My phone said: “message received” at 5:15 in the morning. While the announcement woke me, it did not take much. At best the night on the pullout sofa was a rest for my eyelids. The bed was comfortable enough but the anticipation of the next day’s events had my stomach and brain doing constant cartwheels. I had been here before in a different body, one married six months and never having carried a child. A mind that had never known a sleepless night, unless of my own planning and choices. A stomach yet to be sliced open three times to bring life into this world. Breasts not sucked dry from three years of nursing and left to resemble raisins unless neatly tucked into a very expensive padded bra. Feet yet to know the pain of stepping on legos in the middle of the night. A tongue yet to be bitten so as to not teach my children screaming profanities. And a heart naive to the cracks and holes a marriage of 13 years can bring.
The last time I did this, I was prepared. I followed a schedule to a fault, like a new mother reading What to Expect When You Are Expecting. Indeed in those simpler days, if one had a schedule and stuck to it, everything worked out as planned. While it seemed like a large time commitment, it now appears I had nothing but free time. I simply had to choose which activity I wanted to do. So I ran. I trained for a marathon in all sorts of places: around Central Park; down the dingy West Side Highway before it was glamorized by today’s High Line Park; from my parents house in Alexandria to Mount Vernon and back; around the beaches of Southport, Connecticut and it’s beautiful Gold Coast of historic mansions; along the shores of Lake Michigan. I ran with the encouragement of the New York Athletic Club and all the privileges membership has. And I crushed the race. I ran from Staten Island to Central Park, through every borough of New York. I saw silent spectators with long corkscrew curls and yarmulkes in the Hasidic Jewish part of Brooklyn. I caught Halloween candy from kids in Harlem. I ran past college buddies along First Avenue, and felt like a Super Bowl quarterback when I came out of the tunnel on 59th street and heard the roars of thousands of people. I ran so fast my husband missed our check point on the corner of first avenue and 75th. I arrived 15 minutes early while he was in line for a bagel and coffee. My aunt had to relocate from her spectating restaurant to Central Park to track me down. I ran the damn thing in 3:47, before chip timing which means my clock started with the shotgun -the 22 minutes of wading through other runners to get to the start line counted and I still beat my goal. I swore I would never do it again since I would never beat my time.
So how did I end up in Chicago on October 9? As a mother of 3, I have to go to extremes to get a vacation. It was a 40 year-old thing, a dare to myself. Do I have the time to train? The legs to run? The desire to finish? After a lot of wine last March I convince two friends, both of whom had done one marathon before and were now 40, we could do this. We signed up for the Chicago marathon based on these facts: Chicago is flat, friendly, a great city and cold. 3 out of 4 ain’t bad. Unfortunately, if I got to choose I would have forgone friendly or flat before temperature. The sun was strong. When we got in the corral I paniced, having not written my name anywhere and knowing how important it is to hear people call out during the race. I had to pee at mile 1. I drank water and gatorade at every mile. I took every sponge of ice water and squeezed it on my face. I ran through every sprinkler to get cold water. I got a blister in my left arch at mile 13. I started cramping at mile 16. I saw Elvis, jogging in his long white pant suit, but apparently he was not able to hold IT before he got to a port-a-potty. At mile 17, a bank thermometer read 85. Eventually, I was too tired to even cross the street in order to get refreshment. Because of the heat, I saw more runners down on the course than I had ever seen. I was impressed by the number of fans but Idid not really look up from the pavement to notice where I was. This was a greatly different race from New York City 13 years ago. And I am a greatly different runner.
On Friday I placed a tattoo on my arm which gave a per mile time break down to beat 4 hours. It is a standard goal among runners- impressive but attainable. I was on track, running miles in 8:50 or better. I began to believe I would break 4 because I have a “kick” when I run; I finish faster than I start. But on Sunday, I did not. At mile 22, I got slower and slower and saw my goal slip away in 15 second increments. I could do nothing about it. For the final 400 meters, I got faster but not enough. I finished in 4:01:45.
In the grand scheme of things, I am proud of my accomplishment. I finished 9,075 among 45,000 registered runners. I finished 2,247 among all women, and 323 for my age group category. Considering I trained when I could -around ballet lessons, soccer coaching, and an overly programmed life, I am thankful. Thinking about William Caviness of Greensboro, a 35 year old firefighter who died with 500 meters to go, I am humbled. There are no guarantees anymore. Rarely are their even guidelines to tell you which way to go.
I think about Mary, with her life planned, knowing she was betrothed to Joseph the carpenter. It probably looked do-able. Normal and predictable. But then came the angel and all bets were off. A virgin carrying God’s son, a messenger to save the world. Who knows how to plan for that? The Bible is given to us as a training guide. It gives us stories and lessons showing us how to live. But the balance between running this earthly race and living a Godly life are challenging. Unknown and hard. They are like running a marathon. You may not be prepared. It may get hotter than you think. So I put one foot in front of the other, hoping to finish the race.