from First Marathons, by Gail Kislevitz
RUNNING ON EMPTY
I grew up in New Jersey, where Dad did the commuter
trek into New York City for a career that sent him traveling all over the world
and sent the four of us kids to bed many nights without seeing him. However, in
summer he blossomed, making himself available for all the wit and wisdom we missed
during his travels. It was in August that the six of us participated in the yearly
summer sail, leaving all creature comforts behind and venturing forth into the
waters of New England. Let me make one thing clear: This was not yachting. It
was four kids from age five through twelve, Captain Bly, and First Mate Mom. Home
for two weeks was a leaky, chartered sailboat where we all worked the deck and
manned the sails in order to make it to the next port before our dog, Tina, heaved-ho
in the cockpit due to the ever-constant swells of New England’s waters. Poor thing,
she was always the first one off the boat.
What does all this have to do with running? Everything.
On those summer sails, my parents instilled within us principles of life that
became our foundation: a strong commitment to our goals, the discipline to work
through those goals, and the responsibility to live up to those goals. We all
had our tasks to do and if the knots weren’t tight, the sails not stowed properly,
the sheets not secured, the ropes not coiled correctly, we were all at risk. These
same lessons apply to a marathon. I had to be committed to running it in order
to have the discipline to train for it and the responsibility to take care of
myself throughout the journey. My parents worked hard to raise us that way and
most of the time I try to follow their example. Sometimes I find myself in troubled
waters, but I always manage to find my sea legs, even at the twenty-mile marker.
My very first run was inspired by my two older brothers,
who ran cross country for River Dell High School. I loved the idea of just getting
out there and running through streets, fields, backyards, anywhere and everywhere.
It seemed like such freedom, something girls didn’t have. One night I pulled on
my trusty white Keds and headed out the door with the dog in tow, in the cover
of darkness, and ran around the block. I loved it. That was the beginning. I kept
running around the block, slowly increasing the distance and finally coming out
of the closet with my desires to run in the daylight.
During college, with no women’s track team, I played
lacrosse as a close second but kept up the running. I don’t remember when I first
hear the word marathon, but I’m sure it seemed like another language to me, something
I continued my running after college and looked forward
to coming home from work, stripping off the stockings, and pulling on the running
shoes. I ran through both pregnancies, but now when I’d come home from work, there
were mouths to feed, more laundry to do, and getting out the door wasn’t so easy.
Although I had been running for more than twenty years, I kept steadily plugging
away at four or five miles a day. A marathon was a pipe dream for me; it seemed
out of reach, something other people did, a race for dedicated, talented athletes.
I never shared this dream with anyone, fearing they would laugh at my lofty ambitions
or mock my attempts at such a physical and mental challenge. My excuses were common
ones. Working full time in New York City and raising two children, when would
I have the time to commit to training? As it was, my husband and I would fight
to see who got out the door to run first after coming home from work. There were
never enough minutes left after rationing time for the kids, the office work,
the housework, and each other. No way, no time, no marathon.
When my son was about to enter the horror house of
middle school years, I decided to quit work and stay home. I wanted to be there
to chauffeur the car pool, go to the soccer games, and conduct extensive background
checks on the next generation of friends my kids were bonding with.
So now, excuse number one for finally running that
marathon, the big time commitment, flew out the door. Now I had to face the more
deeply rooted excuse, the psychological head trip: What if I attempted to run
the Big One, and failed? That excuse, that fear, kept me off the battlefield for
a few more years.
What finally kicked in? What was the impetus that broke
through all the excuses and years of denying myself the challenge? My very controlled,
orderly life was suddenly taking a deep spiraling plunge downward. Factors beyond
my control invaded my life and sand traps seemed to be everywhere. I was still
in denial over the death of my mother a few years back; the world I knew ended
with her passing. Part of me died with her; I was empty inside, depleted of humor,
drive, and ambition. Just getting through the day was a goal. I was desperately
trying to learn to live my life without her, and I was failing miserably. And
if that wasn’t enough to deal with, I was diagnosed with skin cancer. The scar
on my back is a constant reminder that my hedonistic days in the sun are gone.
I had to do something to shake up my life and get back some sense of control and
trust in the world and along the way fill the hollow space. I needed to rebel
against these negative forces, to scream so loud and for so long that the anger
living inside me would evacuate forever. But instead of screaming, I ran. Running
was the only thing in my life I could count on day in and day out to make me feel
better, in control, and satisfied with myself.
I decided to take running to the next level and entered
my first race. I needed to focus on a goal and it seemed logical to tie it in
to running. The training and discipline required were an instant addiction for
me. I started to keep training logs, read all the books, went on route expeditions
tracking miles with the car odometer. I should add that this big event in my life
was my town’s annual Memorial Day 10K race. I was moving up from a daily five-mile
jaunt to a six-mile challenge. So what? Big deal? It was to me. A race is a breed
apart from the daily run. I had to perform. I never tested myself against other
runners and although I didn’t expect to place, I didn’t want to come in last,
either. It made me nervous and anxious. For the first time in my life, I would
be asked that gut-wrenching question, “What was your time?”
I can’t say I loved the competition of racing, but
it did get me back in control of myself. I’m very goal oriented, and the race
became a personal challenge. My daily run is a routine, not a challenge. It is
automatic, something I do without thinking. There are times on my regular route
that I can’t remember having run past familiar landmarks. It becomes a blur as
my thoughts take over and I am brought into another dimension. Nothing else seems
to work for me. I’m not great in team sports because I don’t want others to rely
That summer, a woman I was just getting close with
told me she had run two marathons. I was in awe. She encouraged me to train with
her during the summer and we would run a September marathon together. I couldn’t
resist the call this time. It was fate. I had my own personal trainer, it was
the best months to train and the marathon was a particularly good course for first-timers.
We started the training with a ten mile run in June. Never having run with anyone
else, I was worried about keeping up with her, not disappointing her. To both
our amazement we talked the entire ten miles. A bond was formed through our running.
I kept my marathon commitment a secret, knowing full
well my family would not support me in this quest. They were worried about the
health factors, as I never seem to eat enough to keep any substantial weight on
my bones. My diet and exercise routines were always being scrutinized. But as
my runs got longer and my weekly distance tripled, it was hard to keep my marathon
secret any longer. As predicted, it was not welcome news. My sister was the toughest
nut to crack. Our telephone conversation still echoes in my ear. “If you drop
dead of a heart attack while running this stupid race, I’ll never talk to you
again.” I had to take an oath that I would not jeopardize my health to train for
the race. So after much arbitration, I received a reluctant go-ahead.
I loved the discipline of training, but was plagued
with constant toenail problems. They would turn black and eventually fall off.
I went to a podiatrist, who warned me against running a marathon. “Worst thing
you can do to your body,” he’d say as he pulled off another nail. But I was determined.
A pair of expensive orthotics later, I was cured of my toenail trauma. Training
continued. During the week, I would put in my basic miles, but the weekends were
saved for long runs. My friend and I developed a Saturday-morning ritual. Rising
at 6 a.m, while the rest of the house slept, I’d creep downstairs to a cup of
coffee, a bagel, and the newspaper. After stretching, lathering on the sunscreen
and grabbing a visor, my friend and I would hit the road at about seven. It was
exhilarating to be out in the warm summer air, running along the water, and talking
all sorts of topics. It’s amazing how much two people can blab during a sixteen-mile
run. Water was a problem as neither of us liked to carry bottles around for that
distance. So we had to get creative. If we passed a fire station, we’d stop in
for a quick fountain drink. Fast-food stands could be counted on for a cold cup,
and parks usually have a fountain somewhere. And when desperate, there’s always
someone watering the lawn. When we finished the requisite miles, we’d head back
to the beach and dunk in the water to cool down. After swimming a few laps I’d
head back to the house around 9:30, in time to prepare breakfast for my sleepy-eyed
family just emerging. In September, I did a twenty-mile run in three hours flat
and thought I was a winged-foot goddess. Nothing was going to hold me back now.
The day before the event, I packed all the necessary
paraphernalia. Picking out the most appropriate T-shirt was a major prerace predicament.
I started with a pile of ten. On the first go-round I eliminated five. Then it
was down to three, then two. Now I was starting to sweat and get really nervous.
The marathon T-shirt is so important. It’s a statement. It will be featured in
all the photos. It is a big decision. After much pondering, trying on and pacing
about, I selected the one with a picture of my friend Jane and me sitting at a
bar on the beach in Anguilla. The night before the race we gathered for a big
pasta diner, no wine, and early to bed, but no sleep came. Then, talk about unpredictable
variables, we woke up on race day to torrential rain. I mean buckets thrown from
the skies, streets already clogged and choked from leaf-filled drains. And adding
to all that rain were my own tears of disappointment. This is not how I wanted
to run my first marathon. This was not just a normal rain, it was time to start
building the Ark. We went to the race hoping it would be canceled, but no such
luck. Severe wind, snow, or rain will never cancel a marathon. We drove home heartbroken,
but still determined. It takes courage to walk away from a marathon, but we had
to do what was best for us. Luckily, the most convenient marathon was just three
weeks away. We would just keep doing our basic training, maybe one more ten. There
was the fear of overtraining at this point, so we really had to hold in the reins.
On race day, the premarathon rituals were in full swing
as we registered and headed to the gym to stow our gear. Everyone was stretching,
doing their routines, and saying last good-byes. For the umpteenth time, we went
to the bathroom. All the women were discussing what to wear as it was partly rainy,
partly sunny with a nip in the air. One woman opted to wear shorts and was rubbing
olive oil on her exposed skin. I thought it looked kind of kinky, but when offered
I gobbed some on. Then the herd headed out to the starting line. I was so psyched,
I could hardly contain myself. We started midpack and kept a nice steady pace
for the first half. Of course, my friend and I talked the entire way. Part of
the race went by the ocean and it reminded us of our training route. Running through
the scenic New England towns with the white picket fences was charming and occupied
my thoughts for a few miles. Every once in a while a runner would come by and
spend a few miles chatting with us. Runners are always willing to share their
experiences and personal tips. An instant bond is formed during those twenty-six
miles that is unlike anything else I have experienced in any other sport. I was
having so much fun I couldn’t believe I was actually running in a marathon.
When I approached the twenty-mile marker I totally
lost it and started jumping up and down, pounding my friend on the back. “It’s
almost over,” I exuberantly cried. Having been there before, she quickly grabbed
my arm and pulled me close. “Now you just settle down. This is going to be the
longest six miles you’ve ever run and you will need every bit of strength and
focus to get you through.” I was shocked at her seriousness. We had been laughing
it up for twenty miles and now she totally withdrew inside herself to find that
last bit of energy somewhere. I tried to do the same, but couldn’t focus. At twenty-two
miles, I suddenly lost my euphoric high and tiredness set in. At this point the
course went uphill on a busy road and it wasn’t fun anymore. I wanted to cry and
to make matters worse, my Achilles heel was acting up, causing me pain, but I
wouldn’t stop. Not me. I was going to run every step of the way. At twenty-four
miles I wondered how I would get through.
I started to think about my mom and what she would
have thought of the marathon. I had to laugh out loud as I imagined the heated
discussion. Her Irish temper would have had a field day. As I thought of her,
my steps and my mind-set became lighter, more determined, more focused. I swear
I felt the wind at my back, pushing me to move on, closer and closer to the finish
line. Was she there beside me? Sitting on my shoulder? Above me? All I know is
that she was somewhere out there with me. She gave me the strength to finish the
race in a last-minute frenzy of joy.
Ellen and I finished back to back and then I had to
face the three-hour drive home alone, and I wondered if I would make it but I
wore a smile on my face the entire two hundred or so miles. I envisioned the gala
homecoming Andy and the kids had waiting for me, their marathon queen: a glass
of champagne atop a silver tray, a screen of Mylar floating balloons and streamers,
and my adoring and proud family surrounding me with outstretched arms. Instead,
I got a hello and no dinner. Oh well. That’s why dreams were invented.
The high I felt from finishing the marathon lasted
for weeks. I was so proud of myself. It was the adventure of a lifetime, rating
right up there with childbirth. It was something I did all by myself, a dream
come true. I would tell anyone who is thinking about a marathon to go for it and
not fall into the “I can’t” syndrome. For that matter, I would tell anyone to
follow their dream. Life is too short. Every day we should reach out as far we
can to bring that dream into focus and grab it for all it’s worth. I am a true
believer in carpe diem—seize the day, squeeze every ounce out of it.
At night, I roam through the house like a specter making
vespers, checking on the kids for the umpteenth time, listening for their breathing,
and memorizing the sight of their sleeping bodies in bed: Anna curled up and cozy,
Eli sprawled with every limb floundering around. Then I look up at the night sky,
search for the brightest star, say good night to my mother, and surrender the
I plan to keep running until I physically can’t drag
my body to the starting line. The discipline, motivation, and personal challenge
to train and perform for 26 miles and 385 yards have helped me pick up the pieces
of my life. Once again I have a sense of myself, and just the right amount of
order and harmony to make life fun again.
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