This piece is part of our "I Did It!" series, a collection of first-person essays celebrating outlandish means and wild achievements. Submit your own story to "I Did It!" by emailing The Airship’s editor at Arv@AirshipDaily.com.
On New Year’s Eve in 2012, I was chatting on the phone with my childhood best friend, Jolee, when she mentioned that she had signed up for the Rock ’n’ Roll Half Marathon in Washington, D.C. It was late in the day, and I was in need of at least one good New Year’s resolution. Impulsively, I paid about $100 online to register. Then I drank a beer.
Loads of people have run 13.1 miles (half a marathon). It’s not humble to say that this wouldn’t be a huge accomplishment for most. But in 2012, I had never run more than six miles and I had 10 weeks to train.
I’m not a runner, never have been. In seventh grade, I broke my arm during my middle school’s version of the Olympics. My teammates on the 100-yard dash asked me to be the second leg of the relay because, unlike the brunt of my classmates in the Atlanta suburbs, I was skinny. Skinny and uncoordinated, it turned out. I blame my nerves for miscalculating a sizable depression in the asphalt that sunny afternoon. My feet bungled, and I fell. My knees and elbows bled brightly. My left arm tingled and went numb. I knew it was broken.
“Get up! Run!” yelled my coach.
I hobbled pathetically to pass the baton to my classmate. Then I pleaded with my coach, who was cruelly unimpressed with my injuries, to see the school nurse. Hours later, an X-ray confirmed what I already knew: I had a hairline fracture in my left radial bone. The next day I grinned and waved my bright blue cast at my phys ed coach.
For many years, I didn’t run much at all. In college, I ran sporadically for exercise. A few years ago, I started running two or three times a week, but I never ran long distances and I was never fast. My pace was akin to geriatric jogging. I didn’t care about speed.
So I was fit, but by no means sporty, when I announced to my family that I would run slightly over a dozen miles. I thought they would be encouraging. I was wrong.
“That’s lame,” my sister responded. (She assured me later that she was joking, partly.) Nichole has always hated running and especially, runners. To her, runners are a loathsome lot, the kind of people who pretend to enjoy waking up early in the morning and have phony hobbies, like bird watching.
My mother was also less than supportive. In recent years, my mom’s fascination with naturopathy has gone viral. She’s begun to approach homeopathic remedies with the vigilance and diligence of an attorney, her profession by day. Text messages from her detail home-brewed concoctions for health optimization: “Hi sweetie, hope you have a good day today. Don’t forget to take the kelp and alfalfa. Are you dry brushing your body to help your lymph drainage system? Love, Mom.” She shared articles with me about the dangers of running. Female long-distance runners can develop a condition called uterine prolapse — over time my uterus would sink, maybe fall out of my vagina, she warned. While I was training for the half marathon, she reminded me often that excessive exercise puts great strain on your body and she thoughtfully sent a care package of vitamin supplements to combat the damage caused by all that cardiovascular activity.
In fact, my training was not completely free of injury. My body ached often. My knees were sometimes tight and my legs grew stiff. Blisters popped up in new places on my feet each week. I took pictures of my feet on my cellphone’s camera to document their progression. I secretly hoped a toenail would fall off. After an eight-mile treadmill run at the gym one night, I peeled off a bloody sock in the locker room. Because I had never been a serious athlete before, I was fascinated by my body’s reactions.
Training was also exceptionally time consuming. A 12-mile run would wipe out an entire Saturday. Running for hours would fill me with a euphoria that eradicated any desire I might have had otherwise to venture from my cozy room. I felt entitled to binge and loaf around my apartment. By evening, I would be giddy for sleep. In my free time, I was alternately running or recovering. Either way, I was in loungewear.
On the race day, I woke up at 5 A.M., ate a bowl of granola and stuffed two sugary goo energy pouches in my fanny pack. My singular goal was to finish the race.
Along Constitution Avenue, groups of runners were released every 10 minutes to space out the traffic. The course began near the northern border of the National Mall, snaked along the Potomac River and ended in the southeast part of the city. When I had signed up, I anticipated my finish time would be the maximum allotted for the half marathon: three hours. As a result, I was one of the last to start, among a group of people I could generously call unathletic.
When the announcer cleared us to start, a few bolted forward with strong, hopeful strides, but the majority of people in my corral began the race with a slow walk. Because it was the day before St. Patrick’s Day, ladies — and some men — sported green tutus. Some had painted shamrocks on their faces. Mostly everyone wore some kind of neon, not just neon green, in my corral. A man held up a poster that read “You’re all Kenyans in my eyes.”
I didn’t keep pace with my colorful cohorts for long. To be honest, running passed baby boomers and stragglers made me feel like a fucking champion. I didn’t stop to walk once. I ran the whole course, settling into a comfortable stride that was much faster than my training pace.
Overall, spirits were exceptionally high. Strangers were encouraging, cheering wildly. It was early morning, but there were more than a few drunkards. People lined the entire course with positive — and, on occasion, chiding — words on posters, cards, signs, balloons and T-shirts. I high-fived hands on the sidelines, and I even gave a little girl a fist bump. I saw more than one runner reach for a red solo cup of beer provided by fratty college students. My lucky tie-dye shirt meshed with the magic atmosphere. There was a cosmic feeling of community, as if we were at a music festival, sparking doobies and singing folk songs together, instead of running on a contrived course through our nation’s capital.
When I finished outside the D.C. Armory, I was handed a medal and a bottle of water. To my right, a woman pounded a bottle of Gatorade. The liquid immediately and violently resurfaced. There was more puke in my peripheral vision. I also saw a lady shaking with a dazed expression, wrapped in a metallic sheath for warmth.
I was disoriented. I almost felt drunk, but my brain was not incoherent, just empty. I surveyed my body for injury. My uterus appeared to be intact. Moreover, though it might have been excused in this scenario, I had not peed in my pants. To my disappointment, I didn’t see anyone with pee-soaked legs that day.
The potential of public urination, wacky costumes, spews of vomit — there is arguably an aspect of running a half (or whole) marathon that is silly and perhaps even lame, but I didn’t care. I finished.
Jacquelyn Gleisner is a visual artist and writer who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Her writing has been published in print and for several online publications, including the United States Embassy of Finland’s blog, Beat of America, Art21 and Wow/Huh. She has exhibited her work in the United States and Europe, and at last year’s MoCCA Fest under the pseudonym Kitty Leeks. Follow her on Twitter: @ASincereElkJig
Have a first-person essay celebrating your own outlandish means and wild achievements? Submit it to our "I Did It!" series by emailing Arv@AirshipDaily.com.
(Image credits: All photos from author)
KEEP READING: More from "I Did It!"