More than 50,000 runners are expected to take part in the New York City Marathon this Sunday. Some of them will be elite runners chasing glory; the rest will be looking for a personal record or a Boston Marathon qualifying time, or just looking to finish. I won’t be doing the marathon this year, but I will be there to cheer the runners on, cowbell in hand. And while I take in this remarkable spectacle, I will also be looking forward to my next race — and reflecting on how grateful I am to have found a sport like this.
For much of my life, sports held little appeal. I spent my time in high school editing newspaper columns and conjugating Latin verbs. The only running I did was when we were forced to slog around our bright blue track for a mile to complete the Presidential Fitness Test.
But next April, I will join about 20 percent of my 1994 classmates and run a half-marathon in Nashville to raise money for our school’s scholarship fund. We’ve started a Facebook group to support one another during our training. We share photos of the scenery we encounter on our runs — for one friend in Georgia, that’s hay bales and the occasional snake; for me, it’s the urban greenery of Prospect Park in Brooklyn — and encourage each other through injuries and raccoon sightings.
I started running 10 years ago, in my 30s, after years of exercise fits and starts — cardio kickboxing! Tae Bo! Dance ’n’ Sweat! — and struggles with eating disorders. I needed to find a workout I could do consistently, anytime, without paying a membership fee. Only one problem: I didn’t know how to run. I’d done it only with a physical education teacher holding a stopwatch and calling me “grandma.”
I found a Couch to 5K program online and worked my way up to the prescribed 3.1 miles. On my own, without the emphasis on speed or time, I found to my amazement that I enjoyed running. A friend mentioned to me that she was planning to do a half marathon with a charity group — why didn’t I come to a practice with her and check it out? The next thing I knew, I was training for a half marathon with her. One mile at a time.
I was never an athlete. I liked to swim, but floundered on land. I liked gymnastics class, but I’m 5 feet 10 inches tall. I hated all team sports, particularly those scourges of elementary-school recess, kickball and dodgeball. Every mistake caused the failure of an entire group of people, and they weren’t shy about letting me know. I chose my secondary school because it did not require going out for a team.
After I ran that first half marathon in San Francisco in 2008, I trained for and ran a marathon. Then I ran the New York City Marathon, twice. I ran a half marathon in less than two hours. I won my age group in a 5K. And when I didn’t succeed, when I was injured or tired or my legs cramped, they told me it was O.K., rest, try again tomorrow or next week or next month.
In this respect, running in the charity group was a revelation. I had a team of sorts — people to exercise with, to talk to on grueling 15-milers and through hill repeats and fartleks, but I wasn’t competing with them. I was competing only with myself. And when I achieved a personal success, these people cheered me on. They told me I could go even faster, even farther. They became my best friends.
And now I’ve come full circle, back to the classmates who knew me as an awkward teenager, to share in this sport that has become a lifestyle. We are shedding the labels we hid behind as girls and coming into our own on the road.
Most of us have young children, and it’s a struggle to find the time to fit our runs in. But as we’ve begun training, our kids are noticing. One woman runs with her teenage daughter; they recently placed in their age groups in their first 5K race. Little boys go out to pace their moms. I’ve started taking my 1-year-old son out once a week in his jogging stroller, which up to this point I’d complained was too heavy, too bulky, too much. Now it’s an essential part of my week.
I’ll take him to watch the New York City Marathon on Sunday. I ran the Boston Marathon for charity when I was pregnant with him, and my race bib hangs above his changing table. I want him to see that his mom exercises both because it is fun and because it is necessary, and I want him to find a sport he enjoys as much as I do mine. I’ll tell him how I ran that thrilling 26.2-mile course through the five boroughs twice, and yearn to do it again with him cheering me on. I’ll tell him how running keeps me healthy and happy, and how working with others to compete against yourself is the best of both worlds.