PC: Hana Estice
Whoa, I’m still alive.
It’s 6 am, May 1st–race day. As hop I off of the air mattress and tiptoe about my friend’s dorm room at Brown, I feel both incredulous and deeply grateful for having stayed in one piece up to this point.
The race hasn’t even begun, but I already consider this a major leap. After almost two years of wrestling with injuries in my quest to run a full marathon, arriving at race day with the actual ability to run had become but a distant dream. This time, it was real.
I gear up quickly and warm up to the starting line. The day is overcast and chilly, but little can dampen the spirits of the bright sea of runners. I exchange pleasantries with a few fellow racers. I repeat my chain of goals aloud and in my head: first, stay alive. Next, finish without stopping. Then, try to finish in under four hours.
As the race begins, I happily tag along with the 4-hour pace group. Our rhythm feels slightly too comfortable, but there are many miles ahead. I begin to worry–my mileage the previous 2.5 weeks totaled no more than 15. Even less reassuring, these three runs were the only workouts I had completed in those 2.5 weeks. After a frustratingly-difficult 2-hour run, I knew that my body had become depleted, so I did a radical taper: I took a full week off, then ran only three times the week-and-a-half after. Normally, I become antsy during time off. During this taper, I barely noticed I wasn’t working out, another sign that rest was necessary.
I brush my anxieties away. I had made it here, I would run as well as I could, and that was all I could ask of myself.
Within a few miles, the 9:09 pace no longer feels so friendly. The rolling hills burden my legs and breath. I feel surges of energy here and there, usually after downing a few squeezes of a gel, a couple reluctant swallows of a goo, or bites of my chia bars.
By the halfway point, mile 13.1, I’m still well on-track, but I feel my energy waning. My small lead on the 4-hour pace group shrinks until I fall behind around mile 16. I had overestimated myself. My breathing now resembles labored wheezing, and my legs feel like cinder blocks. As my sub-sub goal of an under 4-hour finish slips further and further away, I feel more and more dejected. I am exhausted, and there are still 10 miles to go.
The race signs help: Smile! You paid to do this!
This elicits a wry grin–I had always joked about how runners were inherent masochists, paying hundreds of dollars to put themselves through immense pain.
I remember another one from the race start: If Trump can run for president, you can run 26.2!
The signs and verbal encouragement from the smattering of spectators along the bike path lightens my step just a bit. But my drive is renewed most fervently when I recall the grueling, emotional journey to even reach this point–the countless hours of training, the injuries rendering it difficult to even walk, the very gradual rehab, the volumes of energy it took to even convince my parents to let me attempt this race. This is everything you’ve dreamed of for the past two years. When is the next chance you’ll have to run a marathon again? Lily, if running this race for yourself isn’t enough, at least keep pushing ahead for the people who have helped you get here.
I remember the trainers of my school’s sports med team, who treated me patiently despite being a non-varsity athlete. I remember the doctor who had broken the news of my stress injury last spring; after noticing me cross-training shortly following the depressing news, he told me he was confident that I would conquer a marathon before I graduated. I remember my physical therapist, whose suggestions had made my running form feel more efficient and free.
I run for them when I can’t run for myself. I run for the Lily who was confined to crutches and a walking boot exactly a year before. I run even though it hurts immensely–I run because I am determined to traverse the boundaries of physical pain to achieve that elusive, nearly-spiritual empowerment.
Step by step, the miles fall behind. Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen. A woman nearby chants to herself in Spanish. Her voice is weary but driven, pulsing to the beat of her music. Twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two. I sigh in satisfaction and relief after surpassing my previous long-run record of 21.59 miles. I had reached far, but it was time to reach even further. A woman leaps by in a rainbow tutu–I attempt to emulate her steadfast energy.
Twenty-three, twenty-four. My quads are on the verge of seizing up, and the subtlest of inclines now feels like a vertical wall. I am terrified that my legs will lock up if I push the pace too hard, but also terrfied of slowing down too much–I was now shooting for a sub 4:10. I spy race photographers and attempt to smile–it looks more like a grimace.
Twenty-five. So close to finally conquering my long-time dream, I begin to tear up. But then I can’t breathe. So I channel the overwhelming emotions into energy–my legs begin to feel a bit lighter, my step a little more springy. I enter downtown Providence. The streets along which I strolled leisurely just yesterday have become vessels of suffering and triumph.
Twenty-six. The smattering of spectators thickens as the finish nears. On the final straightaway, I dig deeper than I ever have before. Elation carries me across the finish with the widest of grins, in a time of 4:08:23 (9:29/mile).
* * *
By the grace of God, I ran a marathon. Just over a month later, this all feels unreal. As usual, I expected my personal triumph to be life-changing, but life is really the same–I’m the same. Sure, I’m more confident that tenacity is immensely potent, that we’re capable of as much as we dream, but one race cannot make me invulnerable to everyday challenges. The journey there, however, taught me so much about overcoming.
Mere hours after the race, I felt a bit empty. After two years of pouring my heart and soul into conquering this goal, it felt strange to have nothing major lined up. What was next?
These slightly outlandish dreams fill me with purpose. I don’t want this to be the victorious finale to a melodramatic saga of sweat and tears. Let’s make this just a warmup.