I’ve wanted to finish a second marathon ever since finishing my first, in Negril, Jamaica, in December 2015. It took me more than 7 hours to finish that one, and the whole thing, from beginning to end, was a train wreck. I put in the work, but instead of becoming a sleek, fine-tuned machine, I was like an old, battered pile of junk.
The idea of doing it again?
I was euphoric.
Oprah Winfrey finished the Marine Corps Marathon (MCM) in 1994. Her pace was a ridiculous 10:16/mile. She finished the race in 4 hours and 29 minutes.
I mention this because in my moment of panic at the start of the 42nd MCM on October 22, 2017, my second marathon, among 30,000 other participants and what seemed like at least that many Marines and other volunteers, I thought about Oprah. She had coaches and trainers, but she still had to use her own body and her own mind to run 26.2 miles. Oprah’s just like me, I told myself. I looked up. B-52s flew over the crowd and then Marines parachuted through the air.
Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” played over the loud speakers.
Okay taller and with longer legs and otherwise extraordinary, but Oprah’s not an elite athlete, right? She’s a regular person like the hundreds of regular people of all shapes, sizes, and ages I saw walking around the MCM Expo the Friday before the race with their clear-plastic bags of swag hung over their shoulders.
Regular people who paid good money to run 26.2 miles on a chilly Sunday morning.
Hardly anybody looked like a runner, I thought.
I remembered reading somewhere that if completing a marathon is on your bucket list there’s a good chance you’ll stick to your training plan, finish the race, and never run again. From what I’ve read, Oprah doesn’t run. I thought about that, too.
I started running only three years ago, in my mid-50s. I was trying to get control of my eating, lose some weight, and find a way to have more energy. I was on the treadmill at the gym one morning, getting in my two-mile walk, when I felt rushed. I started pressing buttons on the machine to make it go faster before realizing that would mean I’d be going faster, too. I stayed with it, and the world didn’t come to an end.
But here’s what I want you to know. I am not a person who looks good running. Long runs, especially in cold weather, make me congested and more vulnerable to coming down with a virus. I have serious issues managing my electrolyte balance, even suffering an ileus (look it up) after a long run last year on Christmas Day. It took me four days of broth and Jello to get back up and running, so to speak, and back to work.
If you asked me before MCM why I sign up for races, or why it was important for me to run a marathon in the first place, I would have told you I like the party atmosphere of races, and races keep me focused and help me stick to my exercise regimen.
Yet here’s what occurs to me now, nearly a month after finishing MCM. I didn’t come in last, but if I had, that would be okay. Because training for a marathon, or otherwise making the time to exercise, is about scheduling me time.
And, ladies, that’s where many of us fall short.
If we complain about coloring our hair or talk about giving it up it’s often for the same reasons we don’t have a meaningful exercise habit as we age. We don’t want to spend the time or the money on ourselves. Even if we don’t have a lot of either, whether we work inside or outside the home, we’ll make everyone else’s needs a priority over our own. We’ll schedule volunteering in a local food bank before jumping on the elliptical. I’m totally down with being philanthropic, but, yep, charity begins at home.
My MCM time: 6:26:33. That’s 6 hours and 26 minutes and 33 seconds.
“A helluva PR,” Kevin McGuinness, my physical therapist, said, in reference to the Negril fiasco.
“True,” I said. What I was thinking was, that’s a shitload of one-on-one time with myself and focus on me.
Listening to music.
Hearing the sound of my feet along the pavement.
Paying attention to my thoughts.
Noticing my breath.
Finding my edge.
Embracing the supportive cheers of onlookers, volunteers, and my family.
And then I started to add up my weekly long runs – each lasting between 2 and 4 hours, sometimes with a running partner and sometimes on my own – and the pre- and post-work runs in the neighborhood for the last 20 weeks. And the 45 minutes I spend swimming laps and the 30 minutes stretching before and after workouts. And the Sundays doing meal prep and the weekday mornings assembling and packing nutrient rich lunches and snacks.
Three years ago? Even after my children had become adults and were managing their own lives, I can’t recall spending a fraction of that much concentrated time with myself or focused on me.
I’ve got my engagement books for the past 30 years and the wall calendars from when my children were young – I’ve got everything noted in there.
So I know. There’s not a single pencil mark or doodle of an appointment for me at the gym or a scheduled run or a walk in the neighborhood.
Now when I see ads for the latest 10-minute exercise workout, my first thought is, even if it’s an intense 10 minutes, this has no appeal for me.
Because among the numerous scientific and medical studies that show the enormous physical and mental health benefits of meaningful exercise, especially as I age, is this one.
Learning how to have a relationship with myself.
Carolee Belkin Walker’s Getting My Bounce Back: How I Got Fit, Happier, and Healthier (And You Can, Too) will be out in February 2018