from mile to marathon

The journey of a thousand leagues begins from beneath your feet.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007


With all my conflicted feelings about running, one thing has been clear and remained unchanged for almost a year now: that I will run The New Mexico Marathon Plus in September.

The one I thought would be my first when I aimed for autumn, before spring urgency took over and I found Shiprock. The one I could not yet do last year, so I signed up for the half only. The one that follows the foothills of the mountains, touches upon the Sandia reservation, and turns south through the valley of the Rio Grande, outlining the city in the thin desert air.

That one is going to be my next.

Even my boyfriend has known this all along. Since I called him from work one afternoon in June, last year, and asked if he will be at the finish line for the half. The full one would be coming one day, he was sure. This spring, while I was still training for Shiprock, already thinking ahead to September, he reminded me that I will need to do some incline work, since the course along the foothills is uphill.

This is strange, I know, coming from someone who would just as well see me quit all this running and go back to who I was before. Not exactly lazy, but more carefree. Not at leisure, but less exhausted.

He knows me. He is complicated too.

Friday, May 25, 2007

almost summer

The days are longer now, and I can run outside in the morning, without worrying about the darkness and still making it to work on time. I scouted out a 3.2 mile loop – from door back to door. It’s pavement, but I am tired of the treadmill. It can’t stand it anymore, being inside, smelling the rubber, running in step with the rattling machine each time I run during weekdays.

The uphill part winds through a residential area pretty with greenery – richer than one can usually see in Albuquerque. I pass a Starbucks where I can sense a whiff of coffee and a trace of melody. Half of the time I either face the mountains or the cauldron of the valley where the city stirs from sleep.

I did not ice after the race, and I skipped the massage, but my legs felt loose after a few days, and I did several easy runs, at leisure and without timing myself. For someone who never fathomed the immensity of the endeavor, the marathon now, when I look back, appears as an issue of astounding simplicity. A doable business. Challenging, taxing, but nothing to fret about. I suppose I have appropriated the notion. I knew it before, on some level, but now I have made it my own: I can run a marathon.

I am still searching for my place somewhere on the continuum that links my reaction at the finish line (So I ran a marathon. So what?) to the awe in which I always beheld the distance. I do not believe it is a fixed spot. It is a moveable feast, and in search for it, and along with it, I run.

Monday, May 21, 2007

too hard on myself

In the last two weeks I learned to believe in my marathon, to be proud of it, and to forget it again.

But at the finish line, I did not feel much. I was relieved to had gotten there in one piece, but not elated or moved. Mostly I felt puzzled – where had I lost the euphoria of the first miles, that feeling of magical readiness? Had I run too slow or too fast? Could I have done something differently? Or better? Looking through he wind-blown gray of noon I even felt, right on the spot where I had completed my first marathon, that the finish was anti-climactic.

I agonized over this for the rest of the day and beyond, as if I had just scored a failure, not an accomplishment. On the drive back to Farmington through opaque rain, I turned to my boyfriend at the wheel and speculated whether this meant we had to move on to bigger and better things.

He rolled his eyes. In the weeks since, a couple of times, he asked aloud a question addressed to no one in particular: “what is she going to pick up next?”

I don’t know.

In the meantime, I will run a couple of more marathons, as I said I would. Perhaps there is something I can do in a better way. Or differently.

Thursday, May 17, 2007


Energy gels are not it. The first I took during the marathon gave me a tummy ache, although I had tried it out before without problems. The second one, at mile 23, made me nauseous. In between I had a half a Cliff bar, or less, and I had to force myself to swallow.

If I ever run an ultra, the biggest problem is going to be fueling. I can see myself with a little backpack perhaps - a quesadilla or two, salsa, guacamole, some chicken enchilada, a small bottle of condensed margaritas. No, make that a big backpack.

Oh well. That would not work either. I simply do not like to eat while running, even if it's during walking breaks. I did most of my runs, even some big ones, on an empty stomach. I ate before all the races, but just because I had to.

I am a food-happy person. I enjoy eating. I love to go out. Every meal is a feast. I am always hungry. Here I found the one circumstance where my appetite fails me. It's running, and running requires fuel.

Monday, May 14, 2007

future PR difficult

I closed with an overall pace of 10:29, much better than I expected. According to official splits, at the halfway mark I was still under 10 minutes per mile, the rhythm I have sustained through all my races so far.

I am proud of my time, but I do not understand why I pushed so hard. I was convinced I would walk a great part of the way. I was prepared to walk. I believed I could not do it without walking.

I thought I would run the second time around. In my next marathon.

Instead I ran, at least as far as the legs would take me. It did not occur to me I would have enjoyed the course more if I had forced myself less. I raced, as if this were the last race on earth.

It is obvious to me I am not at a level of fitness, or even ambition, to overtake other runners out there. I can only surpass myself. And yet, I succumb to this visceral need to run faster, to be better, to be now.

Friday, May 11, 2007

it's me

Over the last week I have been bursting with gratitude, and joy, and pride, and vanity at my running a marathon, and with all the nuances of delight and conceit in between. I sent a note to my parents back in Europe, a bittersweet revenge to them admonishing me last year that one can run a marathon at 21 or 24, but not at 41 or 42. Yeah, I am that kind of child. I basked in the applause I have received from all of you – thank you, almost as enchanted by your praise of my race report below as I am by the race itself, since I am a writer (although not published yet), and translating experience into words lies at the core of who I am. I wore my medal and my fabulous race T-shirt to work, although there most people ask me how long a marathon is and turn away at the prospect of 26 miles.

And I repeated to myself, over and over again: I am a marathon runner. I ran a marathon. It was just an idea, and I made it real. I materialized myself as a marathon runner.

And through it all, I carried with me a lingering disbelief: I ran a marathon? I float along myself through the first magical miles, I can see myself carrying on over the long middle stretch, I remember the brutality of the last six miles. And it’s as if I am watching someone else: this girl I don’t know, who is an athlete, right? she must be; she runs a marathon.

I am her. I have to incorporate this notion into the jumbled composition of my identity. It is incomprehensible to me how I – middle-aged, clueless, the indoor-type, a smoker – could get up one day and run a marathon.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

cinco de mayo

If I had any apprehension, it was just enough to respect the distance.

I usually dread the logistics, but not this time. The race started at the Arizona border and we had to reach it by bus, since Navajo 13, the first 20 miles of the route, would be closed for traffic. The buses departed from Shiprock at 6 am, and we stayed at the nearest available lodging, 30 miles west in Farmington. No use in fumbling for the bus staging area in the darkness before dawn, so the night before, after we checked into our hotel, we got right back into the car and drove to Shiprock to scout out the layout. Shiprock at dusk, with the squalor of its shacks, pawn shops, and junk yards, and the majestic, uneven crest of the volcanic cone that dominates the entire landscape, blended the dismal with the mystical.

The morning bus ride itself followed the full course, and as any drive along the route it made me a bit queasy. We were driving and driving, we were driving until the sky lit up and the soil turned reddish approaching Arizona, and it seemed incomprehensible to me that I would cover all that distance. Bracing itself on the upward road, even the bus was panting. Or was it the wind roaring? The good part was I would run back downhill.

A small race. 80+ marathoners, and about as many relay teams. Someone from Missouri, someone from Florida, a couple of Indians from Canada, a runner from Grand Britain. Most of us were in shorts, and frigid wind bit into shivering flesh. A circular wall of clouds ringed the expanse of the horizon. Under half-blue skies and gold-rimmed clouds, for a minute or two, at the start line, it snowed. The moon lingered evanescent in the west, and three Navajos chanted to the beat of drums. Few times in my life have I felt such happiness.

A runner from a Canadian tribe blessed the trail in his own language, and off we went.

For a couple of miles I kept behind a bow-legged Indian with an i-Pod and a red bandanna, not knowing that by the end of the day I would take his shape. Then the sun rose over the wall of clouds, holding me next to an Indian woman in a fixture of light. I do not know her face or her age, I did not turn to look at her. I only know her waist-long pony tail swinging black above a black outfit. But I thought for a while that, if I had been born 5000 miles to the West, we could have been friends. She was running relay, and I stayed at her side until her station was in sight and she sprinted ahead.

I took it easy at first. It was only the beginning, my legs were numb from the cold, and we faced a slight incline. But after the highest peak I took it easy as well, since I had never run so steeply downhill, and did not know how to handle it.

The sun illuminated our path, and the course was visible for miles ahead, a bejeweled belt laid across the hipbones of the desert. The dawn enhanced New Mexico’s beauty to eerie, breathtaking purity. With Navajo 13 closed for traffic, except for the occasional official car, for miles we heard nothing but our own step, and the wind tearing at our bibs, growling through the gold-brown expanse of the plateau, the intensity of the sky, and the exhilaration of silence.

There were no mile markers. Aid stations – sometimes simply two people standing next to a car in the middle of the desert – were posed every two miles, but I lost track of count. Once or twice I glanced at my watch, but I could not grasp the lines on the screen, and what their position meant. It didn’t matter. Shiprock – the giant volcanic rock itself, not the town – was in sight from start to finish line, a timeless center holding us enthralled.

I ran in its spell for miles that got longer and longer, searching for the mysterious essence of this ground sacred to Indians, for the elusive vibration that would propel me to overcome my own melodramatic and indolent bent, the countless “don’ts” and “you can’ts” drilled into me from early on, the shadow of myself I was conditioned to embody.

The sun pulled on a hood of clouds, the temperature dropped, the muscles faded. At mile 13 I thought I had done 16. I was lagging behind my spirit. I ran.

The walking breaks I started to take somewhere after mile 10 were enough to warrant a few stretches and the smooth sipping of a half cup of water. I was ready at one point to give up this purist approach and just walk, but I saw the next station ahead, and I decided I could make it there. I had to ask three people what mile we were at before I got a definite answer. Mile 20. I smiled. Only six more miles to go.

I walked for a dozen yards, holding on to my water cup, and turned north on highway 491, only one of its four lanes closed, back to civilization and traffic. I started running again, and I found myself in a twirl of panic.

I was so exhausted I could cry. I had done at least 20 miles twice before, but with walking breaks – frequent, long, unmonitored. This time I reached mile 20 by running, and my legs felt as if they would break at the next step, they were not mine, and I could not coordinate them. My breath was coming out in a pitiful whine, my eyes darting back and forth in search of a place to collapse.

I remembered the idle thoughts of a few miles back: I was not supposed to be this helpless little girl they taught me to be. I remembered what I knew when I tackled that first mile 15 months ago: I am. I do. I can.

I struggled to pull myself together.

I have a way with words, and I have talked my way in and out of diverse situations over the course of 42 years. But I very rarely talked myself into anything. This time I did. It was fortunate no one was around me. I said it out loud: go – run – go – don’t think – just run – just do it – run lia run.

And I ran.

Mile 23 was the hardest. I hobbled myself up to an aid station manned by a single Indian woman. She asked me repeatedly if I was all right. Obviously not, but that was beside the point. I swallowed an energy gel. I slurped some water. I shed my boyfriend’s old sweatshirt that until then had sheltered me against the worst. And I ran.

Only three more miles to go. Uncharted territory, the miles I had never explored. Finally I caught up with a figure in black and white that had marked the horizon for a long, long time.

His accent was funny and I thought more than once to ask him about it, but I never got to it. It sounded Southern. He was cramping up, and timing himself – three minutes run, one minute walk. As soon as he broke loose from me he was yards ahead, and I had to fight to keep up. Whenever he walked, I caught up again, and got a few steps at his side before he sprinted once more. I wished those breaks were longer, and I was grateful he didn’t wait. He pulled me for the last two miles.

Only when the finish line was in sight did the rhythm change. We were walking next to each other, and he didn’t take off.

I said: “Whenever you go, I go.”

He asked “Are you ready?”

And we ran.

I always thought I would cry. I teared up innumerable times beforehand just thinking of it, the finish line after 26 miles. But I only cried when I saw my boyfriend rushing toward me under turbulent skies. Otherwise I just thought of throwing up.

There was a glitch in the relay of information, and the results for women marathoners were not updated for more than an hour. It took me endless stumbling through the wind gaining in fierceness before I eventually found out my time – a glittering line of digits and letters on a computer screen in the back of the truck belonging to the timing crew. 4 h 34 min 36 sec.

Once in the car driving back to Farmington, the sky split open and the rain gushed forth without mercy. But the work was done. Our trail was blessed.

Monday, May 07, 2007

I am

...a marathon runner. 4 h 34 min 36 sec.

Friday, May 04, 2007

I will run a marathon

Technically that is not correct. Inevitably I will walk part of the course.

The way I envisioned my first marathon (a lifetime ago), I would put in several 20-plus-milers before the race, so my body would be inured to the effort and I would conceive of the marathon as I approach now 10 or 13 miles – doable on any given day. The way I envisioned it, I would run my first marathon with sprezzatura

That was before the setbacks of the last months, minor as they were. I have not done a big run without walking breaks since the half-marathon race in January, Arizona.

That was before I moved the date of the marathon from “sometime in fall, whenever I am ready” to “before summer.”

What matters is to finish, I know. One day perhaps I will run a marathon for real – run it, run it through, without breaks. Maybe in autumn. Maybe at sea level.

But before then, inappropriate as the term may be, I will run a marathon any way I can. For as long as it takes. At 5,000 feet altitude. I will run through the desert. Tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007


If I extrapolate from my usual pace on the Academy track (about 12.5), I can finish the marathon in five hours and a half. Given that Academy is in part uphill, while the marathon course is mostly flat or downhill, I can probably finish in five hours.

Not that it really matters. To avoid low spirits, I gave up on monitoring splits during the big runs some time ago. In spite of numerous runs on treadmill, with all the numbers in front of me, I have not gained any experience in pacing myself. Sometimes a pace of 12 seems fast, and next day I can effortlessly go under 10. I ran all my races, whether 5Ks or halfs at the same pace, slightly under 10, which doesn't make much logical sense to me.

If, through some serendipity or alchemy or other miraculous doing, the energy of the race carries me, I might do it under five hours. The gun goes off at 7 am. I told my boyfriend to be at the finish line before noon and start looking toward the horizon.