from mile to marathon

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

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.


At 9:24 PM, Blogger Backofpack said...

Your report leaves me speechless. How can a race report read like a piece of poetry? I know what you were feeling, yet it was described in ways that elevate it to a new level. Beautiful.

Beautifully written, flowing and then: reality - "Otherwise I just thought of throwing up." It made me laugh to read that mundane phrase in the midst of all that poetry.

Congratulations on a great time, an effort to the finish, and a race report that is a work of art.

At 9:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You do have a way with words. It's a gift. Seriously.

This is the most eloquent race report I have ever read. I've been looking forward to your account and you certainly delivered.

Congratulations on running such a great race. You should be proud of the effort.

At 10:30 PM, Blogger Journey to a Centum said...


And the voice inside your head yelled out loud "Run Lia Run"!

After reading this report I think you could have managed to eloqently describe throwing up if it had come to that.

I need you to write all my race reports from now on. I'll just take a bunch of pictures and give you as many highlights as I can and let you paint the canvas with words.

Thank you for your pictures at the finish. You look tired but satisfied. I don't think I've ever looked around for the best place to collapse during a marathon. I've have had my share of falls on trails and once during the Tahoe Triple but in all cases I tripped on a root, rock, or speedbump. They were sudden and not planned.

I think Michelle told me that you are writing a book. If it's anything like your race report it's going to be a must read!

At 5:53 AM, Blogger JustRun said...

That is one of, if not the, best reports I've ever read! You ran a great race and even look so strong in those pictures at the end. Congratulations, Lia, I'm proud of you!

P.S. I think your leap frog friend might be a Texan. :)

At 7:05 AM, Blogger Lisa - Slow & Steady said...

wow. what a great race report! beautifully written. great photos too.

from mile to marathon...mission accomplished!

At 7:46 AM, Blogger Kurt in Boston said...

that. is. so. cool.

And so well written, Lia.

I know that stretch of highway (lived in Arizona for quite a few years). When you first announced you were doing that marathon, I thought, "Huh? Why?". But you knew best. What an awesome experience!


At 7:48 AM, Blogger e.b. said...

I just teared up a bit and I am not even a runner. It was very well written and you could feel the emotion and the pride as well as the determination and pain. Just Run was right!

At 9:28 AM, Blogger Wes said...

Lia, that was beautifully done, and beautifully written! You are a marathoner! and a great runner as well! Thanks for sharing. Your tale will inspire me in the months ahead.

At 10:51 AM, Anonymous Steve said...

Wonderful recap, beautifully written. Congrats and thanks for your eloquent sharing of a familiar experiance and simple truth for us all "RunLiaRun".

At 11:16 AM, Blogger Robb said...

Lia, this is one fine beautifully articulated piece. I will run my first marathon next weekend…thanks for filling my cup.

At 11:53 AM, Blogger Pure Virtual Function said...

Congrats Lia! I recognize the pain after stepping up the curb in the after-race photo... I remember that pain all too well... may as well be the grand canyon. =) Great write-up! I hope you keep running and writing. Best to you and yours.

At 12:31 PM, Blogger Darrell said...

Congratulations Lia on a beautifully written report and well run race. You captured the day wonderfully. I'm so glad "backofpack" sent me your way.

At 2:13 PM, Blogger Bre said...

Lia this is just such a fabulous post!

So many times I talk myself out of attempting things because I'm scared it will be hard and marathoners make everythin look so easy. Hearing that you struggled but pushed forward is so very inspiring!

Yay for you!!

At 2:48 PM, Blogger wendy said...

Wow, Lia!

I loved your report - it always amazes me about how people can remember all the details about each mile, moments, etc. Not only did you remember them, but you captured them in such a lyrical way, that I certainly wasn't expecting to read "vomit" anytime soon. =) Anyhow, congratulations, You did it! And you did it pretty dang fast too.

At 6:12 PM, Blogger RunBubbaRun said...

Great and very awesome race report. I think it was more than a marathon, but a spiritual adventure.

Thanks for taking us along..

I think no matter how many marathon or races we do, we always remember our 1st moments under the marathon sun..

Great job..

At 6:19 PM, Blogger Lisa - Slow & Steady said...

this post was so nice, i came back to read it again. and noticed in the pic from behind where you are running...that the tread on your shoes looks familiar...then in the earlier pic...yeah, ASICs...that's what I wear. Isn't it funny how suddenly I picked up on the shoes...I'm a weirdo.

Hey, I'm thinking about running chips -n- salsa half marathon this sept as my first half. any chance you want to run it too? takes off from el pinto...

At 6:54 PM, Blogger Chad said...

WOW - and you smiled at mile 20!!!

Great job - sounds like a beautiful place to run. You did great and your race report was inspiring. Can't wait to read the next one ;-)

At 11:06 PM, Blogger Jack said...

You certainly do have a way with words. You also so wonderfully captured the essence of you first marathon experience, congratulations!

At 3:14 AM, Blogger Lora said...

What a treat to read your writings. Yes, you are gifted for sure!

Congrats on getting your mind to overcome your body--that's key for a long distance runner.

I may do the Tucson Marathon in December---you up for another one??? ;)

At 6:54 AM, Blogger Kristen D. said...

Lia, what a beautiful and eloquent report of your first marathon. It inspires me to want to do two things: 1) run my own marathon, and 2) visit New Mexico. The way you have written about it, both sound wonderful.

At 10:26 AM, Blogger Jess said...

Good job! That's an excellent time and I loved your report -- very poetic.

At 1:07 PM, Blogger maniac hippo said...

Welcome to the club, kiddo. And thanks for a really great read.

I never fail to be amazed by how transformative every race is for me - I get the feeling this one was for you too. I've gotten to expect that the person who comes back from the race each time will not be the same as the one who lined up at the start. Do you feel this way?

I followed you over from Michelle B.'s blog, do you mind if I stay? you write so very well.

At 4:19 PM, Blogger Randy said...

Lia what an awesome race report. I used to live in Farmington and I know the route that you described and it was as if I were back there again as I read your words. You are so incredible.
I feel for you that you had to run in that kind of weather. That part of the country can be beautiful and ugly at the same time. The weather so often the culprit for bringing out the ugly. So often people miss the beauty because they can be overcome by other things that really are truly small when compared to the huge majesty of the Four Corners area.
It's so great that you finished the race and had a good time to boot....congratulations.

At 10:04 PM, Blogger Journey to a Centum said...


Wow, look at all those comments! Just two more and you will have as many comments as miles that you ran! Did you run this week, or take some time off?


At 4:15 AM, Blogger Steve said...

The expression on your face while looking at your medal, says it all.

I'm so proud of you Lia!

Whens the next?

At 8:35 AM, Blogger Deene said...

**high 5!**
Thanks for sharing.

At 9:41 AM, Blogger traveler022 said...

Congrats again Lia! You looked so strong at mile 23+! You ran beautifully and wrote beautifully. I felt the cold and the anticipation on the long bus ride. You did it!

At 10:18 PM, Blogger robtherunner said...


I have been thinking about you and have been eagerly awaiting when I would be able to sit back and take a moment to read your report. You certainly do not disappoint. I echo everyones sentiments and want to congratulate you with all my heart.

I hope you have been able to rest and recuperate. Wonderful job!

At 8:35 AM, Blogger Joe said...

Way to go, Lia!

There is some fantastic storytelling in that post. You certainly have a way with words, especially adjectives. Half the time I thought I was reading a poem.

This gave me chills and filled my mind with images: "The moon lingered evanescent in the west, and three Navajos chanted to the beat of drums."

At 8:20 PM, Blogger Bill said...

Wow! Congratulations, marathoner.

At 7:10 AM, Blogger Running by.... said...

A very sincere, but belated, congratulations! Lovely race report--great run, excellent time. I'm very happy for you.

At 10:19 AM, Blogger E-Speed said...

wonderful report!!! Great job out there. Now you are a marathoner! It is so special to break through those physical barriers and really push ourselves. You did it!

At 6:04 PM, Blogger Brooklyn said...

great story! Like everyone else, I am super super impressed.

At 9:50 AM, Anonymous Emil Ardelean said...

Sorry for not watching your proogress for too long!
I just want to say that "my hat is off to you!!!" Well done! You are a marathoner! We should get together sometime.

At 12:47 PM, Blogger paris parfait said...

Lia, it is a beautifully-written account of this powerful experience. I'm so pleased and proud for your accomplishment! You are amazing and have proved you can do whatever you set your mind to do. Bravo, Lia, bravo! xo


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