After five months of training, a namaste-killing explosion, and a runaway gallbladder, the time had finally come.
It was marathon day.
I woke up at the inhumane hour of 4:15 am, laced up my running shoes, and headed out the door without truly comprehending what was happening.
About an hour later, I was standing with my friends at the start line when my stomach dropped to my feet. The caffeine finally kicked in, I woke up, and I realized that we were about to run a marathon.
I immediately recognized that this was a bad decision. I was filled with terror.
But, I was trapped in a crowd with no clear way to flee. And, you all know that there is nothing that I find more attractive than a bad decision.
So, this was totally happening.
The starting gun went off.
We were on the move in the midst of a pulsing crowd.
And, just like that, my terror was replaced with unbridled excitement. I was running a marathon!! I WAS RUNNING A MARATHON! I WAS REALLY DOING IT!
After a few minutes of that nonsense, I remembered that I had a long morning ahead of me and tamed my over-achieving adrenaline. I took a couple of deep breaths, locked in my pace, and put my faith in my training.
It was all good.
But then at mile four it wasn’t all good. The course was still very congested with 25,000 runners, I had zoned out, and I had lost my friends in the crowd. I was alone! Adrift in the sea of sweaty masses! Never to be found again!
And I didn’t even have a volleyball to keep me company.
Things were not going according to plan.
But, my surprise solo time turned out to be just what I needed. I reflected on how much I had changed for the better since I started training in September, I reveled in how proud of myself I was for not giving up on this insane idea to run a marathon, and I rocked out to my music. With each passing mile, I felt stronger and more relaxed.
Watch out world — I am carefree and running a marathon!
It was magical.
But then at mile 10 everything fell apart. I was bored and hungry. My shoulders hunched as I despaired over the fact that I wasn’t even half way done. The sun had risen and was beating down upon me with a tropical fury that had no place in the era of the Polar Vortex.
It was decidedly not magical.
Screw Gatorade and water, where is the pastry aid station?
My mind was invaded by all of the advice that the assorted marathon vets in my life had dropped on me. Snippets of articles that I had read about proper pace, hydration, and nutrition bombarded my brain. Was I doing it right? Was I following the rules? What if I was making mistakes?
But then I realized something.
Marathons are a lot like life.
The only way to get through them is to take a deep breath, believe in yourself, and just keep on keepin’ on the best way that you know how.
True that, Matthew, true that.
So, I did just that.
I relaxed. I banished all pastry-related thoughts from my mind. And, I went back to running how I damn well felt like running. And, as usually happens, after I shut down the pity party and quieted my thoughts about what I “should” be doing, things got better. By mile 12, I felt my inner-Phoebe creeping back in.
I easily cruised to the halfway point, which was where a few awesome friends were waiting to cheer me on and where Country Boy was waiting to join me for the back half of the race.
Country Boy was more than a smidge skeptical of my plan to run a marathon less than a month after I lost an organ via abdominal surgery, so he told me that, since he was pre-med for one entire year in college, he was basically a doctor and was going to run with me to keep an eye on all things medical.
Country Boy also, and I suspect primarily, ran with me because he is amazing and knows how to be supportive of his I-can-do-it-all-on-my-own wife in just the right way.
With Country Boy by my side, the miles ticked away.
We laughed, we talked about utter nonsense, we moved together in comfortable silence, and he knew exactly how to motivate me:
Hang on Leo! I’m coming!
A few miles later, my friends showed up, and they showed up hard.
As the crowd thinned out, I finally spotted my friends who I had started the marathon with and was able to catch up to them. Together, we totally had this thing.
A marathon? Bitch, please, I’ve got this on lock.
At mile 16, two of my college friends were waiting for me with a sign to remind me that, at the end of the marathon, there would be all of the beer. Just for me. All of the beer!
Much as when we were in college, that is all the motivation that I need to do anything.
A few miles later, boredom and exhaustion were poised to make another assault on me.
But then, in the distance, I spied a very large panda clinging to a tree. We’re talking 6’4″ large. Next to Andre the Giant Panda was a giraffe and a banana. They were also human-sized.
I assumed I was just experiencing some light hallucination. That seemed like something that could happen.
But then my eyes popped open. Those were people in costumes! And you know what kind of people would do that?
People who I would be friends with.
I picked up the pace and, sure enough, that was my panda, my giraffe, and my banana! Alongside a whole crew of other smiling familiar faces. I couldn’t believe it! I mean, I could because this is totally normal behavior for the type of people with whom I associate, but I couldn’t believe that it was actually happening so early in the morning! And for me!
The Beatles were right, I do get by with a little help from my friends.
Who knew it was possible to laugh hysterically during miles 18 through 20 of a marathon?
By the time I got my case of the giggles under control, I realized that I had crossed the 20 mile mark. I had never run further than 19 miles before in my entire life.
Every step I took was a new record!
It was incredible.
And then it started to rain. And not in an “oh, isn’t this refreshing” kind of way. Oh no. It was raining in a soaking, horizontal, sunscreen running in your eyes kind of way. I was soaking wet, cold, and blind.
Just when I was ready to call a rain delay, I heard some familiar voices. My college friends were back! They were standing under a tree in that crazy monsoon to cheer me on! Again!
Upon hearing their voices, I wiped the sunscreen out of my eyes, regained the power of sight, and kicked it up a gear. It was time to keep on livin. If they could show up in the rain for me, then I sure as hell could show up at the finish line for them.
This rain ain’t no thing.
I was back on the upside of the roller coaster that was my marathon experience.
I had a huge smile on my face, I was chatting Country Boy’s ear off, and the miles were flying by once more.
23 miles down, the sun was back, and I was straight chillin’
But, what goes up must come down, especially in marathons.
Around mile 24, I hit another wall and I hit it hard. I knew, logically, that I only had 2.2 miles to go. I was totally there. I was going to cross the line in 20 minutes or less. No big thing.
But it was totally a big thing.
I managed to make it past mile 25, but I felt defeated. My running friends had slowed down to drink water, and I regretted not joining them. Every step felt like it was sure to be my last.
But then, out of nowhere, two more of my friends popped out onto the course. I was so excited to see them that I started jumping around in the middle of the street, much to the extreme displeasure of every other runner.
Not only did my friends surprise me with their appearance, but they also started running with me. It was so unexpected, so kind, and so needed. We smiled, we laughed, we took selfies. The other runners continued to not be amused, but I was having a great time.
Yes, those are my friends photobombing your serious marathon experience. Sorry!
After we climbed the last bridge of the marathon, my friends and Country Boy peeled off the course. It was time for me to finish what I started.
I turned the corner and, much to my surprise, there was the finish line. It was right there. RIGHT THERE. A huge smile broke across my face, and I sprinted across it.
F*ck yeah I just crushed a marathon!
The feeling when I crossed that line was incredible. I didn’t feel tired (even though I was) and I didn’t feel destroyed (even though my muscles were). Instead, I felt energized, I felt strong, I felt proud, and I felt incredibly loved by my friends, my family, and, most importantly, myself.
I was unshakably happy.
I dedicated five months of my life to running. A lot. Even when it was inconvenient. Even when it was hard. Even when everyone in my life hinted that I should give up.
But I didn’t give up.
Instead, I became mentally and physically stronger than I ever thought was possible. Not only did I run a marathon, I did it while smiling, laughing, and having the time of my life. To me, that, and not my finish time, was the true victory.
I found my happy place in the simplicity of just putting one foot in front of the other and seeing where it took me.
You should try it.