by Nicole McArthur, DVM
I run, but I don't consider myself a runner. Probably because my sister IS a runner. In my mind, unless one is running a sub-6 minute pace over long distances, one can not be considered a runner.
I started running in vet school after gaining the proverbial freshman 15. I asked my sister for advice on how to start running... She suggested I walk 2 minutes, run 1 and repeat 5 times. Since I didn't like being outside (and because Davis is HOT), I used the treadmill in my air conditioned apartment complex. I struggled at first, but soon was able to run a mile without stopping. Then two. Then three. I figured a 5K was my limit.
Several years later, my college friend asked me to run a half marathon with her. NO WAY. Well... Maybe. My 40th birthday was approaching, and I thought a scenic journey around San Francisco would be the best way to bid my 30s farewell. To train for this, I applied the same advice my sister gave me all those years ago - I gradually increased my distance until I made it 13.1 miles. And then I signed up for another half. And another. And another.
Kim and me at my first half marathon. Go Giants!
Two years later, my vet school classmate sent me a text inviting me to run a marathon with her. NO WAY. Well... Maybe. If Meera thinks I can do it, I was sure as hell gonna try.
I must admit that my motive to run a marathon was not entirely pure. You see, my sister got a lot of attention for her running accomplishments. She was an NCAA All-American in cross country and track. She was recruited by some well known coaches and ended up on a team sponsored by Nike. She was training for an Olympic marathon when she called me and told me about the toll the hundred mile weeks were taking on her body. She asked me if I thought she should just grind through it or if she should have a baby (damn that maternal clock). I told her to have a baby because it would be easier on her body. So she had a baby. And another. Then another. And another. She never ran that marathon. I knew that I could never be as fast or as graceful a runner as she, but at least I could say that a ran a marathon first.
When I told my husband that I would be running a marathon in the Marin Headlands, he told me 'you're gonna die'. I am not exactly the toughest cookie... But I love to prove him wrong. I looked at the course map and, for some reason, I didn't register the 5,000 foot elevation gain over the 82% runnable course. So I began training and followed a schedule that gradually increased my distance up to 20 miles. And I visited the beastly Training Hill in Auburn weekly so that I could survive climbing those 5,000 feet of hills.
I am not a fast runner, so my long runs would take several hours. Those hours became my salvation: no kids screaming 'mommmmmmmay!', no dishes in the sink, no clients to call back. Just me and the solitude of the trail. I would come home with tired legs, dirty shoes and a rested mind.
Marathon day finally arrived and I was nervous. But I knew that I had put in the training, so I just needed to get out and run. Everything started off well and I was happy.
As the miles added up, I realized I was falling off pace to finish in the allotted 6 hour time limit. My happiness turned to disappointment.
My apologies to the race photographer who caught me at the top of yet another greuling incline:
At the mile 18 aid station, I began stuffing M&Ms trail mix into my mouth as hunger was my prevailing emotion. With each sweet and salty bite, I felt like the end was in sight and I was ready to power through. Until a volunteer approached me and said that I was likely not going to make it to the finish in under 6 hours. She told me that my options were to skip the out-and-back and head straight to the finish totalling about 20 miles, or I could continue unofficially and finish the marathon. I saw a man standing in the aid station after finishing the out-and-back and I asked him how it was. He gave me a look that told me it was torture. With that, my determination to finish my first marathon intensified.
I told the volunteer that I was there to run a marathon, not 20 miles. She told me she needed to take my number. I thought she meant she would write it down... No. She meant she would physically remove my number and I could have it back if she was still there when I returned from the 5 mile out-and-back. She encouraged me to run swiftly so I could finish in time. With a renewed sense of 'fuck you, I can do this!!!' I bombed down the hill. It is easy to run swiftly on a decline. It was the 2.5 miles up the steep grade I hadn't thought about.
After struggling through the uphill, my Garmin indicated I should be close to the aid station, but I couldn't see it. With my hamstrings cramped and burning, I felt the last bit of hope leave my body. I had zero control over my mind and my body and I began to sob. I had failed.
As I wiped away my tears, I saw the volunteer collecting trail markers. I heard her say 'there you are!' as she walked towards me and put her arm around my sweaty, stinky shoulders. We walked up the hill and I was surprised to see the aid station was still standing. She asked the race coordinator if I could finish officially, to which she replied 'of course, honey!'. The coordinator asked if I wanted to check in with the medic and I said 'no, I just want my number back'. She offered to pin it back on me, but I knew every second counted. So I rolled up my number and carried it in my hand towards the finish.
I don't remember much about the last stretch of marathon except that it was beautiful. And it sucked. And that my knees finally forgave me a few weeks later.
I found my classmates cheering for me at the bottom of the hill. And I realized I had accomplished my goal.
Six hours, 8 minutes and 40 seconds after starting, I crossed the finish line, earning the honor of last place.
At 42 years of age, I could call myself a marathon finisher.
I didn't run for a couple of months after that marathon. Partly because I don't like running in the heat while dodging rattlesnakes. But mostly because I was burned out. Training all those months made running a chore and not the zen place I used to love. But after a few months, I found myself missing the trail. It is where my brain slows down. It is where I am free to wander. It is where I find peace. As it turns out, I was running for reasons bigger than achieving a specific goal of finishing a marathon. And recently I began wondering if I should train for another marathon.