs. I know I'll have miserable days ahead, but I also know there is a place inside of me that doesn't have to hate this. In fact part of me can love it, and I do. And for now, at this moment, that is enough to keep me going one more loop.
Originally published on FitnessMagazine.com, February 2008.