Running used to appear on my to-do list somewhere after "read the dictionary" and before "get a lobotomy." Now I'm training for my first marathon -- the 2014 TCS New York City Marathon. Previously, my longest run of all time was somewhere around 3 miles, circa 2004, but I signed up with a charity called Team for Kids and have been conditioning with the group for the past 21 weeks. The experience has been immeasurable, to say the least. That's why when I recently came across Selma Kalousek's New York Times essay about how she, a longtime runner, was able to complete a marathon on "cigarettes and sexual frustration," I felt compelled to shed light on another way people cross the finish line -- through hard work, dedication and camaraderie.
Admittedly, the title of Kalousek's piece intrigued me. I thought I might be in for a tongue-in-cheek read, but as a whole I found the essay to be an utter let-down. It was tragically uninspiring. I wouldn't have thought twice about it, except that her words bothered my teammates. And that bothered me.
I'm by no means an experienced runner. To me, running was an activity saved for catching the subway, or a knee-jerk reaction to seeing a Mister Softee truck turn the corner. Then, when a broken wrist prevented me from enjoying activities like yoga and Pilates, I drew inspiration from my fiancé's dedication to the sport and decided to hit the streets myself.
GPS technology allowed me to indulge my inner nerd, and obsessing over stats helped motivate me to slowly build up my mileage. In less than two months, I was running my first race, a 5-miler on a hot, sunny day in Central Park. After crossing the finish line and realizing, "Oh! I'm not dead!" I beamed with satisfaction. I thought I might even want to do it again, perhaps a longer race. Maybe. One day. That day came in October 2013 after a super-fast runner friend convinced me I could complete the Staten Island Half Marathon. With three months of training on my own, I ran it at a 9:31 pace. I was humbled and proud.
Then I took a six-month hiatus.
I signed up for a second half, the 2014 Brooklyn Half Marathon, but it was clear that I needed goals to stay motivated. When I went to pick up my bib at the pre-race party that May, the air was filled with anticipation and excitement. I would be lying if I said I hadn't been thinking about running a full marathon, but whenever the idea would pop into my head, I would quickly dismiss it as something only bionic humans could do. That all changed when I came across the Team for Kids booth.
I was greeted by Leigh Anne and Gail, a coordinator and a team coach, who explained how Team for Kids raises funds for running programs that combat childhood obesity and foster youth development. We talked about my level of experience and how I had volunteered at a water station with North Brooklyn Runners during the 2013 New York City Marathon. I told them I recalled being infinitely inspired by watching elite athletes zoom by, handcyclers whir past and beginners slog their way along the course. All levels of experience were represented, but each runner tackled the race with the same level of determination. It was impossible to not be moved. The coach and coordinator shook their heads in agreement and insisted I could do it, too. After lurking around the table for an hour and texting three runner friends for added support, I finally mustered the courage to sign up.
Right after I joined the team, I had feelings of panic. What was I thinking? Can I take it back? How can I possibly run 26.2 miles when the longest I've run is half of that? Can I really do this? Now, after training with Team for Kids for the past five months, I'm confident that I can.
There are several ways to gain entry into the New York Marathon, one of which is to join a charity team. A charity team provides coaching, custom training programs and people with which to run in exchange for a fundraising commitment. Team for Kids has several group practices per week, each of which are broken into multiple pace groups. There's room for everyone, no matter if you're fast, slow or somewhere in between. The team draws all kinds, and practices look like a veritable United Colors of Benetton ad. There's an assortment of body types, skin colors and experience levels -- and, while we began as strangers, we're heading for the starting line as friends.
Here's why. You spend a lot of time with your team. There are three weekly runs, the longest of which occurs every Saturday morning (early, very early), and can last for upwards of four hours when all is said and done. During this time, you have nothing to do but talk to your coaches and fellow teammates. The conversations dip in and out of topics like injuries, gear or anxiety, and can get personal. I've discussed everything from the books I'm reading to the horrid chafing I get in the most embarrassing of places. Pleasantries are unnecessary when you're makeup-free, half-awake and stinking with sweat. You form bonds quickly, and if you began as a proud solo runner, you will inevitably turn into a co-dependent one.
You're also spending time with the team online. Social media allows the New York-based group to connect with each other, as well as with teammates from around the world. Every year, team organizers create a Facebook page for the current class of runners, and it soon becomes a hub for teammates to ask questions and air their concerns. In the past few months, I've found myself obsessively checking my mobile app for new posts, and count myself among the amateur doctors and over-sharers that the platform naturally breeds. The page is also a means to reach coaches and mentors, but the virtual therapy sessions between fellow runners, many of whom are first-time marathoners, contribute to another deep layer of our emotional tethering.
We work hard. I can't tell you how many people I've met who began this training program with the same, if not less experience. Week after week, I have been hitting milestones and reaching distances I never thought I could run, while watching my teammates do the same. We've been on alternating cycles of injury and healing, complaining and listening, and have become closer for it. We support each other, and I truly believe that's why we've been able to come so far.
For instance, last Saturday we were scheduled to run 20 miles, which is the longest distance in our training. I couldn't sleep the night before and had been stressing out about it for days. Even though I had been able to complete 19 miles the week prior, an IT band issue has threatened every one of my runs for the last month. Sure enough, it reared its ugly head on the most important run of the program, and I was heartbroken. After braving cold and rainy conditions for over three hours, I decided it wasn't worth bearing the pain any longer and risking a sidelining injury. So, with just two miles left in Central Park, I stopped. One of my coaches was right there and walked the rest of the way with me.
I think he could sense my disappointment, and offered me scientific reasons of why ending my run there didn't matter. I listened, but was distracted by my trembling lip and the growing lump in my throat. As we approached Tavern on the Green, he stopped.
"See that white mark?" he asked, pointing to a small bit of spray paint on the curb. "Do you know what that is?"
I shook my head no.
"That's the finish line of the marathon," he explained.
I almost didn't believe it. This unassuming, seemingly insignificant line meant everything. It represented the culmination of all the work my teammates and I had put in for the last few months, and we had probably passed it dozens of times.
Coach Simon put one arm around my shoulders and looked down at the ground. I followed his lead and stared at our shoes as he said, "All you have to do is get here."
There have been ultimate highs and difficult lows, but as I look back at this experience, I realize that the journey has been the greatest reward. When I consider how much we've accomplished, how we'll be crossing that finish line together but apart, I have to blink back the tears. It wasn't easy. We didn't arrive casually. We got here because of the unparalleled guidance of our caring coaches. We got here through dedication, perseverance, motivation and support. For some people, running comes naturally. For others (read: most people), running is hard. I know my teammates and I put in the work, and at the end of race day, no matter how long it takes us, one thing's for sure: we will make it, and all of our medals will shine the same.