The sky shimmers, the buildings lurch, my eyes flutter. I have been running for hours. Running to the point where my sweat crystallizes, my eyelids burn, my body drags.
Everything becomes heavy. So so so heavy.
On the horizon, I spot the 20 mile marker: 6.2 miles to the finish line. Or 1 10k, 2 5ks, 6 1-mile repeats, 12 800’s, 24 400’s. Normally breaking races into smaller segments reassures me-- Ok, I’ve done five zillion 400s, 5 zillion 5ks, and 5 zillion races in my life. This is easy. This is nothing.
But this time, I put my head in my hands and shriek into my fingers:
“I DON’T WANT TO RUN ANYMORE. I DON’T WANT TO I DON’T WANT TO I DON’T WANT TO.”
For a long time, I used to laugh at people when they asked me if I’d run a marathon:
“Ha, me? Run that slow for that long? Make myself go through that much agony over that many miles?”
Because secretly, I thought running a marathon would slow me down. And I loved going fast. Still do. In college, my teammates used to joke that I was too much of a sprinter to be a true distance runner. I love that feeling when my brain shuts off, when everything streamlines.
When my legs lift higher, longer, farther. When my arms begin to pump at 90 degree angles. When the toes arch and the heels move back and the knees bend and the arms circle and the jaw loosens. For 10, 20, 30 seconds, I don’t think about anything else except letting myself go. Go go go. It is the closest I have ever felt to flying. To soaring. To feeling like the freest and the most powerful version of myself.
What I have learned over the years is that to run-- at whatever pace-- you have to let go. Let go of knots, anxieties, form, fear, yourself. And that is a lot harder in practice than in theory; a lot harder, it turns out, over 26.2 miles than 800 meters.
At mile 20, I toss one of my legs over the curb, spike a bag of snacks into the pavement, and burst out in a slew of profanities:
“I WANT TO BE F@!KING FINISHED! F@!KING DONE! I AM DONE WITH THIS GOD-D@!NED RACE!”
But 10 seconds into my temper tantrum, I have an intense, visceral, gut-realization: I have to finish. And I have to do it on my own.
This far into the race, I can’t run hoping that someone or something will come and presto!, save me. I can’t run hoping my words will carry me to the finish line. I can’t run hoping someone will appear, tug at my heartstrings, and propel me forward. Not my family, not my friends, not my coaches, not a fairy godmother, not a superhero-- this last part, these last 6.2 miles, isn’t for anyone else but myself.
And this sucks. It sucks because it feels like my legs are disjointing from their sockets. It sucks because I run out of water. It sucks because my stomach is rocked by nausea. It sucks because I am alone in the middle of a highway. It sucks because some asshole in a truck decides that it’s ok to honk his horn at me.
And it sucks because I almost cave to the voices in my head telling me that I have not trained hard enough, am not strong enough, am not worthy enough to cross the finish line.
That I am not enough.
At that moment, I open my eyes. Pick up the bag of snacks from the ground. Shove a pretzel in my mouth. Remember to breathe. And look up at the mile marker in front of me: 6.2 miles left.
Or 1 10k, 2 5ks, 6 1-mile repeats, 12 800’s, 24 400’s.
I dig past the complaining, the pain, the heat, the shame. I lock into the finish-- the end-- and wipe everything else from my mind. And continue. Go.
Go go go go go.
What feels like minutes and lifetimes later, I cross the finish line to a burst of celebration: “Congratulations runners!”
Someone drapes a medal over my head, someone else offers up their hand for a high five.
I take a few steps. My breath becomes haggard. My vision blurred. My hands grasp the air for water, oranges, bananas, other hands. I stumble a bit further, my hands reaching towards my face and coming away damp: Weird, there’s water coming down my face.
Worried faces move in and out in front of me, repeating the same question over and over again: “Are you ok?”
A few steps later, I collapse into the outstretched arms of a stranger, my head on their shoulders, my entire body heaving.
“It’s ok hon, you’ve just finished a whole marathon! You are incredible!” They rub their hands in circles along my back.
I nod, close my eyes, listen to my chest moving spastically in and out in arrhythmic breaths.
A part of me doesn’t believe this stranger’s words-- I am incredible. Incredible is walking on the moon or saving the world or creating masterpieces. Me, I am sunburnt, covered in dried sweat, can’t form coherent sentences-- the opposite of incredible. A wreck.
I try to calm my breath. Try to breathe in, then out. But the tears keep coming, keep going. My friend rushes over to me from the sidewalk, gives me a hug, whispers questions, hands me oranges. “I am sunburnt,” I keep telling him, “Sunburnt sunburnt sunburnt.”
He laughs, continues to plie me with oranges, and repeats the words of the finish line stranger, “You are incredible. Incredible incredible incredible.”
Hours after the race, I find myself in the hotel shower, peeled layers of clothing heaped on the floor. The shower water courses down my skin, salt-sweat cuts through my eyes. I grip the handicap bar, hoping my legs still have some amount of strength left in them to hold me up, to keep me standing.
Moments later, I shuffle out of the shower, gingerly lifting one foot, then the other, over the rim. I raise an arm and find deep oozing gashes streaking through my skin; I turn around, and the same marks singe across my lower back. Chafe marks. I shudder. Slather on some aloe. Yelp when the alcohol in the aloe gel burns through the rawness of my skin.
I look down at my feet for a split second, think I spot a small cranberry attached to the outside of a toe. Yelp again when I realize it’s a blood blister. Cowed, I put on my swimsuit, hobble to the elevator, down to the beach. Take off my sandals and try to glide through the white sand.
After 10 minutes, I manage to walk 10 feet. Everything screams. I’ve never felt my body yell out with so much pain and rebellion. Never felt as out of touch, out of control, with my body as I do now. I have pushed and moved and battered my body my entire life. That is what distance running is built on afterall.
But now I can’t take a single step without inhaling sharply, without sending out silent SOS signals to every deity, spirit, mentor, stranger and good luck talisman I know.
Yet weirdly, strangely, I am not throwing sand in a rage of frustration. Not bursting into hot snotty tears.
Not pummeling my fists against the ground.
As I trek through the sand watching the seagulls zoom overhead and the waves crash in front of me, weirdly, strangely, I feel calm. Content.
You are still standing, the voice inside my head keeps murmuring,
You are still standing you are still standing you are still standing.
I’ve read that post-marathon sensations are similar to post-partem sensations-- the pain blinds you to the point of forgetting. Dopamines blur reality. Somehow, some way, someone convinces you that it’s a good idea to do it again. And your brain, oh-so-willing-to-forget, thinks that embarking on another pain-inducing activity would be a good idea. A marvellous idea. Not that I’ve given birth or anything, but still. Stupid brain. Stupid biochemistry.
Because I definitely remember. I remember when the dull pain turned to searing. I remember when my toes/calves/shoulders/stomach revolted and left me breathless. Left me heaving. Left me wondering--who am I and why have I done this to myself?
But I also remember how this same act-- the act of putting one foot in front of the other, the act of running-- left me grinning from ear to ear, arms stretched overhead.
Left me with a sense that all of this-- the small celebrations of the sun rising, the friendships formed, the trees whispering overhead, the animals crossing my path, the roughness of sand under toes, the bursts of stars and moonlight, the crossing of daylight into shadow, the thrill of exploring new places on foot, the sensations of jumping and singing and humming and skipping and leaping-- all of this has been worth it.
Running reminds me that life is not easy: that I will fall, that I will blister the backs of my ankles, that I will feel my chest twinge and contract. But so too does running remind me that life goes on. That in all of the ways I have tumbled, skipped, danced, and skidded through my life, I continue. I move. I go. Amidst steel-clad buildings or swaying oak trees or tall mountain peaks, there rests inside me the capacity to become incredible. To be incredible. And running unleashes that. Running-- on tracks, on trails, on sidewalks, on long stretches with no end in sight-- has taught me this:
I am incredible. I am incredible I am incredible I am incredible.