Ever since I ran New York City’s Marathon in November 2006, nostalgia has made me a race-watching enthusiast. Last Monday, on Patriots’ Day, I was very excited about going to see the 116th Boston Marathon. I found a free spot on the fence on Commonwealth Avenue just a couple of miles before the finish line. We were standing next to hundreds of people, watching and trying to cheer the marathon runners — I say trying because at that point the only cheerful thought in a runner’s mind is knowing the proximity to the end.
I couldn’t keep in the emotional rush when I saw all these people passing in front of me, everyone soaked in sweat and feelings. Some of the runners I saw were animated and grinning, even cheering themselves. The other extreme, with whom I identified much more, were those who had pain in their faces, those who couldn’t run anymore but kept going till the end.
Standing there, at the bank of a river of runners, I remembered my own running story. I started to run on May 2005, when I moved to Mexico City after a year living in Florence, and ended my running career on November 2006 when I participated in the New York Marathon. Before 2005, I never thought about running; it sounded so boring and hollow. But that changed dramatically after a beloved friend convinced me to sign up for my first race. I spent six months training for it — from May to November of 2005. Those months were a time of extreme discipline; I trained with my group of athlete friends and we would share our progress during Saturday brunches after a hard day of running.
Brunches were always my favorite part of the day. I remember clearly, while having brunch, one of my marathon-and-triathalon-running friends telling me “the best advice I ever got was about always carrying a bill in my sock. You never know when you are going to need it.”
My first race came on a Sunday morning in November. When I crossed the finish line in my first 5K race, I knew I wanted more of those six months of training crowned with the delightful joy of happily crossing the line and achieving my goal. It was made even better by being surrounded by my friends, who also ran just to be with me and celebrate together. That day, I decided I wanted to run a marathon in the next year, so I searched online and found a November marathon in New York City. I signed up.
With my objective well defined, I took two months off and found a coach to begin serious running and nutrition training. I started to run with the coach’s student team — it was so cool! I met people who were training for a variety of races: triathlons, Ironmans, and marathons around the world. After two months, I realized how much I missed hanging out with my two sisters and my cousin without worrying about not drinking alcohol or counting sleep hours. The solution was obvious; convince one of my sisters to join me. That was an excellent move! Later, a group of my sporty friends decided to join and run the marathon with us too. It was too late and there were no more spaces available in the NYC race — instead they decided on the Twin Cities Marathon in October, one month before NYC’s. That was great! We could share the training process. And so we did.
Each of us had a different program and schedule depending on individual performance level, but we shared distance trainings outdoors and races of 10, 15, and 20 kilometers. It was very soothing to have this group of companions. Even so, I didn’t follow my program exactly and some weekends I just went out with my cousin and didn’t run the distance scheduled. Months later I paid the consequence of dancing till sunrise. But I had so much fun at the time!
October came and we flew to Minneapolis. I signed up in the Twin Cities Marathon as a part of my training for NYC’s and I ran 21 kilometers, half of the full length. It was so great! I experienced what everybody said to me beforehand: “You will forget to think about the technique, the pain, the blisters. You will run naturally.” I immensely enjoyed that half marathon, running with a huge group of friends, especially when, right after the finish line, we all met together. Some were exhausted, some were fresh, but all of us were happy. That night we celebrated with the parents, husbands, wives, and children that also traveled to be with us. I still remember that entire day as one of the best in my life.
After running in gorgeous Minneapolis, I never trained again for the New York city marathon. In the span of a month I quit my job, moved out of my apartment, got a new job, and moved to a new apartment. Everything happened — I just didn’t train.
November came and my family and I flew to NYC. My sister and I were so excited about the marathon! The entire city was teeming with the runner’s enthusiasm. On the Sunday morning of Nov. 5th, 2006, we were warming up on the Verrazano Bridge, watching eight helicopters flying over the area, chatting with the three Danish sisters next to us, and already grinning with excitement when the race officially started with Frank Sinatra’s song “New York, New York” — with every person there singing along. That collective energy made me feel incredibly happy. It was that perfect moment when you feel that you couldn’t be anywhere else; you breathe so deep, as if wanting your lungs and your body filled with that moment.
Then we started to run. How quickly the 5km mark passed by, then the 10 km mark! Close to the 15km mark I lost my sister in the crowd. Till that point, I was still smiling. I passed the half marathon mark with my left knee hurting more and more every step. I slowed down. By the 26th kilometer, my right knee started to pinch. I kept going just by thinking of my friends, my training, my family, Minneapolis, and my lack of discipline; unsmiling.
Around the 30th kilometer I hit my wall. Suddenly, I felt as if my entire body had decided not to give one more step; my back hurt, my arms were so heavy, my hips ached, and my legs were burning in pain. I felt as if they were falling apart. I knew I had 12 kilometers more to run but I couldn’t even run anymore! My mind was battling between two thoughts: “What am I doing? My body is breaking! I have a 20 dollar bill in my sock, I could quit now and get a cab to Central Park” and “I cannot quit. I have to do it, I know I can do it. Besides, my mom is waiting for me in the finish line.” These thoughts were alternating every five seconds in the back of my head. Finally, I decided to stop this conflict that was just depleting my soul and finish the marathon. When I made up my mind I knew I would not change it back and instantly I started to cry. I needed to get the pain out of my body somehow. I felt such an acute pain in every part of my body and I couldn’t do anything, but cry. And I kept, running and crying.
When people on the sidewalks tried to cheer me up, I just smiled — with my face soaked in tears — from the bottom of my heart. When I entered Central Park I felt a relief. I started to look for my mom among all the spectators but I couldn’t find her. I never found my family; later they told me about their concern about missing me in the crowd — it was too late and they thought I already passed, so they went to the hotel looking for me. I kept running and crying, I couldn’t feel my legs anymore. I crossed the finish line and my body was paralyzed. I wasn’t able to move my legs anymore. I didn’t go for my bag or Gatorade or snacks or anything, I couldn’t. A boy from the medal table saw me there, standing immobile one meter after the line and helped me walk to get my medal and one of those metallic blankets. I was shaking and freezing. I walked out of the Park and when I saw the first cab available I went to the hotel. At last, I used the bill stuck in my sock.
That day was my last as a runner. Not because I wanted to quit. Ironically, the whole marathon experience hooked me and I wanted a rematch! I needed to know that I could do it, when I committed and trained well — I enjoyed it! My doctor said au contraire: I could not do it. My knees weren’t made to run. That easy.
Anyway, that year and a half was one of the most incredible experiences I have ever had, including the 42 kilometers of the marathon. Running a marathon requires one to have an unflinching physical and mental state. The time is the least important thing; whatever you chose to beat in your mind is the goal and the prize goes to your soul. I deeply admire all the runners who achieve that fortitude. That is the reason I went last Monday to applaud more of the 22,500 runners that crossed the line.