It’s slightly surreal to think that I actually finished a marathon. It’s been on my dream list for so long, right at the top, but although I’ve run 4 incredible half-marathons and loved it, I could never quite make the commitment that I knew a marathon training plan would require. Afraid? Yes, of many things. I was afraid of what it might do to my body, afraid of it taking over my life and becoming an idol, afraid of the massive amounts of time it would take, and I was afraid, maybe more than anything, that I wouldn’t be able to really follow through with it. But still, it was a dream. After reading that in honor of the 25th anniversary of the LA Marathon there was going to be an inaugural course called “Stadium to the Sea” that went past every city landmark and wound its way to the ocean and was predicted to sell out, I decided to go for it. Even then, I didn’t register. There was no way I was confident enough to do that. I went online and pulled up a three month training program (thankfully, I was building on four months of training for a half, so I was already in fairly good shape). Weeks and massive amounts of mileage went by, and I found myself running distances of 14, 16, 18, and 20 miles at a time. It was tough, but surprisingly, doable.
The week before the event I had a complete panic attack. I found myself still struggling to run 5 miles on day 14 of what I thought was a ten day cold, and thinking there was absolutely no way I’d be able to run 26.2 in only a few more days. Dread followed me around like a cloud. “It would be easier to quit now than in the middle of the race.” This thought would pop up in the midst of an already difficult time for me: bad news about my current job; angry, accusing, hurtful words from a student’s parents; no word from dream job with likelihood looking slimmer and slimmer. The haunting question of “Why?” I did a lot of praying, all the while feeling guilty for praying for something that was so temporal.
On the morning of the race, I still felt like a complete wild card. In the words of running legend Alberto Salazar, “At the starting line, everyone is a coward.” As so I was. I started out the first few miles at a slower-than-normal pace, aware of the rookie temptation to go out way too fast in the wake of the crowd’s enthusiasm and crash and burn later on. I wanted to give my body a chance to warm up and get in sync for what was to come. I was glad I did. I had been warned only the day before that the beginning of the course included some hilly terrain, and two steep hills that met me before mile five took out a lot of energy. By mile 5, I was pretty tired. Thankfully, the terrain evened out and I was able to get into a rhythm and enjoy some of the excitement of those around me. It’s a funny thing, but I remember very little from that point on except some vague impressions of Rodeo Drive and Hollywood Walk. What I do remember is the fans. Never in my life had a felt myself feed off the energy of other people in such a tangible way. There were thousands of complete strangers lining the roads for 26 miles, cheering with incredible enthusiasm, holding signs, handing out food and water to anyone who would take it. The overwhelming impression that I got again and again was just a feeling of support. Those people were there for me. They wanted me to succeed and were there to help me do it. Mile 8 I realized that God was giving me my dream. So many things could have gone wrong up to this point. If I had gotten sick even a week later, had that ache in my knee progressed, had my eye issue been serious, had I gotten food poisoning the night before, none of this could have happened. Instead, I realized that healthwise I felt fantastic. Besides the normal pain of running a long, long way, I had zero pain in my hip that I was afraid could turn into a major issue, my lungs felt completely clear after being congested for 3 weeks, and I had all the energy I needed even though I’d slept about 3 hours the night before. The weather was at a perfectly cool temperature, and I’d even had some amazing friends who were willing to drag themselves out of bed at the crack of dawn to come watch. Why would God be so good to me? He knows how much I love this, and what a beautiful gift He was giving.
A marathon is a mental battle if it is anything. I went through very steady waves after about mile 10 of complete despair and not being able to eak out one more mile: “I can’t. There’s no way. It’s way too far. This is crazy,” not even letting myself think about the fact that I wasn’t anywhere near even halfway done, to a confident feeling that I was right on pace with no serious pains anywhere: “I am nailing it!” I distinctly remember one lady at a low point in the race when I was struggling just to put one foot over the other. It must have been written all over my face, because she made eye contact with me, and pointed, shouting, “You can do it! Don’t give up! Keep going!” Another woman held a sign that caught my eye, “You know who you are. Now go for it.” It seemed strange, even in my trancelike state, that I would get so emotional over a few simple words. But at that moment, they meant a lot. This was the culmination of lot of long, hard, lonely miles, that helped to show me who exactly I was, and I knew. God had given me this passion, these legs that worked, and somehow, the perseverance to get this far. It may have no eternal value, but it is part of the way He made me. I would praise Him in this.
I had heard a long time ago that the last 6 miles of a marathon are equivalent to the first 20. I was thankful that I knew that ahead of time, because it proved to be very true. I had only run 20 miles up to that point, so I didn’t have the history to prove that I really could do 6 more. Mile 21 was incredibly difficult, and I could sense the same thing in the other runners around me. We’re really not done yet? How could this possibly be? (I found out later that this stretch came to be called “Purple Heart Hill,” a double entendre to the location (a Veteran’s Memorial) and the mental wars waged here on this day. Runners started to falter to a crawling, walking pace, and many laid down on the side of the road to stretch out dehabilitating muscle cramps. Some lay flat on their backs with medical personnel coaching them through. We were dropping like flies. I ran into my own problem at mile 22. I still had 4 miles to go, and I had run out of the fuel packs I brought along. Desperate for calories to give me the last bit of steam I needed to finish, I started eating whatever food was offered to me: Pretzels, red vines, Sunny D. None of it did much good until I finally found a blessed little girl who was handing out half bananas. I didn’t even slow down as I chewed and swallowed, and I know I had banana all over my face. Frankly, I didn’t care. That little girl just gave me the golden ticket and I was going to use it for all it was worth. Finally, the course turned to a slight downhill grade and I recognized by the trees lining the road that I was very close to Santa Monica. The weather cooled off quickly as we ran into the fog, and the combined banana, fog, and downhill grade made the perfect combination. I tuned in to the most random of all my song selections: Matishayu’s “King Without a Crown.” The tempo of the song and the lyrics formed a sort of mantra for every step that fit perfectly: “You’re like water for my soul when it gets thirsty….I fight with all of my heart and all of my soul and all of my mind . . . I give myself to you from the essence of my being. And I sing to my God songs of love and healing…. I lift up my eyes, where my help come from? …..” I listened to it on repeat for the entire rest of the race. “Four more miles, Heath. This is what you’d do on an easy run. You have this.” It all seemed to click, and I just ran. It hurt, but it felt right. Finally, the course turned sharply to the left and I realized I was on the PCH parallel to the ocean. This was the final mile. I could see the finish line from over half a mile away, and it was the most beautiful thing in the world. I picked up the pace, knowing I could sustain it for just that much further. I ran past what seemed like thousands of cheering fans lining the road. I could hear them, but I didn’t take my eyes off the finish line to really take them in. I pulled out my earbuds so I could take in the final stretch with all my senses. I felt cold dampness on my face and vaguely wondered if it was the fog or my tears. I didn’t feel like I was crying, but maybe I was. I wondered how I was being propelled forward, where each step was coming from. It didn’t feel like my mind was commanding anything anymore. I kept wondering how I got here and was that I was running mile 26 of the LA marathon: me. Everything was completely surreal. I had no idea how I’d come this far, but I did know it had a lot to do with the One who gave me this day and those strangers around me who were so kind.