An atheist, a vegan, and a CrossFitter walk into a bar.
I only know because they told everyone within two minutes.
This is an old joke, but it still makes me laugh. I've always thought it should include marathon runners. I know from experience that once you've raced 26.2 miles, it's hard to keep yourself from shouting your accomplishment from the rooftops. I try to be less like one of those braggadocios jerks, and more like this gal.
I finished my second marathon last week. The 38th Annual Napa Valley Marathon promised to be a great race. It boasts a net-downhill course that traverses some of the most beautiful vineyards in Napa County. The race does not include a half marathon, so only serious (read: crazy/masochistic) long distance runners are able to participate. The race organizers prohibit the use of headphones, which I thought would be a real bummer, but as it turned out, I ended up really enjoying my first headphone-free race experience.
The race started as well as I could hope. It was very low-key. There were no pacers, no corrals, no loud music, just an eccentric dude on a microphone giving strange and sometimes creepy commentary about the runners lining up at the start. I always feel inconsolably nervous before a race of any length, which doesn’t make much sense, because I’m not an elite athlete competing for prize money. Still, the pre-race anxiety can be paralyzing. The relaxed feel of the Napa race helped to keep me from abandoning the idea of running the distance from the City of Marathon to the City of Athens and bolting out of there to drink copious amounts of red wine instead.
I flew through the first 6 miles. I felt spectacular. At mile 10, I still felt solid. I glided effortlessly through miles of lush jade landscapes, admiring the endless grape vines propped up by trellis posts. I wrote bad poetry in my head as I passed vineyards I both recognized and had never heard of. I stopped for water only twice during the first half, feeling smug. When I reached the half way point, I acknowledged that I was aware of my legs, but nothing really hurt. I took a photo of the 13-mile marker and sent a Snapchat with the caption: “Half way. Jesus take the wheel!” The stilted voice of my pace tracking app pronounced that I had finished a half marathon in less than two hours. “I can sustain this pace!” I thought, deliriously overconfident.
At mile 15, my body turned on me. My hip flexor seized, sending excruciating pain through my right leg. I ran through it, silently yelling at my leg to cooperate or else. At mile 16, I glimpsed a tall, dark, and handsome man through a sea of spectators. My boyfriend, naturally. I handed him my cumbersome rain jacket and hat. All morning, the rainclouds threatened to open up, but no rain had fallen at that point. My fella trotted alongside me for a few minutes, as I arrogantly asked him if he thought I could beat one of our friends who had recently completed a marathon. He said I could, if I kept my current pace. I told him my leg was starting to hurt, and I pulled an analgesic from my sweaty pocket. When I held it between my fingers, I realized it was just the shell of a gel cap. The medicine had melted in my pocket, leaving just the worthless inert casing. My boyfriend promised to bring me some Advil at the next spectator vantage point. “Only if it’s not too much trouble,” I demurred. That was the last time I would have the luxury of worrying about imposing.
By mile 17, I was hurting. I was literally dragging my right leg. I sent him a barrage of panicked texts:
I’m dragging my leg. Idk if I can do it.
Seriously. I might stop.
His response was the most demoralizing phrase I could have imagined receiving in that moment:
I can’t make it to 18 in time, will get to 22
I’m very self-sufficient. In fact, I hate accepting help from anyone, for any reason. But, the pain had control of my phone then. It replied as follows:
Why the duck did I bring s gel cap!!! (sic) (Obviously the pain was in charge – I don’t talk like that and I definitely don’t send unedited text messages with spelling and grammar errors!)
Three minutes later, he replied:
Ur not going to like this…closest I can get is 23 and I’m coming ur way…u can do it!
And then, my weakest, most helpless plea:
That’s when the tears came. I’m not much of a crier. I thought about it later, and before I lost my composure at the marathon I had last cried probably 9 months earlier. Crying is for babies and wussies, I always say. Well, I don’t always say that, but you get the point.
As I hobbled down that godforsaken road, I let the negative thoughts rein free:
“This is stupid! Why do people pay money to obliterate their bodies?!”
“So what if I quit, who really cares?”
“I’ll never run another marathon again!”
It was misting at that point, so I hoped runners passing me wouldn’t notice the tears streaming down my face. My sobbing wasn't audible, it was characterized only by silent tears produced by a weakling who was about to quit the race she had spent the last 5 months training for. That’s when a man on a bike, who looked too old and conservative to be sporting a voluminous man-bun, rolled up next to me and hollered, “You don’t look too good. Are you okay?”
I wiped my face with my sleeve and answered, “No. My leg is killing me.”
“Here you go,” he said, extending his arm toward me. He placed an off-brand Five Hour Energy into my open palm. “What part of your leg?”
“This part,” I said, pointing to the inside of my hip. “Go grab that mailbox,” he said, pointing to a large iron mail receptacle at the edge of someone’s beautiful Napa estate. I did as he instructed. “Now start moving your leg in circles, both directions.”
As I dragged my leg around, he flipped his bike over and strode over to me. He grabbed me at the waist and turned me around, my back facing him. Then, he dug his thumb into my backside and held it. I immediately felt the pressure in my hip release. I wanted to hug him.
“It doesn’t hurt anymore! Thank you so much, you good Samaritan!” I shouted as I jogged away. He grinned, hopped back on his bike and rode off into the ether. About a half mile later, I watched a police car driving down the opposite side of the road in my direction. Suddenly, my dude jumped out of the car and ran over to me, shoving an asthma inhaler into my face. “Act like you’re using this,” he whispered. I shoved the thing in my mouth and waved at the cop. “I told the police that you lost your puffer and I had to get it to you before you had an Asthma attack.” As the officer disappeared down the road, he handed me two capsules. “Take one and chew the other so it gets into your system faster.” I obeyed, overcome with gratitude. “I might finish this thing!” I exulted.
We ran together for another mile, then he dropped off to find his car and meet me at the finish. The next 6 miles passed exactly as they had in my singular prior marathon experience. My body protested something fierce, but my mind proved stronger. Gone were the moments of appreciating my surroundings and fantasizing about beating my friends’ times. The only thing I was capable of was putting one foot in front of the other. Nothing else mattered, and nothing else was possible.
As I turned the corner past the 26-mile marker, I found some reserved energy. I kicked into gear and passed two runners next to me for a finish of 4:25:51. Not bad considering I nearly quit 8 miles earlier.
What I love most about the marathon is the mental challenge it provides. The gratification that comes from refusing to acquiesce when my legs are screaming at my brain, begging it to let them stop. There is really nothing like the experience of exerting the mental strength required to transcend physical pain. There are countless applications for the lessons learned in training for and finishing a marathon. I’m immensely grateful I possess the physical and mental abilities to have learned them firsthand.
As I write this, I can't identify whatsoever with my Mile 19 self - the person who was sure she would never again run a marathon. In fact, I feel quite the opposite. If everything goes as planned, I hope to be back here in 7 months with a recap of my next race.