As I waited for the cramping to ease, two thoughts crossed my mind – the first was that nothing was going to stop me from crossing the finish line; the second was the hope that I could still finish the race under four hours, my prerace goal, if my body would allow me.
After thanking the police officers and explaining to them that I would not need further assistance, I proceeded to stand up and hobble along the course, determined not to let my latest setback end my race prematurely. But disappointment began to slowly seep in as the race went on. With less than a mile to go, I had come to accept that after more than six months of training, I would not accomplish the goal I had set for myself when I committed to run my second marathon – and the first, I had hoped, in which I would be uninjured.
My earliest memory of running was during my time at Wheaton Woods Elementary School in Rockville, Md. As part of our annual field day, a series of athletic competitions for each grade, students would run several laps around the school’s grass field.
Running, I figured, was not for me when I finished the run second to last in my class. The student who finished behind me wore baggy sweat pants and spent the entire race trying to keep them from falling down.
That feeling continued when I somehow convinced myself to join the indoor track team my freshman year at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Md. I quickly discovered that I lacked the natural talent or motivation many of my teammates possessed to put in the miles during our training runs. I had never run beyond two consecutive miles at that point, and would not until many years later.
In college at the University at the Maryland, any attempts to continue running did not last long. Living just a few feet from the gym did not increase my enthusiasm for running, nor did signing up for jogging class (yes, this class existed). A friend from college recently messaged me after I posted a photo of my marathon-training group on Instagram and asked, “Remember when you hated running?” (Yes, I do.)
It wasn’t until a few years after college that I decided to attempt to run a 5-minute 30-second mile, which was the goal I set for myself in high school that I never accomplished (my best time was 5:48). I had not raced in the mile since and was at least a minute off my goal when I began training.
Armed with a determination that being young and healthy meant I was not allowed to make any excuses, it became my singular focus that summer. I planned my schedule around track practices, showing up early in the morning, or late at night after GRE prep class. A high school student approached me after one particularly tough workout and asked for whom I was running. Caught off-guard, I simply replied, “Myself.”
The hard work paid off and I ended the summer running a 5:30.1 mile. Feeling inspired by my accomplishment, I decided I would start signing up for longer distance races. I haven’t stopped running since.
Sunday’s race went according to plan for the most part. The weather was far more humid than I had anticipated, but I went through the first half in the pace I wanted. There were moments between Miles 17-20 near the National Mall where I felt tightness in my calves, but nothing that forced me to stop. I did not hit the runner’s wall until Mile 21 on the 14th Street Bridge.
By that point, my pace had slowed by nearly 45 seconds per mile, and the tightness in my legs became more frequent. I told myself to tough it out and slow down, but a few miles later, the cramping became too severe and I was forced to stop for several minutes.
I alternated running and walking the last two miles and gathered my strength as the cheers grew louder and the finish line came into view.
While I felt I had let myself down when I walked through the throngs of runners after the race, I am grateful for the encouragement I received. From my training group, to my friends and family, to the spectators, Marines and volunteers who cheered on the runners, it was truly a network of support.
Despite my disappointment, I am glad to have been able to experience the Marine Corps Marathon the last two years.
And even before I hobbled across the finish in 4:06:20, I had made the decision to run another marathon. I told myself I would train harder next time. I would make fewer excuses, and eat smarter. I would find time to put in the miles even on the days when I might not feel like it.
Any disappointments along the way to reaching my running goals will just make the eventual success feel even better. I just have to keep running.