About 20 weeks ago, I decided to train to do the Seattle Marathon. Sunday was the Seattle Marathon. When I woke up at 5am I told my partner Julianne “It’s going to be a long day.” I was not wrong. I’ve been training for the last 20 weeks, 370 training miles in all, for an 8.5 hour marathon. That is not how it worked out.
I did the marathon with Kelrick – my best friend who, 20 weeks ago, took less than a minute to answer my “do you want to do a marathon” e-mail with “I’m in.” The course is billed as rolling with hilly sections. I thought I had trained for the hills, but I was wrong – Seattle’s hills are something else – the hills kicked my ass, as did the 9mph to 20mph headwinds that we experienced. After four miles I felt like I normally feel after 10 miles, not a great sign. After taking 25 minutes for a desperately needed bathroom break at mile two, and dealing with the hills through mile 5 it became clear that my 8.5 hour marathon was not to be. We deemed ourselves Team Dead Last and prepared for a very long day.
The other runners were incredibly supportive, yelling encouragement, saying that I was their hero, giving me high fives, shouting to keep going, not to quit. It was awesome. Runners at the very front of the pack used precious energy to encourage me. For all of that I’m incredibly grateful, not just for the encouragement but because participating in a sport that I suck at and being encouraged by those who excel reminded me that actual athletes don’t spend their time being asses on the internet, they behave in ways that are honorable which includes being encouraging to beginners and those who aren’t elite.
Most of the encouragement came to me and not to Kelrick which he confirmed was really kind of crappy for him, though he noted that most of the crap came to me as well.
At mile seven, the woman driving the “sag wagon” (the vehicle charged with staying with the people in last place) asked incredulously if I was doing the marathon (yes) if I was a runner or walker (are you kidding me with this question?) and if I had started at the proper time (yup, one of the first out of the gate). A few moments later she tried to talk me into quitting by telling me that it was later than it was, that I was going slower than I was, and saying that at this pace I’d never make it and I’d need to be picked up in the afternoon so I might as well quit now. I don’t remember exactly what I said to her but it started with “That’s enough.” and ended with “I chose this marathon because it said that it quote ‘stays open until every athlete finishes’ if I need to be picked up I’ll let you know.” We made it off the bridge with 30 minutes to spare before the cut-off time.
When we stopped to treat Kel’s blister at mile 10 and I used the restroom, she sent someone to bang on the door and ask if I was ok (yes, except I’m having trouble peeing while you bang on the door) and told a member of the medical staff to try to talk me into quitting when I came back. Kel overheard and thankfully put a stop to that. As we left she then got another member of the medical staff to come with us and try to talk us out of it. I mentioned that I thought that this woman just wanted to go home as early as possible and asked if there was there any way that we could let her do that, since this was hard enough without her constant discouragement. The medic suggested that we officially drop out but finish anyway. Um, no. I was participating based on the rules of the marathon. I would not have entered a marathon with a time limit and then ask that they accommodate me, I picked this marathon because their rules specifically accommodated my slow time. This woman was just going to have deal with it.
At mile 11 they closed the aid stations and opened the roads and from then on we were told that there would be no more mile markers, no more water and gatorade stations, no more port-a-potties, and since there weren’t sidewalks in a lot of places we had to walk on trails and lawns (which meant that, according to our GPS, we walked about a mile extra.) At mile 14 she sent a member of the medical personnel out, telling her that I was limping (I wasn’t) and that she should convince us to drop out. The young woman said that we looked great but told us that they were closing all of the medical stations. She gave us a bunch of supplies and wished us luck.
At mile 14 the sag wagon lady pulled beside me and said “You can quit now and still get a medal for finishing a half marathon.” I explained to her that I set out to complete a marathon, not a half marathon, and that if I didn’t complete this one I would have to do another one which I did not want to do. I leaned into the car and said “I. Will. Not. Quit.”
At mile 18 the sag wagon lady told us that they were tearing down and there would be no finish line. It was at this point that she experienced an attitude adjustment. She started crying saying that it wasn’t fair and I deserved to cross a finish line and that she was going to do the best she could to give us our medals with ceremony, and from then on she was really supportive.
It’s hard to explain why that news was so devastating – except to say that I realized that the moment I had trained for, that I had fantasized about for 370 training miles and that had kept me going for 18 miles that day wasn’t going to happen. We were 8 miles from the finish line and I was in a lot of pain – the uphills made me tired but the steep downhills had put pressure on a new part of my food and I had developed some serious blisters on the balls of each foot that hurt with every step, I had been dealing with a weird pain in my calf since around mile 11, and if I was able to suffer through 8 more miles and there would be no finish line to cross and I would have to accept my medal from a woman who spent the day trying to get me to quit. Through my tears I looked at Kel and he looked at me and we both said “the only thing to do is finish” and we set off again. She and another gentleman in a separate car began to guide us in – she would go ahead to mark the path, he would stay behind us to light it.
The next eight miles are a blur of hills, pain, and suffering. As we turned the corner to the stadium we saw Julianne, our support crew, and a couple of guys from the race staff in a group of people cheering (I would later find out that one person came to cheer for me but wanted me to be able to rest so she didn’t introduce herself,) one was someone important with the race but I can’t for the life of me remember his title. I jogged the last little bit and accepted my medal – which, for reasons I may never understand, actually seemed (and still seems) worth all the work and pain and suffering. Kel and I got the same finishing time though he was perfectly willing to finish last so I would be second to last because that’s just the kind of best friend he is.
I planned to be on the course for no more than nine hours. Team Dead Last took 12 hours and 20 minutes to complete the marathon. When the woman from the sag wagon hugged me she teared up and told me she was proud of me and apologized for us “getting off to a rough start.” I accepted her apology, thanked her, smiled and said what I had been waiting 19.2 miles to say — “I told you at mile seven that I wasn’t going to quit.”
For more than half the marathon we did it with no water or gatorade stops, no medical support, no cheering crowds, no road closures, on muddy trails dodging tree roots, and with the people who were supposed to support us trying to convince us to quit. Earlier in the year I mentioned that I wanted to do more things that I’m not good at and this certainly qualifies – of over 10,000 people I was the absolute hands-down worst. I’m not sure it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, but it is the thing that I most wanted to quit, and I mean it is the thing that I both most often, and most aggressively wanted to quit. We did it the hard way, but we did it.
One runner who wanted to encourage me told me not to quit because if I could finish I would believe that I could do anything. I smiled and gave her a high five, knowing that the truth is that I already believe that I can do anything which is why I was in the marathon.
Ragen Chastain is a trained researcher, three-time National Champion dancer (and marathoner!) Author of the blog DancesWithFat.org and the book Fat: The Owner’s Manual, she is a leading activist in the Health at Every Size and Size Acceptance movements. Ragen is frequently sought out as a speaker to address general audiences as well as medical and public health professionals on the topics of Health at Every Size, body image, eating disorders, and wellness care and public health messaging for people of size. She and has recently spoken at Dartmouth, Cal Tech, The University of Illinois, and Google Headquarters. This piece was originally published on her blog.