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How a Non-Runner Ran a Marathon, and Kicked Ass

Photo courtesy of I love Mozart

I pretty much hate running. 

And, after completing my first marathon last Sunday, my opinion hasn’t really changed. 

It all started when I decided to actually run Bay to Breakers instead of boozing through the race, per usual. I “trained,” since I could barely run two miles, and by race day, seven miles seemed to breeze by easily.

A few weeks later, a friend Facebook announced that she had signed up for the Nike Women’s Marathon. I clicked through the link, and noticed it was a lottery. I was about to sign up for the half, but with six months to fill, I figured what the hell, I’ll never get chosen. So I checked the box for the full, and promptly forgot about it. 

Until one week later, when I received the “Congratulations” email.

In shock, I needed a middle goal, so I signed up for the San Francisco Half. My friend and I thought we might make it in two and a half hours. We finished at 1:52. 

Then, the trouble began. My other friend dropped out of the marathon. And my half friend was over it after the half. I researched running groups, but they mostly wanted to meet up at 7 a.m. on weekends (oh hell no). One had a Do Not logo over headphones on the website (say what?!). I even followed one’s Yahoo group, sometimes breezing through their race reports, planning to meet them for track, and never doing so, out of bad timing and absence and apathy. The one group I occasionally joined were the Run Chuggers, a meet-up that assembles in front of a different bar around the city every Wednesday night for a 4-5 mile loop, then drinks afterward. Yes, this laid back group was much more my speed.

But the nagging question remained. How the hell would I do the really long runs by myself? Well, when there is nobody else to do them with, you just, well, do them, which I did. I certainly learned the lay of the land in San Francisco. On my first 15-mile run attempt, bad planning on my part led to struggling the last few miles on an uphill switchback in the Presidio. Out of water and in terrible pain, I limped over to Divisadero and had to whiningly beg to get on the bus for the last mile home because, of course, my Clipper card had a negative balance. I felt defeated.

Training didn’t get much easier. I didn’t realize that “training runs” take, like, 3 hours. I tried to run on Saturday mornings because then I felt justified, no matter what I was doing the rest of the weekend, to stay out late, drink too much, eat too much, and dance all night. I ran 14 miles today! I would exclaim, my sense of self-entitlement raging.

Six months passed and the 26.2 miles loomed. My training had been reduced to one long weekend run, and maybe one short run during the week. The day before the race, I went to Treasure Island Music Festival, and left early to go home, eat pasta, and drink beer. I couldn’t really sleep. I went to bed at 1 a.m. Woke up at 4:30. Tossed and turned ‘til 5:30. Then got up mumbling to myself, let’s do this. 

nike-womens-marathon

The marathon was grueling. I knew it would be hilly (duh) but what I didn’t consider is I never ran six massive hills in succession. I jogged on cable car cobblestones through most of mile 2, saw the first vomit around mile 3, and witnessed an incredible hot pink ray of sunrise slice through the low clouds at mile 4 – it was the one time I saw the sun during the race, thank god.

Most runners walked the hills, but I used my arms to power up. I only stopped to walk through water stations, because I quickly realized chugging Gatorade while running leads to choking and stickiness. I saw runners trip and fall on the potholed roads, blood gushing from their heads down their bare legs. Others screamed on the sidelines, gripping their legs, as injuries dominated their will. 

The course was gorgeous, most notably on the descent from the peak in the Presidio down towards Baker Beach. The slate gray sky against the calm cobalt Pacific was inspiring, and that, combined with the salt air and sense that the first six miles were behind, gave me an extra jolt of invigoration. 

Around mile 11, the half marathon split off, and me and a few other lonely souls soldiered on from the Dutch Windmill towards the de Young (which is a slow, grinding hill, FYI). My heart sank and I envied the half runners who would be finished in a matter of minutes. I wasn’t even at the halfway point. Holy shit.

By mile 13, both of my Achilles tendons were screaming in hot pain. I felt despondent. Three days earlier, a non-runner friend had given me what proved to be the best advice for race day - run with three ibuprofen. I popped the pills (whose rust color had completely rubbed off in the sweat from my shirt), washed them down with Gatorade, sucked down a chocolate energy gel, drank a cup of water, and about 15 minutes later, something extraordinary happened. I started to blaze - through 14, 15, 16, 17, 18. 

At this point, I was on the Great Highway approaching Lake Merced. I almost took a bathroom break, but spectators occupied the line, so I carried on. 19 miles was the brink, I had never run farther. The massive digital clock on the mile marker read 2:45, a full 20 minutes faster than I had run that length before. I couldn’t believe it. 

At 20 miles, I started to taste the finish. Six more miles seemed manageable, and I knew at 21 there would only be five more, and after that, four. I decided I was bored. I had listened to 6 albums, and was ready to just get this done. All around me, runners paused to walk, stretch, use the bathroom, but I did not. At 23, I turned onto the final stretch of Great Highway. I thought, “If I can actually do this under four hours, it would have blown away any expectation I had. And I’ll never have to, nor want to, do this again.” Kaskade blasted through my headphones and I rationalized that I had spent many nights dancing for 8 hours straight. So I imagined I was dancing, in a club, to some amazing, euphoric house music. As I approached mile 24, I started sprinting. 

I can’t explain the feeling really. It wasn’t pain. It wasn’t despair. I felt numb from my knees, up through my legs, around my hips, I couldn’t really figure out how it was all still moving. I have never been in such an intense, psychological battle with myself in my entire life. I kept telling myself “Don’t stop now. You can stop once you cross the finish. You can stop forever, and never run again. Just don’t stop until you cross that line. Then it will be over.” 

I yearned to see the finish line and with about a half mile to go, I did. I saw the clock, and I knew I would make it if I just pushed a little bit harder. I felt like an out-of-control gazelle attempting to outrun a lion. My arms flailed and my legs complied with my internal demands. I ran those last two miles faster than I’ve ever run in my entire life. 

Will I do it again? No. Because considering I had never run more than two miles less than six months ago, I’m satisfied with 3:57. Like I said, I hate running.

@marypolizzotti

 

Photos courtesy badger_fan_stan