Every autumn in New York, as October’s end draws near, as the air begins to cool, and leaves in vermilion and goldenrod begin to fall from the trees, before shop windows are decked with their bows of holly, there’s a rumble that begins. In the subway stations and on bus shelters, bills are posted; along certain streets, banners are hung, and amongst the city’s 8 million, thousands wait in quiet anticipation for what some consider the best day of their life.
I’ve been an athlete for as long as I can remember. At seven, I was mistaken for a boy, with my pixie haircut on the soccer field, and I played sports all through grade school and high school. But I never considered myself a runner. Sure, I ran track for two years and gave cross-country a go, but I used to fake injury to get out of practice. In my defense, it was Florida, and after-school temperatures usually measured somewhere in high 90s, but still… I think what it really boiled down to, was that I just didn’t like running.
Even so, every year that I’ve gone out to watch the marathon, I’ve heard this little voice from somewhere in the back of my head, saying to me, “One day. That will be you.”
It all started fifteen years ago, at my first job out of college. A woman I worked with, whom I trusted and looked up to, told me once, to make a list of my life goals, to keep it near, and look at it every now and then to check on my progress. So I did, and though the physical piece of paper disappeared soon after, I can still see the list—every line I scribbled—very clearly in my mind, now with a couple of things crossed off, a few notes in the margin, explaining why my first attempt at one or another might have been unsuccessful, or that I will try for it again, and others still far from being accomplished. One of the things I wrote was that I wanted to run a marathon. I’m not sure I knew at the time, but as I cheered on the sidelines last year, in the city that’s been home to me for almost two decades, I knew that it wouldn’t be just any marathon, but the New York City Marathon. So when I got home that night, I went online to see what I had to do to sign up.
Well, it is New York. So of course, it wasn’t just a click. In NYC, there are three ways to get in to this race of all races. One, (and this is for people who don’t decide on marathon day [like me] that they want to run the next year, but do so much further in advance) you can run nine races with New York Road Runners and volunteer once, and you’ve got guaranteed entry. Next, you can enter your name in the lottery (with thousands of others from New York and across the world) and cross your fingers and pray to high heaven that your name gets drawn. And then, you can run for a charity—raise money for them, you’re in the race. So, knowing option one was out, I entered the lottery. And of course, I didn’t get chosen. I could have used the year to run enough races for guaranteed entry in 2015, but suddenly, there was this little fire inside me and I didn’t want to wait. So I went, what I initially thought was the least favorable route and signed up with a charity. I say this because I loathe asking people for money; and being horrible at sales, it’s not like I could naturally make people just want to give. The charity I chose was Team For Kids, which raises money to provide health and fitness programs to children who have little or no access to regular physical activity. Being one who, growing up, always had a team to play on or a class to be part of, and open space to run and play never too far out of my reach (and surely taking all of it for granted), I thought it a good cause.
But yes, I was a bit daunted by the fact that I had to raise $2600, and for a second, I asked myself if committing to do so, just to run this race, was worth it. But knowing I’d have a lot of people behind me, and wanting to help kids learn to love being healthy and active, I told myself that it would be ok. And so, my journey to the marathon had begun.
From the start, I knew I needed to train. But exactly what that meant, I wasn’t so sure. So I started researching it. After waiting for 15 years to do this, there was no way I was going in unprepared. I wanted, not only to start the race, but to finish it too. Little did I know, some people don’t. So I mapped out a timeline, moving backwards from race day, and made a plan to up my workouts from 3-4 times per week to 5-6, and switch from my typical mix of running, spin class, yoga and Physique 57 DVDs (ok and yes, the occasional Buns of Steel video circa 1980-something), to solely running. By mid-June, I was logging 35+ miles a week. I had never run so much in my entire life. And though I still wasn’t sure I loved it, I was driven to continue, by the challenge. When six miles became a breeze and eight miles not so tough, I only wanted to get to the double digits. Even if it meant spending three hours early on a Saturday, pounding pavement until my legs felt like jelly, I began to feel excited about 11 or 13 or 15 miles.
The funny thing, when I look back, is that all of this time when I was training alone, I could have been doing it with a team. I’d signed up with this charity after all. Hundreds of people are part of it. It makes sense though, really. Whether it’s due to having lived in this city so long, or because I’m single, or because I’m really an introvert at heart, outside of work, most of what I do is by myself. I never work out with friends; I can’t stand shopping with friends; I go to the movies alone, I sit at coffee shops alone, I stay home to work on my writing or painting, and I do it alone. I’ve come to be very comfortable doing things on my own, so why would this be any different?
Well then I blinked, and it was September—the big day only a month-and-a-half away, and the 18-mile marathon tune-up staring me in the face. Three loops around Central Park. The nerves set in. And I suppose maybe as a result, I started to think it might be nice to have some support. So having recalled seeing a charity team email about a pre-race group stretch on a particular hill, the morning of, I headed out to join them. And I realized then, that all this time, I’d been missing out on something really great—a team, made up of people whose goal was the same as mine, who could challenge me; and coaches, most of them seasoned marathoners, who would teach me.
So from that day forward I trained with them whenever I could. And I saw a whole new side to running for a charity. Sure, I was still begging for money, posting pleas to friends on Facebook, asking for donations for as little as four dollars, losing sleep over the worry that I wouldn’t meet my fundraising goal. But there was a whole positive side to it too. With the team, instead of routes I’d run a half-dozen times alone and grown bored with, I ran ones I would have never mapped out myself, in neighborhoods I didn’t know or wouldn’t dream of running through alone. One day, it was back and forth from Brooklyn to Manhattan four times across three bridges. And another it was a day trip to Pennsylvania to run along the Delaware River. Soon 10 miles was a breeze; then 15 was ok; then 20 didn’t frighten me. I even started to like it. And though I never thought I would do this, I started to run without music, and instead with only my thoughts and the sound of my own breath.
Before I knew it, the race was weeks away. I’d finished my two 20-mile training runs in pouring rain, and was ready for whatever Mother Nature had in store for me. I’d raised all of my money, even surpassing my goal, and my family was on their way to cheer me on. Race day was clear in sight. And as much as my thoughts centered around what was to come, I naturally reflected on the months leading up to it. I thought about how doubts along the way had turned to belief. I thought about goals on my list still not completed—that cannot be until that special person comes along—but how this goal, I could achieve without him. I thought about the power of the human spirit that says ‘I will’ and the wonder of the human body that says ‘I can’. And I thought about how, as I was about to conquer 26.2 miles, the skinny legs I’ve wanted all my life were suddenly so much less appealing to me than the strong ones I was born with, that will carry me.