In training for my first marathon, the race isn’t about the miles, it’s about achieving my personal best
The air is hot, oppressive and dry at the base of the path to the Mount Rose summit. It’s early June. The trail is more deserted than I’ve ever seen it. I keep my eyes focused on the uneven ground as the trail winds back and forth between trees and large rocks. I try to keep the pace I run on pavement but fail. For the uphill sections, I do what I’m able. On the downhills, however, I feel like I’m flying. Rocks and roots tangle themselves into the dust—dust that puffs up from each footfall and cakes my sweat-slicked skin.
The meandering trail begins to ascend. My lungs, from months and miles of training, easily handle the load, which makes me wonder why my legs can’t keep up.
As the climb continues, my calves dominate my thoughts. Already, I feel the compressed heat rising in them. I’ve just entered a narrow canyon lined with small trees—the part before the switchbacks, before the moonscape, before the top. I imagine my calves are going to explode, and I picture over-filled balloons. I think about this while my legs keep moving, my arms keep pumping: My calves—pink balloons that might just pop. I laugh out loud. And then, as runners do, I think of something else.
The tree line disappears behind me, and it’s just me tracing a path between the black-gray rocks that form the peak. I hop onto a rock and slip around the corner of another switchback. The southwest wind hits me, face first. The air, so hot before, is now distinctly frigid.
And then, the summit. I can see both homes from here: Tahoe is to my left, Reno to the right. This is the first time I’ve run up this trail. When I hiked it last year, I walked, stopping often. This time, I feel alive. Strong. Dirty. Proud. Possibilities spread before me like this vista. I’m grateful to see it from this vantage.
Emil Zátopek, three-time Olympic gold medalist once said, “If you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experience another life, run a marathon.”
His words have been on my mind as I train for my first marathon, the Lake Tahoe Marathon, which begins at Commons Beach in Tahoe City at 8:30 a.m. on Sept. 29 and will end—hopefully no longer than four hours later—at Camp Richardson. (The “elite” runners will start at 8 a.m.) I’ve never tackled this kind of mileage before, but I wanted to prove to myself that I could go the distance.
My friends have asked why I’d pay close to $100 to run 27 miles. And when you put it that way, it sounds crazy. And maybe I am; I’m not sure I can quite explain it.
But life had thrown me dregs: After 12 creative writing programs rejected my work, I thought I’d taken myself down the wrong road. I lost myself in doubt. I probably would have remained off-track if a professor hadn’t turned to me and said, “Enough with the self-pity theater, Rebecca.” Well-deserved criticism, his words stung and made me look at my life with a critical eye.
I bought trail shoes on sale in March and began jogging on spring’s gloppy ground. Those days seems like a lifetime ago, when the early mornings were cold, lonely and painful. Running for an hour straight was nearly impossible. I didn’t know what I was doing or why. Running just felt good.
My colleagues and professors in the French department at the University of Nevada, Reno inspired me. Many of them are competitive runners. One in particular raised her eyebrows when I mentioned that I’d begun running regularly. She encouraged me to race for fun and adopt a more systematic approach than “run until it hurts.” I hesitated, but I signed up for the Escape from Prison Hill Half-Marathon/Mini-Ultra in Carson City, which was run in April. Escape? For that first race, I only hoped to survive.
Yes, survive. For me, running is not without its baggage. Eight years ago, no one thought I would even survive to graduate high school.
Running past obstacles
I thought sports were my only ticket to college and out of Spring Creek, Nev. In 1997, I joined the track team and performed reasonably well. From then on, I wanted to excel at running.
I flinch to recall myself in the summer of 1999, when at 89 pounds and 6 percent body fat, the family doctor diagnosed me with anorexia nervosa. I still have nightmares about my then 9-year-old sister, Amelia, asking, “Mom, is Becky going to die?” The guilt from that question follows me like a shadow. My college education was suddenly thrown into question.
Doctors and my mom agreed that I could stay out of a medical institution and in school if I gave up sports and focused on “getting better.” I was not allowed to run. Eating after a year of starvation is a painful experience. For me, it was like someone was ripping my rib cage from my spine after every meal. I would lay face down on the carpet and cry, wanting the pain to stop, wanting my body to function as it used to. Strange lumps and shapes became me. After the pounds returned, I felt like I was living in a stranger’s body. My depression worsened as my weight increased.
In 2000, I gained admission to the University of Nevada, Reno and, because of the Millennium Scholarship, I could afford to go. Those four years were lonely. I studied. I ate and slept. I ran sporadically, but I always felt guilty. In 2004, a roommate invited me to run the Journal Jog with her and her group of friends. But even the salesman at the shoe store nearly derailed me: “So, you walk in the desert or something?” he asked, implying, I thought, that I was too fat to run. I went home in tears and almost didn’t participate.
I received my bachelor’s in the spring of 2004 and, despite the pats on the back from friends and family, the endeavor lacked “sparkle.” I envied every jogger I passed in my car on my way to work that summer because I could see their drive—their passion—written on their faces as they pushed themselves through the miles. I was blind to the source of my envy—for a while, at least.
Until my desire to write faltered—once, I spent the majority of a novel-writing class locked in a bathroom stall, crying, wondering what I’d done to make myself such a loser. Later, it hit me: Those 12 different creative writing graduate programs dictated that I was not a writer, and I’d become willing to believe them.
I realized if I wanted to achieve my dreams, I’d have to commit to what was important, even if doing so was “dangerous.” And so, after eight years of fits and starts—of self-doubt and depression—I wanted to run again to prove to myself I could do it. And maybe if I could run, then I could write, no matter what the world told me.
I hit the road in late March. The air collided with my lungs like nails every time I ran. I endured miles. I endured profanities shouted from trucks. I endured blisters and black toenails and even, once, a bear.
At the end of April, I ran a half-marathon. Not only did I finish, I placed third in my division. Like graduation, my family was there to cheer me on. Unlike graduation, this victory was my own. I discovered that day while running up difficult terrain that there is no one on that hill but you—no one to determine whether you continue or stop. That day, for the first time in years, I cheered myself on. Alone on a sagebrush-covered hill, I found my center, my voice, and the passion I thought I’d starved out of myself years before.
Going the distance
My training schedule comes from the Beginner’s Guide to Long Distance Running by Sean Fishpool. Soft-bound and 96 pages long, it contains training schedules for races 5k to 50k. Fishpool’s marathon plan includes four days of slow, 6-10 mile runs, two days of speed/interval work, and one long-distance run on the weekend. A day of rest is optional: If your legs aren’t feeling too worn, the program recommends a “recovery run” the day following the long run of four to five miles. The program progresses in cycles, adding only 3-4 miles per week. It also incorporates “race days” (actual competitions, three total in the 16-week program) to aid in gauging pace and progression.
Every time I run, I carry a water bottle, a green Ipod Shuffle and goo. If I’m going on longer runs, I often carry a handheld bottle filled with water and a small pink camelback. It was difficult to accustom myself to carrying the camelback while running—I couldn’t believe how sore I was from the additional weight. As I told a friend: “Well, at least I’ll be hydrated—and I’ll have a nice ass.”
Sport gel—goo—is a recent addition to my arsenal. On especially long runs, I’ve avoided hitting “the wall” by carrying goo. After taste-testing many varieties of these energy boosters (most of which are amazing in their ability to taste exactly like shit), I prefer the raspberry flavor offered by the Hammer Gel company. Others I shied away from simply because they didn’t agree with my system. Clif Shot, for example, made my stomach feel as though it was hosting a three-ring circus. Apparently with goos (as with shoes, clothes and spouses) there are no one-size-fits all.
My Ipod Shuffle (I’ve nicknamed it Soylent Green) is an essential companion on my long runs. I listen to just about everything: Journey, The Decemberists, The Smiths, Death Cab for Cutie, New Radicals, and David Gray. It gets worse: I even have “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor and a Russian pop song given to me months ago on a CD mix. I have no idea what the song is called or what the lyrics mean. And since it’s been incorporated into my regimen, it’s probably best I don’t know.
I rely on my blue Timex Ironman watch to track laps in races and training sessions.
My eating habits have changed: On distance days, I can’t run on an empty stomach unless I want to start salivating for a bowl of granola by mile nine. So, I have a light meal—usually a piece of wheat toast spread with almond butter—before my run and follow that with my “second breakfast” when I return home. Though there are specific diets for marathon training, I’m not following a formal regimen. My calories come from whole grains, organic fruits and vegetables and vegetarian protein sources, though I do occasionally eat fish and chicken. I also take a multi-vitamin. In truth, I haven’t felt this healthy since high school.
Running with the pack
In 2005, Kristi Arthur won the Lake Tahoe Marathon for the women, just barely losing the $1,000 purse to Samuel Githinji from Kenya who clipped past her in the final seconds of the race. Arthur is the type of runner I’d like to be: all energy and drive. This woman was born to run. Her hero is the American running legend Steve Prefontaine, and she quotes him readily: “It’s not about who wins the race, it’s about who has the most guts.”
However, Arthur hasn’t always been competitive. Prior to moving to the Reno area, Arthur lived in Los Angeles and smoked cigarettes. After moving here, she took up jogging. On a whim, she entered a 5k race in Carson City, taking third place.
“They gave me this little painted tile as a prize,” she recalls. “But from then on, I was hooked.”
Today, Arthur finds solace in running: “For me, running is everything, even though I wasn’t a runner at first. But after that first race, after first experiencing that runner’s high, that was it.”
After the 5k race, Arthur set her goals on a marathon. These days, she’s trying to break 2:40 minutes—to qualify for the Olympic Trials for the marathon event.
Arthur’s personal best time is 2:58:41, which she hit in the Orange County Marathon in January.
Though Arthur still has her sights set on notable achievements, she won’t compete in the Lake Tahoe Marathon this year. Many other amazing women will, however. One is Jenelle Borden of Squaw Valley. She’s one of perhaps a dozen women in the race to win the $1,000 purse. Borden began running when she moved to the area in 1999. Also once a smoker, Borden used running as a reward for kicking the habit. “Every day I didn’t smoke, I’d reward myself with a long run,” she said.
Her first race was the Squaw Valley to Donner Pass race in 1999. She placed third in her group. The achievement hooked her on long distance running. After beginning a family, Borden ran to manage stress and to stay fit.
Seven months after giving birth, she competed in a 5k in Michigan. She beat her personal best time by seven minutes. Her first marathon was Reno’s Marathon de Mayo this year. Going into the race, Borden didn’t know what to expect out of herself, having never run that distance before. She said she focused on the 4:00 “pace bunny” but soon left him behind. She finished with a time of 3-hours-and-25-minutes, beating the qualifying standard for the Boston Marathon by 15 minutes. Following the Marathon de Mayo, Borden competed in another 10k and achieved another personal best.
Borden likes the discipline offered by training for an event. A schedule forces her to focus.
For Borden, the area itself is a motivation. From her home along Squaw Valley Road, she has direct access to Silver Peak and the Pacific Crest Trail. There’s also a bike path along the Truckee River and 12 miles of Tahoe’s West Shore. For one of her longer training days, she ran what will be the most difficult part of the course—the long hill near D.L. Bliss State Park.
“I’m not sure how to pace myself because of that hill,” says Borden. “I guess I’ll have to accept my pace will be slower there than in other areas of the race.”
Due to the altitude and hilly terrain, Borden “only” hopes to achieve a 3-hour-and-45-minute time for the Lake Tahoe Marathon. Because of these factors, this course is among the slowest and most difficult. Les Wright, director of the Lake Tahoe Marathon since its inception 12 years ago, says that there are not many of racings’ “elites” who travel to compete in the marathon. It’s comprised, mostly, of the talented people who have chosen this area as their home. It may not be fast or offer a big cash prize, but it will offer a good time and unbeatable scenery.
Funny that, while training for this event, I’ve come to believe dreams are attainable for those willing to work hard for them.
I might not win the Lake Tahoe Marathon, but I will run it, and I will finish strong. I’ll continue my studies and my writing, running up and down hills while I produce and revise drafts—none of which may ever be recorded in the great tomes of history. It’s the 5 a.m. runs, the speed sessions, the tangled miles and uncountable pages that are my achievements. Realizing my own strength has changed my life. Years from now, when I’m asked what I’ve done with myself, I’ll be able to answer that I’ve left the shadow of my past behind. I’ve lived as best I could.
And to my sister who called me back to reality eight years ago: I’m going to live as best I’m able, now and for the tomorrows hereafter. That’s a promise I don’t mind keeping, up and down the mountains, mile after mile.