The 4:15 pace group and I hit mile 17 and a couple overpasses that led us to Cleveland’s Martin Luther King Boulevard. I cheered loud in the tunnels, enjoying the echoes, but nobody else seemed quite as enthused (except the pace group leader, Michael). Here is where the pace group dynamic began to change. We dipped down the hill and it seemed like people started dropping back one by one. At 18 I couldn’t find Jenine anymore. I followed close to Sarge and chatted with him a little. As I’d suspected he was an old marathon veteran, but to my surprise he lived in downtown Cleveland. Staring at his shoes carried me over the rough pavement and when I got a chance to look up every now and again I noticed the Ethnic Gardens Salty had told me to watch out for. I cheered as I passed Slovenia even though it was empty.
Sadly there were precious few spectators along this beautiful stretch, just some kids tending the Hebrew garden and a race-sponsored speaker blaring Rock ‘n Roll with a cheerful volunteer and a couple families. As we came to University Circle there was finally a pack of people on the sidelines and I passed some cheerleaders in red uniforms and wondered why they weren’t cheering. I wanted to cheer at them but I couldn’t find the breath. The miles were coming harder now and I started to understand Salty’s husband’s sage wisdom: “respect the distance.”
I found some energy after we turned around University Circle and came on those cheerleaders again. “A-Doubleyou-S-O-M-E you are awesome! You! You are awesome! You! You are awesome!” I clapped along with them. “Yes, I am awesome!” I thought. “Look how awesome we all are! We’re going to finish a marathon!!” I wooted loud for the cheerleaders and bounced ahead of the group a bit. Then suddenly came 21 and the hill up to St. Clair Avenue.
My knee felt like someone had smashed it with a brick. The sun was too hot. I hated the uneven pavement. I fought hard to the top of the hill, knowing it was the last incline. I hated the hill. I hated St. Clair. I hated the cars driving alongside us and the crumbly ghetto of this part of Cleveland. I reached deep down inside me, desperate to find something positive about where I was. I waved cheerfully to some drunk dudes outside a liquor store. Michael tried to get the cars to honk at us and I tried to help but it didn’t work.
I ran over manholes on my bad knee and hated them. The sun was burning my shoulders and I hated it. I fell behind the group a little way and started doubting whether I could keep up with them. I opened my last Gu and started making contingency plans for a 4:20 finish. Then I thought of Empress Taytu, the Ethiopian restaurant across the street from an apartment my sister had once inhabited. I knew I wouldn’t recognize the apartment but I looked for the restaurant, holding on to this slice of home–that apartment was where my sister lived when I was in college, when we first started getting close.
I passed it all without even realizing. I passed Sterle’s Slovenian Country House, where I’d eaten pork sausages with my aunts. And then I moved out from behind one of the guys in our group and there was Salty in a bright red maternity tank top that made her look like a giant cherry tomato. I started crying. She could tell I was fighting hard and chirped away at me, encouraging, happy, pleased. I was finishing the Gu grumpily – I hated the Gu too, and resented it because I had lost a pack of watermelon sport beans, my favorite. The Gu left a gross taste in my mouth and made me nauseous and desperate for a drink. Suddenly Salty veered right and I got my wish, hurtling through a water stop and discarding the Gu after one last valiant chomp, washing away the gross taste with sweet, fresh water.
As Salty pushed me forward, back to the pace group, my vision started fading out and in and out and in. I was digging down for all the energy I had. Then I saw Mom. I ditched the pack of runners and ran over for a quick run-by hug and kiss-it was just the fuel I needed for the last push back to the pace group! Tears came but they were excited tears. I knew I could do it now!
Salty grabbed my hand and said she’d see me at the finish. I okayed and that was that. I hit 23 and pushed in front of Michael, then in front of Sarge. I started pushing forward, passing a couple men here and there. I heard Sarge’s voice behind me, “Don’t go too fast!” I took it as a challenge. Eat my dust, I thought as I pushed a touch faster.
I figured now I could work whatever pace was comfortable and if I hit a wall and slowed then the group would catch up to me and pull me in. I started using my 5k strategy: mow ’em down, one by one. Find some chick in a pink shirt and pass her. I passed a guy in a cape. “You’re my hero,” I panted. He laughed loud and I bolted ahead of him. I hit the 24 mark and upped my pace. I passed a few more pink shirts. I turned off at 18th street and upped my pace. I passed more guys. I like passing guys. Eat my dust, guys. You just got chicked by a fat girl.
There was a priest and a deacon cheering in front of a church and I got blessed with holy water! I upped my pace for the Catholics! I hit the 25. Then I saw Salty again. She freaked out and squealed with excitement when she saw how far ahead of the group I was. She started hopping in circles around me, it seemed. “4:10?” I panted. “Let’s go!” she replied. She cheered for me to pass pink shirts. She yelled at other people to cheer for me. “Negative split right here!!” she shouted to her friends. Then suddenly she pointed ahead. “There it is! There’s the finish! Go get it!!
I bore down. I forced myself to give it everything I had. I was mowing down other runners left and right. “Look at her go!” I heard. “Go Ginger! Go Ginger!” “She’s sprinting!” “Amazing!”
And then it came. The greatest feeling of pride I’ve ever had washed over me and I raised my hands high as I crossed that damn line. I threw my head back and screamed a joyful battle cry! I didn’t even care about time–I had done it! I had accomplished the greatest physical and mental challenge of my life! And I’d given it the best effort I possibly could, finished strong and way ahead of my goal! I was a champion!
I was a champion in the face all of the kids that made fun of me when I was a little fat kid! I was a champion in the face of the gym teacher who’d forced me to use fat calipers in front of my classmates! I was a champion in the face of the coaches who’d treated me like shit in high school! A champion against the size 22 pants I once wore and the depression and the compulsory eating and the loneliness and worthlessness and broken-ness and all of the things that had once made me feel like I couldn’t bear to live another day. I sobbed, and I couldn’t stop sobbing, and I couldn’t stop smiling, because this day, I changed everything. I proved to myself that I could live and keep on living. And for the first time in a long time, I wanted to.
I cried and wheezed through the chute where I got my sweet sweet finisher’s medal and grabbed some water. I had run over an orange peel at about mile 17 and all I could think about was eating oranges. I ambled to the end of the finish (no oranges) and milled around inside the corral until I saw my cherry tomato sister (mmm, vitamin C), who led me around in the general direction of the Key Tower as I mumbled pleasant things through my doped-up post-race high. All the endorphins and dopamine chugging through my blood stream kept a big smile on my face.
I demanded this photograph (top), which pretty much sums up how I felt about having run this marathon.
When you crossed that finish line for the first time, what did becoming a marathoner mean to you?