Running is the greatest metaphor for life, because you get out of it what you put into it.
I think Oprah should have stopped at the first part of this quote. Running is the greatest metaphor for life. Period. Running shows me my life on a 360-degree, gigantic rotating movie screen in full HD resolution with vibrant color. My training runs are old films. My races are unwritten stories.
When I am awake, I meet the Universe on the course – I breathe her in and my entire Self is flooded with some unseen electric energy that undoubtedly comes from a power greater than myself. The smells, the colors, the fresh air… they all rush through me together with every blissful breath. And I am changed. I am bettered. I am alive, and I know that I am.
I think I slept through most of the Marine Corps Marathon.
I dressed in the dark and rode the metro with thousands of others to Rosslyn to find Charity Village. It was very, very cold, and we were bundled up in disposable layers trying not to think about our frozen parts.
The pre-dawn air was still quiet as we all mentally prepared for the long morning ahead. As we shuffled our feet across an icy bridge, I saw the orange glow of the rising sun behind the DC monuments, turning them into magnificent, familiar black shadows against the sky. I was oddly comforted by that.
Charity Village was a muddy mess, and I felt my prissy little girl protecting her new running shoes from the goo at all costs. It was like finger-painting all over again – yuck. It was probably during this time that I began to enter Survival Mode. I found a port-a-pot and then we headed down towards the starting line, which was facing us, so I had quite a walk before I finally located the corral for a 5-hour finish time. I squeezed in next to a young guy wearing Vibrams and khaki shorts and a tiny Asian girl who looked like she was freezing to death. I sort of remember the gun going off, but it was anti-climactic, since we still had a good 10-minute delay until we were able to cross the start line and start jogging. The tension was incredible.
I ran unconsciously. The sights and sounds of nature were interrupted with throngs of huffing runners and cheering spectators. Thousands of feet hit the pavement over and over and over again and drowned out birds and the blessed quiet. I was in a foreign land.
I was on pace to hit my time goal for the first 11 miles. The route was hilly (I do remember that – and a lot of friends complained about it later), but I did not feel impacted at all.
I scanned the crowds for some girlfriends at mile 2, but all I saw were unfamiliar faces. At mile 3, I heard someone screaming my name, and turned just in time to see my best friend and another girl (also a marathoner) waving frantically to me from the street. I snapped out of my stupor and felt warm and happy and loved. “You got this,” I told myself. I waved back and trudged on, saving precious energy for the final four.
I had to go to the bathroom early on, but I know from my training runs that sometimes the urge can be suppressed with a distance run, so I just held it and hoped for the best. The port-a-pot lines were long, and I didn’t want to have to stop so soon. I enviously watched men stop along the side of the road, do their business, and jump back into the crowd. It seemed like we were on a wooded road forever, and I saw some women jumping off into the bushes. I decided I would be much happier if I could stop worrying about my bladder, and I joined them.
“Is this the girls’ section?” I asked.
They laughed and nodded, and we all squatted there together in the trees, feeling no shame whatsoever about our animal behavior. I pulled up my shorts and hauled ass back into the mass.
I vaguely remember coming to a small town and seeing familiar buildings. Eventually, I recognized it as Georgetown and recalled various previous adventures to this iconic place which all seemed like a lifetime ago.
The head fog returned for a few miles, and then, without warning, both of my knees started hurting like hell. After my initial “oh shit” reaction, I had to figure out how to manage the next 15.2 miles. Would I create a permanent injury by continuing? Would I be able to run at all? Then, more “oh shit, oh shit, oh shit…”
The miles began to get longer. I remember thousands of faces – coats, hats, scarves – signs and waving gloved hands… then they would all disappear and it was just the sound of the feet again. Around the 13-mile mark, the runners started to thin out a bit, and lots of people were stopped at the side of the road stretching. Was I supposed to do that? I didn’t know… Keep going…
“Whose idea was this? I’m never doing this again… There is no way I can finish…”
I don’t remember when I saw him the first time, but the second time was at mile 18, he says. I stopped for a quick second and cried that my knees were broken. I was devastated that I wouldn’t make my goal time. He asked me if I wanted to finish. I’m pretty sure I rolled my eyes at him and kept going. He caught me again at mile 19, and I was running with a smile. I had a second wind.
I have a vivid memory of wanting to flip off people who were screaming, “You’ve got this!” I wanted to scream back and say, “Fuck you. You don’t know shit. Stop standing around and give it a try.”
Eventually, my anger yielded to extreme appreciation, and I found myself whispering “thank you,” under my breath for every smile, for every sign, and for every darling child with an outstretched hand waiting excitedly for a touch.
I remember one brief moment when the Capitol loomed large and magnificent right in front of us – the rest, I couldn’t tell ya. The only things I remember about the National Mall were all the people and the rows of trees with gorgeous Fall color.
We hit Crystal City around mile 24, I think. It was one of the two times during the race that the course looped back on itself, and we could see the runners in front of us going in the opposite direction. I wanted to hop the line and join them. That’s when it seemed like it would never ever end. He says he saw me there – that he screamed my name – and I just kept running along in my own little world. Brightly colored flags lined the streets, along with cheering throngs, and I knew we were almost there. Keep going.
One more quiet section of road, and then I heard the announcer. The final hill. I mustered up everything inside of me and took it without consequence – I only know it was a hill because I saw the road incline, but I did not feel the challenge of it at all. Numb. The music volume grew. The announcer was blabbering about the people in front of me, I think, who had raced onto the course to finish with their loved one. “Please do not finish if you don’t have a bib. Please leave the course.” My eyes suddenly focused on the huge air-filled red arch across the road that signified the finish line. I pushed forward, raised both hands in the air, and gave a loud, “woo hoo” as I crossed the mat.
I did it.
I thought I would cry. I didn’t.
We moved forward on auto-pilot and a Marine handed me a mylar blanket. “Where’s my medal?” I thought. Ahh… it was next.
The line shuffled through photo ops and snacks. One Marine asked me, “How’re ya doin’? You okay?”
“Not really,” I whined.
He looked me straight in the eye, scanned my face and my body, and said, “Well, you look great – your makeup isn’t even smudged. You look good!” God bless you, Unknown Soldier.
I made my way back to the mucky Charity Village to meet my loved ones. They were glowing and supportive and all of the things that we long to have around us when we feel vulnerable and tired. I received a second medal from my hosting charity – the Organization for Autism Research, and then we drove to the Metro 29 Diner in Arlington for more post-race chit-chat.
When I finally limped “home” that evening, I emptied the water heater with a steaming hot shower, obediently took the four Advil given to me, and crawled into bed for eleven hours of blissful sleep. By the next morning, I had my legs back without a trace of marathon-running evidence.
But I have a medal… and a picture. I guess I did it.