Sunday, December 6, 2009

Marathon Mama

If plantar fasciitis was a set-back in my Broad Street dreams, it was at least a set-back that taught me something about training well. Which was a good thing, because in my really really secret heart of hearts? I was starting to think about running a marathon. This was possibly the most absurd notion that had ever crossed my mind. So ridiculously absurd, in fact, that I dared not mention it to anyone for a long time. When I finally mentioned it to Julie, she didn’t seem astonished at all, but Julie is both an athlete and my biggest cheerleader, so the fact that she failed to appreciate the lunacy of such a notion was not surprising.

The thing was, by the time I missed the Broad Street due to plantar fasciitis, I was already a long, long way on my path to feeling healthy and whole and integrated in my body. I had been running regularly for a couple of years. I had also been practicing yoga pretty seriously for a little over a year. Micah had joined our family through a domestic, transracial adoption, and he and I were physically nearly inseparable for the first year of his life. He never wanted to be put down, and I didn’t want to put him down, so he pretty much hung out in the sling all day, and we slept belly-to-belly all night. I was nursing him successfully (and did, for three and a half years), an accomplishment that to this day still sort of takes my breath away. More because of nursing, I think, than anything, I ate voraciously – just unfathomable quantities of food – and the pounds kept pouring off. I had never been stronger or more fit, and had never loved being in my body so much.

And yet, I still had this lingering sense of loss around childbirth. For years I had been a birth junkie, and had dreamed of giving birth in my home one day. During my years of trying to get pregnant, and during my two all-too-brief pregnancies, I would visualize what it would be like, this profound experience of giving birth to a baby. I had come to realize that many of the dimensions of birthing a baby – the spiritual and emotional – are likewise intense (not the same, but similarly intense) in building a family through adoption. But it was the physical challenge of childbirth that had always seemed the most daunting and therefore the greatest challenge to me. I had always wondered if my body could really do something that huge and powerful and challenging. It was the one piece of my infertility that felt unresolved.

I knew that running a marathon is not really the same as giving birth, and so on some level I felt sort of silly imagining that running a marathon could resolve my infertility loss. But I wasn’t actually looking for something that could take the place of giving birth – I knew that was just a loss that I could move on from, but it would always be a loss. Still, running a marathon was an extreme physical challenge that seemed to me, frankly, way less likely for me than giving birth would have been. And it wasn’t exactly that I wanted to say, “Oh, if I run a marathon, then I’m sure I could have given birth.” Childbirth (as with much of parenting) is unpredictable, and while you can prepare, there’s much you don’t control. I will simply never know what childbirth might have been for me. Still, I wanted to know that my body could rise to a challenge that for most of my life would have seemed absurdly unreachable.

I decided to start with the Philadelphia Distance Run, a half marathon held each September in Philadelphia. I started training in the spring, as soon as I had recovered from the plantar fasciitis. I found a book about running for women, with a reasonable training program, based on time rather than distance, designed for folks who just want to finish, but didn’t care about speed. I made a big training chart and taped it to the cabinet above the sink. And with uncharacteristic discipline, I set about training all summer long.

My plan had been to attempt the half one year, and if I were successful, to think about a full marathon the following year. This plan was as ridiculous as the whole notion of running a marathon in the first place. As Julie pointed out (after yet another Saturday of solo parenting while I was out doing a long run), when I ran the half, I would be half way there. Why not just keep training and run the Philadelphia marathon a couple of months later, rather than starting all over with this grueling training schedule the following year? This, of course, made perfect sense. Except that the notion of running a marathon still just seemed so absurd, so remote. Me? Run a marathon? This year?

Still, I could see her point. The training was pretty time-consuming, especially because I run so slowly. It was definitely a strain on my family, and while Julie supported me way above and beyond anything I reasonably deserve (she’s like that), it did seem to make some sense to just get it over with.

And so I did. On a clear, crisp September morning just before my 39th birthday, I ran the Philadelphia Distance Run in my best time ever. Every single mile of that run was perfect. I felt like I was flying (in reality I ran 10:39 minute miles), and it remains the very best thing I have ever done just for myself. Bar none. Two months later, I finished the Philadelphia marathon, about half an hour slower than my goal of finishing under five hours.

I may run slowly, but I run slowly in a category of elite runners who have finished a marathon!


Lilian said...

Wow, that's awesome!! I truly admire you. I do not run, but I've given birth (naturally) twice and, at least from my point of view*, I think that running a marathon is an absolutely unthinkable challenge for me. Most of all, I lack the discipline required for running. I don't think one needs any discipline for birthing, so I think running is way harder. I'm truly sorry that you didn't get to give birth, but you definitely should be proud of your accomplishment as an "elite runner". :-)

I have a SIL who's a marathoner and her husband became one too.

*I had terrible asthma growing up and I've always hated to run.

Joe Irwin said...

Marta, I'm not a runner. But, as I read your blog on marathons, I realized how much in common the spiritual journey has with a marathon. Just as there are those for whom running marathons becomes an obsession, there are some for whom the "spiritual journey" is all-encompassing. Could it be that good advice for marathoners is also prudent advice for those on the spiritual path, guideline such as: (1) Pace yourself, it's a long haul — burning out early in the race serves no purpose; (2) Mentally divide the race into segments — it is wise to celebrate smaller goals without becoming obsessed with the finish line; (3) If you encounter bad weather, adjust your stride — sooner or later everyone encounters rough stretches, and this is when caution and attention are advised; and (4) Try walking once in a while — we all need a break from constant running, occasionally slowing down may help you reach the finish line. I wish I had known this advice earlier in my spiritual journey; I could have avoided so many strains and sprains. But, now that I'm well passed the 20-mile mark, I'm beginning to see that wisdom is a better companion than enthusiasm. And, hopefully, I will find myself in the company of others who have fallen in love with the race and have lost their interest in the finish line.

Sara said...

How awesome. What a great story.

And I really like Julie too :)

What Mama Sews said...

Hey! Soooo beautiful and, I must selfishly add, baffling - I have NO memory of you running the marathon, but I'm thinking "if you were about to turn 39, then I was about to turn 40 and that would be the first months of Gillie, so, it is scarily possible that I DON'T remember this. So, I enjoyed the essay and the twist surprise at the end :) Sorry - I've always thought you were amazing even without this information stored in my long-term memory!:)

Corey said...

MARTA! I did not know this! Congratulations!

Re: giving birth v. marathoning. Getting pregnant and staying pregnant, especially for women who battle infertility is the real struggle. I do not know how women endure it, except that, as with all things, we have no choice.. we cannot simply lie down on the kitchen floor and will ourselves to die.. it does not work. Once you get to the birthing process, there's not much choice in the matter.. your body takes over and you MUST give birth, like it or not. (Now, giving birth with any semblance of dignity.. this can be a challenge.) Marathoning.. THAT is a definitive choice.. every step of the way, every stinking second that you really would rather not be there, and you HAVE THE OPTION TO QUIT.

Truly, you have done something amazing. Congratulations.


Marta said...

corey, thanks for stopping by! best of luck on your upcoming marathon!