Consider the Marathon

It's early June, and that means that I've once again set up a two-basket system in my tornado-in Target mess of a bedroom. One basket contains clean running clothes that I don't even bother to fold. The other, the dirty clothes that I've run in. I'm training for the 2011 Chicago Marathon, my second marathon, and I've begun increasing my mileage in preparation for the final 17 weeks before the race on October 9.

Two years ago- one year ago, even- I never would have thought that I could run 26.2 miles in one stretch and leave still walking on my own feet. I'm not a natural runner and I used to get bored very easily and I didn't deal well with physical pain. I didn't think I had the drive or the energy or the mental capacity (or desire, really, because running sort of sucks) to run any distance longer than that which is required to chase after a bus that is pulling away even though the driver totally saw you coming.

It wasn't until I had a year during which I unexpectedly lost my grandpa, my cat, and my relationship over the course of a few short months that I realized that I was tired of things happening to me and that I wanted to start making things happen for myself, motivational speaker who travels to different elementary schools explaining how he once was in jail for drugs but then he turned his life around style. As I'm tied down to a 9 to 5 job and the insurance benefits that it entails, plus my risk tolerance hovers around "grandma who grew up during the Great Depression" levels, I couldn't very well uproot myself and move to Prince Edward Island and engage in an elaborate Anne of Green Gables cosplay. I also knew that if I kept drifting through life, passively accepting the fact that everything was just going to be the worst from here on out, I'd end up dead inside, a sack of meat that wakes up every day, takes the train every day, sits behind a computer every day, and then goes home and sits behind a different computer. It sounds dramatic because when you're horribly depressed everything is dramatic. I felt like if I didn't do something at that point in my life, the chance to wrestle back control of where I was going and who I was going to become was going to pass me by.

I stepped on a treadmill in early January of 2010 and attempted to run for as long as I could without having to stop. I made it about two miles which is about 1/13 of a marathon. In spite of this glaringly obvious fact, I decided on the walk home from the gym, hopped up on endorphins and some midwest-in-January hopelessness, that I was going to run the Chicago marathon that fall.

I used to make fun of people who ran marathons because, quite frankly, running a marathon is not a natural or sane thing to do to one's body. It's horrible for your knee joints, it has killed people. Sometimes people's nipples bleed, others lose control of their bowels while running marathons (last year's Chicago Marathon Official Participants' Guide took great care to spell out that "toilet activities" on the course would result in a runner's disqualification. Toilet activities like what, like reading the newspaper? Like getting really close to a mirror and squeezing some blackheads? Oh. Oh. You mean shitting.)

As I embarked on my chosen training program, I realized that it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. Yes, I had to give up a lot socially last summer, but I can count on one hand the number of times I woke up hung over. Yes, a couple of toenails fell off during the process (I'll never forget the horror of how my feet looked when I took my shoes and socks off after my first 14 mile run. Two completely black toenails and two blisters, but I felt no pain because both of my feet were numb) but they grew back. Yes, there were times that I felt like giving up and walking or just throwing in the towel and bashing my head down onto the ground, Don Music-style, but I didn't. (Tip: You don't have to stop. You can keep going after you think you should stop, because that little whiny voice in your head that tells you that you can't go on is a liar.) Yes, after my 20 mile practice run, the last run before a gradual tapering of miles in the last few weeks before the big race, I couldn't really walk correctly for a couple of days, but afterward I went out to an Argentine steakhouse and ate about an entire cow of delicious protein-y meat and then took the most glorious shower of my entire life. Yes, my boobs shrank, but my calves could kill a grown man simply by flexing at him.

And over the course of this (to use a word favored by 9 out of 10 contestants on The Bachelorette) journey, my attitude about running started to change. My weekend long runs became something I looked forward to- a few hours with just me, my shoes, and the path along Lake Michigan in the summer. Chicago's Navy Pier hosted a fireworks display every Saturday night last summer, and I'd sometimes time my runs to take place at the same time as the fireworks so that I could watch them.

When the big day finally came, I woke up at 3 am because I was too excited to sleep anymore. I put on all of my running clothes and pinned my number to the front of my tank top. I checked the weather, as I had been obsessively for the entire week leading up to the race- forecasted high of 85 degrees and sunny. A good rule of thumb is that, for every degree of temperature over 65 degrees or so, people generally slow down a few seconds per mile. An 85 degree day is opposite of optimal for running; I would have rather it had been in the 40's.

I started crying and then stopped myself when I realized that I needed every drop of water in my body.

The race was hot and the sun was brutal for most of the event. By the time I got to the halfway point, officials had changed the event alert status and started handing out sponges soaked in cold water for the runners. People who lived along the race route stood out in their yards with hoses, spraying us and high fiving us as we ran by. In Boystown, stages were set up and men in cheerleader drag performed elaborate routines. There was prop gun-twirling by mustachioed bear-types. In Pilsen, the Mexican neighborhood along the route, a mariachi band had set up and some ballet folklorico dancers twirled on another stage. All along the route, thousands of people with signs shouted words of encouragement. I drank at every water station and so I had to pee like a thousand times. My mother, who also runs, met me at mile 21, in Chinatown, and ran alongside me as I eased into the last few miles of the race. I remember telling her to talk to me to distract from the creaky pain in my shins and ankles as we turned the corner near US Cellular Field, where the White Sox Play. She dropped out at mile 24 and told me she was proud of me. My last two miles were my fastest.

As soon as I could see the finish line, I started crying and had one terrified moment where I thought this was another one of those dreams where I'm doing something awesome and then I wake up and I've drooled all over my forearm. Thankfully, it wasn't. When I looked at the photo proofs of me crossing the finish line, I have a huge smile on my face, my arms raised over my head. It was best thing I'd ever done for myself; over the course of training and running I'd become more confident, tougher, more patient, more forgiving, more tolerant. My mind immediately started thinking about running another one. I'd finished my first marathon, in about 4 and a half hours. I can't wait for October.

It's rare that anyone is born with a natural inclination to run marathons, but that's the point. Running has made me realize that I can make myself, and not to sound like a used car salesman (a used sport salesman?), but the distance is more than likely more within reach than most people give themselves credit for. If you run, or if you'd like to run, or if you'd like a challenge, or if you just can't stand me and want to finish in a better time than I did, I'd encourage you to try it, to follow a training program, to watch and feel your body and mind change. The worst that can happen is that you might feel like giving up, but the best thing that can happen is when you realize that you don't have to.