What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?
Words: Kate Raphael
Photos: Emily Maye
On Grandma’s Marathon and lofty goals; of stepping into the unknown, and falling short.
Before the race, they will tell you things, thinking they are preparing you. In some ways, they are.
As you first glimpse the course from a speeding car window, they will tell you that you can see the finish line from the start, a straight shot down the coast of Lake Superior, a “point to point.” As you line up for the gun, you’ll forget to look, solely focused on the immediate road in front of your feet. Later, you’ll feel sheepishly grateful you did not see the gaping expanse you would ask your legs to carry you through.
They will tell you many practical things, the first of which is how to hydrate. You might think you know how to drink water, but you don’t—not while running. They’ll explain the best strategy: crush the paper cups the volunteers hand out at odd-numbered miles; you get more water in your mouth and less on your shirt this way. In the race, you’ll knock three cups out of the hands of the volunteers before you finally grasp one, which you’ll promptly pour down your front, water mixing with sweat to soak your singlet. You’ll become very thirsty very quickly, clutching the paper cup and wondering how all that water sloshed everywhere except into your parched mouth, save for the little dribble you’re now coughing up from your windpipe.
Then, they will tell you how to fuel, when to take your first gel, the sickeningly sweet jellied pouches you’ll squeeze into your mouth while you run. They will not tell you how to dispose of the wrappers—you didn’t think to ask, and after you eat your first one at mile 6, you’ll feel guilty as you toss it to the side of the road, littering when you swore as a principled child you never would. At mile 16, you won’t have the energy to care as you toss another wrapper onto the ground and wipe your sticky fingers on your shorts.
They will tell you that you might have to use a porta-potty during the race. Runners don’t shy away from conversations about poop—don’t worry, it’s quick, they’ll say, as they pull up a 15-second video clip of someone dropping her shorts mid-race, now immortalized on YouTube. They’ll continue, Shalane Flanagan—one of the fastest marathoners alive!—she stopped to use one on her way to helping Desi Linden win Boston. I remember watching that scene unfold: sheets of cold, cruel rain in April, Shalane darting into that blue stall on the side of the course, wresting momentary cover and relief, while Desi stood, wet and waiting. Only seconds passed until the blue plastic door swung open, and when it did, they picked right back up in their rhythm, ran like hell, finished hard. But no one will tell you that you might find yourself at mile 19 with an urge so immediate you can’t wait for the upcoming porta stall. No one will tell you that you will shamelessly drop your shorts and squat in the grass without even a tree for privacy, not caring who witnesses your dire act of human urgency, before picking back up with your death march through the final 7 miles.
They’ll warn you of the strange things that will happen to your feet: monstrous swelling, grisly blisters, goblin toenails. And so, with this advice tucked into your socks, on the morning of the race, you will dress your toes with blister Band-Aids in preparation. Despite precautions, in the race you’ll feel the sweaty grating of skin on skin, skin on fabric, and imagine blood pooling in your shoes. When everything else hurts, this acute, localized pain is almost a welcome distraction.
There will be ups and downs, they will tell you. The course rolls its way down the west coast of Lake Superior, miles and miles of Minnesota Highway 61 unfurled by the brisk lake wind. They say you’ll never be on flat ground for long—gentle inclines and declines contour the course, the terrain’s nod to those dialectical inflections characteristic of Minnesotan speech: up and down, and up, never flat for long. For the first half of the race, you take these ups and downs in stride, quick steps on the shallow grind of the ups, controlled falling, letting gravity do the work on the downs. But in the second half, you understand what they really meant by ups and downs, realizing the first half had been the up, grasping the reality of the sharp decline as you feel your pace slowing, slowing, slowing.
You knew this would come; they’d told you it would be hard (of course it’s hard—who would make such a big deal out of this multi-hour effort if it were easy?). But they did not tell you it’s a kind of hard that takes hold of your whole body and screams through your legs, your chest, your head, to stop. Before the race, they’ll predict you won’t hit this wall until mile 20. Then you just have to gut through the last 6 miles, not so far, really, in the grand scheme of things. But they won’t tell you that you might hit this wall at mile 16, with over 10 miles to go, a distance that will feel infinite, or if not quite infinite, uncrossable. They won’t tell you how quickly the race morphs from a relaxed, focused effort of maintaining steady pace to a desperate crawl where the only goal is to keep moving forward, how suddenly your time goal evaporates on the wind with your sweat, leaving behind only a sparkly trail of salt crystals. You will find out for yourself how engulfing the race is, how it swallows you up. You’ll discover how many times you can think about walking off the course and quitting, without actually doing it.
They will tell you to use your teammates to get you through these long moments. After all, you embarked on this journey as a squad of six, meeting on winter mornings to churn out miles and miles before it was light. More than three months back, you began training to hit a qualifying time some committee on high declared as the Cutoff For Fast: 2 hours and 45 minutes and 00 seconds. You’ve told these training partners you’re scared to chase this dream of a time, but you’re doing it anyway. You’ve paced hundreds of miles with them, a million collective steps and more, enough to wear down the tread of several pairs of shoes, but when you need them on your hip to tell you you’re okay, they’re not there. One started further back, one peeled off with an injury two miles in, one strode ahead off the line, the other two you lost during your pit stop, though their uniforms are still visible every now and then, a flash of color up ahead, a bobbing white baseball cap, as you try to keep your gaze up and your sights high.
And so, in the absence of your teammates, you remember they told you to use the crowd as support. They didn’t tell you there would be moments when the crowd feels like the only support in the world and you will depend on their encouragement to propel your forward motion. You will take their You look good! and You’re almost there! as fact, even when you know you look terrible and you’re not even close to almost there. You will lock eyes with some silent onlookers sitting on the sidewalk at mile 21 and in your head, desperately plead for them to tell you that you can do it. Unless you hear it from someone else, you won’t believe you can.
They will describe how they felt at the finish. Some cried. Some collapsed. Some walked off the course and felt dissatisfied or frustrated or overjoyed or some overwhelming flux of contradictory emotions. Every competitor’s finish is recorded on video, and you can watch the last 15 meters of each race, each runner charging or loping or limping across the line. You hope that you will charge across. You hope that if you cry, your tears will taste like joy. You hope they will taste fast and salty. You hope they’ll mean something.
When you finally do cross, bleary and spent, some unnamed volunteer will hold your body upright, keeping your cheek from meeting pavement. Don’t you just love running? he’ll say, and you’ll pant back, speaking into the ground, Not right now.
In the end, it doesn’t matter that they didn’t, couldn’t, tell you everything. You still would have knowingly put yourself through this trial even with its weight of imminent hurt. You still wouldn’t have understood the depths of self you would have to search to rise up to meet this beast of a race. You still would have chased this dream of a time that seemed, at one point, unattainable, and spoken it aloud until it was beyond sound. Until it was breath in your ears and a pulse in your temple.
They will tell you that once you’re done, you’ll quickly forget how much pain you were in, forget how mercilessly this race beat you, and sign yourself up for another. You can’t stay immune to the marathon bug, they say, claiming it will only take a few hours after you cross the finish line before you’re planning your next race. As much as these miles gut you, they also become you.
You have not signed up for another. Yet. But someday. Maybe soon. Before then, you will tell a would-be marathoner what is almost impossible to convey about these 26.2 miles, what you have come to know through your own trial, what you hope for your next race, what is beyond technique: You will find more in yourself, make more of yourself, become more yourself than you thought possible. You will rise up to meet this beast of a race with tidal resolve. You will run neck and neck to the line, and you will not let the marathon win.
No one will tell you that. But, with every unflinching thing you are made of, you will know.