The Why: Running 26.2 Miles

Leon Cai
29 min readJan 27, 2019


If you told me this moment would have ever happened, I would have called you crazy

“You’re going to feel amazing” my friend Ajay told me. “Don’t go out too fast or you’re going to regret it. Start out slow. Slower than you think. Then later, when you’re feeling good, pick it up. You’ll feel great near the end.”

It was 7 A.M on a Sunday morning. Clear skies, a barely rising sun and a freezing 35 degrees. And standing amongst a crowd of thousands in downtown Houston, I was about to do the craziest thing I’ve done yet: A Full Marathon. There was an inaudible shot from the starting pistol. Locked Out Of Heaven by Bruno Mars started playing. In about two minutes, I was funneled to the starting line and thought to myself “Holy crap, here we go.”

I. You’ve got to start somewhere

“Alright, get yourself a little warmup in and then we’re just going to do a 30 minute run. Let’s go”

For nine years of my life, I was a competitive swimmer. With my last high school swim season winding to an end in February, the end of Senior year was a time to take life easy. I could sleep in on the mornings. College applications were already in, and the bulk of the stress was gone. Yet, it felt weird not constantly being busy and putting myself in pain. I had no desire to continue swimming. But I realized that High School was a unique opportunity to try a new sport and build a new community that would help me progress as I changed tracks in life. An opportunity that I would no longer have in 3 months. I couldn’t explain why, but I thought that running was cool. And so, without any real running experience, I walked onto the High School track team.

My swim friends thought I was crazy. Once a week during the swim season, we would run a 1.4 mile loop around the school as a dry land exercise. Except most of us couldn’t run the whole thing. My Dad wondered how I was going to survive being outdoors during the brutal Texas summers. And admittedly, I was a whole lot of talk and not a whole lot of action. I talked about running some local 5k races. I never actually did them.

Hearing that the first workout would be a 30 minute run, I thought that maybe I would last a week before I bailed out of this track stunt. Halfway in, and I really felt it. I had never run continuously for this long before. But then I thought to myself, this pain was hardly unique from a 6 A.M. two hour swim practice. If there’s anything being an athlete teaches you, it’s how to persevere through pain when others can’t. That’s something you can’t learn in a classroom, but only though continuously undergoing hours and hours of pain yourself. So I survived my first test.

My legs were sore from that first day. In fact, they would remain in a continual state of soreness for the next month or two. After accepting that this was the way things were going to be, I powered through it and tried my hardest to focus on other things.

The next test was a pyramid scheme of mile repeats. As inferred by the name, you run a mile all out. Rest. Run another mile all out. And so forth. This Monday, we would start out easy with 2 mile repeats. Next Monday would be 3. Then 4. 5. 6 (Ouch). Then 5. 4. 3. 2. There was a decent sized group of us doing the 2 mile repeats. My mile splits were around 6 minutes (Not very fast). And I didn’t know if I was going to make it to the top of the pyramid.

So many times, I thought to myself that I wasn’t cut out for this. I wasn’t that fast. My stamina had a long way to go. Why did my coach decide to give me a chance? Surely he could find faster and more experienced people to take my place on the team. Yet, for all the times I said that I would do something and never follow through with it, this time I decided that I was for real. I wanted everyone to know that I could stick to my word and pursue whatever I put my mind to. So I stuck with it.

I’ve always wondered to myself if long distance running ever becomes easier, or do I just become more used to the pain. And honestly, I don’t have a good answer to that question. But over time, I would approach 30 minute runs with the mindset that they were totally doable rather than believing that I would totally get slaughtered at the end of them. The time would start going by faster. We had the option to run wherever we wanted during those 30 minutes and I now saw running as a way to explore places (even if it was a small suburban town), rather than just a torturous activity that people do to show off and boost their egos. That was key to me loving running. I heard that Americans on average spend 87% of their lives indoors. That’s not a good thing, and I knew that I needed to get out more.

The first lap of the mile. Not currently dying yet.

Our first track meet was at The Woodlands High School. Track? Cross Country? Marching Band? The Woodlands dominated in everything. And although the Woodlands was pretty far from where we lived (a two hour bus ride), our coach took us to this meet because he wanted us to see what we were up against. My first event (the Mile), I ran a 5:31. It wasn’t particularly fast (my swim friend told me that he ran a 5:26 in 8th grade), but it was the best that I had done and I saw this time as a good starting point. I was drained though. Soon, the 2 Mile race was about to start and I wasn’t able to recover fast enough for it. There was a mistake in the registration process though, and one of our school’s runners was no longer signed up for that race. I offered coach to switch places with him because he was faster than me, and told him that I could sit this one out. Coach Eby refused. He wanted to see what I could do. So still breathing heavily from my previous race, I put my best foot forward.

I started in last place, and not much changed throughout the race. I got lapped. The gap continued to widen between me and everyone else. But my teammates continued to encourage me. Going into the last stretch of the race, everyone had already finished. Yet the stands were packed and everyone was cheering me on. I finished in 12:41. I worried that I had let everyone down, but my coach was happy to see me. All he wanted with my best effort. After all, you’ve got to start somewhere.

I left my first track meet not defeated, but encouraged about how much better I could be if I kept working hard. During this period of growth, the most important thing to me was knowing that I was only competing against myself. That’s what helped me look forward no matter what the circumstances were. And something that I didn’t do a great job of during my swimming career.

Yeah we’re dying

That dreadful Monday, I came to practice telling myself that I would finish those 6 mile repeats. I had already survived the 4 and 5 mile repeat workouts. I could do this. I kept telling myself that during the 4th of 6 miles when I really felt as if I had hit the wall. I didn’t have enough time to catch my breath between the miles. I closed my eyes often and tried to forget the pain I was in. And then I had reached the end of mile 6. I crashed on the turf, breathing heavy. There were five of us at the end of this workout compared to the more than double who were with us on the first day. My coach told me “You’re doing something that others can’t do”. That when I knew I was doing something extraordinary.

I woke up from the turf in a bit of disarray. I had went all out on the 800 race in the District Track Meet, and I had just laid down on the turf for a little rest. “You’ve been out for a while” my teammate told me as he handed me a water bottle, “Do you need to go to the medical tent?”. I insisted I was fine before hearing from Coach Eby “Hey, the mile race is about to start! Get over here!”

I was in shock. I have to run again already? I had already felt drained, but I would have to dig a little deeper and see what’s left. This was my last race on the High School track team (I was obviously too slow to advance to Regionals, much less State). Fighting through the pain of the mile race, I told myself that one day I was going to miss being in high school and miss moments like these. I still finished dead last (starting to see a common theme here?), but this was far from the end of my running journey. At the end of season track banquet, I would be recognized as the “smartest” member of the team with my high class rank and ACT score. But I wanted to be remembered for something greater. After all, no one’s going to care what my GPA was 20 years later.

II. The running culture

The end of track season was only the beginning of a lifelong passion that would completely transform who I was. I finally made good on those promises to do those local 5K races, and soon got to a point where I could finish a 5K race without feeling like I was going to die afterwards. If there was one thing I learned, it was that a 5K was a lot more than running 3.1 miles. These races brought together the whole community, bringing life to quiet suburban towns. They were a chance to hang out with your friends, parents of your friends, and your teachers.

After my second 5K race, I meet Lauren Smith, who qualified for the Olympic Trials, was sponsored by Sketchers, and was a legend in general. I thought I had no place trying to associate myself with someone who was a much better athlete than I was, but she encouraged me to join the local running club lead by her. I was always the youngest person there amongst a crowd of mostly 30 and 40 year olds, but I appreciated any and every opportunity to get out there and run. Lauren, like usual, would always leave us in the dust. And when she ran with me, I always felt like I was holding her back. Yet, I learned that the end of high school didn’t mean I couldn’t get involved in running competitively. Running would always be more than a hobby I could list when people wanted to know a fun fact about me.

Summers in Texas are brutal. Everyday was about 100 degrees outside. I lived on the coast, and also dealt with insane humidity and mosquitos (Our town actually has a Mosquito festival and a Mosquito Chase 5K). My shirt would look like I had went swimming from the crazy amount of sweat. That didn’t stop me. I hate mornings, but if I had to wake up early to do the sport that I loved, I did it. I accepted the heat as a fact of life.

Going into my first semester of college at UT Austin, I was excited and overwhelmed about a lot of things. There were a lot of things I weren’t so sure about, but if there’s one thing I was certain about, it was joining the Texas Running Club. At orientation, I specifically searched for the TRC booth. Visited their website religiously. And sure as hell was there on the first day. There were a lot of unfamiliar faces at that first run. Many of them would be my best friends. Living next to a big bustling city was priceless to me. I loved being able to explore Austin, running Downtown, along the river, and up the hills of West Austin. My thirst for adventure was being quenched. And I was staying fit, avoiding the “Freshman 15” (By the way, it’s not real. You’ll get plenty of exercise walking around a giant college campus). Making new friends at a new place takes time, but TRC was crucial to helping me feel welcome on campus and finding my place. The first group of friends I made at UT were the “Slow Bois” consisting of two people who were both named Will. We hosted unofficial Friday runs and adventured to Graffiti Park (which unfortunately no longer exists).

“Dude, it’s hot as hell. Take your shirt off. And don’t wear cotton.” my friend Kausthub told me. I was too self-conscious to run with my shirt off, but I also didn’t want to have to constantly do laundry with all of my soaked shirts. I looked at my peers, many of them wearing short shorts (yes, guys can wear short shorts) and no shirts, and told myself that I could do that. So everyday at 6 P.M., I would meet my running friends in front of the gym, throw my shirt in a tree or behind the bushes, and go on a 5 or 7 (or sometimes 3 if I was feeling lazy) run. I soon learned that Austin was one of the least judgemental places in the world, and that nobody cared how we looked. That was fine by me, and learning to do my own thing while letting others do their own thing was a mentality that would take me far in life.

Our Quarters 4 Quarters fundraiser. Basically, you take turns running around a track for 3 hours

I learned that my TRC friends shared many of the same characteristics that I did and I really clicked with these people. From the outside, it’s hard for others to understand why we run long distances in the brutal heat. And from the inside, it’s kind of hard to explain (I’m trying my best here). We did a lot more than just run though. We played ultimate frisbee. Watched the Super Bowl together. Volunteered at races. And just hung out a lot in general. Many of my running friends were also studying Computer Science like me, and constantly gave me suggestions on which classes to take and how to study. Your success and happiness in college (or really life in general), is directly correlated to how many people you know, and I cannot stress enough the value of a community that encourages you to pursue what you love.

After talking with my friends a lot, I decided that a Half-Marathon would be a good goal for me to pursue, and signed up for the 3M Half-Marathon in January. I learned that the dream of any long distance runner was to qualify for the Boston Marathon. My deep involvement in all aspects of running allowed me to understand just how much this race meant to them. And how devastating the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing was, attacking a sacred space where everyone could come together as one. For 18–34 year old males, qualifying for this prestigious race required running 26.2 miles in 3 hours and 5 minutes (now it’s 3 hours flat). And I wished my friends nothing but the best as they worked to achieve this dream of theirs. Soon enough, it would be a dream of mine too. And one day, it will be a reality for all of us. But don’t let me get too far ahead of myself.

III. This isn’t 5K land anymore

Shoutout to my mom for helping me stand up for this picture

Despite my frequent running schedule, I didn’t have a training plan for my Half-Marathon. Or really, a plan on how I was going to run the race. Surprisingly, I wasn’t really that panicked about it. I was up for the challenge.

The 3M Half-Marathon was a point-to-point downhill race in Austin (it’s really flat with a 1 degree downhill grade), and being advertised as a “fun and easy” race, I knew that this would be a good place to start. This was my first exposure to the in and outs of a real race. A giant expo to pick up your race packet. A gear check where you could place all your essentials in a clear bag that you would have access to after the race. Multiple corrals for controlling the start of thousands of runners. Pacers for different finish times. And a chip on your bib that would account for your actual running time as it often takes a minute more from the firing of the pistol until you’ve actually squeezed your way past the starting line.

Situated next to the 1:40 pacer, I anxiously awaited the start. I thought to myself, what if I can’t do this? Am I capable of running 13.1 miles? I quickly brushed those thoughts aside. Although I was planning on playing it conservatively at the start, my adrenaline got the better of me and I took off. I quickly found out that I was capable of going faster than a 1:40 (and in general, I would recommend running your own race rather than sticking with a pacer).

The crowd support was amazing. My TRC friends staffed one of the water stations on the route. There were tons of flashy signs from the generic “Go (insert name here)!” and “You can do this!”, to some more crazy ones like “Just f*cking finish. You paid for this” and “Touch here for a power up”. People handing out candy and bacon during the course. Drum lines. And tons of other crazy things that I’d never thought of or imagined.

I really started to feel it at around mile 10 and 11. But seeing the UT campus near the end of the route motivated me to push on. And the feeling of crossing the finish line after 1 hour and 35 minutes? That’s something you just have to experience for yourself. What’s not so great? My feet being in excruciating pain and not being able to walk after the race. But you heard that over used phrase “Pain is temporary, Pride is forever” or something like that? I was already eyeing my next big race.

In Texas, most big races happen in the November to February time range. The reasoning for that should be pretty self explanatory. It would be a while before my next big race, but I truly mean it when say that I love training just as much. Now was the time to push myself even harder. What if I tried running all the way down Congress and South Congress? What if I went all the way west to Scenic Drive? There were so many places to explore, and such little time to do it (especially given that I had a pretty tough class load).

Further into my second semester, I was certain that I wanted to spend the summer in Austin too. This was my new home. And I wanted to keep running and exploring throughout the summer. I debated summer classes and research positions. By a big turn of surprise, and what was possibly one of the biggest blessings of my life, I secured an internship at a downtown startup (there’s another article on that).

After being away from Austin for two weeks after the end of second semester, I found myself back for the next twelve weeks. We had a pretty disorganized GroupMe of other TRC people here during the summer. We got together for one or two evening runs before we scummed to the 105 degree summers and this thing kind of feel apart. But one of the group members, Ajay, was serious about staying in shape during the summer. He saw my passion for running and thought we could both build off of that to stay motivated. So we ended up running together during every evening. I remember our first run together trying to do a 5 mile loop around the north UT campus. It was too dang hot. I had to stop less than halfway in. We cut the route short multiple times. Soon we were walking the rest of the way just begging for water. I honestly didn’t know how I was going to power through the rest of this summer.

Yet remembering all the setbacks I had already overcome, I knew this wouldn’t hold me back for long. Seeing all the other Austinites running during the summer, and knowing people who were just as crazy as me could run during the heat convinced me that I could also do it too. Another one of Ajay’s friends, Erik joined us and everyday, we would meet at the UT campus at 6:30 pm, and run the north campus route. I would usually only keep up with Ajay and Erik for a mile or less before dropping back, but everyday, I knew that I was getting better. In life, you will suffer a lot. Don’t suffer alone. Staying fit during the summer was crucial to getting where I am today.

Another one of my running friends, Klarissa, came to town halfway through the summer. She motivated her friend Benito to get more involved with TRC, and met a summer German Exchange student named Moritz that also joined us, expanding our summer group to a decent size. Some of us also tabled for TRC during summer orientations for Freshmen. I had kind of known Ajay, Erik, Klarissa and Benito my freshman year, but after running with them all summer, I knew them a lot better which would serve me well as I pursued the next thing life threw at me.

IV. 26.2 Miles?!?

Yet another thing that my summer friends had in common was that they were running the Houston Marathon. I honestly didn’t know if I was ready for a full Marathon yet, so I ended up registering for the Half. I had the option to switch my Half to a Full later, and was constantly persuaded by my friends to do so.

Now that my friends knew I was serious about running, they recommended I get a GPS watch so I could track where I’ve ran, my pace and distance. The standard GPS watch that most runners had was a Garmin Forerunner 235. At over 200 dollars, it was a big investment to make. It turned out to be the most essential investment I’ve ever made though, and as my friends and I posted our runs on a social media platform called Strava, it again changed the way I approached running. I now had a better idea of how my peers trained, and what I should be doing more of.

A map of all the running I did during fall 2018. It’s 404.68 miles

My friends and I continued to show up to TRC runs throughout the fall semester, but we also partook in Sunday morning long runs which are synonymous with long distance running (disclaimer, I didn’t actually participate in a lot of them because Computer Science is an extremely demanding major. It’s worth it though.)

At this point, you’re probably wondering what my training plan is. And to be honest, I don’t really believe in training plans (I’m also kind of playing this whole running thing by ear and that obviously may change). I get out and run because I want to, not because a training plan says that I’m supposed to run 8 miles on Monday, and I think the most important thing is that as I get more serious with running, I don’t lose sight of the fact that I actually want to do it. I don’t worry about being perfect at all. One week, I might have a really hard lab and may only get 15 miles in that week. I just try to stay aware of what it takes to run a race, and do my best to prepare for it given my current circumstances.

It’s Thanksgiving Break, and the deadline to switch my Half to a Full Marathon is quickly approaching. Despite all the persuasion from my friends to do the Full, they didn’t think I was going to do it. Although they thought I was ready for it, I wasn’t so sure of it myself. So I asked my parents if switching to the full marathon was a good idea. And after a clear no from them, I decided that I was doing the whole thing. (That wasn’t a typo) From my short running career so far, I knew that I could do more than I thought. But this time, I was definitely pushing it.

So I learned a bit about what marathons were like. Every few miles during the race, I would need to take an energy gel. I would actually need get water at the water stops. Not go out too fast. And be wary of the “wall” at mile 20. I definitely got my fair share of embarrassment from not knowing who Kipchoge was (He is the greatest marathon runner of all time). I checked out Nike’s Breaking 2 documentary (It’s amazing. You need to watch it), familiarized myself with the big names in marathon running and the biggest marathon races. There was no going back. That didn’t mean I was ready for the race though.

V. Back to the main story

First off, I’d like to apologize for making my parents wake up at 4 AM on a Sunday to drive me to Houston. It was for the greater good.

As luck would have it, a cold front had arrived and walking from the convention center to the starting line in a bristling 35 degrees, you could hear the runners moan whenever a strong gust of wind blew (Northeasters and Midwesterners are probably laughing at us right now). I wasn’t exactly sure how heavy to dress given that it would be cold, but that also I’d be running 26.2 miles, so dressed in merely short shorts, a t-shirt and gloves, I was anxious to get moving. (Pro-tip for cold marathons: Wear a trash bag over you that you can throw away at the start of the race. You’ll thank me later)

15 minutes before the start of the race, I started trying to acquire GPS signal for my watch along with 20,000 other people. My TRC friends and I had stayed together, and were anxiously shoving our way through the crowd to a decent starting position. My watch was still unable to acquire signal and I was getting nervous. There was an announcement from Houston Mayor Slyvester Turner telling us that 59 different countries were represented today. The national anthem was played. Then finally, my watch got signal. Just in time. Klarissa’s best marathon time was similar to what I wanted to run, and so we planned to stick together.

“And they’re off”

“One, two, one, two, three

Oh yeah yeah
Oh yeah yeah yeah yeah, uh!
Oh yeah yeah
Oh yeah yeah yeah yeah, uh!

Never had much faith in love or miracles (miracles) uh!
Never wanna put my heart on the line, uh!
But swimming in your water is something spiritual (spiritual) uh!
I’m born again every time you spend the night, uh!”

Following the start pistol that I wasn’t able to hear because I was too far from the starting line, Locked Out of Heaven by Bruno Mars started playing. Right before the starting line, the walls are angled inwards as a bottleneck so that everybody can run through the starting line without having to shove their way through other people. In about 2 minutes, I made it to the starting line and followed the herd of crazy people in front of me.

Klarissa and I started out the first mile at 7:26. Not a bad start. I was feeling good though. The next mile was 7:05. I was targeting around a 3 hour 15 minute finish time which called for a 7:26 mile pace, and knew this wasn’t sustainable.

“Klarissa, we’re going too fast” I told her, “We need to slow down!”


The next mile was also a 7:05 pace. Then mile after mile, we never actually ended up slowing down. My watch beeped with my split after mile 5 (it does that every mile), and Klarissa told me it was time to take a Gu (Gu is a brand of an energy gel). My pockets were too small to hold my 4 Gu’s (one for every five miles), so I used safety pins to secure them on my shorts. I removed my gloves so that I could use my bare hands to remove the safety pins. Except I couldn’t get a good grasp on the safety pin as I refused to slow down. I accidentally dropped one of my gloves, and said “Eh, screw it” throwing out my other glove too. My hands would be chapped after the race from being exposed in the freezing cold, but that would probably be the least of my worries afterwards.

After struggling with the safety pin for a while, I just ripped it off. Solid. My frozen hands barely managed to rip open the package and I squeezed as much of the gel in as I could (They don’t actually taste that good). I threw the Gu package to the side and kept running. Now it was time for water. About every 2 to 3 miles, there are hydration stations and volunteers holding water and gatorade cups for you to grab. Not willing to slow down much, the struggle for me was trying not to spill half the cup when picking it up, and not spill another quarter of it while trying to drink it. I would maybe drink 30% of the cup each time, and knew that dehydration and cramping was imminent. I just chose not to worry about it. Also every five miles, we planned on taking a salt tablet. Klarissa struggled for a good minute or two trying to get the salt tablets out, and ended up dropping one of them. This was the only time I bothered going through the trouble of getting a salt tablet.

“Klarissa, we’re going too fast” I told her, “We need to slow down!”


We finished mile 7 in 6:59. I was feeling good, but I knew that later in, I probably wouldn’t be doing so hot. I was going faster than planned, and now thought that a time of 3 hours and 10 minutes or even lower was possible. “Just keep this pace and you’ll be fine” Klarissa told me, so we kept going at our unsustainably fast pace. We soon passed the turnaround for the Half-Marathon. I thought to myself how easier the Half would be, but other than my toe hurting a bit, I felt fine and told myself I got this as I kept going.

Oh God we’re going out too fast

We ran past Rice University where my parents where there cheering me on (My mom later told me that I got to that point in the course way too soon). The crowd support was incredible. Many people read my bib and were telling me “Go Leon!”. At first, I was struck by surprise at strangers calling my name, but I embraced it. I needed all the support that I could get. I loved reading all the crazy signs that everyone came up with. Especially the “You’re running better than the government” sign in light of the government shutdown.

10 miles in, and we were still going strong at a 7 minute flat mile pace. Time for another Gu. And after again failing to unclip the safety pin, I ripped it out. My hands were numb, but they were also starting to get sticky from the gel that got on my hands. The Houston Marathon course in general is pancake flat, making it one of the easier marathons out there (Marathons are not easy). At mile 12, there was a bridge on Westpark Dr. with a brief ascent, but after all the hills I had run up in Austin, I had no problem with it.

At mile 13.1, I hit my Half-Marathon P.R.: 1:33.52. I was ecstatic about it. Yet this confirmed the obvious fact that I was going out too fast. At mile 15, Klarissa and I ran a 7:15. This was the beginning of the decline. Time for another Gu. I started stopping at more water stops.

At mile 16, I had a cramp going up and down my right calf. Sometimes while running, my right leg would stiff up in mid-air but quickly relieve itself. I’d been through more than my fair share of cramps during swim season though, and did my best to brush it off. Mile 16 was a 7:27. Still on track, but we were slowing down massively.

Everybody who has run a marathon before always talks about hitting “the wall” at mile 20. I’m pretty sure I had hit it at mile 17 though. “Hey Klarissa, I think I’m going to drop back a bit but …” I said as I turned to my right, and realized that Klarissa had already lost me. Crap, looks like I’m on my own. I was interested to see how fast I could run 20 miles though, so I kept up the 7:27 pace. A half a mile later, I saw Kausthub on the side and high-fived him as I smiled through the pain.

It was mile 18, and I was starting to get passed up by quite a few people. Everyone was quite encouraging though, and also smiled through the pain. Mile 20 approached (which was further than I had ever run continuously before), and I felt a psychological victory. Only 6.2 more miles left. That’s just a 10K.

The reality though was that since I wasn’t capable of running in a straight line, I had run about 20.25 miles at the 20 mile mark. This is where everyone claimed the wall was though, and the support on the sidelined intensified.

“Buddy, you’re a boy, make a big noise
Playing in the street, gonna be a big man someday
You got mud on your face, you big disgrace
Kicking your can all over the place, singin’

We will, we will rock you
We will, we will rock you”

As my energy wore out, the energy of the speakers and crowd intensified. At mile 22, I hit what I will refer to as a second wall. My pace dropped down to a 7:45. A 3 hour 15 minute marathon was still doable, but I would have to work for it. Except, I couldn’t go any faster. I just clenched my eyes in pain, waiting for it to be over. It had hit me that I forgot to take my last Gu at mile 20, so I took it now. To distract my attention, there was a stand of beer cups. And while I haven’t always made the brightest decisions in my life, I knew that drinking beer during a marathon probably wasn’t great idea so I passed on it.

Soon I saw Ajay, and I cracked a big smile. I instantly started whining to him about how awful this marathon thing was. He told me to push through, and I told him the same. During the winter break, Ajay and I had ran the last 6.2 miles of the Houston course together, stretching from Memorial Park to Downtown. If there was anything that helped me keep going during the last stretch, it was my familiarity with the end of the course. This tactic was also crucial during the 3M Half Marathon when I was familiar with the UT area towards the end of the course.

Yet, I kept thinking to myself, “I’ve already ran 20+ miles. This is a respectable 20 mile time. What if I just stopped. I mean this is already a good distance”. I tried my hardest not to give in. Then while running under a bridge, there was a man standing on top with a sign that read “I didn’t pay to watch you walk”. Shots fired. So I told myself “Don’t Stop! Don’t Stop! Don’t Stop! Don’t Stop!”

The last few miles of the race dragged on for an eternity. At mile 24, I had dropped down to an 8 minute mile pace. Reaching my goal time wasn’t looking like such a sure thing now. It was at this point on the race that the Full and Half Marathon courses joined together. Seeing a crowd of people on the Half Marathon side still going helped me push through.

I had reached Downtown and I knew that the end was near. GPS watches tend to get a bit inaccurate calculating your pace when you’re running in between skyscrapers as they inhibit the watches’ ability to gain signal so I ignored the 9 minute mile pace on my watch, and pushed through. At 3:12.43, I had ran 26.2 miles. That wasn’t the end though. In reality, in would be 26.5 miles before I hit the finish line.

I imagined myself running down Congress Street in Downtown Austin. My watch read 3:14:40. The finish line was in sight. Was I going to make the 3:15 barrier? I didn’t know. But I went as fast as my sore knees would take me. And in a blink of an eye, it was over.

“138.2 pounds. What was your weight before the race?”

“141.6” I told the trainer.

“So you lost about 3 pounds. That’s normal for a marathon”

I limped past the weighing station, on my way to pick up my belongings. I still hadn’t comprehended what had just happened, but I was sure in a lot of pain. I grabbed my finisher medal. It was Texas shaped with the number 26.2 plastered on it.

James, another one of my TRC friends, had finished in 3 hours and 3 minutes (What a legend), and was already standing in front of the gear check where we all meet before the race. “ … And that was your first marathon? Congrats dude!” James told me.

I grabbed my phone and saw a barrage of texts from my Mom. From the screenshot of the results that she had sent me, I had finished in 3:14.54. Obviously I could have done better if I knew how to pace myself, but for a first marathon, I was proud of it. (I don’t say I’m proud of myself as often as I should, but this was truly something special). I took a Snapchat picture of the finisher medal and captioned it “Never Again.”

To this day, I still don’t know how I did that

Soon enough, the rest of the TRC group arrived. My friends Klarissa, Will, Matt. We were all too eager to share how painful (and rewarding) this experience had been for us. My feet were swelling in pain because my shoe laces were on tight, so I bent down to untie them. I couldn’t reach all the way down. And I contracted a massive stomach cramp. My parents were in the dedicated reunion area on the other side of the convention center, and my Mom wanted me to come over and find her. Only I was incapable of actually walking to the other side.

Thirty minutes later, I decided to tough it out and slowly limped to the other side of the convention center. To say that my Mom was happy to see me was an understatement. So was my Dad. But he was also concerned after seeing me limp around in pain. He had doubts of whether or not Marathon running was really a healthy lifestyle. I get it. I’ve heard that it’s not good for you to run a Full Marathon before you’re 23. But I realized that no matter how hard you try, you’ll never be perfect in this one life you have. You’ll never do everything the right way. You won’t always make the smartest and healthiest choices. You won’t always follow the perfect training plan or execute the perfect race strategy. You’re imperfect. You just have to embrace that, and live your life to the fullest you can.

Crawling up the stairs at home due to my inability to walk, I knew this definitely wouldn’t be my last marathon. I’ve come a long way from when I first started running seriously 2 years ago, but I still have nearly 15 minutes to cut to qualify for the Boston Marathon, and one day I’m going to make it happen. Also, Ultra-Marathons aren’t out of question either.

VI. If you’ve made it this far, congratulations

Maybe you struggle with self-esteem like me. That’s okay. Maybe you want to push yourself beyond what you think is possible in this one life that you have. I like that. If there’s one thing I want you to take away from my experience, it’s not necessarily that you should be a runner (although that’s really cool), but that you need to do something that will make you proud. When you can look yourself in the mirror and genuinely say “I am proud of myself”, that’s when you have won. When you can’t think of any self deprecating excuses to undermine your achievement. When you can’t say “Oh, it really wasn’t that hard”, that’s when you’ve succeeded. There’s no universal definition for success. For someone, it may be running a sub three hour marathon. For someone else, it might be getting hired at Google. The most important thing is that you are at peace with yourself. And don’t just stay there. Keep pushing your limits. Aiming even higher. What makes us unique is that we’re all a bit crazy. Just in unique ways. And when you use that to do the impossible, there’s no telling what you can do and who you will inspire.

*To my parents, my high school friends and track coach, and the Texas Running Club community, thank you for pushing me to be who I am today. I love y’all.

*If you actually took the time to read this entire thing, I want to hear from you! And if not, I still want to hear from you anyways!

*I went to Brazoswood High School in Clute, TX

*I still love my high school swim team

*Join the Texas Running Club. It will change your life!

*This is the Strava thing that our club uses to post our runs:

*Here’s the link to the Nike Breaking 2 Documentary:

*If you’re just as crazy as me, early bird registration for the Houston Marathon is Open!

*And if you want something a little less intense, try 3M!

*For those wondering, it took me about 11 hours to write this



Leon Cai

CS Student at UT Austin. Interned at Nike, Rakuten and DASH