The Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Done: Running the LA Marathon

It’s official. Running is a mental illness. I’m counting down the days until marathon running is entered into the DSM. It’s only a matter of time. Four days ago I finished the LA Marathon—however reluctantly. Nothing in my life has challenged me physically and mentally like those 26.2 miles. The experience was leaps and bounds more difficult than my first marathon.

Let me get the bummer stuff out of the way. The LA Marathon just isn’t for me. As much as I love Los Angeles (and I do, deeply), running across it did nothing for me. I thought the experience of bipedally moving from the east side to the west, unencumbered by traffic and a vehicle, would instill a great deal of civic pride in my heart. It did not. The first six miles were great. Brad was still running with me. We trotted through the streets of downtown Los Angeles discovering little gazebos and walkways that you just don’t notice when you’re in a car. I felt fresh and strong, and the city looked great. Once the race got really hard (which I’ll get to in a minute) the city lost its luster and no amount of drag performers in WeHo or palm trees on Rodeo Drive could cheer me up.

I wanted to run the Walt Disney World Marathon because I knew that no matter how hard the running got or how bad I felt physically, I would be in my happy place. I thought the environment would act as a stimulant when my legs wanted to give out, and I was right. My old pal Mickey got me through. I loved running through the world of Disney because the whole place made me happy. I love Los Angeles but my associations with the city are not that pure. There are certain neighborhoods and streets that feel like happy places and others that feel like haunts. I’d pass down a street near where I used to live years ago and think, “Oh that was a tough time in my life.” Who wants to be reminded of such chapters of one’s life when doing the hardest thing you’ve ever attempted to do? Total bummer. No, LA has way too many complex emotional associations to make for a good marathon environment.

Another benefit to Walt Disney World was that I did not know the geography. I had no idea how far it was from Animal Kingdom to Hollywood Studios so I couldn’t think about the many miles from point A to point B. Not knowing the terrain forced me into the moment and the mile at hand. Very beneficial. In Los Angeles, however, I am all too acutely aware of how far it is from Hollywood to Brentwood and so when running down Sunset Blvd I felt completely crushed by the thought of making it allllll the way to Wilshire. Are you kidding me? I have to run to Crescent Heights? I’m only at Sunset Junction! Not possible! When it comes to running those kinds of distances, ignorance is bliss.

I live in Venice and I work in Glassell Park. For those of you who don’t know LA geography, Venice is as far west as you can go, and Glassell Park is about as far east as you can go and still say you’re in Los Angeles. In short, I traverse the entire city from west to east and back again—every—single—day. Why did I think going from the “Stadium to the Sea” would hold any novelty for me? It felt like my commute.

My last beef with the LA Marathon is logistical. WHY IS IT SO HARD TO ORDER ENOUGH BATHROOMS TO ACCOMMODATE 26,000 PEOPLE? I swear. It seems that every race I do skimps on the port-0-potties and I seriously don’t understand it. There’s no way to irritate a runner faster than a) run out of water or b) not provide enough bathrooms thus causing said runner to have to wait in line when she should be running. This is exactly what happened. I may have had one too many garlic knots the night before at C&O Trattoria but I had to make two bathroom stops during the marathon. Guess how long I waited in line? Go ahead. Guess.

20 minutes.

What?! That is unacceptable. I was already having a painfully slow race but to add an extra 20 minutes to my time, and then another 10 minutes for the second bathroom stop, that is heartrendingly significant. We all paid a lot of money to run this thing. Can’t we go to the bathroom in a timely manner? Oh and the first john I used ran out of toilet paper. Not cool. I mean there just aren’t a lot of options in that scenario.

So those are the reasons both personal and logistical that I won’t be running the LA Marathon, specifically, again anytime soon. I’m glad I did it. I was curious. But now I know.

More bummer stuff—I’m ashamed of my time. Listen, I never ever judge anyone else’s running pace. I don’t believe there is a certain speed at which you become a real runner. It’s personal. A 10 minute mile may be slow to one runner and unattainably fast for another. To Meb, an 8 minute mile is a very gentle jog. I can’t even imagine. We run to discover our capabilities and ranges, and learn to perform within them. Me? At my best, I’m a 10 minute mile runner on a 5k, an 11 on 10k, and an 11:00-11:30 on a half marathon. Knowing that range I believe in my heart of hearts that I should be able to do a marathon between a 12:00-13:00 minute mile. I believe I can do that.

This marathon clocked in at a 15:00. Part of that was due to the half hour I wasted using the loo, but even taking that out of consideration I generally clocked about a 14:00 on my Garmin. Here’s the thing. I’m not a 15 minute mile runner. I’m not a 14 minute mile runner. I’m just not. So even though I finished the race and got my medal, I feel beat. I feel like the course and the day got the best of me. Even though my mom keeps telling me I should feel proud, I don’t feel proud. Two in and I’ve yet to perform a marathon at my potential.

There was a litany of reasons specific to where I’m at right now as a runner that made this race so slow and painful. The greatest challenge I faced going in was that I was injured for about 50% of my training. By the time I hit the double digit training runs I was almost crippled by shin splints. Even on 3 mile runs I could barely get my time below a 12:30 minute mile. Brutal. I was this close to skipping the marathon after I barely finished a 16 mile run. It was an “oh what the hell” attitude that got me to sign up, not any kind of belief in my strength.

I was injured, and I was overweight. Look, I like myself. I like my body. Maybe if I were a bit more dissatisfied on an emotional level it would be easier to lay off the calories that have put this extra weight on my frame. But alas, I’m fairly confident in my skin and didn’t feel all that motivated to slim down for this race that I wasn’t even that enthusiastic about running in the first place. To be overweight as a runner is tough stuff. It makes your job ten times harder. It is precisely the same thing as a fit person with no body fat trying to run 26.2 miles wearing a forty pound lead suit. It would slow anyone down. I don’t need to lose forty pounds but I could stand to lose twenty-five. I think if I did that, that might be the only missing link to my elusive 5:30 marathon.

So what was it like to run a marathon with all of those things working against me? As I said on Instagram, I can’t imagine anything in the world—short of torture and maybe childbirth—harder than running that race. (I’ve actually heard several women tell me that giving birth was easier for them than running a marathon, so there you go). I hit a wall at mile thirteen. THIRTEEN. It’s normal and expected to hit a wall at some point but usually it’s around 18. Then you work through it until about mile 21, and you’ve got the last 5 miles on adrenaline. I hit it with HALF OF THE RACE LEFT TO RUN. Besides a few brief and fleeting runner’s high moments, I pushed against that wall for the entire rest of the race.

What does it mean to hit a wall? I think the best way to imagine it is literally. Imagine running in place, now push up against a wall. Now don’t stop. Now keep doing that for five hours. Now imagine there are thousands of people around you running right through the wall but you still have to push against it. Now imagine the feeling like you’re not getting anywhere even though your feet are moving in a manner that would suggest forward motion. Now imagine that this is your fate for all time. Like Sisyphus, you are to push against this wall for eternity. Now imagine you feel more alone than you’ve ever felt in your life. Now imagine the time you felt like the biggest failure in the entire universe. Now feel like that. Now magnify that feeling by ten. Keep pushing against that wall. Now imagine you’re nauseous. Now imagine your mouth is on fire but no matter how much water you drink your mouth is still thirsty, but you can’t drink more because then your stomach will be even more nauseous. Now imagine a car just rolled over your feet.

It’s kind of like that.

It is so difficult to put the struggle into words because I don’t actually remember any of it. I remember it intellectually, but I don’t remember the pain. Nature does this as a defense mechanism so we’ll repeat painful things like childbirth without hesitation, but I’m not sure Mother Nature anticipated the effect on marathon runners. I imagine her looking down on us from some celestial treehouse shouting “You guys! Stop it! I wiped the pain memory for making babies! Not for this! This is ridiculous!” Runners don’t listen though. I don’t remember the pain. Which is what has led me to my next question…

Which marathon should I run next?

At mile 20 I promised myself I would draft a document and have it notarized stating that I was not allowed to run another marathon. Ever. Three hours after I’d finished I started doing the math in my head to figure out how much I’d have to save to do Walt Disney World in 2018. I’m telling you. It’s a certifiable mental disorder. Despite the tears running down my face (there were many), despite the pain, the doubt, the struggle—I want to do it again. I understand masochism now. Something about pain and struggle brings us closer to our potential and a divine truth.

Can you tell I’m Catholic?

In all honesty, this race was a spiritual experience. Perhaps it’s the season of Lent that has me meditating deeply on the concept of struggle. When I ran up against that wall I wasn’t running on strength. I had none. I wasn’t running on willpower. I had none. I wasn’t running on grit. I had none. I had nothing. Nothing left. I had to pull from something higher than myself. And whether or not you believe that’s a real thing or just a mind trick, it doesn’t really matter and I don’t really care. It only mattered that it worked. And that higher power—that pull on a force of energy beyond myself—was absolutely the only thing that got me across that finish line. Oh and this song by The Killers.

“I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.” You see this quote a lot in the running world. You’ll see it written on people’s bibs, printed on people’s shirts. Meb has it listed as the only thing on his Twitter bio. The first time I saw a runner with this passage printed on her running shirt I scoffed. Pfft. I’m a Catholic but I’m not really on board with the whole divinity of Jesus thing. It’s confusing. I’m a bad Catholic. I just don’t believe all the magic miracle stuff, but I do believe that Jesus was an amazing figure with an absolutely incredible story. I love all the rituals, and I love good stories. So what does that passage really mean? It doesn’t have to mean that the magic of Jesus helps win races. It can mean that if you want it to. If you need it to. If it does to you. To me it is the story of the universe—that there is a force which unites all of us. This thing—this energy—is there for us to call on when we need to endure. It is pure goodness and grit. It is mystery and it is power. It is outside us and within us. It never runs out. It never hits a wall. Whether you call it Christ or God or The Force or the Universe, I think the important point is that it is something eternally strong that exists outside of you, but flies like a kite with its string tethered directly to your own heart. And to the heart of every human walking the earth. I accessed that magic on Sunday. I let myself fly that kite, and it is the only reason I finished.

So what were the upsides to running the LA Marathon? Oh of course there were many. That divine revelation thing was pretty cool. Seeing so many friends on course made my heart explode. (Seriously guys, you have no idea how much you helped). I learned a ton. You can’t go halfway on something that hard and expect satisfying results. I didn’t— couldn’t—go all in on my training and I should have adjusted my expectations accordingly for finishing the race. Manage your expectations. Always a good life lesson.

I’m fired up for next time. I may have thrown out the contract prohibiting me from running again, but I left a few provisions. I won’t sign up for another marathon until I’ve dropped 20 pounds. And I won’t sign up for another marathon until I’ve found one that I’m really excited about. I may only have one marathon left in me and if that’s the case I have to see what I’m capable of. Where I run is just as important as how I run. Unfortunately I have top shelf taste. I’d love to run Rome more than anything. Hmm.

It was a true treat to run this race with my husband and Neiman. Even though we didn’t run it together, we were together, you know? Neiman finally broke his 4 hour marathon goal (see what I mean about relativity with pace? that is crazy fast), and Brad made his goal of running the entire race without any walk breaks and he made a great time too. Good job boys.

I learned about struggle. I’m a very laid back and casual person. I’m not Type A. I don’t like things to be hard. This serves me in that I’m a very happy person most of the time. What I learned about myself in this race is that I associate struggle with failure. When things got hard running this race the negative thoughts FLOODED in. I couldn’t keep them out. A true athlete encounters physical struggle, but they win the race by winning the game between their ears. I didn’t lose this marathon with my shin splinty legs. I lost it with my mind.

If running marathons were easy everyone would do it. Everyone doesn’t do it so the struggle makes the difference. If getting a book published were easy everyone would do it. Getting my book published is, as it turns out, very much in the not easy category, so I have to embrace the struggle as a sign pointing me toward success. Insert any dream or goal and the same is true. Struggle is the stuff. It’s the troll guarding the bridge that you either have to fight, escape, or trick into letting you pass. Rejoice when you encounter the struggle troll. Then kick his ass.

Oh and my skirt was really cute.

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There’s more to share but I think it’s time to move on. On to the next race. I’ll take a break from marathon running for a couple of years, but marathon—I’m coming for you. We don’t get to break up like that.

Some photos.

 

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Lovers getting married at Mile 11.

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Completely unappreciative.

Happy running friends!

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One thought on “The Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Done: Running the LA Marathon

  1. OMG. What an amazing post Becky. My favorite is when you got all spiritual on me… Not use to that, but so beautifully put. “there is a force which unites all of us. This thing—this energy—is there for us to call on when we need to endure. It is pure goodness and grit. It is mystery and it is power. It is outside us and within us. It never runs out. It never hits a wall. Whether you call it Christ or God or The Force or the Universe, I think the important point is that it is something eternally strong that exists outside of you, but flies like a kite with its string tethered directly to your own heart. And to the heart of every human walking the earth. I accessed that magic on Sunday. I let myself fly that kite, and it is the only reason I finished.” Oh. It was very funny too.

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