The training for my first half marathon has come to an end. The only thing left to do is run it. I tallied up the number of miles I’ve run since January, when I began to think about taking on this goal. I was amazed to find that it added up to over 300 miles. Not bad for someone who has never considered herself a runner.
I haven’t told too many people about this half marathon in my future. It makes me uncomfortable. I am afraid that they will look at me with the same assumptions I used to have about people who were running long distances. I assumed they had some kind of special magic. Like they were born into an elite group known as RUNNERS. And as RUNNERS, this whole running thing came easily.
I haven’t felt worthy of people assuming these things about me. Because I have no special magic and running is certainly not something that has come easily.
When I do talk about it, I find myself wanting to tell people my story so they realize that this accomplishment, when it happens, was never on my to-do list. I had labeled myself a non-runner a long time ago. I had no plans to take up this challenge until one thing led to another…one foot landed in front of the other over and over again…and 300 miles later, I’m doing it.
There was a time when I said, “I could never run five miles.” Now I say, “I haven’t run 13.1 miles YET.” The difference is not simply one of semantics.
But to really understand that, you’d have to go back to the beginning.
Almost 20 years ago I was a spectator at a marathon for the first time. I was dating someone who was running it. So my girlfriend and I, hungover from a night of partying, filled our to-go mugs with Bloody Marys and parked ourselves along the race route.
I remember watching with horrified fascination as these people willingly put themselves through what looked like hell. Men’s shirts were bloody where their nipples had been chaffed raw. Agonized women staggered by on painfully stiff legs. I saw someone fall. I saw people crying. I couldn’t believe it.
I sipped my drink, shook my head and said with all the wisdom of a 23 year old, “Never. Not for me.”
For a long time, running any distance at all was out of the question. After several years I was asked to do a charity 5K. I trained and got myself to the point of being able to run three miles. The day of the race came and, because of my inexperience, I started too fast. Any experienced racer knows this is the worst possible strategy. I quickly exhausted myself and ended up having to walk most of the way.
“You see,” I told myself, “you’re not a runner.”
Years went by and I stayed true to my commitment to no running. Eventually some of my family members began a tradition of running in a Fourth of July race. My parents did the walk. My husband and sister, Toree, would run and often medal. My brother would run, sometimes while pushing a stroller. Pretty soon most everyone was participating. They didn’t always win, but they always had fun.
As for me, some years I was pregnant.
Some years I had a newborn.
Some years I just wanted to drink wine instead.
Finally, I gave in and walked the 5K.
Then I ran the 5K.
I did that for a few years—started training in April, ran the race in July. Then I was done.
“I’m not really a runner,” I’d say. “I just don’t want to be left out of the after race celebration.”
Then, two summers ago my sister, Sara, and I were sitting on the dock after the race. She said, “I need motivation to keep running. We should do the Detroit Marathon Relay.”
At first I thought she was crazy. It sounded impossible. That was a real race and I was not a real runner. But we researched the legs and found that there was a short one—just four miles. We talked and planned and dreamed of being the kind of people who could do it. When we asked Toree and my best friend, Angie, both of whom are experienced runners, of course they agreed. Team Fede-Bohr was born. (Named in honor of our maiden names–Fedewa and Bohr.)
I trained like crazy for that relay. My teammates were contributing distance, so I felt it was my job to at least try to contribute speed. I got down to a 9:40 mile which, for me, is fast. We had a blast training together and running the relay. After the race we celebrated our shared accomplishment and began to think about next year.
“We should do the half,” Sara said to me.
“No way,” I said. “I’m not a real runner. I could barely do this.”
But I couldn’t ignore the cracks that had begun to form around my my non-runner label. I had to admit, when I crossed the finish line after my four mile anchor leg, I kind of felt like a runner.
So I decided to keep running. In January, I begged my friend Jen to do a 5K race with me at the end of February. She agreed. So I ran all through the cold winter months. I pulled on two pair of thermal leggings, layered turtlenecks and sweatshirts, bought running gloves and a headband and faced subfreezing conditions. As long as there was no ice, I ran.
Soon we set a goal to to run a 10K in June. To meet this goal, I kept running and racing. We ran a race in the frigid, drizzly rain of early March and on a glorious day in May. Both races were hard. I had to slow down in order to make sure I could finish. I was frustrated by how much I was running and how hard it still was to run 3.2 miles.
Even so, I kept at it. Steadily my miles increased. One day I realized that by the time I got to mile four, things felt better. Something had changed. Running was getting more comfortable. Having reached this new level of fitness, I worked like crazy to be be ready for my first 10K.
When the day of the 10k arrived, although I was nervous, I felt ready. It was a beautiful June day but it was hot…blazing hot. By the time we started at 9 a.m., it was almost 90 degrees. After three miles, I was so hot I was dizzy. I prayed for a shady spot on the path but that never materialized. I stopped for water. I tried to run again, but my feet felt like bricks. I walked for a bit. Each time I tried to get back to a jog, I couldn’t. I was gasping and sweating and my heart was pounding. In the end, I walked the last half of the race. I was bitterly disappointed. So much work, so much training and for what? The frustration stayed with me for a week.
That let-down was a turning point for me. My old habit of giving up didn’t feel like an option anymore. I had come too far. Instead of deciding that I wasn’t cut out for this, I became determined to finish a 10K. A month later, I did. After that, I officially registered for the Detroit Half Marathon. I was the last member of Team Fede-Bohr to register. In fact, Toree was even doing the Full Marathon. I was definitely afraid of how hard I would have to work to do it; but I was more afraid of how disappointed I would feel if race day came and went and I didn’t try.
As I write this, I am amazed by how much I have changed in twelve months. This time last year I wasn’t sure I could run four miles. Now, I know I will finish 13. I know it will be hard. I know I will struggle. But I know that one way or another, I will cross the finish line–as a runner.
I’ve learned a great deal about myself from all of this. I learned how hard it is to change a notion you’ve held on to for twenty years…especially when in certain ways it protects you. I learned how my own ideas of myself have been my greatest barriers. And I’ve learned it won’t be magic that gets me to mile 13. It will be the same hard work and dedication that got me through the first 300. But I have also learned that a little magic does exist. It is the magic of running with sisters and friends who knew you could do it before you did.