For a couple years in my early 20's, during a forced pause in college, I was only bartending minimal hours. I sat around on couches with my boyfriend at the time, smoking a lot of weed, eating a lot of crap food, and simultaneously wasting away while getting chubby. This wouldn't be the last time I felt lost, but eventually making my way back to the books, to get a degree and get out from behind the bar was the only plan I had then. I've since learned I don't tick well without a reason to to get off the couch. Finding something to work for, this keeps me un-crazy. I'm a walking guidance counselor's office poster. 'Achieving goals', be it college, be it an art show, or building a cute little blog, that bullshit actually works for me.
Running sucks, really. I dreaded the school days we were being timed on the mile. I walked most of those track rounds. Even as an adult, if you're not good at getting lost in your thoughts, it's painfully boring on top of irritatingly achy. I couldn't even tell you why I thought I'd give it a go one day. Maybe I'd seen too many shoe commercials with sleek, glistening runners looking both determined and at one with the road. I'm a sucker for imagery.
Early fall of 2012, I tried running around the block. Whew! I just went for a run! A real run! Now I have to actually rack up an entire fucking mile. Dear god. Who wants to run a mile? I call one of my longest-lasting friends, Emerald. She meets me at University park on the east side, where she still lives nearby. It has a large, fenced enclosure around a sump, so we can let our dogs loose while we run. She is supposed to be my coach- Emerald used to do cross country at Highland High. This morning though, she brings a 24 ounce Big Gulp of beer, gives me a couple tips, and tells me she'll be on this bench right over here. She's rooting for me. I pound out a boring, circling mile. I couldn't stop since she was watching. I record it in my Strava app. The route looked less than inspiring. More like the ugly scribble you scratch out when your pen needs more ink flow to the tip. Still, I ran a mile.
I sign up for a few 5k fun runs. Low and behold, I take home a few medals in women's category 25-29, amidst some bedraggled bunches. The heavy, round trophies strung on thick ribbon fire me up enough to sign up for a half marathon in San Francisco. This is where I start losing people. In the grand spectrum of the runners world, 13.1 miles isn't impressive. Share this with your long-time buddies whose idea of cardio is beer pong however, and, well, not a lot of people shared my joy.
"I ran ten miles last night!"
Blank stares. "God... Why did you do that?"
After a couple beers, one friend hesitantly asked me, "Do you do that kinda stuff because... you know... because you need to feel good about yourself?"
"Huh. I dunno. Maybe." Yes.
I dragged my divorced parents to stay at my aunts in the bay area for familial support during 'the half'. They listened to me obsess over recent mileage and footwear, and put up with my anal-retentive temper tantrums on the morning of to get me to the start line early. I finished well above the average, a not brag-worthy, though not-shameful time of 2 hours. I pulled the last uphill quarter mile out of my ass for a strong, dig-deep finish. Then promptly swallowed my own acidic barf, lest I hurl on the backs of the runners being funneled through the finish ropes in front of me. That was SO MUCH FUN. I'm a runner now. Let's do it again.
My training slacks off through the spring, and I feel a wasting sadness creep back in. I've got nothing on my plate to keep me busy besides work, nothing to push myself for. Maybe I think too much. Maybe my life expectations are too high. Not all your dreams are gonna come true, kid. As a dramatic little girl with a great imagination, I would tell my mother of all the things I would do when grown up. I'm going to be an actress. I'm going to be an author and an illustrator. I'm going to ride motorcycles, get tattoos, and skydive. I will see the world, and marry a dark haired man. I will run a marathon when I'm 30, and get my PHD by the time I'm 40. For a girl whose life never seems to work out the way I plan, I'm somehow eventually able to poke along, and jerry-rig my efforts into making many of those plans happen. Many of these childhood dreams remain, and many I am slowly checking off the list. Just usually a little later than planned, and they don't look the way they did decades ago. I got myself a little bit of ink. I don't steer the motorcycles, but I'm a hell of a bitch seat occupant. I went for my second skydive recently. The video shows me mouthing, "Oh, SHIT." as I hang out of the small plane, looking 12,000 feet to the desert floor below.
Once again though,I find myself floating along with nothing on my calendar to work for. I need something to spoon chip away at. Call it fulfilling. Call it needy. Call me someone with esteem issues. I register for the full 26.2 miles. The Nike Women's Marathon in San Fransisco in October. I will run a marathon, at the age of 30.
I tell a few people. The consensus remains, "God...why?" I decide this is not the best time to talk about people shitting their pants in the last leg.
Through the summer, I start tacking the miles back on my runs. I pass 14 miles, and I start feeling exhilarated again. Each week, I run farther than I ever have before. 16 miles. 18 miles. 20. It's still boring as hell, and I never find that mysterious 'runner's high'. That high that makes your mind detach from the body, and makes you yearn to lace up and hit the ground. So I start munching on weed brownies before heading out. That's legit, right? NOW I feel like I'm flying.
My knees start having issues with the rest of my body once I surpass 15 miles. They crack, they scream, and I research supplements for their aid. I research proper hydration levels, and invest in a nerdy water-bottle hand strap with pouch for phone, gels, and weed brownies (that's what the pouch was for, right?). I read about glycogen levels, and pace strategies, negative splits, and correct form. Maybe it's the residual chocolate HTC, or maybe it's the endorphins coursing though my veins, but after these long runs, I feel...happy. I feel overwhelmingly peaceful, and loving, and powerful (You're probably embarrassed FOR me to read shit like this. I understand. But if you don't like it, go read a blog on child-rearing, or video games. There a lots of those, too.). While I still have to berate myself to put on the shoes and step out of my driveway each evening, I look forward to that intense nirvana as my body settles, blood bubbling with oxygen, legs twitching. During a year that's not been tragic per se, but not exactly harmonious- I need this feeling. It's nothing new for people to use running as therapy, but I was surprised to find I might be one of them.
Set to run October 20 though the streets of San Fransisco, I start the scheduled 'taper' in training a few weeks out, decreasing the mileage down to nil. Allowing my muscles and tendons to fully heal from the weeks of destruction, rebuilding themselves in new, unique, runner's ways. I learn the antsy-ness I feel is normal. Called 'taper madness'. Did I train long enough? Hard enough? Will my knees give out? Should I buy new shoes? Better insoles? I glance in the mirror one night while getting out of the shower, and am horrified by what I see. This is NOT a runners body. Where are the lean limbs and sinewy tendons? Shouldn't I be glistening with athletic sex appeal at this point? Instead, I see a pudgy, approaching-middle-age figure that looks nothing like those shoe commercials that inspired me. I'd been feeding my raging appetite with reckless abandon, and this puffy physique is the result. I mention this is to a few runner friends.
"Relax. This is typical. Your body is going though tremendous stress and change. Your metabolism is slowing to prepare. You're retaining water. You have no idea what's going on in there. I mean, you could cut back on the cookies, but this is not a bikini contest. This is the time to love yourself."
Well, fuck. I'd be lying if I didn't admit I hoped to look like Gisele at the end of this. But love myself I will. That was the whole point anyway.
Come that third weekend in October, I drag my parents into the hoopla once again. Once again crashing at Aunt Jane's house, and numbing their brains with talk of carbs and sodium, optimal pacing and A&D ointment. I lay out my gear, my timing chip and bib, my breakfast, energy gel and brownie bites the night before.
As a coffee addict, I simply can't run without a little caffeine trickling through me. Plus, it helps, ahem, clean me out. Not that I need help in that area, in fact, I'm very regular. Melanie once told her husband, "Katie is the healthiest shitter I know. I mean, she shits, like, ALL the goddamn time. She's a freak of nature." Still, after my aunt's chicken dinner the night before, Mom will be hauling me through the McDonald's by the house for coffee on our way to the city the morning of my big day. Funny, despite all my planning, I forget that McDonald's is not open at 4 in the fucking morning. We don't see another exit off the freeway offering my drug til we're much too close to the starting line. I chug it anyway, needing to clear my gut's protein lump, and get a little energy.
It's still dark when my mom drops me off in a crowd heading toward the pace corral entrance. She goes to fight for parking against thousands of other cars, all here for the same purpose. I quickly lose the warmth of the coffee as I walk, and my skin prickles with both the predawn chill, and the energy of the masses. I pop a brownie nugget, and join the leagues behind the corral barriers. A professional photographer snaps my picture with a dixie cup of Nuun energy water that I picked up from a volunteer table. I get in line for the first of many porta-potty stops. A friendly woman from some Southern state chats me up in line, telling me she'll be running the half today. She's finished with full marathons now, she says, she likes to stop before things get too painful. Nice pep talk, lady. As if I needed to hear that now. Still, it shows the camaraderie between runners, akin to what can be found in dank bar smoking alleys. We're here for the same reason. Something is connecting us. An appetite for punishment.
Looking in any direction, the packed mob is almost beautiful. Someone points, and I see silhouettes in the tall apartment windows above. Both families and lone figures, stand in their pajamas by their living room lamp light. Some snap pictures of us below, some sip from mugs, others just lean and watch.
I stretch, and get into line for the bathroom again the moment I exit. I watch groups take pre-race selfies on their phones, and listen to the announcer bellow through the downtown blocks. Since the run is sponsored by Nike, I'm not surprised by the constant commercialism and cheesey announcements. "Today! 30,000 women, and a few good men, MAKE HISTORY on these streets!" Fire works shoot from the start a few blocks ahead at Union Square, but the front is reserved for the elite runners. My pace group won't start for nearly 30 minutes as we slowly edge toward the banners at Union Square. I duck into a side street porta-potty just before crossing for one last system cleaner. I should mention now, that my regularity has failed me, and I have yet to rid myself of last nights dinner. Maybe it's my nerves, maybe it's too fuggin early, or maybe my life will just never quite go according to plan.
The sky is just beginning to lighten as our pace crowd begins. I try to remember to hold back, saving energy for the last 6 miles. It's common for your rushing adrenaline to kick you in with the crowd, expending your energy beyond your abilities, leaving you spent for the oh-so-important last 10 k of the marathon.
The last 10 k of the marathon. This is what people talk about. There's a reason typical training plans don't take you much beyond 20 miles. Up to 20 miles is what your body needs to prepare. Beyond 20, the damage overtakes to benefit. Beyond 20 miles, funny things happen inside you that require weeks to recover from. At 20 miles, they say, is when the race really begins. Fauja Singh, a man who began running marathons in his 90s after his wife and son died, said the first 20 are easy, but during those last 6 miles, "I run while talking to God." I worry I won't have what it takes to finish without stopping, crashing, or slowing to a hobble. I'm not sure if failure will be a testament to my fitness, or character. I just know that a run to be proud of will mean the world to me.
The sun starts to rise by mile 3, and this is when my stomach first gurgles. Shit. Literally. It's coming. My legs feel strong, and I dial back the pace to something I can hang with for hours, but I can't control my intestines. The urge is still faint when I pass rows of green plastic stalls, and the lines are so backed up with women already, that I run on, expecting more in a mile or two. There are not. I start to run the mental math on my pace goal, and how many miles I can hold it.
I hadn't been running as fast as I had through the winter. As my runs lengthened through the summer, so did my minutes per mile. I had settled on a humble finish goal of 4:45. Under five hours, or I would hang my head in shame, four and a half if the gods were smiling. 4:30 is an average overall pace. 5 hours for women. I would need to finish in 3:40 to qualify for Boston. I don't even bother to put pressure like that on myself. Jared the Subway guy finished in 5:13. Oprah in 4:29, P Diddy in 4:14. Sub 3 is a life time goal for many runners. The world records have never dipped below 2 hours. Running my own numbers, I think I can hold back the sour wave for another 3 miles, or thirty minutes. I'm gonna need to see a bank of intestinal grace by mile 6.
I don't see it til mile 9.
I burst into a stall, water strapped to one hand- quickly peeling moist spandex from my cheeks and thighs before relief rushes in noisy exclamation. I'm sorry. Really, I am. It's a part of my story.
The short stop sets me back, adding precious minutes to my time. More importantly though, any pause in your run causes cramping and stiffness, making the whole endeavor ever so much harder.
At the water and nutrition stands, I duck around the more amateur runners who stop suddenly without checking, causing traffic jams and shoulder checks. I skip the food, and gracefully grab water cups without pause like a pro. I concentrate on each 5 mile interval, slowly chewing away at this mammoth, digesting each small assignment on it's own before mentally moving to the next. At 13.1 miles, we've entered Golden Gate park, and the paths diverge. The half marathoners merge right for their big finish, as the rest of us move forward into the forest lane curving into the fog. The number of runners ahead of me suddenly sparse- I get a full body chill as I climb a hill into the mist, no one beside me anymore.
It might be the second brownie bite I cough down at mile 6, but I think I start to feel that heavenly ecstasy as I keep my legs in rhythm through the wooded path. I get pretty emo-Katie at this point, losing myself in thoughts of hopes and regret. Things start to sharply focus however, when Aunt Jane's roasted chicken starts to murmur again, and I realize, I still might crap my pants.
I hold the gates til mile 18, and flush myself again before I suck an energy gel, and gear up for the daunting task of those last six miles. My knees are starting to sear, and every tight curve and switch back tears and grinds my joints in pain. The woman's words from this morning repeat, "I'm finished with full marathons now. I like to stop before it gets too painful." I shuffle forward, my mantra that I can't complain yet, because the hardest part is yet to come, on repeat, almost out loud. In fact, since I keep telling myself that it was about to get so much harder, it never really feels that bad. I certainly never consider stopping. I pass injured runners, limping to barely a walk, and I begin to feel strong. Passing mile markers announcing 23, 24, 25 miles, I think, "Holy crap. You did this," and the adrenaline from mile 1 returns. The horns and cheers start to call from the finish line, and I begin a sprint as I pass my mother on the left, calling my name.
As I cross the padded chip recorder under a giant Nike banner, my body shocks me again. Now, I know I'm one of hundreds of thousands to have run a marathon, and after watching a friend with spina bifida run three half marathons on arm braces in as many weeks, I know I'm not exactly curing cancer over here. I'm not even going to get in to ultra runners, I want to hang on to a shred of this pride. I didn't think I held that much emotion over this trivial thing that so many people do, but I suddenly feel tears trailing from my already salty face anyway. It's been a rough year, but I did a good thing.
Mom rushes to find me in the finishers corral, and later ices my knees and feeds me Motrin, telling me that she is just. So. Proud.
I'm not planning on leading a marathoner's lifestyle, but I want to do many more. This feels too good. Maybe I can enter foreign races when I travel (see
"Let the Chips Fall"). Bangkok has one. Maybe someday I can run the legendary route Philipedies first did, from the battlegrounds of Marathon to the courts in Athens. The story says he dropped dead after that. You wanna do it now too, huh.
Mom and I find the computers with runner stats, enter my bib number, and read my race time. 4:13. I beat P. Diddy.
"There will be days you don't think you can run a marathon. There will be a lifetime of knowing you have." -Unknown