Joe dropped us at the start somewhere around 7 AM and we faded into the crowd of spectators and runners as he drove away. “Good luck, you’ll do great, see you later.”
The day before had been a mess; dirty hotel room, complaint, refund, last minute scrambling for a new room – all worth it, as we ended up with an ocean view in a place built in 1800-something and the feeling that we were spending the night at our grandparents’ place, complete with blueberry muffins and oranges waiting for us in the lobby. Some more scrambling had us eating dinner in an Applebee’s a town away at 8 PM when we should have been stretching and settling in for the night, but after one pre-celebratory beer and a belly full of pasta my nerves had somewhat calmed and all three of us were laughing and making plans for the morning.
The alarms sounded like battle cries in our tiny room at 5 AM and I rolled out of bed, rubbing the spots from my eyes as she flicked on one of the lamps. “Here we go,” I whispered, and wasted no time making my way to my suitcase, rummaging for sports bra, socks, deodorant, toothbrush. I turned on Pandora. We looked at each other and laughed. I spread peanut butter on two wheat bagels and she got out the Gatorade. An hour later we were on our way.
The dog barked at traffic and I left a tiny piece of bagel on the dash, claiming I was too full to finish. One left turn was all we needed to get to the start and in those ten minutes we moved like a DMV line.
Joe gone, inside we joined the other runners scattered around the large room where the expo had been the day before, stretching, chatting, sleeping. I rubbed my bare arms and continued to feel out of place until 7:45, when others began to shed their top layers revealing arms, legs, hands. I breathed out.
“Your first marathon? Awesome.” A third-time marathoner with purple hair and a braid hanging down the middle of his back made conversation as we finished up. “You’ll be fine. The guy who won Boston last year walked EVERY water stop.” I stood a little straighter.
“We’re filling the corrals now,” called a volunteer. “You girls might want to start lining up.”
Ten minutes later music was filling our ears and we were squeezing into position among the others. My friend let out some sort of yelp and I questioned it before realizing it was nervousness, excitement escaping her.
The layers were still being peeled off through mile one, tossed onto the grass or the pavement. The herd was still knit tight and only the pounding of human hooves could be heard against the asphalt. “Here we go,” one of us said again.
High-fives, cheering crowds, music. Spirits were high and breathing was low, steady. The chill in the air had long faded.
She had been nursing a knee injury throughout training and it started to growl as we warmed up. The herd was thinning now and with it the distance between us was growing. “If you can go, then go,” we had decided early on. She was pushing through.
I found myself in another group then, the thick sounds of panting behind me and in front of me. A woman to my right was starting to lose momentum and an older man appeared beside her. “It’ll change your life,” he said. “When you’re done, go home, get out your dictionary and turn to the page with the word ‘cancer’. Read the definition. Then rip that page out. You won’t be needing it anymore.”
I wasn’t sure if this really applied to her. I didn’t ask.
“The best advice I ever received was during my first marathon,” he went on. “I spoke with a woman on the course who told me, ‘When you reach 13.1 and they tell you you’re halfway there, don’t believe them. When you’ve reached 20 miles, that’s when you’re halfway’.”
A man to my left looked at me and I smiled. “That’s the best thing I’ve ever heard,” I said to the older man. “And I’m going to remember as much of it as I can.”
Things started dragging somewhere in between there and the finish. Uneven pavement and sun blinded my vision and the stops for Gatorade or half a banana were becoming more and more welcome.
At Mile 20 the pain started. It was everywhere: toes, groin, arms. The backs of my calves screamed. I was stretching again and looking down to check for blood seeping through the toes of my shoes. I was praying for ten intact nails. Mile 23 and things got quiet and I hoped for one more drink stop.
“You’re doing great,” a man said over the roar of the crowd, whole and beside us now. “Thanks,” I panted. I saw something up ahead, the ocean to my left, people to my right. “Is that the finish?” I asked. “Yep, that yellow flag,” he panted back. I don’t know if he went on. I was already gone.
It’s interesting, the way the body kicks up again when it knows rest is near. That flag was my heaven and suddenly I was pumping my arms and legs; the pain had melted into the concrete and only wind and sea and salt and the sweet, sweet taste of finish lay in front of me.
There was a “congratulations,” a hand shake, a bottle of water and a medal shoved in my direction. I mustered multiple “thanks” and floated through people and cameras looking for Joe or just a place to sit, I wasn’t sure. I remembered my phone and pulled it from my SPIbelt.
“Hello??” His voice was urgent, somehow surprised I could speak. Neither one of us had known what to expect.
“Where are you?” Less panting now.
When we met I was already chomping on a pretzel. The dog looked up at me, as dazed as I was. We hugged and that’s when the tears started; they had nothing to do with the pain, because the pain didn’t matter. Those tears were layers of me leaping to a long awaited fate. The questions of my capability had been stomped out: Can you? Yes. Will you? I already did. Will you do it again? You bet your ass.
The same old routine followed me to the mirror Monday morning – too fat, too thin, one too many freckles. But this time something else followed me, too. Something sparkling new, something profound. Strength. Suddenly the voices in my head didn’t stop at “fix this”. This time another voice rose up. “You are remarkable,” it said. “And don’t you forget it.”
All those weeks, all those aches had been rolled up and tucked neatly into four hours and thirty-four minutes. It was amazing, seeing three thousand smiling faces limping up and down ocean views. Runners are a special sort of kind, and I am proud to be one.
So…when’s the next one?