Readers of this column know that I like to run marathons. Not that I have any particular skill or success at that distance. For me, a good marathon is one that I finish. A great marathon is one that I finish in under five hours. And I’ve had very few great marathons.
I tell you this to explain how I came to be standing in a cold wind which was posing as a summer morning in July, in the middle of an eight-week motorcycle tour. In this particular race, runners who needed more than five hours to finish could start ahead of the ‘real’ marathoners – naturally, I chose this option and found myself running along at 7am waving at busloads of people who were arriving for the actual start at 8am.
About 1000 of us opted for the early start; that was 1000 of us who not only faced the challenge of the actual distance, but also the paralysis of self-doubt. That’s 1000 people who needed to know they had a cushion – a safety net of time. And I needed it more than most.
All around me others were filled with the excitement of the adventure. Ahead of us lay 26.2 miles through the city. I realised immediately that I was not sharing their enthusiasm. Weariness from 6000 motorcycle miles on my cross-country ‘Penguin Tour’ denied me their joyful anticipation. The message that morning was clear, even if the sky was not: this was not going to be an easy marathon.
I had only one abiding thought – save energy. All marathons are more about energy management than about speed and distance, but this would be especially true of these particular 26.2 miles. Being on the road had used up most of my reserves, and when it came time to dig down, there’d be nothing left to find. Or so I thought.
As the miles passed, and as the beauty and intrigue of the scenery unfolded around me, I found myself drawing strength from other runners. Near the end of my second hour, the leader zoomed past me. All at once – and in groups – the ‘real’ marathoners swept by, passing me on the right and the left. For the next three hours runners continued to pass me. First the sub-2:30 marathoners, then the sub-3:00 group, and so on. Little by little they all caught up to me, until I was running with those who hoped to finish in the sub-4:00 range. I began to feel more at home with these runners, but still they ran past.
More than in any other marathon, I had to resist the temptation to run along with them. I had found my own pace, a rhythm that worked for me. I could go no faster or slower. The real marathoners were soon out of my sight. Somewhere around mile 20, though, I stumbled upon a small miracle. Instead of a wall, I found the truth. I looked around and saw that not only was I with real marathoners, but I was one of them. I was there, I was counting down the miles, I was running at my absolute limit. Just like the runners around me. It may be hard to imagine the last 10K of a marathon as being fun – but it was. The joy that eluded me at the start of the race overwhelmed me at the finish. Rounding the track for the final 400 metres, I was barely touching the ground.
Bending down to accept my finisher’s medal, I understood. I was a ‘real’ marathoner. And I was a ‘real’ runner. After a lifetime of pretending, I had discovered that ‘getting real’ is simply a matter of looking inside and finding yourself waiting there.
Waddle on, friends.