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Joining the Less Than 1%
I ran a marathon!!!!
WE DID IT, JOE!!!
On Sunday, I crossed off my biggest, most challenging personal goal yet— one that has absolutely nothing to do with school or work— and I did it with one of my college best friends 4,000+ miles away from home: I ran 26.2 miles (technically 26.4 because the course was long, and yes, I was mad about it for that last push) in under 5 hours after not being able to run 1 mile just a few years ago.
I started running during Quarantine Summer in 2020. I was desperate to get out of the house, and I was pissed that my family wanted to play Animal Crossing instead of going on a walk with me, so one day, I just ran. And I made it probably a quarter mile before I was done, but for some reason, I kept at it.
I’d had a half marathon on my New Years Resolution list for years, but somehow every year I forgot that that was a goal I’d even thought of. I’d never been a runner and was very touch and go with my investment in sports, so why did that keep ending up on my goal list?
I don’t know, but in 2021 I decided to take it seriously, and I amazed myself with all the things my body could do, hitting new milestone after milestone. And then I ran my first half marathon and I thought… there must be something a little more challenging.
In high school, I’d had a short season of trying track, but I wasn’t very good at it. Speed was not my forte, and I didn’t find that kind of competition very motivating, but there was something about long runs that I liked— just feeling like a winner for even rising to the challenge of the distance, and after the half, I knew the marathon (and the sheer challenge of the training required) was calling me.
Hobby jogging, as my friends and I would come to jokingly call my slow-and-steady paced runs, became the thing that I did just for myself. There are many hobbies and activities I have enjoyed and succeeded in, but almost all of them (if not literally all of them) have been extrinsic or, in some way seeking external validation. There is nothing wrong with hobbies and activities that keep you rooted in community and are about investing in those around you, and there’s also no shame in wanting to share your work with the world and hoping to receive flowers. But there is something special about things you do with no one else in mind— not selfishly, but because it’s for your own wellbeing and self-growth.
Running became this for me. It wasn’t even about competing with myself, I was not running to compete at all. I was running because I wanted to show myself that I could follow through on my goals, I could keep my promises to myself, I could be disciplined, and I could invest my time in activities that truly made me feel good.
When I moved to Belfast in September, I had just turned 22, and I only knew two people, barely, who lived in the same city as me, and they lived a good trek away. I struggled being so far away from home and knowing it would be for such a long time. For almost half my day, everyone I loved and usually liked to talk to for any minor inconvenience was sleeping and could not be reached. Running became my way of keeping myself busy so that I wouldn’t spiral in my solitude (and in my tiny studio apartment), and my way of getting acquainted with the city.
I felt a lot of independence in getting to know Belfast by foot, and by the end of marathon training, I ended up running to some of the towns just outside of Belfast, taking in the lengthy Loughshore as I ran up to Jordanstown. I ran through all four corners of the city as I ran the majority of the marathon course for my final 20-mile long run, and I completed half marathons and 10ks in other parts of Northern Ireland. There were times I needed to run errands and instead of taking the bus, I’d just run, because it was easier, even if it meant an 8-mile round-trip commute just to pick up a race packet. Buses are easy, but legs are reliable. At least, that’s what I told my mom when she gave me bug eyes after I told her about it.
I also had a lot of imposter syndrome with running. For the majority of training, I struggled to follow my plan, letting life get in the way and not keeping up as well as I would’ve liked with my long runs. I struggled to get out of the door and to remind myself why I even wanted to run a marathon in the first place. Every day I’d forget that I genuinely enjoyed running, and I’d drag my feet, procrastinating my run, until finally, I went and remembered how good I felt after just a few minutes. But I stuck with it and after my 20-miler, especially, I was so in awe at myself, just knowing that I really could go all the way, and I felt excited by the possibilities and looked forward to getting to go outside every other day.
It helped that I had some sweet friends along the way who added new life into running for me. My run club friends— Parker, Paul, and Callum would answer a call on short notice for an easy run on a nice day and we’d talk about AI, poetry, the future, and everything in between (and there’s a lot in between.) Paul would end up being my race buddy— always down to sign up for a random 10k in some town nearby and Parker would end up being the safe bet for impromptu runs and smoothies afterward. Callum left Belfast to go back home to Canada and we’re still salty he abandoned our little run club (just kidding!)
And then there was Bex and Linda (my college bestie and her mom), who I had texted jokingly in the fall to say they should come do the Belfast Marathon as a vacation race, and they took me seriously. We signed up together on FaceTime early in the morning their time and in the middle of the afternoon for me, surprised at how cheap it was compared to races in the States, and they made arrangements to fly from Alabama and North Carolina. We kept up with each other’s training on Strava, giving kudos to each others’ long runs throughout the months, and before I knew it, I was meeting them at a Nando’s to greet them in Belfast two days before we’d be running together.
And then we did it.
We planned to go to Tony Macaroni’s the night before the race, but apparently, so had every other person in Belfast, so we settled for Zizi’s takeout (a crappy fast Italian place in the mall), eating tomato pasta on a bench in Victoria Mall, downing blue Gatorade. And when we were still hungry, Pizza Express saved us.
We were welcomed to the starting line with that annoying Belfast drizzle that is guaranteed for any day you have something important, and we waited for the porta-potty with all the other 15,000 runners. But we were excited and ready and very jovial.
Bex and Linda, and I ran the first 14 miles together, keeping a steady pace that would get us in with the 4:45 pacer. Belfast really shows up for the marathon— so many spectators cheering people on and giving out sweets and gummies and jellybeans ready for a passing fistful.
I slowed down around mile 15 and let Bex and Linda go ahead. The weather was changing every couple of miles from drizzle to beating sun to pouring down. And there was… dun dun duuuun… the hills. I’d run the majority of the course on my 20-miler, but I hadn’t run all of the big hills after a half marathon distance. Gentle hills might even be worse than ones that go straight up.
Bex said during her first marathon that miles 16-20 were the hardest, and that was true for me. Everything is amazing for the first 13, and then the middle feels endless— almost impossible.
I cried for most of mile 19. From pushing through the pain that was beginning to creep over me, the frustration of the hills that were harder than I expected, from worrying that I wouldn’t make my goal of finishing in under 5 hours, and from simply acknowledging that I was finally completing the challenge that I’d been looking forward to and working towards for so long. And I’m not talking about a little tear… I’m talking about ugly, noisy, embarrassing sobs.
But once I hit mile 20, I knew I was in the home stretch and I ran as fast as I could, letting myself cry as needed and chanting my usual race day affirmation, “pain is temporary.” I kept imagining myself crossing the finish line and how proud I’d feel of myself. I also thought about how my friends and family would be proud of me, but mostly, I thought about what I’d be proving to myself, the standard I’d be setting for myself for all my future goals and dreams— simply acknowledging the care and value I’d placed in myself by following through on this goal, a kind of self-love I don’t know if I’ve ever given myself before.
And then I was less than a quarter mile from the finish. I saw Bex who had crossed the finish and was backtracking to find me and Linda, who she was a few minutes ahead of. She assured me I was almost there, and then I saw the finish and so many of the friends I’ve made this year holding sweet signs and cheering me on. And I ugly sobbed some more out of overwhelm at that simple display of friendship and support, and I sprinted. And then I was, officially, a marathoner.
It’s now been four days since the run, and my legs are just starting to re-enter the chat. My big toes are destroyed, and I’m waiting to see if one of my toenails is going to fall off or not, but I don’t mind. It is a funny reminder of the experience, and it makes me proud to know that’s the story behind my gnarly-looking toes.
What’s next for me now that the marathon is crossed off? Luckily, I knew as soon as I crossed that line that it would not be the last one for me. And I woke up the next day with even more excitement and passion for running. There’s so much room for improvement in my running, especially at shorter long distances.
I recently PRed my 5k time, finally getting below 30 minutes at the Queen’s 5k, and I’m hoping to PR my 10k in June at the Belfast Women’s 10k, getting somewhere between 50 and 55 minutes.
The cool thing about running is that you don’t necessarily peak in your 20s, so I’ve still got a lot of time to improve. I thought maybe I’d be rocketed into the below-average-runner to ultra-marathoner pipeline, but I think I’m good sticking to 26.2 and below for a little while.
I hope when I move to St. Louis in the fall to get involved in the local track club and the local cycling club and take some swimming lessons so I can get better at triathlons. I also thought maybe I’d want to try rowing again, and not just as a coxswain, but I think that ship has sailed. I’m finding a lot of fulfillment in these individual sports with many different community elements to them, and I have a lot of room for improvement, especially with biking and swimming, so I think that will be a perfect challenge and hobby outside of school and work.
Until then, though… I’ll just be taking it easy and seeing what I can do on my feet around Belfast. :)
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If you know Belfast, this will all be a little funny. We thought so, at least.
They say less than 1% of the world’s population will complete a marathon… hence the title. :)