“Your first marathon only happens once.”

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(Disclaimer: this post is longer than usual. So maybe stock up on a snack and a tissue or two, especially if emotional marathon stories make you teary-eyed like me.)

My dream came true when I crossed the finish line of the 2014 Twin Cities Marathon. After 18 weeks and hundreds of miles of training, after relentlessly devoting every fiber of my being to a single goal, I had done it. I had become a marathoner.

I’m not sure anyone can fully prepare you for the intensity and often grueling nature of marathon training. It takes a certain amount of grit, determination, and obsession. Meals, errands, weekend trips, vacations–they all suddenly revolve around your training schedule. But big sacrifices often lead to big rewards.

One training run, in particular, stands out for me. It was the infamous 20 miler. I remember it like it was yesterday. At mile 11, I had stopped to sit on the curb, waiting for my husband to meet me with more Gatorade. I was hot, I was tired, I was in pain, and I didn’t think I could go on for another nine miles. The late morning sun beat down on me as I thought, Why did I ever sign up for a marathon? I was crazy, totally crazy, to believe I could do this.” 

A few minutes later, my husband arrived with more fluids and refused to let me quit. In no uncertain terms, he told me I could do this and to get back out there and finish the run. As I watched him drive away, I was so envious. He was enjoying air conditioning! And he was on his way to a delicious breakfast! Stuffing down my spousal resentment, I dragged myself back on the sidewalk and kept going. Somewhere around 15 miles, the pain started to ebb, and my legs seemed to move all on their own. It was a euphoric feeling, and I finished the run. It was only then that I finally believed that I could really do it. That 26.2 was within reach. Exhausted, I bent over, and I let the tears fall.

The morning of October 5, 2014 dawned cold. Temperatures hovered in the low 30s. I was so nervous I could barely choke down my peanut butter toast and yogurt. My husband dropped my stepdad and me off a short distance from the start, and I nervously sipped some water as we waited. We met another father and daughter running together and chatted with them while trying to keep warm. Finally, the gun went off. When we reached the start line, I thought, “Here we go. This is it.” My stepdad and I had agreed that we didn‘t have a time goal. The only goal that day was to finish. 

The fans were amazing, and I tried to relax and enjoy the race. We smiled, waved, and gave high fives to little kids. We laughed at the funny marathon signs. At mile five, I mentioned I couldn’t wait to do another marathon, because I was having so much fun running this one! My stepdad laughed and said I probably wouldn’t be saying that in another 10 miles. (For the record, I was still saying that after 15 miles.)

We saw my family for the first time at mile eight. My husband said we were cruising and asked if I needed anything (Tylenol? A change of socks? More Gatorade? Some sports beans?). My mom surprised me with a colorful sign she made that said, “Go Elyse! On a scale of 1 to 10, you’re a 26.2.” It melted my heart. She was so proud she had made the sign herself and secretly brought it with her from Chicago.

We ran the first 18 miles before walking. I had started to feel nauseous, and it was the first time I thought I may not be able to finish the race. We slowed down, I caught my breath, I sipped some water, and I began to feel better. After that, we decided to walk the hills. Even though I had trained on them, my quads were tight as a drum.

I tried to take in all the sights and sounds of the race. Amazingly, the time went by quickly. Before I knew it, we had reached the 20 mile mark. Six more to go! I saw a friend at mile 22, and she ran with us for a bit. She told me, “I can’t believe you’re still smiling. No one is ever smiling at mile 22 of a marathon.” (The secret? Walking the hills after mile 18.) 

At the last turn before the finish line, I could feel the tears swell in my throat. I couldn’t believe we had done it. A crazy dancing banana was at the street corner with a boom box. I remember it was hard to laugh when I was trying so hard not to cry. I could hear the announcer welcoming runners down the home stretch and the spectators going wild. I could see my mom, my sister, and my husband shouting from the sidelines. I was running on empty, but I tried to pick up the pace the final two hundred meters. This was it. My stepdad and I crossed the finish line side by side. I had never been more proud in my entire life.

When my family met us after the race, my sister surprised me with the state medal I had earned senior year of high school in the 4x200 meter relay. Before running a marathon, that had been my proudest running moment. As she slipped it around my neck, I wanted to burst into tears. I had given her the medal a year earlier when she started to run sprints in track. I wanted it to remind her of what she could accomplish and inspire her to always do her best. Now she was giving that gift back to me. I wore two medals that day, and each is more precious to me than the world’s most priceless jewels.

It’s true when they say running a marathon will change your life. You find you are so much stronger than you thought possible. During the long training runs, when you’re exhausted and in pain, you learn to fight for those last few miles. When you’re tired or sick or busy, you find a way to muster up enough strength for a run. When people say you can’t possibly work full time, go back to school full time, and train for a marathon, you use that doubt to fuel you on the cold and dark mornings. On days when you question your commitment, your goal, and your ability, you learn to say, “No, I can do this.” You feel elation at covering distances you’ve never ran before, you cry when you have bad runs, and you bite back the pain of an injury. And when you finally cross the finish line, there is no better feeling in the world. The hours and hours of running, of sacrifice, of pain… it’s all worth it to step across a single line that says you are indeed a marathoner. And no one can ever take that away from you. I will never be the same person again, and for that, I am so grateful.


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