I'm Running a Marathon Because A Stranger Told Me To
The woman who gave me the courage to run a marathon will never know the impact she had. I don’t even know her name. I do vividly recall the color of her shirt - bright blue tank top - and the sound of her voice when she said, “Wow, you can run.”
I was almost to the top of a hill, on my second hill repeat of the day. I was three weeks out from a half marathon and extremely unprepared for what was to come. It’s not like I didn’t know what I was getting into - this half would be my sixth - but I had slacked on training, and I had an entire list of excuses why. It was an especially humid summer. I got a cold. I went on vacation. Work was really busy. I had done 13.1 before, and knew I could struggle through it again.
This particular race was not an easy course - an out and back with rolling hills. Mile 11 was my biggest concern, as that was always my hardest mile, and in this case it was one of those long, gradual, muscle-burning roads. The plan was to practice on that very hill and get my head around what it felt like, in hopes that facing the fear would cause it to dissipate. It was sort of working. The hill felt less like a distant monster, but the run had been hot, sluggish, and heavy. I did not feel strong. I was resigning myself to the fact that I was in no way ready to run 13.1. The worst part was that my pace was 13 minute miles.
In general, I have always been a “slow” runner. There was a time when I fell into the category that might be considered “good” or “fast” by most people’s standards. But I paid for my times dearly, with stress fractures in both legs, at different times, and then plantar fasciitis settling in before my second half marathon. My body does not like speed. I feel so much better after a 10 miler at a 11:30 minute mile pace than I do after three miles at a 9:00 pace. My knees don’t hurt. The muscle on the bottom of my feet isn’t tight the next day.
The slower the run, the more natural it feels.
It took me years of running to learn this about myself, but I still have days where I feel embarrassed for other people to see how “slow” I run.
On this particular day, the 13 minute miles were frustrating, especially because my body wasn’t settling in the way it normally does after a few miles. It was just one of those bad runs. I was feeling discouraged when a woman passed me and said some magical words: “Wow, you can run!”
“What?” I said, taking one headphone out. I heard her, but was confused. Why was she saying that to me?
“I said, you can really run! Are you a professional runner?”
Taken aback, I laughed. “No, I’m just doing a half in a few weeks.”
She shook her head in the way people do when they are in awe of something.
“Well, you could do a marathon.”
“Thank you,” I managed to say. “You look like you could do one, too. Have a good run.”
We parted ways and I finished with a newfound sense of buoyancy. A stranger thought that I - me, self-proclaimed slow runner! - was a professional. She had noticed me, out of all the runners in the park, and gave me a compliment. And not just any compliment. She thought I looked strong enough to do a marathon.
A marathon had always been on my “never” list. It was there because of my injuries. My number one goal is to run for the rest of my life, and I always thought training for a marathon would be too much for my body to handle. I was afraid that trying would, literally, break me. Therefore, 13.1 had become a self-imposed ceiling, and I never tried to crack it.
Becoming a marathoner wasn’t even in the realm of possibility before this stranger told me I could do it.
It wasn’t until later that the gravity of that interaction hit me. This woman had seen something in me I didn’t even see in myself. I didn’t think of myself as strong, despite the fact that I have run multiple half marathons and been a runner since I was fifteen years old. I was letting my speed, my weight, and my body type dictate my self-esteem. In fact, there is nothing “weak” about a 13 minute mile. There is nothing “weak” about a runner with love handles and large breasts. There is nothing “weak” about running at all.
In mile 11 of that half marathon, I thought of that woman. I kept pushing and realized with a certain amount of surprise that I was going to make it up the hill without stopping. At mile 12, I still felt strong. At mile 13, I was tired, but when I crossed the finish line, the first thing that entered my mind was, “I’ve got more in me.”
It took me another three weeks to register for my first marathon. I hemmed and hawed. Obsessively researched how to avoid injury. Googled, “Spring 2019 marathons New England” more times than I’d like to admit. Eventually, I called my mom.
“Do you think this is crazy?” I said. “I could get really hurt. People get hurt training for marathons.”
“No,” she said, “Not if you do this right.”
Now I have a training plan stuck to my fridge. Sometimes, I look at the mileage for my Saturday runs and feel scared, but I still do it. I am learning to do the mysterious “listen to your body” thing, and if my legs are telling me to take a rest day, I take a rest day. I bought a new sports bra and Body Glide. My boyfriend is tired of the smell of Icy Hot. It has been 2 months of training so far, and the miles on my feet are still the best part of my week.
That’s part of why I’m doing this. For the love of the run, whether my body rebels against me or not. I am fighting a lot more than the distance when I’m out there.
But the bigger part of why is because I still do not see myself the way that woman saw me. She saw a strong runner. I see a person who runs slowly. Those are very different perceptions, and I want to flip mine.
I am already part of the way there. The feeling of pride after breaking the self-imposed 13.1 ceiling with a 14 miler, and knowing there are more ceilings I am strong enough to break. The fact that I eat healthier to care for my body, because it works so hard to provide the unbridled freedom that comes with a long run. That moment when I looked in the mirror at boot camp and saw a muscle in my arm. I’ve never had arm muscles before.