Power of the Marathon

I could hear it as soon as I rounded the corner and the aid station came into view, even through my ear buds. Loud and joyfully out of tune, the dozen or so volunteers were singing “Happy Birthday” at the top of their lungs.

I was on the ‘back’ portion of an out-and-back stretch of the Pueblo Marathon. I was close to mile 18 of my 30th marathon and it was the morning of my 30th birthday. On the front of my shirt, the number 167 was displayed prominently on my bib, safety pins securing each of the four corners. The back of my shirt housed a homemade sign that read “30th Marathon for my 30th Birthday” which had elicited high fives and “happy birthday”s from other runners during the previous 18 miles. I almost hadn’t worn it, anticipating that I’d feel self-conscious at the extra attention I knew it would bring. My husband helped convince me to wear it, to share my story, my “why” for toeing the start that morning.

 The singing voices grew louder as I grew closer and, despite being already right on target, my pace quickened with excitement.  When the song came to the part where a name is inserted into the verse, they looked at me expectantly. Smiling, I yelled my name and the song continued-

“…..dear Courtney, Happy Birthday to you!”

“You guys rock, this is so awesome!”, I exclaimed as I ran through the aid station feeling invincible. I carried this good feeling with me for the rest of the race. I remember saying out loud to myself during the race, “I love this shit!” Where else would complete strangers burst out into Happy Birthday and cheer me on like that?! In what other areas of life do you get unconditional, genuine support from people who believe you can accomplish your goals?

As I ran through what, in most marathons, is a really uncomfortable part of the race, I felt nothing but gratitude for all the years I have had the privilege of belonging to this incredible community.

When you think of inspirational running stories, your mind goes to the ones you read about in magazines. The epic weight loss success story by the individual who credits running for not only helping them lose weight, but gaining confidence along the way. You read stories about people in traumatic situations, abusive relationships, horrific accidents, all who thank running for helping them find peace, find hope, find themselves. My story is none of these. It is nothing you will ever read in a magazine. My running began quite humbly and without a catalyst. I wasn’t looking for it. I just happened upon it; but nonetheless, I have gained confidence, found peace, hope and myself in the process.

I meandered through my early miles with no real goal or direction, no running watch, no pace or distance goals. My earliest memories of running are of my brother and I along the dirt roads by our house together as teens. It was just an opportunity for us to hang out and be outside. We probably only covered a mile or two in those runs but eventually I was making longer loops for myself.  I soon realized I liked the feeling of running and of pushing myself. I found myself looking forward to school ending so I could go home and run. It had become my outlet, a steady source of happy. I came to rely on it as my constant, as things in my life were not. It became the one thing that was always there. It didn’t matter if my friends were mad at me that day (I was a teenage girl, someone was always mad at me for something), if I had gotten in trouble at school or at home- the miles would still be there. Running was with me as I transitioned from a teenager into an adult. When I decided what I wanted to be when I grew up. When I did grow up and got married and had a child.

I sort of discovered running while I was on the run.

I learned as I went, learning what worked and how my body responded to different paces. Once I began signing up for races, I started to pay more attention to my running. I wanted to get faster. I wanted to go longer. I do today and have always made my own training programs. They have gotten more robust and detailed the longer I have run. I educated myself by reading books and magazines but I learned the most through the miles I ran. The marathon distance has always held some value to me, even before becoming a runner. It was just abstract back then. My grandfather is from Boston and celebrates his birthday on Patriot’s Day. As a child, I remember stories he told of going to watch the finish line and how, as a young boy he thought the celebration was for him. In the books and magazines I read, I learned about the elite runners who raced this coveted distance. In my own runs, I’d pretend I was running with them. I’d envision them cheering me on, encouraging me even though at the time their paces were twice as fast as mine. I felt a connection to them through my growing love for running and the passion they possessed for their sport. It was evident on their faces as I watched them run. And I wanted to chase it; I wanted to be a part of it.

I started to run farther. My mileage increased and I found myself going out for runs that were in the double digits. 12, 14, 18 miles at a time! I spent time perfecting (and subsequently memorizing) dozens of running playlists (back in the days of the IPOD). I knew exactly where one mile, two miles, three miles were from my house in every direction.

I signed up for my first marathon in 2008. Unaware of how unprepared I truly was, I was all smiles and excited nerves at the start line. By mile 16 though, my body and mind were done. The pain was so strong I couldn’t just feel it, but I could hear it and taste it as well. With tears running down my cheeks, I knew I was in over my head. My pace was excruciatingly slow but I wasn’t about to give up. Each step propelled me in the right direction. I wiped the tears from my face and, head down, charged on. The instant that I saw the finish line, it was like the skies cleared. The pain didn’t go away, I just no longer listened to it. I was about to finish a freakin’ marathon! I remember my brother standing on the sidelines to cheer for me and I heard him yell in amazement “How are you doing this?!”

I felt invincible, unstoppable, and upon crossing the finish line, I had fallen completely in love. It was at that moment I knew I had discovered something magical. Now, ten years and 35 marathons later, running continues to me my constant. The marathon continues to be my distance.

The marathon is empowering in a way that almost defies words. It breaks you. It stomps you into the dirt and reminds you how very breakable you are. But then, it reveals you. The strength you never knew you had. It shows you that truly remarkable things are possible when you refuse to give up.

These are the feelings I chase with each race and every mile in training. The starting line is really the most inspiring of all. You see all the different people gathered at the starting corral and you think about all the dreams that are packed into that one place. It is something truly profound.  My reason for toeing the start is completely different than the person next to me. The marathon is the common ground. Each person is striving for their goals, to be the best version of themselves and the marathon is the platform by which it’s accomplished. Lining up at a race start and deciding to run 26.2 miles is a very unifying experience. There is an incredible sense of community in deciding to do the impossible and not doing it alone. In my life, I have yet to find anything more inspiring than that.

For more from Courtney, you can follow her on Instagram.