Marathon madness is an addiction

I used to think marathon runners were incredible athletes, obsessive addicts, slightly insane or all of the above. I also thought they were young, skinny and gifted – something I could never aspire to be as an overweight mother of three.

Though I enjoyed running off and on, I preferred to stay under 5 miles and figured the 12K Bloomsday distance was the furthest I’d ever go.

Then, in 2005 a physical therapist said, “You aren’t made to run.”

I was lying on her exam table in pain while she prodded and assessed an injury. After several years “off” of running, I’d decided to register for Bloomsday again but I hadn’t eased my out-of-shape body into the miles. I’d gone out too fast, too soon.

“Maybe next year you could do Bloomsday, if you build up gradually,” she said. Then she added, “But you shouldn’t run any marathons.”

I rolled my eyes. Since I wasn’t a skinny, young, obsessive, slightly insane athlete, I hadn’t planned on running 26.2 miles. Ever. Still, I chafed at being told I couldn’t or shouldn’t. I’d run cross-country and track in high school. I’d finished a few Bloomsdays without injury. If I wasn’t made to run, wouldn’t I have figured that out already?

After completing therapy, I promptly forgot her admonition and resumed my on-off approach to running until a friend asked me to join a four-person relay team for the Windermere marathon in 2010. My leg of the race was “only” 6.5 miles, a distance I’d reached exactly twice that year.

On race day my perception of marathon runners changed. Before the event, runners of every age mingled and traded stories about training. Many of them, I noticed, already knew each other. They didn’t act like race rivals. They acted like cousins at a family reunion, catching up on life events and wishing each other well before they lined up for the starting gun.

That was nice, but to my surprise the affable atmosphere continued during the run. Randy, the guy running leg one for my team, finished fast, so when I started running I was in the front half of the pack. As I huffed and wheezed my way along the Centennial Trail, runner after runner going the full distance passed me. Almost every one said something encouraging. “Good job. Keep it up. You can do this.”

It helped. Though I hurt, I believed them. I could do this.

Several also asked if I was OK. Until they saw my bib, they wouldn’t have known I hadn’t run the first 7 or 8 miles or that I would be stopping at their halfway point. Judging from my drenched shirt, flushed face and raspy breath, it was obvious I was in no shape to complete a marathon.

Too winded to speak, I nodded and smiled, wishing I had the strength and stamina to talk while running the way they could.

Maybe it was something at one of the water stops, but by the time I finished my leg I wanted to run a marathon. I wanted the fitness, the friendliness and the fun I saw in the other runners that day. I wanted to join their family. And suddenly, I wanted to prove that physical therapist wrong.

On May 27, I crossed the finish line of the Coeur d’Alene Marathon, ducking my head so a volunteer could award me my third marathon medal so far. Training for and running each race has further changed my perception of marathon runners. Even more, it’s changed my perception of myself.

Starting with 10 miles, each time I reached a new personal distance record, I felt like I broke a boundary. I’d accomplished something I’d thought I couldn’t accomplish. This made me wonder if there were other areas of my life where the words “couldn’t” or “shouldn’t” were holding me back.

As I developed the strength and stamina to carry a conversation while running, I also discovered that marathon training has made me feel better than I ever have, even though the Body Mass Index says I’m still overweight and the calendar reminds me that I’m getting older every year.

I’m still not young, skinny or gifted. That’s OK. But I am, perhaps, now obsessively addicted. That’s because when I go for a run it doesn’t just make me feel better physically, mentally and emotionally. It makes me feel like I can do anything.

Contact correspondent Jill Barville by email at jbarville@msn.com. 

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