I can’t believe I ran a marathon

Sunday, Nov. 6, 2022 was the culmination of two years of running.

When the pandemic officially began in March 2020, I quit my 20-year-old, pack-a-day smoking habit cold-turkey.

It was March 23, 2022, at exactly 12:03 p.m. that I smoked my last cigarette. I have not touched another cigarette since.

A month later, I started going for light jogs, beginning with only five minutes at a time. It was all I could handle.

I was just recovering from agoraphobia. Walking one block around my house three months earlier, in January 2020, used to terrify me.

By April, I was going on hikes with my family for half an hour at a time. That was a huge step for me.

The hikes got longer in May and June, and in July, I started timing my runs. I got to 20 minutes of non-stop running in the July heat. I was so excited.

By August, I joined a local run club in Hamilton. Every Wednesday, the group did a run that started at Gage Park and went 8 km from the park, along the escarpment, down to the bottom of the Wentworth steps, and back to the park.

The women and men in that run club gave me life during the pandemic. They inspired me.

I looked up to them as examples of health, emotional wellness and a strength and resilience that I aspired to emulate. I didn’t want to live life as a scaredy-cat, afraid of my own shadow, afraid of what people thought of me, hating myself because people judged me.

I wanted to feel strong, smart, confident, and comfortable in my own skin for the first time in my life.

The people in my run club (formerly called Ward 3 Run Club, now called WERC – We Run Club) were all smart, accomplished, and hard-working people. They pushed themselves to physical limits, they were in great shape, and I wanted to be the same. They seemed happy, strong and well-rounded. I wanted to be someone like that, too!

Some were beginners, like me, and some were seasoned runners, like my admired run-club leader, a mother of three and amazingly determined woman who runs ultra marathons well into her forties. I was, and continue to be, one of the oldest people in the run club, but as I’ve seen older runners all around the Hamilton running community achieving great things, I’m more determined than ever to continue with this incredible physical activity.

I never dreamed I could run a whole marathon, though. It seemed like such a monumental and unachievable feat, unreachable for someone who suffered from panic attacks her whole life, had smoked like a chimney, and was slightly overweight and pretty much sedentary for the past 15 years. I was 41 at the time I started running.

By November of 2020, I ran a half-marathon with my run club (21.1 km). I thought that was the pinnacle of my running journey. It was extremely painful and I was laid up for days afterwards recovering.

I continued to run in the cold, desolate winter of 2020/2021. Most of the time, I ran alone. The pandemic was raging strongly, the world was miserable, but I was having the time of my life running 10 km a few times a week through the snow, losing weight and continuing to be smoke-free.

I celebrated my one-year smoke-free anniversary on March 23, 2021.

I was called fat and crazy all throughout 2021. One person in my run club, when I told him I wanted to eventually run a full marathon, said there was a “big difference” between running 21 km (a half marathon) and running a full marathon, at 42 km.

I didn’t like that sentence or the sound of it. It sounded slightly like discouragement to me.

I spent the remainder of the winter of 2021 and 2022 training for the longest race of my life up until then – the 30 km Around the Bay (ATB) Road Race in Hamilton on March 27, 2022. I ran in stinging cold snow squalls, freezing rain, extreme cold-weather alerts, and cold rain for the three months leading up to the ATB.

I finished the 30 km in 3 hours and 15 minutes. I didn’t win any prizes in my age division, but I ran non-stop for over three hours. I felt incredible.

Personal tragedy struck a week later. I then became determined to run a full marathon this year. It was the one goal that kept me going this year, thinking: no matter what happens, as long as I can run, I can work out my life problems and make sense of the craziness that was happening around me. It was the one thing I had control over: my ability to run.

I spent the past summer running in almost unbearable heat but I persevered. When the fall came, I knew it was time to get serious. I had signed up for the Hamilton Road to Hope Marathon on Nov. 6 and it was getting down to the wire.

Every Sunday for about a month, I went for a long run along the Hamilton to Brantford rail trail, putting in my head phones and letting all the problems of the world, taking up space in my head, float away with each step, with each kilometre.

Race day got closer. I prepped. I tried to adjust my sleep schedule, adjusted my nutrition, and took extra care not to overdo it in the weeks leading up to marathon.

On Nov. 6, at 8 a.m., I stood at the starting line for my very first marathon at Confederation Park in Hamilton. All the people who disappointed me and judged me over the past year were on my shoulder, telling me to quit, that I couldn’t do it, that I was an eternal failure who deserved to be mocked and judged. I ran that race with only one goal in mind: to finish. To prove I was not the failure or laughingstock people thought I was.

The first 21 km, the half-marathon distance, felt easy. I felt strong. My pace was good. I thought I had everything under control. I hit “the wall” much earlier than expected. My energy tanked around kilometre 23. I wasn’t going to quit, though. I couldn’t. My leg muscles, bones and ligaments started to feel extremely painful. I drank water and electrolytes at every aid station. I devoured sugary, gummy energy bars at every station but none of it helped. I was going on only five hours of sleep and the voice of someone close to me in my head who told me that morning, “cancel your race! You’re not conditioned for it” kept playing over and over in my head. I had to keep pushing that voice away and shutting it up, like every other time in my life someone thought I was incapable of doing something out of the ordinary.

By kilometre 35, the pain was monumental. I was four hours in at this point. I stopped at one final aid station around there, sipped on water, ate an energy bar, and walked (actually, limped) for a full, pain-filled kilometre before I decided, “this is it. I am running – or by the looks of it, hobbling – the rest of the way. I have to finish soon. I can’t take this much more, but I’m not quitting. The sooner I get to the finish line, the sooner this is over.”

It took every ounce of determination I had left in me to finish those last few kilometres. Every part of my body ached. All the comparisons of the fast runners who finished way before me ate away at my self-confidence. I was scared I would have a huge panic attack or require medical aid before the finish. The last few kilometres were a blur.

I vaguely remember my teenage son running the last 400 meters with me. There was no big fanfare. I was no elite runner. I finished in roughly five hours. I was on my feet, mostly running, for five, pain-filled hours.

As soon as I crossed that finish line and got that medal from the volunteers at the end, the relief was overwhelming. I was stunned. I sat on the grass, unable to process what had just happened. I still can’t believe it.

I ran my first marathon at the age of 43. I’m still in pain, three days later, but mentally, I feel like I can do anything. I want to run longer. I want to run faster. I want to run further.

My life, my goals, and my determination are far from over.

This is all just beginning. And nobody, and nothing, will ever stop me.

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