The hardest part of training for a marathon is, by far, trying not to tell people that you’re training for a marathon. At the beginning, I failed at this daily. It would be the first word upon my lips when I awoke in the mornings. When meeting new people I’d introduce myself as, “Yes, a marathon… Oh sorry, I thought you asked me what I’m training for.” I began designing English lessons around the topic of marathons – “I’m training for a marathon. Discuss.”
Phone calls with friends started to become awkward.
Me: Hello? Yes?
Friend: Yeah hi…
Me: Yeah, what’s up? Can’t really talk. I was just about to go train… for the marathon…? which I’m running…?
Friend: Michael, you called me!
But let me speak in my defense. “For out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks,” as they say. And let me tell you, Dear Reader, that during those months leading up to the marathon both my heart and my mind were full of nothing but thoughts of running (as well as the cholesterol from the perverse amounts of carbohydrates I had been putting into my body). When my friends discussed what we should do on a weekend, I had no input because all I knew was that I had to make sure that part of that weekend was spent running. It was difficult to focus during classes because I was too busy worrying about whether I’d run enough kilometers that week. It was nigh-on impossible to entertain discussions of topical events when all I could think about were how badly the arches of my feet were paining me. So it’s really no surprise that running was all I talked about.
However, when my own arrogance became overwhelming I knew it was time to learn to keep my mouth shut, and so I resolved to stop talking about the marathon at all costs. But alas, the universe was against me.
A few weeks before running my first marathon, I attended an annual South African community braai, which was hosted by the Embassy of South Africa in Santiago. It’s a lovely event where many South Africans from in and around Santiago gather to meet, catch up, and share in much-missed South African food. I’d been to the one the year before, and so when I arrived at the braai I quickly spotted some familiar faces. I went over and greeted a couple that I’d sat next to the at the previous year’s function. I could recall almost nothing about them, except that she was a photographer and he liked to surf. I suppose they remembered a little bit more about me, because the very first thing they asked me was, “So how’s the running going?”
It’s difficult to recall conversations from a year ago, but clearly this was a detail about me that they had remembered – that I was a bit of a runner. I thought of my resolution to avoid talk of marathons, and I tried to stay strong.
“It’s going well… Really well…”
Actually, it wasn’t going well at all. I’d hardly done any research about how to train, and at that point I was only running about 4km per day. I was not exposing my body to long distances like I should have been. I didn’t even have the right shoes and that was a constant, nagging concern.
We drifted into silence. They nodded appreciably, and then waited for me to ask about her photography, or his surfing. Instead, what I said was, “I’m actually training for the Santiago marathon in a couple of weeks.”
I mean, c’mon! They’d asked me directly.
As my training continued, my resolve became stronger. Quite soon, I could endure whole conversations without bringing it up once. The marathon was becoming mine. I didn’t need to share it with anyone else. My body may not have been up to scratch, but I took a couple of semi-long runs, and during that process I taught myself to visualize the entire course. I studied the map. I tried to think about what running a full 42 kilometers would feel like. I even managed to acquire a new pair of excellent running shoes, which provided much mental reinforcement. Even if my body failed, I knew my mind was capable, and to me that was an important milestone. As the day approached, the reality of the race grew in my mind. Part of me started to realise that deciding to do a marathon is not the same as completing one. Perhaps I should wait until the run was over before talking about it.
About a week before the run, the marathon had made its way into my dreams. I’d wake up in the middle of the night thinking that I’d overslept and the race had started already. I started fearing that I hadn’t trained enough. I’d begun loading up on carbohydrates and started worrying that I was putting on weight that would slow me down. In the final week I put myself through a process called “Tapering.” This basically meant that I stopped running in order to let my body rest in preparation for the big day. That final week almost drove me over the edge. Remaining inactive was agony. I felt like I was sabotaging myself. Had I trained enough? Maybe I’d started tapering too early, or too late. I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing. And eating pasta three meals a day also felt somehow wrong. I felt like I was teaching my body to be lazy when what I really needed was to be fitter than I’d ever been in my entire life. Fortunately, I had some friends who were invested in my run, and I could talk to them about it. It helped me stick to my resolution of not telling people that I was running a marathon. But temptation soon struck again.
Shortly before the race, I had a class with a student of mine who happens to live quite close to me. She was late, and we met in the lobby of her building. As we stepped into the elevator, she said to me, “I saw you the other day.”
“Oh?” It was always awkward being spotted outside of work hours. Who knows what she’d seen me doing.
“You were running,” she said. Despite my mind’s constant dwelling on the marathon, I was momentarily caught off guard. A student talking about seeing you outside of normal class hours always makes you reassess your recent actions. Where had she seen me running? Was I chasing down an ice cream truck? Was I exiting a bank at haste with police in pursuit?
“It was late,” she continued. “Like ten o’ clock at night.”
Things fell into place, and I recalled that I’d been out for a long run a few nights previously. It was my last real run before I’d started tapering. But I would not speak of the marathon. “Ah,” I said. “Yes. I was just… out for a run.”
The elevator doors closed. Then reopened. Some more people got on, and it ascended glacially.
“I can’t believe you were running so late at night. I don’t know where you get the energy.”
I shrugged as we stepped onto her floor. “Ah well… you know…,” said I, with much eloquence.
There was so much I wanted to say. I was thinking about the way my knees had hurt after that run, and how the fear of that pain returning during the marathon had almost driven me to tears. I was so focused on not talking about the marathon that my brain could find no other words to say. I was just waiting for her to drop the subject.
“I mean,” she continued when we’d reached her floor, “when I get home I’m exhausted. I’d never be able to go running so late at night.”
She was fumbling for her keys and it was taking an eternity.
I was thinking about how difficult it had been to pull on my running shoes that evening. I thought about how tired I was from work, and from almost daily runs. I was thinking that lifting myself off the couch had been a task bordering on the Herculean.
“Oh well, yeah… I like it…,” said I, an English teacher.
The fact of the matter was that I didn’t like it. Not one bit. I’d thrown myself into a machine and now I couldn’t stop it until it spat me out on the other side. I’d run my mouth too much, and now people were looking to see how I’d fare. I felt mentally ready, but the run itself was in a dark, unfathomable future. There was so much I was desperate to know. Would I finish? Would I drop out? Would I cause myself permanent damage? How long would I need to recover?
As I walked with my student along the corridor to her apartment, I thought about what the future had in store for me. I didn’t know, then, about the street dogs that would keep pace with the runners for kilometers at a time. Or about the hydro stations chanting “Agua! Gatorade!” in a beautiful rhythmic chorus. I couldn’t have known, then, just how insufficient my training had been. I didn’t foresee how I’d hit the midway mark and suddenly become unsure about whether I could face the rest. I hadn’t known how unprepared I would be for the way my body wanted to give out once I’d hit the 35km mark, with my knees begging for mercy. It was only during the race that I would see another runner physically punching his legs to keep them alive, and understand exactly why he was doing that. I hadn’t known about the worrying streak of pain that would shoot up my right leg at kilometer 37, with every neuron in my body crying for me to stop. I couldn’t have known about the will which would push me to continue, because if I had stopped, or slowed to a walk, I would have counted the marathon as a failure. And more than anything, what I couldn’t have known then, was the sudden onrush of emotion that overpowered me at the finish line, causing my face to crumple and my eyes to run over with tears. Days after having that class with my student, exhaustion would drive my emotions haywire and cause me to fight to control my crying. And even once I’d gotten myself under control, I would be handed a medal from a little boy with Down Syndrome, and I would start crying all over again.
All of that lay in my future, unknown, as my student finally slotted her key into her apartment door.
“I mean,” she was saying, “when I get home from work all I want to do is relax. I could never go out for a run…”
I’m afraid I broke just then, Dear Reader. I could hold back the dam no longer. The training had been hard and insufficient. I was slowly losing my mind and in that moment I needed her to know that the running she had seen me doing was a symptom of a punishing project I had taken upon myself, one which was pushing me to insanity.
“Thing is,” I said, “I’m planning on running the Santiago marathon next week. So I was just training for that. Otherwise I’d never normally be out running so late.” The door to her apartment was finally open, and the class could begin. But it was too late. The damage was done.
So, I had failed the challenge I had set myself of not talking about the marathon. But the marathon itself had been a success. I didn’t have what it takes to remain silent about training for a marathon, but at least I was able to complete the slightly more manageable task of actually completing one.