I would not call myself a runner and neither would most anybody. I’m not really built for running of any type, neither sprinting nor long distance. I ran a marathon once, though. I got the idea from an advertisement at Marvelous Market near my building. It said anyone could run a marathon.
It said Whitman-Walker Clinic would train you in return for fundraising. It seemed like a project and I hadn’t had a project since the science fair in 11th grade.
The orientation was in a public library in Cleveland Park, kinda near my building. I didn’t frequent places like that then. I hadn’t since I was eight when my mom would take me and my sister to the public library once a week the summer after 3rd grade. The library had a program challenging kids to read 100 books over the summer. I wanted to win so I read Berenstain Bears books, and the like, which were below my reading level. I remember filling out my reports on the little pre-printed cards. I’d read 25 books per week. Some of the librarians disapproved. I didn’t care. I wanted to win that challenge.
Getting to the library to register for the marathon was hard. I remember. The whole day leading up to it, the logistics of getting there swirled around and around in my brain, like a nightmare. A bus or long walk, the metro, going into the metro, paying for the metro, finding the library itself, it all just seemed like too much. I was bone tired and panicked. Debilitated. Leaving the house that evening, I felt like you feel when you’re on the verge of tears for too long. I felt as insubstantial as a leaf. Empty. I carried a well of tears then in my chest. They would ache, very dimly threatening to spill over, but the threat seemed to recede by the day and this left me feeling engulfed, claustrophic without the adrenaline. It was like walking around with a gag on, a silencer, a mute button. I suffered from acute and chronic loneliness. I was 22.
I did make it to the library that day. It was evening. I wanted to be a normal person and to have a real life.
We had group practice runs once a week starting that spring and finishing in early fall. I can’t remember what my pace was, but it was slow. We were meant to finish in around 5 hours. I was grouped together with all sorts of folks with whom I would not have mixed in real life. I don’t remember most of their names. We were all different ages, colors, sizes and from different neighborhoods. There was no pretense amongst us.
None of us were runners. We huffed and puffed and over the weeks there came to be between us that easy silence, that respectful familiarity and lots of laughing. I did not know that it was the pretense and the disdain that strangled me and I had not had much occasion to laugh.
I do remember Ted. He was a very large, very white, older man. When I say he was large, he was probably over 6’4’’ and heavy. He was like a giant. Ted was the only man in our group and we fretted over him. Ted burned so easily. I winced just to see him out in the sun at all. Also, his nipples would bleed when we got to the longer runs. And, he huffed and puffed more than any of us. He didn’t talk much because he couldn’t. I worried he might keel over and die during practice runs. Ted was running the marathon and fundraising for his brother. We all had our reasons. Watching his lumbering body, soaked in sweat, bleeding, not talking much, but with an open, vulnerable, friendly, easy yet quietly determined way about him, I wondered. He seemed to cancel out so much that seemed inescapable to me.
I didn’t train past 22 miles and I lost contact and connection with my group leading up to the race. I wasn’t good then at linking up cause and effect in my life. I was really good at doing it about everything else. Being around these people, week in and week out, for almost 6 months had made me feel . . . so much better. I didn’t think quite so much about myself during that training time. It had been such a relief. I was out in the sun, making it to the training runs without being paralyzed by the logistics of leaving the house by myself. I didn’t realize it then, though. I thought that things came and went and that I had no control over any of it. I took my lack of control over the weather or disease or pain to be a lack of control over anything at all.
These people I ran with for 6 months were not even supporting characters in the drama of my life. They were extras. Extras in a movie make the movie seem like the real world. An airport is full of people so if you have an airport scene you need the extras to make it seem like the heroine is in a real airport. The extras made it seem like I had a real life for that short bit of time. The life I secretly wanted and acted like I had. I didn’t even miss them. Indeed, once I got away from them, I thought that I couldn’t possibly run with strangers. I would run alone.
I don’t recall the details, but about two weeks before the race I asked my sister to run the first five miles with me. There was a lot between us then, as there was between me and anybody with whom I had ever been close. I didn’t want to run alone. Yet, I had put myself in a situation where I would probably run alone. And, then I would hope for a miracle to happen so that I would not end up where I was headed. The thing is, my life has been full of miracles, and I have not ended up where I was headed. My sister agreed to run the first 5 miles with me.
I went into the marathon thinking I would have hallucinations. I don’t know why. I think I’d heard something somewhere that sometimes this happens. I was ready for any kind of mind-bending experience. But, not for physical injury.
Around mile 12, I had a caffeinated goo which I’d never used before in training. I got a caffeine-runner’s high and picked up my pace. Around mile 18 the long tendon on my left leg, the one that runs from your hip to your knee, went as hard as a rock and I had intense pain from hip to knee every time I came down on my left leg. It wasn’t going away. I ran maybe a mile or two more. I thought, I can’t go on and I felt panicky. Maybe I would not make it across the 14th street bridge before they opened it back up to traffic.
But, we did. I was giddy with relief. A very fit looking marathon runner, with a real runner’s body and the full get-up, was being taken away from the bridge on a stretcher. I remember thinking, wow. You just never know. I’m making it past the 14th street bridge and that guy is not. I felt humbled. I hobbled the last 6 miles and finished in just around 6 hours.
My sister ended up running the whole thing with me. They wouldn’t let her cross the finish line because she wasn’t registered for the marathon. I could not have done it without my sister running next to me. She was my Samwise Gamgee! I was the one who had to get across the finish line and she ran with me so I could do that. Perhaps I could have done it alone, but it would have been a misery. We talked, we laughed.
When we got close to the finish line, there were so many people on the sidelines yelling and screaming, in a good way, I’m sure. I felt overwhelmed and I wanted to cry. It felt like they were heckling me. A Marine kept yelling to my sister, “Where’s your number?” because she couldn’t cross the finish line if she wasn’t registered. We both thought he was trying to pick her up. I felt really annoyed by that. Finally, we both understood and before I knew it she had merged into the crowd and I lost sight of her.
As I ran that very short stretch by myself, the whole weight of the thing came crashing down on my shoulders and I felt so pissed at all the random people who had been skeptical of the concept of running a marathon. Like I am skeptical of the concept of low carb diets.
When you cross the finish line, a Marine wraps you in a blanket and takes the tracker off your shoe. They kneel in front of you to do it. It is so humbling. As I crossed the finish line, I started crying uncontrollably, the pain of my injury and the emotional burden of it on my rigid depleted soul had allowed the pent up inconsolable loneliness to burst past the dam of my pride and my fear and my loathing of myself and every person there. The Marine looked at me disapprovingly. I didn’t care. There was a startling clarity to the whole encounter.
I felt like I was made of flesh and bone, just like everyone else.
All works by Picasso featured here (all published before 1923) are in the public domain.