My First Marathon (warning: NOT a success story)
I have been a runner since Santa brought me my first pair of proper runners and track suit in grade two. In case you are wondering, Santa wasn’t trying to rid me of my baby fat, I had actually asked for them, at the very top of my list. My friends were all about dolls, I was all about two feet and a heartbeat.
From that first run (incidentally, down the street to A&W, where I rewarded myself with a baby rootbeer), I was addicted to endorphins as though they were crack cocaine. And luckily runners bear no track marks, just ugly feet; sandals can be a problem when your toenails are missing.
Running came easily to me, unlike math, and I continued to run throughout Junior High and High School – it was great for improving fitness for other sports, plus you could get about three days off school per track meet, if you signed up for the right events. It turned out I liked lazing around and sunning myself on the track as much as running on it; it was all good.
It was only natural, once I graduated from university, moved across the country, got a real job in the real world, and got married, that I would finally train for a marathon, that pinnacle of achievement for anyone who refused to use the term “jog” and who knew the difference between a kilometer and a mile. Aside from coming out of nowhere to win the Boston Marathon (or taking the subway in the middle of it and then pretending to win it), how else is the casual runner to experience moments of glory? And who doesn’t need those?
I bought a book and joined a running group in one foul swoop. I was going to do this right, and give my marathon experience its proper due, although if anyone could run a marathon surely that person was me (hello! I’ve only been running, like, my entire life!).
I took my training seriously, read the book cover to cover, and didn’t miss one Sunday morning long run, even making it to most speed workouts and interval training on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I ate well, hydrated myself, got plenty of rest, and listened to my body when it complained. When race day rolled around I was as prepared as I could possibly be, nothing could stop me from a successful race. I had this in the bag. I pictured myself sprinting effortlessly down the stretch, arms raised in my personal victory, enjoying my moment in the sun.
In actuality, the scene resembled a horror film much more than the romantic comedy I had envisioned.
For starters, it poured rain the entire race, and although it was May it could easily have passed for February. It was miserable, and my first (of many) mistakes was thinking that Mother Nature would actually listen to the optimistic sun dance I was conducting in my head. She didn’t, I underdressed, and there is nothing like being cold and wet for four hours, I learned that day.
The next mistake was reading that book, which told me to wake up at least a couple of hours before the race in order to hydrate. The year was 1997, and that was the popular belief at the time. Between the hours of 4:30 and 6:30 that morning I drank two liters of water. Dehydration was the dragon you had to slay, we thought; none of us (in our running group, anyway) had heard of hyponatremia, where your sodium levels get dangerously low should you ingest too much water.
Taking in calories through gels or bars was also news to us. I was starving at the halfway mark and curiously took a gel someone offered me and choked it down. In the last few miles I started taking everything any sticky fingered child was offering: a banana rolled in dirt, oranges with pebbles, anything that could possibly sustain me was game. (A shout out to every sticky fingered child who braved the route that day – I would not have finished but for them.)
My dreams of glory were replaced by the reality of me, water logged and freezing cold, stumbling towards the finish line which, despite it being less than a mile from where I lived, I could not recognize. It was not pretty, and resembled the agony of defeat much more than anything else. It was not a success; it was traumatizing.
So much for my cocksure attitude. To make matters worse, I could not step off a curb without an incredible amount of pain for the next month, and all of my toenails eventually fell off from that rainy day, providing me with an unwelcome reminder of the incredible pain I went through in those last few miles every time I glanced at my toes.
I hung up my hat, threw my medal in a box, and decided marathons were not for me.
But the postscript to this story, and the story I prefer to relate when I speak of this experience (which as you might guess is rarely) is this one:
My running partner for this marathon had never run a mile in her life before our first six mile training run. Not one mile. I was incredulous. She, too, followed our program religiously, determined to achieve this goal. And she unapologetically kicked my ass quite handily come race day. She was adamant that it was all in the mind, and if you put your mind to it, you could do anything you wanted.
I did get back on the horse eventually, and started running again. It was, after all, in my blood. I ran another marathon and had a finish much like the one I had envisioned that first time, but it took me thirteen years to work up my courage to do it.
In the interim, I thought a lot about the success my partner had that day because she never wavered from the idea that she could do it, and wondered how it was that my mind had come up so short. She was also underdressed, over-hydrated and hungry, yet had a fantastic run, said she felt like she was running on air. I mulled it over and over, berating myself for not performing that day.
I wish someone had counselled me a long time ago that every day is different – both in life and in marathons – and one bad experience does not an ex-runner make. But I now know a runner cannot plan their race, and on every starting line to expect the unexpected. And if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.