(Warning: this isn’t a funny post. It is lengthy and detailed. Read at your own risk but perhaps get a cup of tea or something first.)
I’ve spent hours trying to come up with the words to write about the experience of running my first ever full marathon yesterday. I’m a writer and I’m supposed to know how to use words so that they say what I’m thinking but I’ve rarely felt as lost for words as I feel right now. So I’ve decided to just sit here and spill onto the WordPress dashboard whatever comes to my mind about that day, regardless of whether it makes much sense or not. I just want a record of it, for my own sake, even if I can’t translate my feelings into words in any language. Just assume that whatever you get from what I write, it is like one of those sachets of powdered juice that have had way too much water added to it. The reality is an undetermined number of times stronger than what I can describe.
On Sunday, just before lunchtime, I became a marathoner. It went right up there to the list of biggest achievements of my life.
I’ve been asked “how’d it go?” a lot in the last few hours. Possibly the hardest question I’ve been asked in a long time (since I chose social sciences and stopped having math classes in school, probably). I don’t know, you guys. I want to say “it went great” because I finished but I also want to tell you about how I had moments of pain (physical and mental) that I thought would be beyond my abilities to overcome (so, in that sense, not so great). It was horrible and amazing and painful and joyful and brilliant and terrifying and exhausting and energising and every other adjective in the OED. It was like a whole lot of emotions that you’re supposed to feel over a long period of time (days, months, years) all condensed in a few hours. I laughed, I cried, I felt worried, relaxed, tired, distracted, focused, happy, sad, and all the other emotions in between. I took my body and my mind to a limit that I wasn’t sure they could take it and I crushed the voice in my head that kept telling me to stop. That I didn’t have to do that. That no one needed to choose to be in pain. That I could just go to a bakery and go sit by the beach with a donut instead. That’s what I wanted, a donut. Why the hell was I not sitting down eating a donut?
Because I wanted to be a marathoner more than I wanted a donut (and that’s saying something because I really freaking love donuts).
I won’t lie to you: I was scared shitless. Just freaking terrified. I went through the week before with my “no big deal” face on about the Cold of Doom but I lost hours of sleep worrying about my weaker-than-average lungs. I wondered whether I was just being stubborn and irresponsible for putting myself through the marathon right after (still during?) the worst cold I’ve had in years. I didn’t want to get sicker. But, most of all, I didn’t want to give up.
On Saturday, after getting to the hotel, I laid all my running gear on a spare bed in the room, ready for the 5AM start the next morning. We’d been given the chance to start at 6:30AM, with the marathon walkers, so a few of us runners chose to do that. I knew I’d be slow and I couldn’t see a reason not to start an hour earlier and get it out of the way. The alarm went off at exactly 5AM and I took about 0.03 seconds to jump out of bed. I had a muesli bar, half a banana and cheap instant coffee from the hotel. I got ready in between numerous toilet breaks. My stomach hurt with anticipation. I got a text from Stacey telling me it was raining outside. Crap, I hadn’t even thought about that possibility. I blocked it off my mind. “You’re not giving up because water’s falling off the sky, you idiot.”
At 6:30AM, we lined up at the start line. It wasn’t raining there. A runner asked us if it was our first marathon and our positive answer was received with a look that translated into “you have no idea what you’re getting yourselves into”. “Please don’t scare me,” I told the lady. “But you’ve done half marathons, right?”. “Yes.” “Oh, you’ll be fine then.” I freaking hope so. The guy with the shotgun (yes, an actual shotgun to start off the race), pointed it up to the dark sky and yelled that we had 20 seconds to go. Oh boy, I needed the toilet again. The shotgun went off and the fright made me jump even though I totally knew it was coming. And then we started running. That was it, we were on our way.
Some of us carried torches because it was still pitch black. A few minutes later, it started raining. It rained until around the 10km mark. The sun started to come up but the clouds weren’t letting much light come through. I was freezing. I didn’t have my iPod on because I wanted to be as alert as possible. It was dark and the road was open to traffic. I just kept putting one foot in front of the other trying not to think about how long I had to go, because I knew the number was overwhelmingly big. I told myself I was just going to go to the halfway mark, where I knew my wonderful support crew would start popping up. I was going to run until I could see familiar faces, that was the goal. I’d figure the rest out later.
Eventually, the sky cleared up and the rain clouds were replaced with a blazing sun. It was like running in different seasons. The sun was burning my head (and I now have a sunburned scalp to prove it). It made me almost miss the rain. I put my iPod on and tried not to think about what I was doing and all the things that were making me feel uncomfortable. The backpack bouncing up and down (and I have a couple of burn marks from that too), the wet clothes, the congested nose. Luckily, I managed to store that all in the back of my mind. By the time I saw the 14km sign, I was loving it. I loved it and then loved it some more and, at 20km, I spotted my friends for the first time. They had taken the nearly 5 hour drive from Auckland just to cheer me on and, even though I much prefer when they meet me for dinner and I’m not sweating through every pore, I couldn’t have been happier to see them right then and there. I knew I was almost halfway and I started thinking about walking but I saw them and didn’t want to walk in front of them so I gathered the strength to keep on running.
The finish line of all of my longest road runs had turned into my halfway point and I was ecstatic to realise I could keep on going. At the 22km mark, however, I decided to walk a few meters, just to mentally reset and get myself ready to run the rest of the way. I took maybe a dozen walking steps and then decided to run when my knee cap felt like it had popped out of place, making me scream with pain. A spectator came from the other side of the road to help me out. I had ice spray on my backpack and she got it out and sprayed it on my knee. I walked a bit longer and, 100m or so later, picked up a slow running pace again. But I was in pain. A whole lot of pain. My knee was sending me a clear message that I really should stop. I was responding back that I hadn’t gone all this way to now give it all up because of a stubborn knee. We had this argument for a whole 20km, in a run/walk negotiation that ended up lasting longer than I had anticipated, interrupted by pauses to put the knee brace on and re-apply ice spray. I know for a fact that I could not have kept running if I hadn’t had my knee brace on me, which makes me really thankful I ran with a backpack that was so well stocked it gave the idea I was going camping.
The last 20km weren’t as pleasant as the first 22km but my exhaustion grew directly proportional to my excitement to finish. I questioned my ability to finish for a couple of kilometers and tried to assess whether the pain on my knee was something that I should really worry about. In the end, I decided to truly take it one step at a time and not worry about anything more than the road immediately ahead of me. Painful step after painful step, I ran my way to the 30km marker, being cheered by my wonderful crew at different spots along the way. I grew mentally stronger as time went by, because I knew that each step taken was one step less that I’d have to take to reach my goal.
Eventually, I switched from taking it one step at a time to one kilometer at a time. I told myself to re-assess the knee pain at every kilometer marker and gave myself permission to give up if I thought I was causing permanent damage. “There’ll be more marathons,” I thought. But there was also this one, right now, and I was mentally strong like I hadn’t been before and I didn’t want to waste that. So every kilometer marked the decision to run one more. And then one more. And then one more. At 35km, I had 7km to go. I told myself that 7km was something I could do before breakfast so there would be really no excuse to give up now. I bargained with myself “get to 5km to go and we can worry about the knee again”. And then there were 5km to go. I kept switching between running and walking and using the ice spray along the way. The extra pressure caused by the knee pain was getting the rest of my body extra tired too. I tried to focus on the music. I even tried to quietly sing along, hoping that’d take me somewhere else.
With a mere 4 kilometers to go, things got messy inside my head. I was exhausted, drained out. I wanted it done. I started thinking about the things I’d been told by people who’d done this before. Kim Allan, an experienced ultramarathoner, told me to “smile through the pain” so I repeated that out loud to myself a few times, like a mantra. Then I tried to actually do it, I tried to smile. I figured if I could fake a smile, maybe it’d turn into a real one. But boy, I was knackered. And not the “that was a tough day at work” kind of knackered, more like the “I just want to sit here and not move forever” kind. I wanted to see my friends again but they had all headed down to wait for me at the finish line. I needed something else. So I took the tough love approach with myself and thought about how I really shouldn’t be such a wuss. I got emotional in a sappy gooey way. I thought about my life and how truly wonderful it is, how I have a job and I have my health and my family and friends, how I get to travel and explore the world and do the things I always wished I’d do. I thought about my mum and dad and their daily struggle with circumstances they didn’t choose to be put through. I thought ‘if mum and dad can get through each day, you can get your stupid legs to keep moving”. And so I kept moving, my brain in a puddle, thinking about how I could have it so much harder and this was nothing compared to what other people go through. “Smile through the pain” got replaced with “stop being such a freaking baby”, which I said out loud a couple of times.
As I was busy working my way out of those bad thoughts, I spotted the 40km marker. That was all I needed to see. For some reason, 40 seems like a much bigger number than 39. I had run 30+ kilometers before but I had never reached 40 in my life. I had a “holy shit, these legs just ran 40km on their own!” moment and my fake smile turned into a big genuine one. I had 2 tiny little kilometers to go. I was happy. And so I ran. And ran. And ran. I turned down the last street to see the park where the finish line was, right at the end. I wanted to walk a few steps, my knee was complaining again. I walked maybe five steps and a girl came up from behind and told me to keep pushing through. I wanted to tell her she didn’t know how much pain I was in but the voice inside my head reminded me to “stop being such a freaking baby” and so I went back to running pace with her.
It wasn’t long before I spotted familiar faces again and they started trying to make their way to the finish line before me. “I don’t mind slowing down for you guys,” I told them, only half-jokingly. Then I looked ahead and there it was, in the distance: “FINISH” in big bold font. There’s no giving up now. I ran the happiest meters of my life towards that finish line, could not have stopped smiling if I had tried, my mind in a mess of emotions, barely able to believe I was going to be allowed to stop.
Maybe one day I’ll get to a point where marathons aren’t such a huge deal. This one was my very first one, though, and it’ll forever have a special place in my heart. It was the first time I realised I could do it. The girl who hated PE in school, the girl who struggled with TB as a kid and had weak lungs thanks to that, had just become a marathoner.
A friend who has run a marathon before told me a couple of days before that I was about to discover an overwhelming sense of possibility, like nothing could stop me from doing whatever I wanted. That stupid knee couldn’t stop me and neither could exhaustion so I guess she may very well have a point.
Ever since I crossed that finish line, over 30 hours ago, I’ve been the happiest I’d been in a long time. Feeling proud of myself is sort of a rare thing for me, because I’m one of those “too hard on myself” types and always think I could have done better. Yesterday, however, I left my heart on those roads and now I’m just enjoying this weird feeling of complete satisfaction.
I’m a marathoner now and I’m never not going to be a marathoner again. I think this is what they call life-changing.