I stepped out onto the porch of the AirBnB I was staying in just a few blocks away from the start line of the Richmond Marathon. I locked the door and took a deep breath to calm my nerves. I closed my eyes and said an affirmation: You have everything you need.
Oh, shoot, where's my phone?
I went back inside to grab it and then repeated the ritual: OK, now you have everything you need.
I swerved and weaved my way through the dense crowd of people bending and stretching and jogging on every inch of pavement for a block and a half. I had been assigned to corral 6, the final group, based on my predicted finishing time. I felt an immediate sense of camaraderie with my fellow back-of-the-packers. I found my training buddy, Kirsten, and we saw that someone was handing out pink first-timer stickers. "Good luck," said the volunteer. "You never forget your first!"
An air horn blasted at 7:45am indicating the start of the race, but it took a few minutes for our corral to get to the start line. With my index finger in position to push the start button on my Garmin watch, I heard the announcer shout out someone near me wearing a Red Sox hat "even though he was a Yankees fan." As a lifelong hard-core New York sports fan, I took this as a sign that although my dad had passed away four years ago, he was about to embark on this journey with me.
As I crossed the start line, the song playing on my 80s Cardio Rock Pandora station was "We Belong" by Pat Benatar. I smiled because I finally felt like I did. I am a runner. I cried for the first few blocks feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of what I was doing and all that had led me to this moment.
I knew it was a classic rookie mistake to go out too hard or too fast in the early miles so I heeded the warnings. When I signed up for the marathon, it was clear that I would do run/walk intervals (I mean, it’s not like I’m 43 anymore), but had initially intended to complete the race doing more running, or at least equal parts running and walking. I experimented with various time blocks during my 20 weeks of training to see what felt sustainable, especially as the mileage increased. Although I had grappled with the narrative that I could not call myself a runner unless I actually ran the whole thing, I decided that my real goals were 1) to complete the race and 2) to avoid serious injury so that I could keep running beyond this event. As such, I had settled on a 30-second run followed by a 60-second walk and pre-programmed my watch to vibrate accordingly. I quickly fell into my own rhythm as the mass began to thin out.
The first few miles flew by. I felt like I was floating. I was surprised by how strong I felt given that I had been battling foot pain and glute tightness in the week leading up to the race. Maybe I should be doing longer running intervals. This is sort of silly. I'm walking so much so early on in the race. I shook myself out of my "shouldy" thoughts and instead said a little gratitude prayer that the extra yoga sessions this week had paid off.
Around mile 4, a poster that said, “Go Marissa!” caught my eye. If your name is Rachel or Jennifer or Michael, this probably happens to you often, but when you have a name like mine, it’s really quite rare. I shouted across the road, “Hey, MY name is Marissa!” The woman paused a beat and shouted back, “Yes, that’s your sign!” It was my friend, Lisa, whom I initially didn’t recognize because she was wearing a hat and sunglasses, but we both screamed as I made my way over to the curb to give her a hug before continuing on.
As I fell back into my rhythm, I scanned the runners around me. I saw some people listening to headphones to stay motivated and others chatting with friends to pass the time. And, then there was this guy…
It was amazing running near a juggler for a short time. Spectators would get out their phones to take pictures or videos while shouting things like, “You’re amazing!” and “That’s so impressive!” I waved and thanked them all for their kind words of encouragement. At one point the juggler turned towards me and smiled. I told him that I was so happy to be running near him and that my son just had a juggler at his 9th birthday party so it felt fortuitous. He told me he was happy to be running near me too.
The volunteers on the course kept reminding us to stay hydrated because of the warmer-than-usual temperatures. During training runs, I could usually go 12-13 miles before refilling my 2L bladder in my hydration pack, but decided to pull over to the water station at mile 8 to refill since I felt like I was running low. I smiled when I saw that the volunteer who helped me was wearing a University of Michigan shirt (my husband is a proud alum…Go Blue!).
The course then wound through quiet backroads where there were no spectators for a long stretch. I didn’t realize how much energy I was absorbing from the crowd until the only thing I could hear (other than my 80s Cardio Rock in one ear) was the shuffling of sneakers on concrete. And, then I turned to my right and saw this:
I gasped. Since learning about the symbolism of the cairn, it has become a special image for me. I’m inspired by its simplicity and complexity, the careful constellation of the individual pieces that can only work as a collective when in balance with one another. I even have a cairn on the front page of my website and on my PowerPoint template so the fact that there were five cairns randomly sitting on the side of this quiet road just took my breath away.
I started to get a little antsy as I hit double digits, but my husband, Dani, had texted me that he and the kids were going to meet me around mile 13. He also mentioned that they were stationed near a table with candy. I made this my focus (I’m talking about my family, of course…) and told myself to just get through the next 5K. “Living on a Prayer” started playing. Nope, not quite halfway there, Bon Jovi, but I was getting close.
As I crossed into mile 13 and grabbed a small cup (OK, two) of M&M’s, my older son, Noah, ran down the sidewalk and said, “Bubbie came to see you!” I couldn’t believe it. My mom had flown in from Dallas the day before and drove down to Richmond with my husband and kids to surprise me. Even though I had never expected that she would be there, once I saw her, I knew this experience would not have felt complete without her. She had always shown up for me, in ways both big and small. That’s just what she did. I was so disoriented and emotional that I shouted, “I can’t believe you’re here! I can’t believe you came!” and just kept running.
At my next walk interval, I texted Dani, “That was fun – let’s do it again. Maybe this time I’ll actually stop.” They found me again at mile 14 and this time I was prepared with quick hugs and kisses. I squeezed my mom extra tight and thanked her for being there. She shooed me along and told me they would try to find me again, which they did around mile 15. I had actually just run out of water so I was especially grateful to see them as I motioned for something to drink. Noah grabbed a small bottle of water from the car that he handed to me as I ran by.
The burst of energy I got from seeing my family (and probably the M&Ms) started to wear off around mile 16. I pulled over to refill my empty hydropack and found myself having a hard time getting pumped up to start running again. I decided to hit up the porta-potty to give myself a little more of a break (you know things are bad when a porta-potty seems like the more enticing option). By now, the sun was straight overhead and it was really beating down. My pace was slowing a bit and I was glad I had stuck with the run/walk interval strategy that I had questioned just a few hours prior. I was feeling daunted by the fact that I still had double-digit miles to go. My husband said they would be stationed around mile 20, but even that felt like a long way off. I was in the messy middle.
A volunteer coach along the course must have seen something in my face and asked if I was doing OK. I admitted that I was struggling and she started running with me a bit. She was encouraging and told me this is when the mental game really kicks in. Once she peeled off and sent me on my way with a spirited, "You've got this!," I decided to implement a mindset strategy I often share with clients: I shifted my focus to gratitude.
I am grateful that I’m not experiencing any pain.
I am grateful that my mom is here.
I am grateful that I have a supportive husband.
I am grateful to be setting a positive example for my kids.
I am grateful for the hundreds of volunteers who made this possible.
I am grateful for the police officers who are keeping us safe on the course.
I am grateful for the spectators and their witty signs.
I am grateful for the military personnel handing out cold, wet washcloths at mile 17.
I am grateful that it’s not raining (there had been a downpour and a tornado watch the day before).
I am grateful that Dani just texted me to ask if I needed anything from the store and will have Gatorade waiting for me right before mile 20...
I was especially grateful for that Gatorade because my hydropack was dry again by the time I got to the mile 20 water station. I pulled over to refill only to find out that they were OUT OF WATER. The volunteers tried to reassure us that reinforcements were on their way, and that they thought there were sufficient reserves at mile 21. I had to make a choice: wait or soldier on and hope for the best. I had 10K to go and I just wanted to be done so I decided to push forward. Fortunately, they did have water at the next station and I asked the volunteer to fill it all the way up so that I wouldn’t have to stop again. I only had 5 miles to go; I could count them on one hand. I was getting closer.
Since I had used this experience as an opportunity to raise awareness and funds for The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in honor of four special people in my life, once I hit mile 22, I decided to dedicate each of the remaining miles to them.
Mile 22 was for Uncle Frank who died in January 2022 just 6 weeks after being diagnosed with lymphoma. To me, he exemplified hard work, a competitive drive, and a fierce focus on family. He was my mom's only brother and I know we will be missing him so much this year at Thanksgiving. I thought I heard him whisper, “I’m proud of you, sweetie,” as I forged ahead.
Mile 23 was for my cousin, Michele, who was not only a childhood survivor of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, but a survivor of breast cancer in recent years. As an artist, her passion, creativity, and commitment to doing what she loves while navigating chronic health challenges is inspiring. Michele’s two-time cancer journey also made me think of my sister, Staci, who is a survivor of both kidney cancer and breast cancer. She had a lumpectomy this summer and just completed a course of radiation treatment. She is brave, bold, and a total badass warrior who lives life on her own terms. Their positive energy, in addition to the pickle juice that volunteers were handing out (it was so good I had two!), propelled me forward.
Mile 24 was for Uncle Sheldon who passed away in 1996, my senior year of high school, after a very long battle with lymphoma. He was a nurse in the army and attained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He was stationed in Germany and Hawaii and served honorably in Vietnam. He was seventeen years older than my father who looked up to him as a role model, especially after their own father died when my dad was twelve. I admired Uncle Shel for his quiet confidence, incredible courage in the face of adversity, and, most notably, his wicked sense of humor.
Mile 25 was for my father. Of course, he had been with me from the start, but his presence was especially strong as I headed toward the home stretch. When Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach” came on, I laughed and said aloud, “OK, Dad, let’s do this.” I knew I was here because I inherited his drive, discipline, and desire to push the limits of what was possible. I knew that his death had compelled me to pursue big, hairy, audacious goals these past few years that may not have happened otherwise. I also knew he would want to beat the times that Frank, Michele/Staci, and Sheldon had posted during their honorary miles so I dug down deep and picked up my speed.
Once I hit mile 26, I could see the finish line and noticed that the final .2 miles were all downhill. I took it up another notch and gave it all that I had left in the tank.
I am proud to say that I not only successfully completed my first marathon (in 6:32 if that's something you're curious about), but I also raised $4,579.22 for The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
People have already been asking me if I am going to run another marathon (or take on an ultra-marathon!!). This feels akin to asking the parents of a newborn if they are going to have more children. For now, I'm just soaking this all in, celebrating with friends and family, and continuing to reflect on what the entire experience means to me.
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