In August of 2000 I took a good look at my life and decided to change it. I was 29, married and the mother of 2 boys. I was also 175 pounds at 5 feet 8 inches, way too heavy and way out of shape. My once-large sister-in-law had started running the previous year and I had watched her turn herself into a vision of awesome health and beauty. I was envious and ready to put in the work needed to find that person who was buried inside myself, the real me.
I had always done some sort of sport, but during the child bearing years I took up cooking and eating and only did the occasional aerobics or walks. My running program was 3 miles, 3 times a week. In the beginning it was very difficult, but after a couple of weeks it went up to 5 miles. Layer after layer of "old-me" fell off and was quickly replaced by a firm, muscular, younger "new me." I didn't always want to give up my precious time to run, but I soon ached, really itched, for the feeling of running, the easy flow of muscles working with lungs and heart. The sweat, the after glow. The weight loss. It was and still is addicting.
After a few months I came across the Paris Marathon web site. It was scheduled for April 8th, 2001, the day before my 30th birthday. Because I live in Holland, a mere 5 hour drive from Paris, I decided to sign up. My husband, Marc, was all for it, "But wait," he said, "until you've done some long runs to make sure you can." I downloaded Hal Higdon's novice training program, printed it and taped it to my kitchen cupboard. Training started in December and went very well until February when I started having problems with my knees.
In March I planned my last 20 mile training run and my knee just gave up on me. Marc had to pick me up and I had to face the idea that perhaps everyone was right. Too much too soon. The other runners in my neighborhood thought that I was ridiculous for evening considering a marathon. They were right and I was beaten. It was cloudy, rainy, cold and depressing. Marc said, "Don't be so black or white Christy. You have your training down, give your knees a couple of weeks rest, we'll go and you'll do your best in Paris. If you can't finish, you can't finish. But we're going and you are going to try. Don't throw all of your hard work away, just rest assured that you can do it. You've proven it on your last two 20 milers and you'll prove it again."
April in Paris...
On Saturday [April 7th 2001] I went to the Expo Center to pick up my starting number, chip and t-shirt. I wandered around asking myself, "What the hell am I doing here? I do NOT belong here.." Every step shot pain up along my knee and I knew that it was all a big joke that I was playing.
The next morning I was up early, dressed, shaky and nervous. The hotel had an early breakfast so I left Marc and the kids sleeping and went down to fuel up. The only other person in the restaraunt was a bulky, bearded, chipper Irishman. He too was running the marathon. We exchanged stories. He had already run 3 marathons, but they were 10 years ago. He took running back up in December and had only been training a couple of months. "And, I just bought new shoes yesterday. A big no-no!" He laughed and made me feel much more comfortable and less anxious about the task ahead of us.
We left for the starting line on the metro. Marc and I had made tentative plans when and where we would see each other, but certainly at the finish. He took out a 10 franc piece and put it in my coin pocket, "Just in case so you can take the metro back to the hotel"
I went along with about 40 other runners and went to the bathroom for the last time at the McDonald's on the Champs-Elysees. Typical Americans, trusty McD's.
I found my 4.30 hour marker and crowded in with thousands of other runners. Marc was swept away in the crowd and I was left alone. I was excited, scared and ready to go. Here I was following my dream! First time in Paris, turning 30, running the damn marathon! With the theme from Chariots of Fire blasting, the gun fired and we were off! Well, almost, it took seven minutes to get to the starting line! People were cheering, runners were laughing and talking and we were going.
I soon heard a New Jersey accent and saw a woman in her 50's who was directing a couple next to her. She told me it was her 38th marathon and that she was a trainer. The man was turning 50 the next day and she had trained him and his wife in Texas for this marathon. She gave me great pointers, "Slow down, kid! You want to go as slow as possible now so that you can run the last 6 miles."
I looked around at all the people: old, really old people were running, young people, one guy with an oxygen tank on his back. One guy was pushing two kids in a stroller. One guy had a dog. There were lots and lots of fraternity boys who sped past and pushed us to the side. There were lots and lots of "serious" runners (you know the type, speed, speed, speed!) who elbowed us out of the way. This was THEIR marathon and us "housewives from hell" had better get out of the way!
Soon I found two women who were running my tempo and we formed a trio and we talked. One was a Canadian ultra-marathoner and the other was a Britsh web designer. They helped me through the first 20 miles and made my marathon really memorable and enjoyable. I remember one of them said, "Hey we're already at 21 kilometers!" I said, "Don't say that!" I hadn't felt my knee for the first time in months. Was is all psychological?
We made the usual water stops, drinking sports drinks, sucking on sugar cubes, oranges and bananas. All the while there were people cheering, clapping and playing music. I made a point of smiling. I was doing it DAMMIT! I was really doing it! We went through the tunnel where Princess Diana crashed, we went passed the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, along the Sienne and the past the Notre Dame. It was awesome in the true sense of the word.
At the 30 kilometer mark I saw my mom and sister who had flown in from Oregon. It was a great cushion to see them and in a strange way it reminded me of when I saw my mom when I was in labor. I was scared and excited and realized that I was going to make it! I had 6 miles left. My two friends had already planned to pick up their speed at the 20 mile mark, I was just grateful to still be running. We shook hands, wished each other well and went our own pace. I kept scanning the crowds for Marc and the boys but never saw him.
Soon I was just busy with getting one foot in front of the other. The once chipper and talkative group was now silent accept for the sound of heavy breathing and feet hitting the pavement.
We turned into a park-like area, at kilometer 35. It was the toughest part of the course for me. We could see a long snake-like figure of runners ahead of us looping their way through the park and coming out ahead across from us. I realized, as I'm sure everyone around me did, that we still had a long way to go. It was through this park when I noticed that the same "this is my race" runners and fraternity boys who had elbowed us out if the way were now vomiting in the bushes, yelping with pain as they grasped their spasming calves or just walking defeatedly. We, the slow group, were passing them, and doing it at a pretty nice pace. It was then that I made it "my race" I really fed off their lack of energy those last kilometers.
I kept up the countdown: 36 kilometers, 36, 36, 36, 36, over and over in my head to keep myself going, then 37 kilometers, 37, 37, 37, 37. 38 came when we were still in the wooded park and it seemed like miles as we rounded out. I looked to my right and saw the mass of runners behind me who were just at that point entering the park, I felt better but I was still worried because this 38th kilometer stretched forever. We came out of the woods, turned a corner to music and cheering and a big sign that said 40 kilometers! 40! I couldn't believe it! They had skipped marker 39! Just 2 more to go! I started to cry and that caused me to choke up my breathing. I had to force myself to stop and to think about the finish line. At this point I could see other runners walking towards us on the sidelines with their medals on. I knew I was close if the finishers were here to cheer us on.
41 kilometers, and I picked up my speed…The crowds were cheering… people were in the stands bordering the road…
42 kilometers! Just 200 meters to go. I saw an American flag with a group of people waving it, I waved and they yelled in good old American English how awesome I was. And I was. The tears were streaming now.
I was flat out sobbing as I crossed the finish line. There were about 5 people on special stools that cut your chip off your shoe, then someone put a medal on me and yet another wrapped me in the foil blanket and asked me if I was alright. I was perfect. I was a crying mess! Where was Marc??
I walked in a daze throughout the finish-line festivities but couldn't find him or the boys.
I remebered my 10 franc piece and headed back to the metro, in a daze.
There was a sea of foil wrapped runners descending the stairs deep into the metro entrance, all of us groaning at the pain of each step. It was a wonderful feeling to look around and feel like a part of the international group of runners.
>Back at the hotel I waited for about 15 minutes. Marc walked quietly in with the boys, assuming that I hadn't finished because he hadn't seen me anywhere. He saw my medal and hugged me. I love the picture of him proudly staring at my medal that night at our birthday/marathon dinner.
Marc and I are now training for the Amsterdam Marathon in October 2001. I can't wait to share the feeling with him and to feel it all again for myself. This time when I walk amongst the sea of runners I will not ask myself, "What the hell am I doing here?" because now I know that I belong. I'm a runner.