Marathons Don’t Get Easier

Last weekend, my five-year-old niece came with her mother from Oregon to visit me in Baltimore. While rushing to catch the MTA bus after a day at the inner harbor, my niece dropped to the ground and sat cross-legged with her face in her hands. “I’m tired,” she announced, and sat stiff as a statue right in the middle of the city sidewalk.esmaa

I am not tired I am not tired I am not tired, I tried to convince myself, starting at mile 11 of the Baltimore Marathon. I was not tired; I was fighting. I felt pains in new places. My sore toe on my right foot seemed to grow, suffocating all the flesh in the foot. Then something strange happened: my left foot screamed of the same pains.

Every time I tried to lift a foot, I felt resistance beginning with my toes and spreading atop my foot, like strings too tight to give. Running hurt. And walking, too, like the excruciating form of running, with pains exaggerated in slow motion. I passed the 12-mile marker and thought about alternatives: what about cartwheels? Or hand-walking? Well, I never could do a cartwheel, or hold a handstand for more than a half a second.

So I trudged along, foot by foot.

At the water stop around mile 17, I put my hand out for hydration, and the senior citizen volunteer retracted the cup. Hurting too badly to process what was going on, I waited for him to give me water. “Smile first,” he commanded.

I didn’t realize that I hadn’t been smiling. I am known for smiling all the time, and especially while running. To be told to smile felt like a slap on the face. But before I knew it, I was smiling, partly to obey the old man, and partly to laugh at my pitiful, un-smiling state.

I gulped down the water and willed the fluids to wash away the pain. Bad idea. Side stitches accompanied me for the next few miles.

Smiling became difficult again, and I had to remember to periodically fold my lips into an upside down arch, especially for the camera.

Around mile 18, I ran into Bob Hilson, founder of the Baltimore Pacemakers. He asked how I am doing, and I answered, “struggling.” We talked about how hard it is to run 26.2, and we reached an epiphany: marathons don’t get easier.

I began the race feeling confident. Swollen toe? No big deal, I have 9 good toes. Plus, I had run two marathons before, and the third would be a party. My friend, Helen, who kept me company for the first half of the race, warned me that the party ends after the first 10 miles.  My response: No, the party starts after mile 10.

Then, my party ended before it started. I finished the 10th mile humbled and perplexed. This is my 3rd marathon; why is it not yet second nature to run 26.2 miles? Shouldn’t this marathon be easier than the last? Apparently, in a marathon, each event is almost independent of other events. One needs to train from scratch each time. The fact that I ran a marathon last year would not qualify me to run a marathon tomorrow. I need to train, starting from my everyday 5-mile distance, and build up to 26 miles. Even with sufficient training, I shouldn’t expect it to be easy. Casualties emerge in the weeks or days before a race—a blister on the heel, a tightness in the legs, or a busted toe; and although these may be signs to stop, most of us are too stubborn to listen. After making the marathon intention, we make the marathon action.

Even if everything went as planned, I don’t think that the marathon would get successively easier. It is supposed to hurt. Legend has it that the person who invented the marathon, Pheidippides, collapsed to his death when he finished his first. Nevertheless, his legacy lives with all of us who repeat his feat year after year. Why?

The reasons we marathon are too many to list right now. Suffice it to say that the challenge is a part of the allure.

Every year I forget that the marathon will hurt. This year, I put it in writing to remind myself. When I gave my dad the race report, he advised me against running such long distances “I think you should take a break.”

There were many points throughout the race, in which, I yearned to take a break. I wanted to sit on the streets of Baltimore, cross-legged, with my face in my hands, and find myself magically at the finish line. A day later, time has matured the five-year-old in me. I think I will run another marathon inshaAllah.