Tales of an Unlikely Marathoner

Before 2015, I completed three full and three half marathons. That’s pretty good for someone who doesn’t particularly enjoy running. I mean, I kind of hate it while it’s happening. But I love the discipline of it, and afterwards, I feel great. And accomplished. And justified eating a burrito. None of my finisher medals were from the New York City Marathon though — widely considered to be one of the greatest marathons in the world and my hometown race.

I’d put my name in the lottery several times and actually got in for the 2001 NYC Marathon, but an injury prevented me from participating. Luckily fourteen years later, I got another chance to conquer the experience at the top of my bucket list.

Training for a marathon is an incredibly intense experience that takes over your life. If you’ve ever trained for any kind of race, you know what I’m talking about. I was determined to take this training very seriously, especially because I didn’t have the benefit of a local training group running the same mileage.

My amazing LA Leggers pace group, 2014

When I ran the Chicago Marathon in 2000, I trained with the AidsMarathon, who provided pace groups and incredible support. And for LA in 2014, well, I had my beloved LA Leggers. The Leggers are a very special group of dedicated runners who are at all different paces and speeds — I love them.

Since I was living in Los Angeles and training for New York, I signed up for the virtual marathon trainer that the New York Road Runners offer. The trainer mapped out all of the mileage I would need to accrue each week, along with target pacing and different running strategies (intervals, fartlek, hills, etc.). I also splurged and paid for the upgrade to have a live coach who I could email with questions. I was assigned to dreamy Coach John. Every time his profile picture popped up in my inbox, it was a good day. Anyway…

I originally started running in 2000 in response to an accident a friend had when we were cycling in Mexico. Until that moment I loved biking, and I’d finished a handful of century rides. But Jenny’s accident freaked me out so much that I basically haven’t been on a bike since. Thankfully, she was fine, but I decided then and there that I wanted to have my feet on the ground.

That’s the more logical reason for why I took up running. Emotionally, I needed something intense like training for a marathon to take my mind off the fact — even for just an hour here and there — that my mom had just died.

Running not only became a form of therapy, but it constantly reminded me to be grateful for my health — mental and physical.

There will be more about the effect my mom’s mental illness and death have had on me in other stories. It’s too big to tackle now. And to be accurate to this point in history, it was impossible for me to talk about her death when it happened. So I’ll do the same thing here that I did then. Run.

My first marathon, Chicago 2000

I’m not the kind of person who can just go for a jog. Life would be so much easier if I was. No, I need the fear of a hard core goal like a marathon to motivate me. So, my running career started big in Chicago. I certainly didn’t break any records in this first marathon, but I did have several wonderful friends at the finish line with me, and I got hooked on the sense of accomplishment, to the discipline and the adrenaline of the training.

After several years of dedicated running, I hurt my back and had to give it up. I was devastated and struggled to find another exercise that could help me in all the same ways. It was hard because I was also terrified of hurting my back again; unconsciously I started walking awkwardly (think: old man), not moving my hips. Of course, that was actually doing more damage. My back only stiffened and got worse. I didn’t start feeling better until I finally started doing yoga. Then I got into Pilates. I loved both but I still needed to run.

It was only when one of my best friends from grade and high school, Athena, started running half marathons years later that I thought maybe I should try it again. Maybe enough time had passed and enough yoga had healed me. I also remember thinking: if she can do it, so can I! And I’m forever grateful to her for that push. I spontaneously joined the LA Leggers, didn’t have any back pain, and I was in the game again. Touch wood, I haven’t had back pain since.

img_4164Training for New York, I felt a different kind of pressure. It’s my home. The city that raised me. I wanted to do well. I wanted to feel more like a real athlete than an accidental one. I dedicated myself wholly to the training. Running anywhere from 15-30 miles per week. I’d go to bed early, get up early… I was always hungry, always having to eat something. I couldn’t drink anything but water and coffee. My whole social life had to change, and I was okay with that.

I felt great until we got to the 18-mile training run. For that I participated in a Tune Up run in NYC — three loops around Central Park. I felt fantastic and fast. I thought, hell yes, I’ve got this. I was elated. But the next day, my hip hurt. Then my knee. I ignored the pain. I stretched. I foam rolled. I kept training. But it was getting bad. For my 20-mile training run, I could barely do it. I usually walk some, but now I walked a lot. I even limped. My knee just wouldn’t support me. I was waiting for my back to hurt, but thankfully it never did.

I emailed dreamy Coach John and he said to rest. At this point, all my training was actually done. An orthopedist agreed and said it was a hip strain — of course, the orthopedist also told me I should consider deferring my place in the NYC Marathon to the following year.

My heart sank. Tears welled up in my eyes. I’d trained SO HARD. How could I give that up and start again next year? I just couldn’t imagine doing that. So I rested and went to NYC as planned.

The first bridge of the NYC Marathon... the VerrazanoThe energy in NYC for the Marathon is extraordinary, as streets are getting blocked off and thousands upon thousands of people flood into the city.

I got up before dawn on race day and trekked out to Staten Island like 49,999 other runners. On the ferry from Manhattan, the air is full of anxiety, glee, fear… strangers trading training stories or talking about where in the world they’re from. I rode with a woman from Chicago. I can’t even remember what we talked about — I was too nervous to actually process any conversation, randomly worried if I was going to get too hot or too cold along the course.

In the runners’ village on Staten Island, you have no choice but to stare at the long Verrazano Bridge. It’s the first of five bridges you’ll conquer, and it’s horribly intimidating. Announcements about where to go for your corral are made in English, French, Spanish, Italian… People are drinking Gatorade and Dunkin Donuts coffee. I was just looking around, trying to take it all in… and not freak out.

Waiting to start.I was in the last wave, which meant I got to watch other runners go over the bridge first. We all cheered from the ground, knowing that shortly we’d be the ones up there.

In a brilliant tradition, each wave starts with a canon blast and Frank Sinatra singing “New York, New York.” I dare you not to cry in this moment.

We were off. Emotions were all over the map, and I was feeling pretty good, taking it slow. But I made a couple of critical mistakes. The audio wasn’t set right on my pacer app, so I kept missing my intervals. And my newish shoes were hurting me (I hadn’t put enough mileage on them beforehand because of the rest period).

Thankfully though, I was able to charge my way through the first 13 miles solely on adrenaline. The crowds that cheer you on in the NYC Marathon are unreal. Strangers five-deep yelling your name, offering high fives, telling you you’re awesome and that you can do this. And then there were my incredible friends and family. I’m so mad at myself for not having pictures of everyone — I just couldn’t think straight.

By the time I got to my dad and step-mom at mile 16, I was in serious pain. I had to give them my hydration belt and everything I was carrying — my hip and knee just hurt too much. Even then, it was bad. I had to walk. I couldn’t run. My right leg simply wouldn’t lift properly.

Sunglasses at nightMessages coming in to my phone from Rome and Los Angeles helped keep me going. And knowing that I’d see friends in Harlem, my dad and step-mom again along Central Park, and more friends at the finish line… they are truly the only reason I made it to the end.

You can understand my commitment this way: for the last bunch of miles I was actually walking in the dark in my sunglasses (cue the Corey Hart track now) — I was going to finish that race no matter what. It just hadn’t occurred to me in prep that it could take so long I might need contacts or to ask someone to have my regular glasses for me. Lesson learned.

And I did finish. In the dark. And I went immediately to the medical tent. As I lay there on a hospital cot in sunglasses with my legs wrapped in ice, a medal around my neck, drinking broth for hydration, I was apparently ranting that I’m fine, I’m fine… Of course, I was, sort of. Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Didn’t Lose.

For the run itself, it was absolutely not the race I wanted to have. I was so disappointed, but the experience that New York City and my friends and family created for me was absolutely priceless — that day, the city that raised me actually carried me home.

When I took my medal to finisher’s expo the next day to get it engraved, I asked if I had to put my time; couldn’t I put a word in that slot instead? They thankfully obliged, and I love it: YES, it took time to finish, but I got there.

Will I ever run another full marathon? I’m not sure. Athena and I ran the NYC Half together in March, and it was great — the hip and knee are all better. I was thinking halfs and 10k’s and 5k’s might be the way forward for me, but as I write about this experience, it makes me want to take on another marathon.

I’d thought after NYC that I didn’t need to do that one again, but maybe I do. I know the pitfalls now and understand the course. Maybe in 2018. We shall see, never say never — or as Corey Hart would say, Never Surrender.