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Life is a Marathon

Whether you run or not

I run.

I’ve run nearly 20 marathons and countless half-marathons. Pre-lockdown, I was running three half-marathons and one full (26.2 mile) marathon a year, dragging my whole family to races all over the state of California.

If this makes me sound like one of those crazy people who laces up and hits the road every day, then sorry to disappoint, because I’m not that person. I don’t really get the “runner’s high;” I’ve probably felt euphoric one total mile in the hundreds I’ve run. The rest have been misery, or, at best, meh. But I’ll take meh or even misery, because that’s not why I run.

Not me (photo by author)

But I do run, and I finish every race I start.

I finish, though my pace is glacial. My personal record (“PR” in runner-speak) was my virgin marathon in 2006, and it’s been downhill, result-wise not slope-wise, from there. I’m the runner they reopen streets behind — or ahead of — because I’m one of the last to reach the finish line.

One time on a marathon in Rancho Palos Verdes, I was plodding along, the rest of the pack well ahead of me. I watched them pull up all the cones, mile markers, and water stations and load them into a flatbed, then drive away, leaving me high and dry with just a paper map of the course. My phone was dead and no help. I celebrate that run with a pendant that says, “27.4 miles. I got lost.” But I finished that one, too.

I know I have privilege. Like many sports, running is expensive. Obscene race registration fees, travel expenses, shoes, hydration, fuel, safety and support equipment, access to medical care for injuries, and many other costs can make running unaffordable. And, of course, millions of people physically cannot run. I run because I can, always aware that many cannot.

I run because life is a marathon. Hard. Humbling, at times humiliating. I run because every time I accept a finisher’s medal, I trade in my license to whine.

Because every mile is a metaphor.

Birth at the starting line

You’ve been up since 3:30, and now you’re standing in a corral, shoulder to shoulder, gut to butt with five, ten, twenty, fifty thousand souls. It’s a very intimate moment. All races, gender identities, ages, and abilities, are siblings in a predawn frosty womb, waiting for birth.

Labor starts when the air horn blows or the pistol fires. If you’re an elite runner in the first corral, you’re on your way with no complications. If it’s your first marathon and you’re in the back of the pack, 40,000 runners away from the starting line, even getting to the starting line can take a while. But rich or poor, old or young, you all cross the starting line with 00:00:00 on the clock. At that moment, you’re all tied for first place.

How you finish is up to you. 26.2 miles, a lifetime to go.

Pace yourself at mile 1

Testing paces, tortoise or hare. It’s tempting to be a hare and forget that every tortoise, plodding along, conserving energy, not stopping, maintaining momentum, will cross the finish line. The hares will get far ahead — at first — but then they’re going to stop to rest, rehydrate, and refuel.

When the hares stop to take care of themselves, the tortoise doesn’t, because he’s been doing that all along. This mile is about patience. Perseverance. Persistence.

You’re not going to get through life at top speed. Slow and measured will get you there, or you need to be prepared for rest breaks or brick walls between sprints. Pace yourself.

Lead on, tortoise; beware, hare. 25 miles to go.

A leg up at mile 3

Here’s Bunker Hill in downtown L.A, a hill so steep the pavement’s in your face. Slow down. Take it step by step, one foot in front of the other. It’s hard, but not impossible. If you can make it to the drum line near the crest, the friendly drumbeats will carry you the rest of the way. People will help, if you let them.

You made it. You conquered the big hill. Breathe, enjoy the win, and remember the other hills ahead; you have to crest the hill in front of you before you can see the next one. But now you know how: one step at a time and accept help when offered.

23 miles left.

Support at mile 6

A marathon is proof of the inherent good of most people. All the volunteers who got up at 3 AM, battled traffic, and stood on their feet for hours at the starting line, serving runners bagels and coffee. All the runners collecting blisters, rashes, sunburns, and sore muscles, many of them for friends, family, and causes. They’re pounding the pavement for people who can’t, for people dying without a cure.

All the people standing in front of homes and businesses, cheering on strangers, holding up funny signs until their arms are ready to fall off or slicing thousands of oranges and bananas to fuel runners through their next mile.

At a basic level, we want fellow humans to thrive. That’s why our species is still here after centuries of natural disasters, predators, and war.

20 more miles.

Trust at mile 10

Superheroes walk and run among us.

One time I was trotting along, feeling just groovy, a perfect playlist in my ears and on pace for a personal record. Then I stepped in a pothole, tripped, flew a few feet, and landed face down on my hands and knees. Without missing a beat, two runners scooped me up and plopped me right back on my feet as they kept going, a quick glance back to make sure I was okay.

Humans try to do the right thing. A few bad apples, but the rest of us are basically good, ready to act when circumstances demand. Yes, even these days.

16 miles to go.

Point of no return at mile 13

A few years ago, driving, drenching, rain that didn’t let up turned the L.A. Marathon into the L.A. Soakathon. At times it felt like someone was hurling barrelfuls of cold water at me. It only took a mile to get wet through and through, and as I ran, soggy clothes rubbed and chafed and blistered body parts I usually don’t think about.

Fortunately, my feet were intact so I kept going.

Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood at the run’s halfway point was a fast-moving river a foot or two deep. I could have used a whitewater raft, but all I had were legs, so I sloshed on, step by step, tempted to ditch the soggy shoes and embrace the barefoot trend.

But here was the literal point of no return and the only way was through. It helped to know that in just a couple of miles, I’d be on Santa Monica Boulevard where a line of gorgeous drag queens was waiting, ready to shower love, glitter, and magic on our wet weary souls, enough to carry us home.

Trial by fire at mile 19

In sunny California, you’re far more likely to roast than drown. At some point in every marathon, the sun throws down the gauntlet and dares you to give up or face the consequences. Heatstroke. Dehydration. Sunburn.

In Los Angeles, that’s Mile 19. No shade, rolling hills that are mostly up, not much down. Every time I leave Beverly Hills, I brace myself for shake and bake on Santa Monica Boulevard through Century City and Westwood.

But this is the last real trial. You can smell the ocean air ahead. Make it through this crucible, and you’re on San Vicente Boulevard — fast, flat, and flanked by friendly trees.

Relief and reward are just around the corner.

The finish line

You can see it ahead. Even if you’re sun-scorched, it’s not a mirage. It’s the finish line and you’re going to cross it.

Tears— of pride, pain, and accomplishment — are pouring down your face.

You made it. They hand you a space blanket because even if you’re melting, you’re going to get chills. They hang a medal on your neck. It’s huge. It’s kitschy. And it’s HIDEOUS. But, big as it is, it’ll never measure up to how you feel right now.

Take on the world, because you already have.

The bottom line

I know that running a marathon is impossible for many, for a host of reasons. But if you have the health and resources, you should. It doesn’t matter how long it takes or if you walk all the way. You may not find it enjoyable, but you will find it extraordinary.

There’s a reason marathons show up on bucket lists. There’s a reason that people who run one marathon, often find themselves, like me, doing it again and again. Ask anyone who’s done it. You may not share my milestones and insights, but your own will be just as illuminating.

Godspeed. See you at the finish line.

Originally published by a Grain of Infinity in The Authentic Eclectic on Medium in December 2021.

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