My Slowest Marathon Ever Is The One That Makes Me Most Proud
A little over a year after giving birth, I reached a new personal record... just not the one I had in mind.
There’s nothing like the magical feeling when everything comes together on marathon day — training and fueling, your body and your brain, the conditions and the course. On an unseasonably hot and humid November day last fall in New York City, I learned that the opposite is also true: There is nothing like the dread that sets in when you understand this is definitely not happening.
For me, the first few miles of a marathon are usually exhilarating, a time to revel in the cheers of the crowds, the energy of the other runners, and the relief of knowing I’m finally on the other side of months of grueling training. And last November’s race wasn’t just any marathon. It was my first time running the New York City Marathon, famous for its enthusiastic spectators, tens of thousands of participants from all over the world, and a stunning course that sweeps through all five boroughs of my home city. In an attempt to keep myself from getting overly excited and starting out at a pace I wouldn’t be able to keep up for 26.2 miles, I decided my mantra for the first chunk of the race would simply be: Slow down.
As it turned out, I didn’t need any help with that. By Mile 4, I was sweating, nauseated, and beginning to panic. Back at the starting line, my wife, Liz, who was also running, had waved me forward, knowing my projected time was faster than hers. With a kiss and a wave, I’d left her behind, working my way through the crush of bodies heading over the Verrazano Bridge from Staten Island into Brooklyn. Now, I was dragging. If it’s this bad already, I thought, how am I going to get through another 22 miles? Every step was a slog, and based on the crowded medical tents lining the course, I was not alone. The heat was getting to many of us.
It felt like all of my internal organs had been rearranged — because they had.
Just as I was asking myself what would be so awful about quitting, really, I spotted a runner a few paces ahead of me, wearing the same Every Mother Counts charity singlet I had on. Brimming with desperation, I plowed through the scrum of grim-faced athletes, pulled up next to her, and introduced myself, our strides falling into sync. Danielle and I discovered that we both had toddlers, and were both running our first marathons since becoming moms. As we made the unspoken decision to stick together for a little while, my panic started to recede. Here was someone who understood the herculean effort it had taken to make it to the starting line so soon after giving birth — and was as determined as I was to finish.
Months earlier, Liz and I had both signed up for the marathon. It would be Liz’s first and my fifth, if I actually did it. Running had kept me sane through fertility treatment and my first two trimesters, until a terribly named pregnancy complication called pubis symphysis dysfunction left me barely able to waddle. After giving birth to Remy, I’d gone to physical therapy, where I did remedial abdominal exercises and jealously eyed the spry seniors dead-lifting and leg-pressing around me. Six months later, when my therapist finally let me on the treadmill, it felt like Christmas morning.
I returned to running gradually, a few minutes at a time. I couldn’t have sped up the process if I’d wanted to. Everything was different: my breathing, my stride, even my shoes. It felt like all of my internal organs had been rearranged — because they had. My feet grew a size and a half during pregnancy and never went back, something I didn’t even realize could happen. (I cheered when Olympic runner Allyson Felix announced that her brand, Saysh, would offer a maternity returns program for this reason.)
The logistics of training are their own marathon for any mom — and with both of us running, it felt like an ultra. The two marathons I ran while working on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign were an easy jog compared to this. Bringing Remy along in the stroller meant I might not be able to finish my run if he got fussy, but leaving him behind meant being plagued by guilt. Liz was braver than I was when it came to taking Remy on some of her longer runs, and after pushing the heavy jogging stroller for 10 to 15 hours a week, she had the biceps to show for it.
The sadness and anxiety that followed me out the door when I went for a solo run was eventually replaced by a thrilling sense of freedom, even if I did feel the occasional pang when I passed a family with kids. We would never have made it through those 18 weeks without a packed rotation of babysitters and day care teachers, and I was immensely thankful to Every Mother Counts team coach and mom of four Lindsey Hein, who patiently answered my texts about whether it was OK to skip a run after Remy wound up in the ER until 3 a.m. with a nasty day care virus and whether I should reduce my mileage if I had hand, foot, and mouth.
When I hit 10 miles for the first time since giving birth, my eyes filled with tears. Holy sh*t, I thought, I might actually do this. Meanwhile, something surprising was happening: Not only was I running faster than Liz, I was running faster than my pre-pregnancy self. I had no idea where this was coming from. Was I subconsciously anxious to get back to my child? Had all those hormones given me superpowers? Might this be my best marathon yet? A proud “back of the pack” runner, my fastest marathon time was four hours and 45 minutes. To my shock, it seemed like I was on track to set a significant new personal best. Eager to get my mental fitness in order, too, I started seeing Emily Saul, a sports psychologist, who encouraged me to remember why I was doing this: to prove to myself that I could still take on an ambitious physical feat, even as a mom.
I decided that if I couldn’t run my fastest, I was going to have the most fun.
Like many runners, I compulsively checked the weather leading up to the race, my heart sinking as I realized the forecast called for a record-breaking 75-degree day with high humidity. To any reasonable human, that might sound perfectly pleasant. To a runner, it means slower times, fear of heatstroke, and the agonizing dance of trying to stay hydrated without drinking too much. I grew up in Wisconsin and have run my best races in the snow. In short, this was my worst nightmare. With Emily’s voice ringing in my ears, I tried to focus on what I could control — namely, my mindset.
As I approached the halfway point on marathon day, finishing at all still felt ambitious. My legs were sluggish and heavy, and I had developed an ache in my side that would take days to disappear. The bottoms of my feet burned with blisters, my shoes soggy from dumping cold water on my head at every hydration stop. I wondered whether I would finish the race with my toenails intact and any part of my body unchafed. Around Mile 9, I’d let go of the time I was chasing, watched Danielle pull ahead, and decided that if I couldn’t run my fastest, I was going to have the most fun. I hugged every friend, high-fived every kid, and petted every dog along the route.
I had been afraid that our 11:30 a.m. start (three and a half hours after the first athletes crossed the starting line) meant the crowds would have dissipated. I shouldn’t have doubted the people of New York City. There were live bands in Brooklyn, and strangers hung over the barricades along the course to offer bananas, Band-Aids, and plastic cups of beer (ah, Williamsburg). I passed a pregnant friend who was due any day and doubled back to exclaim with joy. I heard someone shout my name and turned to see a favorite neighbor from a building I’d moved out of years ago. I stopped to take a picture of a former colleague with an enormous sign that read REMY’S MOMS RULE! Even as we crossed the bridges, where spectators aren’t allowed, workers stopped what they were doing to scream encouragement, crank their truck radios, and urge us over the steep inclines.
Eventually, though, all the frenetic cheers, hilarious signs, and baggies of ice in the world couldn’t make up for how awful I felt. I desperately wanted to stop, but Remy was out there somewhere with Liz’s mom and a group of our friends, and I wanted him to know that when something is really, really hard, you keep going.
In a way, I did set a new personal record: I’ve never spent that long on a marathon course.
Suddenly, I remembered he wasn’t the only one out there. I tugged my phone out of my leggings to text Liz, who, it turned out, was having an equally miserable time. In an instant, I changed my goal again: I was going to get her across the finish line in her first marathon, running, walking, or crawling. Miraculously, we found each other, and ran-walked the next 11 miles, past drummers in the Bronx and families blowing bubbles in Harlem. We distracted ourselves by looking up at the looming buildings of Manhattan, experiencing the surreal feeling of running down streets packed with people instead of cars. Our friends on the sidelines snapped photos of us running hand-in-hand, dragging each other along, and occasionally stopping to yell, “This is the worst thing we’ve ever done!”
It took me more than six hours to complete the marathon. As I summoned every ounce of remaining energy to sprint the last 2 miles, I heard someone scream “Every Mother Counts! Yeah!” It was Christy Turlington Burns, the organization’s founder, jumping up and down on the sidelines in Central Park. Even though it felt like the middle of sweltering summer, it looked like a perfect fall evening in New York City, with golden leaves drifting from the trees. The second I made it across the finish line, I burst into happy tears. Liz was just behind me, and when I checked later, I saw that Danielle made it, too.
In a way, I did set a new personal record: I’ve never spent that long on a marathon course. When I called my parents to tell them what happened, my mom consoled me by reminding me I’d run other marathons. “You know you can do it,” she said gently. “You don’t understand,” I corrected her. “I did do it.” I wasn’t disappointed or sad. I couldn’t feel anything but pride.
A few days later, Emily listened to me recount the story of the toughest race I’ve ever run (-walked) and offered me a piece of wisdom. “We talk a lot about the fight-or-flight response, but those aren’t the only two options. There’s also ‘connect.’ Sometimes, when we can connect with the people around us, it lets us realize that we’re stronger and more capable as part of a community than we are alone.” In other words, as a wise woman once said, “It takes a village to raise a child.” It took a village for me to run a marathon, too — and isn’t that its own kind of magic?