"It always seems impossible," said Nelson Mandela, "until it's done."
Today is the 121st Boston Marathon, the oldest marathon in the world, inspired by the first marathon competition in the 1896 Olympic Games. It now attracts about 30,000 runners, but the first time it attracted just 18. The one thing they all had in common? They were men.
Wednesday is the 50th anniversary of the first time a woman ran the race. In 1967, Kathrine Switzer sent in an application signed with her initials, which of course were gender-neutral. She'd only run about two miles when race director Jock Semple caught wind of it. He ran up to Switzer, grabbed her bib number and yelled at her to get out of "his race." One of Switzer's running partners, her football player boyfriend, swiftly tackled him to the ground.
Switzer said later that she turned to her coach, her other running partner, and said, "I'm going to finish this race on my hands and knees if I have to. Because nobody believes I can do this." Five years later, the race admitted women for the first time. And today, Switzer's running it again.
On March 11, about eight days before running in my own marathon, I'd still only run eight miles straight.
For seven weeks, I'd gradually increased the number of miles I ran without stopping. My goal with this race wasn't distance or speed—it was running 10 miles with no walking at all. I could pretty much do whatever I wanted for the final three.
My hope almost every time I got out to the park was that I could do the full 10 before race day and just not tell anyone. I didn't want to put all the money on something I wasn't sure I could accomplish. And when I say "all the money," I mean that literally—by March 11, I'd far surpassed my goal of raising $650 for Girls on the Run. In that week alone, after one email to the Good Housekeeping staff, my editor in chief donated $200! And the two editors below her donated $75 and $50!
So now I had my coworkers in on this, too.
I'm one of those people who gets cold incredibly easily. I have low blood pressure and thin skin and a tendency to absorb the temperature of my surroundings (much to my husband's dismay at night when I hug him with my "dead hands"). I mention this only to more accurately convey the levels of discomfort I endured to check off this list item. My training was exclusively in winter.
What generally happened every week was this: I'd get a text from my L.A. Marathon Charity Relay partner, my new-to-running good friend Kelly, on a Sunday about her incredible run that day out in the warm California sun or in the gym. She was usually exuberant—she'd just gone farther than she ever had or faster than she ever had. She'd accomplished something she never thought possible.
I'd watch her accolades roll in on Facebook, and then I'd remind myself that no sane person would go running in 20-degree weather at 7 p.m. in February on the East Coast. And then I'd go out and do just that.
The only run I didn't do in bristling temperatures was on a visit with my mom in Florida for her 70th birthday. Her development has an easy running path, surrounding a picturesque country club. I mean, there are alligators napping in swamps below the running path's bridges, but nobody seems to be worried about that. It's a nice run for the most part, with tons of flowers and other animals, too. But one particular stretch is bare highway, for about half a mile, without a tree in sight. That run was more difficult than any I did in Montclair, even on the coldest nights.
Most of running 10 miles straight is a mind game. Whenever I'd reach half a mile or one mile on the loop in the park, the point where in training for any other race I'd let myself walk a little, I'd have to say to myself, No, you're not tired. Keep going. And then I'd slow my pace a bit. And I had to learn to be OK with a much slower mile—about 12 minutes instead of 11.
The runner's high would kick in earlier and last a lot longer than I was used to. And a lot of people told me I was crazy to run at night, but it was often the only time I had for it. I also preferred night runs for a stranger reason: It was the best time for me spiritually.
I've connected with my dad's spirit before in songs that play randomly or numbers that show up at just the right times (because he died on August 8th, for years I saw 88s around me, on license plates, on digital clocks—my brain's way of finding order in chaos), but it's not like his spirit has me on speed-dial and leaves messages in my mind.
So this was a very new experience.
On one of my early runs, I found myself struggling to get started. I ran over to use the restroom at the train station next to the park, and broke down in tears. The night before, Steven and I had gone out for dinner with distracted-driving awareness advocate Jacy Good and her husband, Steve, in New York. Over the last few years, even though I've mostly been a stranger to Jacy, she's gone out of her way to help me. I felt stronger walking down the aisle on my wedding day because I remembered Jacy walked down hers alone—both of her parents were killed in a crash with a driver on his cell phone on the day of her college graduation. After being in a coma for two months (she was in the crash, too), she had to teach herself how to walk again. Walking down that aisle was a demonstration of her courage and resilience. So is this video:
A day after spending a wonderful evening with Jacy and Steve, my emotions about them lingered. I realized they were the only couple we'd ever met who had gone through something similar and at such a young age. I made a toast to both Steves at dinner. It was the first time I'd truly reflected on what my dad's death must have felt like for my now-husband, and the first I realized what it might have been like if I'd lost my mom, like Jacy did, too.
After a few minutes, I ran back over to the loop in the park and resumed training. I turned my music back on, and the first song that played was "Big Girls Don't Cry" from the Jersey Boys soundtrack. I let out a huge laugh.
On my third-to-last Sunday run, the night I finished six miles straight—the farthest my brother had ever gone without walking, so I had some sibling rivalry to attend to—I imagined how my dad might react if he were alive to watch me do this. And as I crossed that six-mile mark, there he was, jumping up and down, waving his hands in the air.
Probably the strangest thing that happened was on my penultimate training run, when I reached eight miles straight, that magical or maybe not-so-magical number. In my last few runs, I'd almost always gotten to a point where my "You're not tired. Keep going" inner monologue would transform into "I can't do this by myself anymore. Somebody help me." I don't know if I was saying this to God, the universe or my own body. But on this particular run, my hardest yet, I felt an arm link with mine after thinking this, and it physically pulled me to meet that eight-mile mark. Almost like it was walking me down an aisle.
Yes, that runner's high is some powerful stuff.
I never did reach that 10-miles-straight run before the race. And I worried all week before the marathon that maybe I'd pushed too hard doing nine.
Steven got really sick that week, too. He'd picked up a bad cold. So I avoided him like the plague and slept on the couch.
Our trip out to L.A. that Saturday was completely without incident. Usually some petty thing or another goes wrong, but not this time. We woke up and got out the door easily—wonder of wonders, I actually packed the night before—and watched the sun rise over the skyline of Manhattan on our drive to the airport. Steven had done some research and found an inexpensive parking lot near the airport where we could leave our car a few days—the owners of the lot shuttle you in. It was far easier and less painful than taking New Jersey Transit (but then isn't everything?).
When we got to the airport, Steven had already checked us in through his Virgin America app. We walked through security quickly and then had a ton of time to kill before our flight. We watched a ridiculous James Franco movie on the plane and laughed so hard I had to apologize to my seatmate. I'd just written my post on Los Angeles the night before, and when I arrived in L.A. and turned off Airplane Mode, I was greeted with messages from loved ones telling me how much they liked it.
Kelly texted me at the airport and said she'd rather go to bed early that night and greet us the next morning at the race instead—she'd be leaving her house at 3:30 a.m. for her half, so this was understandable. And it meant Steven and I now had the whole afternoon and evening to ourselves. Even picking up the rental car was quick and easy. The best part of that was feeling famous by proxy when I sat down next to a man watching a YouTube video of Kelly's husband.
Earlier that week, Kelly's husband, John, had saved someone's life in LAX. John became the subject of every news show and a viral video overnight. Kelly and I joked that week that we were famous now because the L.A. Marathon website used a story I'd sent them to promote our run, but we were nowhere near John's level of stardom.
The only unfortunate part of our first charmed day in L.A. (I found a copy of Good Housekeeping on a newsstand with my article in it, got a pressed carrot juice, my lucky running drink, for free because it was my birth month and ordered takeout from my favorite sushi place, Sugarfish, and ate it poolside at my favorite hotel, the Best Western Plus Sunset Plaza) was that I got Steven's cold.
I worried about how the cough might affect my breathing in the race, so I spent the night hydrating and relaxing. I drank all kinds of tea. I took a long bath. I listened to a motivational Michael J. Fox interview. The next morning, I made sure to hydrate again. I remembered happily that the Best Western serves passion fruit juice, filled a cup with it and chugged it. Then I drank coffee, too.
My commute to my start of the marathon was easy. Not like Kelly's. She drove all the way down to Santa Monica at the crack of dawn and then took a shuttle back to Dodger Stadium to start at 7. But Kelly's always thinking ahead like this—because she parked her car near the finish line, we'd have an easy way home.
Steven and I met John, who'd come out to watch his wife finish, at the halfway point. Even off-duty, he looked like a security guard. When I told him this, he said, "Oh, believe me...I'm watching everything."
As we waited for Kelly, I noticed there were stands of free food and drinks all around me. I was determined not to let this cough ruin my race. So I ate a banana and then half a tangerine. I drank some bottled water. I also made sure I used a Porta-potty. After I found one, I felt pretty confident. Kelly was on track to show up any minute, and it was only 9:30.
I wondered if once she reached me, she'd be exhausted and in anguish. This was her first time running this much. But she wasn't. She was blissful. Even her sweat seemed happy.
She hugged me when she crossed her finish line, and said just loudly enough so I could hear, "You got this, girl."
And my race began.
It's usually easiest for me to depict a run via the music in my ears, so here goes:
Miles 1 through 4 of "Run 10 miles straight," miles 13 through 17 of the L.A. Marathon (Sunset Boulevard to Rodeo Drive):
"Brave" by Sara Bareilles:
Kelly's glow rubbed off on me, and it was a much better feeling than the build up of adrenaline I normally experience at a starting line. What an amazing feeling, too, running up Sunset Boulevard and then down again, in the middle of all these courageous people. Being where people aren't normally allowed to go, running roads usually dominated by cars, felt dreamlike, like I was flying. It made me feel brave.
"Dancing Queen" by Abba
"Summer, Highland Falls" by Billy Joel
"Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" by Cyndi Lauper: This came on as I started my descent to Santa Monica Boulevard. I'd made it past the one-mile mark, where my inner voice has to kick in so I won't try to stop. Listening to this always helped with that during training. It reminded me that what I was doing was fun.
"The Night Is Still Young" by Nicki Minaj
"Fast As You Can" by Fiona Apple: I still regret this choice, because despite its title, it's the slowest song on my list. But maybe that's a good thing. Pacing myself was key to not stopping.
Soon I ran by the first water stands, which were missing something pretty important: water. Every stand was instead handing out Gatorade. And the Gatorade was plentiful. I'd never seen Gatorade at every single mile marker of a marathon before. Volunteers also handed out orange slices, I guess because we were in California.
As I was nearing my second mile, I couldn't get my worry about the cough out of my head. So I took every cup of Gatorade and orange slice I was given.
"We Can't Stop" by Miley Cyrus
"Party in the U.S.A." by Miley Cyrus: This one is a natural next step after "We Can't Stop," and it's about moving to Los Angeles. Most of these songs are about two things: California and girl power.
Also, my 42-year-old stepbrother always requests this song at weddings.
"Welcome to New York" by Taylor Swift: Speaking of grown men's inexplicable favorites, I almost put "Shake It Off," Steven's favorite Taylor Swift song, in this slot. Part of me wished I had picked "Shake It Off" instead. Because this was where I started peeing.
"California Girls" by the Beach Boys: My dad sang this all the time when I was a kid.
I'd managed to only let the urine out in small spurts at this point, and I figured it would go away and I could hold the rest until the race was over. Use it, I thought to myself, remembering advice my brother had once given me when I needed to go to the bathroom during a run a few years back.
At least this was number one and not number two, I thought. That would have been much worse.
"Take a Chance on Me" by ABBA
"Faith" by George Michael: This one starts out quiet and slow, but then builds into a great rhythm. I was starting to rely on faith at this point, faith that I could make the full 10 miles. One of the lyrics is "before this river, there comes an ocean," which was not helpful. The sometimes-peeing had now become near constant.
"Confident" by Demi Lovato: This is the start of the badass, supermotivating tracks I needed to keep up momentum. I usually make subtle hand gestures while running to songs like these. OK, maybe they're not so subtle.
"Team" by Iggy Azalea: Something about this coming on while I ran Rodeo Drive struck me as funny. Because Iggy would shop there, of course. She'd shop there like a boss.
"Run the World (Girls)" by Beyoncé: I always speed up a little when this song comes on. It lets me just be in my body. It was here, as I exited Rodeo Drive, that I started noticing my fellow runners' bodies. A lot of them were slowing down. A lot of them were walking. And then suddenly it seemed like all of them were walking.
One thing I'd forgotten when I agreed to be the second relay runner was that when I hit mile four, the non-relay runners would all be hitting mile 17, what they call in marathon running "the wall."
The human body starts shutting down after 17 miles if a runner can't up his glucose levels. When I reached mile 18 in the New York Marathon, I mistook a small boy who handed me a banana for an angel. He might as well have been—that's how grateful I was.
The problem with everyone around me being in a state of temporary physical deterioration was that I wasn't. They set up pace makers in races for a reason—people generally keep up their pace more easily when they have other runners around them going the same speed. Before every race I've ever run, I've always been reassured by well-meaning people that I shouldn't worry about not being fast enough because the speed of the other runners would dictate my pace for me.
This time, it was the slowness of the other runners that was dictating my pace. And making me want to stop.
Adding to this awful predicament was my now half-full-of-pee shorts.
I knew I had to make a decision. Was I going to give up, start walking like the rest of these guys (they seemed to be mostly men, but maybe that was just me projecting Beyoncé's lyrics), or was I going to storm ahead, dodge them like zombies and decide I didn't care if they smelled or saw the streams of urine running down my legs.
I chose the latter.
And for the first time in my life, I had a literal representation of what it was to be in the spotlight. In this moment, I had to be willing to be different. It was a feeling I'd been fearing for weeks, thanks to the attention My Father's List was getting because of my article about it in Good Housekeeping (more on that next week). I was worried people might start calling me a showoff. I'd never let myself stand in the spotlight so directly. I was much more comfortable standing off to the side. When you stand in the spotlight, every piece of lint and speck of dust shows. Every error becomes so much more visible.
But if you're too afraid to be different, to make yourself run when everyone else is walking, you can never lead anyone. My compassion for all these walking runners made me want to join them. I empathized with how tired they were, I didn't want to make them feel bad because I was plowing ahead. But sometimes, I realized, compassion means letting yourself do your best. Because by letting yourself do that, you are setting an example for others. And then they can be inspired to set an example for even more people.
Being a leader is OK. This was the first moment in my life when I had no choice but to let myself be that.
"The Middle" by Jimmy Eat World: Purely literal placement.
"Burn" by Ellie Goulding
Miles 4 through 8 for me, but 17 through 21 of the whole race (Santa Monica Boulevard through UCLA, a.k.a. no man's land):
"Fight Song" by Rachel Platten
"Million Reasons" by Lady Gaga: This song was helpful here because I really was giving myself a million reasons to stop this torture. The only thing that got me through running on that hot highway was remembering the hot highway I ran in Florida near my mom's house.
"Super Trouper" by ABBA: I put a lot of ABBA on this playlist because I can.
"I Get Around" by the Beach Boys
"Daddy Lessons" by Beyoncé: Kelly introduced me to this song on my wedding day. We'd gone off to climb a mountain with Steven and Craig, his best man, and also Steven's nephew and my sister-in-law. In the middle of the climb, Kelly felt sick to her stomach, so we stopped and let the rest finish on their own. As we enjoyed the view of Santa Fe, she asked if I'd ever heard this song. She said it pretty casually, like it had just occurred to her, but in retrospect, I think it was premeditated, because she turned it on and we both started sobbing. She knew I needed to express that emotion that day, so she facilitated it.
The lyrics: "He always played it cool/but daddy was no fool/and right before he died he said remember/he said take care of your mother/watch out for your sister/and that's when daddy looked at me/with his gun, with his head held high/he told me not to cry/oh, my daddy said shoot/oh, my daddy said shoot."
Lots of good reasons for this song. I wish it hadn't made me pee even harder.
"Stronger" by Britney Spears
"Bad Romance" by Lady Gaga
"Tik Tok" by Ke$ha
"Scars to Your Beautiful" by Alessia Cara: This is the most feminist song on my playlist, the encouragement of which was what made me run the marathon for Girls on the Run:
"Oh, she don't see the light that's shining
Deeper than the eyes can find it
Maybe we have made her blind
So she tries to cover up her pain and cut her woes away
'Cause cover girls don't cry after their face is made
"But there's a hope that's waiting for you in the dark
You should know you're beautiful just the way you are
And you don't have to change a thing, the world could change its heart
No scars to your beautiful, we're stars and we're beautiful."
"9 to 5" by Dolly Parton: "They let you dream just to watch 'em shatter/you're just a step on the boss-man's ladder/but you got dreams he'll never take away./You're in the same boat with a lotta your friends/waitin' for the day your ship'll come in/an' the tide's gonna turn and it's all gonna roll your way."
The rhythm of this song, meant to be typewriters, echoed the sound of my feet on the pavement. As my body was taking over at this point or whatever spirit I've been drawing upon, help focusing on just the sound of my feet was necessary.
"California" by Grimes: Another California song. For some reason this one made me pee the most. Oh, I know why—because one of the instruments is the ocean.
Forrest Gump songs: "Running on Empty" by Jackson Browne and "Go Your Own Way" by Fleetwood Mac
Miles 8 through 10 for me, miles 21 through 23 of the marathon (San Vicente Boulevard):
Forrest Gump songs: "On the Road Again" by Willie Nelson and "Against the Wind" by Bob Seger: These were all my brother's suggestion, which I wrote about here. It was a good one.
"Big Girls Don't Cry" from the Jersey Boys soundtrack
"Firework" by Katy Perry
"22" by Taylor Swift: If I'd known how much this song would torment me, I might not have placed it here. I was thinking about the fact that this would be my mile 9. I'd forgotten that for the non-relay runners, it was mile 22, the name of the song.
So for the last half mile I had to run before I reached that beautiful, shining mile 23 mark, mile 10 for me, I had to be reminded I was still on mile 22. Again. And again.
"I don't know about you but I'm feeling 22
Everything will be alright, if you keep me next to you
You don't know about me, but I bet you want to
Everything will be alright, if we just keep dancing like we're 22, 22."
Kelly and I were strangers, 19 and 21, when we were roomed together at University of Delaware. Seventeen years later, we're still friends. I couldn't keep her next to me—now she lives across the country. But I still feel like I'm 22 again whenever I'm with her. And I guess that's how it will always be.
So it was fitting, then, that in the end this song came on when it did. Because I did it. I checked off item 23, "run 10 miles straight," and I did it because I had support from my oldest friend, who had never before been a runner, but who believed in me, believed in my dad's dreams (even though she never knew him), believed in doing something to empower young girls and, most importantly, believed in herself.
We both wanted the next generation of women to discover the joy of running earlier than their mid-30s. After seeing the positive effects on our own self-confidence, the way running gave us both a feeling of accomplishment and fearlessness, we wanted the same thing for our country's young girls, at what seemed like a crucial time for it.
After I reached 10 miles, I let myself start walking. I gave myself what my dad called the "atta girl award"—I patted myself on the back, because nobody else was there. I still had three miles until the finish. But making myself proud of me was just enough.
When I set out to do this, I didn't fully believe I was capable of it. Yes, I could finish a whole marathon, but that involved a lot of walking. Running 26 or even 13 miles straight seemed more like something a man could do. My cousin Jimmy did it at an 8.5-minute pace for the entire New York Marathon. When I asked him how he did it, he said he just focused on the big sandwich he'd eat at the end.
Then he said a lot of it is really in your head.
This knowledge kept me going in my training, as I tried to do something my dad, a man, couldn't or didn't do. After I passed six miles straight, my brother's record, all I could think was, Jimmy can do 26 miles of this. Why can't I?
And then a few weeks into my training, I got a message on my Facebook wall from my sister-in-law that my 9-year-old niece Savannah, my birthday twin, had just joined Girls on the Run, "because she wants to be like Aunt Laura." The other day I learned that she's requesting the number "91482" in her first 5K, the bib number I wore to run 10 miles straight.
Which means that instead of a man trying to yank my bib away from me mid-race for being female, like what happened to Kathrine Switzer 50 years ago this week, my bib inspired a 9-year-old girl to take up running.
And as soon as Kelly's little girl saw her walk through the front door wearing her big shiny medal that day, she grabbed it and put it around her own neck. Ava walked around all night like that, wearing her new "necklace" and carrying her purse.
There was something poignant in the juxtaposition.
Once when Kelly and I were college roommates, we decided to try rock-climbing at the college fitness center. The gym was a place we both avoided. I felt too self-conscious to stand next to the sorority girls in their cute sports bras, and I had no interest in spending my drinking money on athletic gear. So the rock-climbing lesson itself must have been free.
Kelly never lets me forget that day, the day I almost let her fall off of a wall. She was just fine supporting me at the bottom while I took my turn and scurried straight to the top. But when it was her turn, the instructor told me I was holding the rope the wrong way, and when Kelly stumbled on a foothold, because I was distracted, she nearly fell.
That would never happen today.
Because today I wouldn't get so frazzled by another person's critique that I'd forget about helping my friend. Today I can run 10 miles straight, covered in urine, in a crowd full of men walking, and not give a damn.
When Kelly finished her half of the marathon, she didn't say, "I did it!" and then saunter off to get her medal. She hugged me and said, "You got this, girl."
When she found me sitting by the side of the road after I finished 13 miles, staring at the Ferris Wheel on the Santa Monica Pier and no longer feeling taunted by it, she said to me, "We did it!"
And I said to her, "We did!"
And then I said, "Hey...something unfortunate happened..."
"What?" she asked, sitting on the ground next to me. "Did you shart?"
"It always seems impossible," said Nelson Mandela, "until it's done."
*This list item is dedicated to Kelly, of course, but also to my mom, who ran two miles in Florida out of solidarity while I ran my half of the race; to Amy Guth and the Women's Project Elevation Task Force who taught me that "woman" and "leader" are synonymous; and to Heather Packer, who gave me permission to shine my light when she shined hers.