Running Streak — Day 6

Spaghetti sauce, that’s what nearly did me in.

I don’t even particularly like the taste of spaghetti sauce, but just the thought of getting to sit down and stop running to eat was almost appealing enough to pull me off the course.

I imagined a gigantic vat of homemade spaghetti sauce simmering on some lovely little Italian grandmother’s stove in Brooklyn, calling me like a mythical siren calls to a sea captain.

I was roughly three miles into the 2004 New York City Marathon, my second marathon ever, and I had firmly decided that running a marathon wasn’t the right decision that day.

I was injured, and I had known that when I still decided to run, operating under the assumption that if I had already run one marathon another couldn’t be that hard. I had trained — half-heartedly — and I was feeling pressure to run my money’s worth of marathon, considering the hefty, non-refundable race entry and my slim, non-replaceable income at the time.

That decision to not run had not occurred to me 3 miles earlier before the start of the race, or as I ran across the upper level of the Verrazano Narrows bridge from Staten Island into Brooklyn. Right around when I smelled the spaghetti sauce, I started paying more attention to the people on their stoops watching the runners, thinking about what a good time they seemed to be having. No one was concerned in the least with the 23 more miles of race that were still ahead and just about everyone seemed to be enjoying this experience more than me.

I was tempted to find the smell, knock on the door and invite myself in for Sunday dinner. I kept running though, and somehow made it through Queens and across the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan. Then I looked up First Avenue’s gentle uphill slope that reaches all the way from the Upper East Side to The Bronx. I had ten more miles to go, and I was quickly approaching my finishing time from the year before. Still I hobbled up First Avenue into The Bronx and back south through Harlem toward Central Park.

When friends who are non-runners see you in a race, most have no idea how slow you might be moving. For instance, in 2012 when I ran the Boston Marathon in record-breaking heat and 10-weeks pregnant with my son, I held myself to a pretty slow pace in order to run comfortably. In typical fashion, I didn’t want to waste a perfectly good race entry, even as the race directors offered unprecedented refunds for people with medical conditions. A human in utero is hardly a medical condition, right? It really should be addressed as more of a race banditing issue. Someone’s not only getting into the race without paying, but they are also getting a ride the entire way.

Meanwhile a friend who saw me shuffle through Boston’s mile 23 marker told me later how strong I looked. She had not known why I was running slow, or even that I was running slow.

I had not told friends that I was expecting, so I bit my tongue thinking about how badly I wanted to explain, with pace charts if necessary, the difference between the race she saw and my race the year before when I had run more than an hour faster, setting a personal marathon record.

I realized that for this friend, like most people watching a marathon, running a marathon is the actual achievement, not the speed in which it is accomplished. 
 
The same thing happened around mile 23 of the disastrous spaghetti marathon. My oldest friend was waiting behind the spectator barricades at Engineer’s Gate at 90th Street. I jogged toward her, then cut her off mid-encouragement and asked for her phone. I called my mother waiting at the finish line. She had already been waiting there for me based on my finish time from the year before. I told my mother — curtly — that I would finish, I just didn’t know when and no, it would probably not be any time soon.

I eventually crossed the finish line, taking nearly an hour-and-a-half longer to run than I had in my very first marathon. Despite the miserable day, in the end I had covered 26.2 miles. Not gracefully, or with complete joy, but I did it. That poor race didn’t stop me from marathoning, however, it did stop me from assuming that one race is like all others.

It also solidified my commitment to running and I learned that each run is going to offer its own battles and victories, in varying degrees. Sometimes the best run is deciding that there should be no run at all. That’s better than running powered by stubborn will, and in this case, the hopes of breaking and entering into someone’s home for a chance to stop running and steal a plate of spaghetti.

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