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Marathon Woman

Swapping Altruistic Goals for Personal Ones Along the Way to the Finish Line

December 1999/January 2000

My 20-year high-school reunion was approaching and I have no husband and no children, unless furry, four-legged ones count, which I do not believe they do.

How do I go back to Miami without something to show for all these years? I told myself that I'll just have to make sure I look fabulous! Four months to lose 10 pounds: How hard could that be?

So I am in my office and I walk by a poster touting a "National AIDS Marathon Training Program." Hmmm, I thought. I could pretend I was training for that and then I would lose weight and I could quit. Great!

My Journey Begins

I am not a runner. I smoked for 22 years before quitting. Running a quarter of a mile would make me huff and puff. But I went to the orientation for the marathon training program and just went along with the program so no one would know I was going to drop out. I wasn't really going to fund-raise because I never intended to actually run the race.

My reunion came and went. I did look fabulous, but I had not lost a pound! I gained instead. I gained a liking for running.

As the training program continued, with group runs on Sundays at Balboa Park in Encino and self-training runs during the rest of the week, I started to think that I might just be able to pull this off.

I still was unsure about asking people for money. The guilt of not being able to do the run was incredible. There were a lot of marathons that did not require participants to raise money. So why was I making this twice as hard on myself by trying to raise a minimum of $2,600 for AIDS Project Los Angeles? I didn't even know anyone with HIV or AIDS.

Growth Can Be Painful

Weeks turned into months and four-mile runs turned into 14-mile runs. I began to look forward to my weekend runs and found I was disciplining myself to actually train on my own at home during the week.

As the mileage increased, I began to have some problems. Two years prior, I had ACL knee reconstruction surgery, where a doctor cuts inside your leg and slices off either a piece of your hamstring muscle or your knee and rebuilds your ligament in your knee. But I didn't think that my problems were due to the surgery.

The pain started slowly at first. I would be running and then have to fast walk for a bit as my kneecaps would have a tingle of shooting pain. Then I started to have an incredible pain on the outside of my right leg, underneath my right knee. No one really knew what that was, but we all began trying to guess so we could fix it. After doing some research on the computer, I gave myself a diagnosis of Chondro Malagia combined with problems with my IT band.

At about the tenth mile of an 18-mile run, I found I could run no more.

I had a debilitating pain shooting in my leg and I began to have to put ice packs in my knee wraps to get from one-mile marker to the next. God forbid they didn't have a new fresh ice pack for me! To complete the 18 miles, I decided that I would fast-walk. I was so upset and of course in incredible pain.

Two weeks later, our group was scheduled to do a 20-mile run. In anticipation that I would need to walk a great deal of the route, I began to run at 5:30 a.m., an hour earlier than the other runners. The pain returned, and this time I had to fast walk for 12 miles. As I was walking that day, I began to cry.

Power of Simple Suggestion

Over the months of training, I had put so much of myself into this marathon.

Originally, I never intended to run the marathon. Now, I wanted to run the marathon but was forced to walk -- or crawl, the way it felt sometimes.

I decided that if I could not run this marathon, I would not be in the race. I became determined to fix whatever was wrong. My coach Mike and training rep Jeffrey were very helpful in trying to get me better.

Jeffrey had introduced me to the opportunity to go to APLA once each week and volunteer. One time I visited the marathon office at APLA, and ended up talking with another training rep, Sandy. We talked about my problems and Sandy got down on the floor and showed me things to do. I could feel the power of these exercises while I was practicing them in her office.

That night I began diligently doing them at home. Every day, every moment I thought about them, I would do them, wherever I was.

Facing my Devil Head-On

The day of reckoning -- our 23-mile run -- approached.

It was time to face my devil. One of us was going to leave that training site a winner. I was determined for it to be me. I would either cross the finish line at Balboa Park or die out there trying. OK, a little dramatic but there was no going back from here.

It was a tough but fantastic run. I did have problems, for maybe six to eight miles, but I was not giving up. I actually remember talking to God and asking him, if he wanted me to do this marathon, to raise this money, to achieve this accomplishment, then let me run again. If I was not to do all that, then this would be the end. Understand that I am not a religious person.

Then, at about the 20th mile, the most bizarre thing happened. I was able to run again for the rest of the mileage. I don't ask how or why; I only appreciate the beauty of prayer and determination.

Finding the Moment of Truth

I continued to do my exercises daily and I never had either of those pains again.

Now I had the chore of raising the money. We were at the point of having to make a commitment to raise $2,600 or pay the difference out of our own pocket.

After all I had done, I was not going to let the fund-raising stop me. I did know that my job was suffering and I wasn't making money and that I had over $30,000 in debts, but I signed the document and made the commitment.

Jeffrey kept us motivated and he would give all these great ideas for fund-raising and just supported us like crazy. He would find ways to help you so that you couldn't give up. In the last week possible, I finally made my goal.

The Real Deal

Now it was time for the real deal: the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., where 735 marathon participants from Los Angeles would join about 20,000 other runners in a 26.2-mile race through the streets of Washington, D.C.

We were a day away from leaving when I spoke to a friend I had made through this training. I wanted to get us all pumped up because we had come really far and worked really hard. When I spoke to him he relayed some very sad news to me about his personal life. I was so upset for him and he was devastated and dealing with this the night before we were to leave. I told him that I would take his mind off of it when we got there because he had to focus. He couldn't let this distract him.

I was so proud of him how he handled himself the whole time. I wouldn't have been half as brave as him. I would have broken down. But he didn't. He ran a great race.

His life changed in dramatic ways after that weekend. Wherever you are, whatever you're doing, I hope you find peace and love in your life, John, you deserve it.

Throughout the training, I have always trained alone. I was nicknamed "The Lone Runner" by some really great supporters, other runners from my training site who would cheer me every single time they saw me out there running.

Their energy and support, especially Ronnie's and her team, fueled me more than I can ever share. I had run a few times with a group in the beginning, but then went on my own.

Coach Mike was really great to allow me to do this because I explained to him that my training for this run was an individual event. The others were there if you could run their pace. I could not. I needed a different pace to get through this and he let me do it. I realize it was unorthodox, but whatever makes it happen for you to achieve your goal.

Sometimes You Have to Run Your Own Race

On Sunday, October 24 -- the day of the race -- I decided to run with my original training group, since the five of us who were left (out of the original 18) had all begun this program together.

Fifty yards past the start gate one of the girls had to stop to adjust something. I knew if I was to get across that 14th Street Bridge in time, I had to run my own race. I waved goodbye, wished them well and went on my way.

Sometimes the wind was so strong that if I held my arms out, it would push me back. These were conditions we were not used to in sunny California. The weather report said it was 43 degrees! I wonder, was that with or without the wind-chill factor?

By mile eight, I was hating the race. I had more clothes on than I had ever run with before and the wind was killing me. I didn't mind the hills, but the wind was pure hell. On a conscious level I knew I had to just run and run and run, but on a different level, I wanted to quit right then!

At mile 16, we were on one side of the roadway as other runners were running toward us. They were approaching mile 21. Gee, I thought, they were only five miles ahead of me! I tried to smile at them, but felt envy. By the time I got to where they are right now, they will have finished the race and be enjoying food and drink. How could I not hate them in some small but meaningless way?

Seeing my friends from my training site took me back to our runs at Balboa Park and passing them there. It was a very familiar experience and it felt good.

Three weeks earlier in sunny, beautiful and warm Los Angeles, we did a 26.2-mile training run and I never felt better. The marathon in Washington, however, felt like pure torture to me.

I was now approaching the 18- to 19-mile marks and only had a short while before they were going to close the bridge and not allow the runners to continue the race on foot, but to board "straggler" buses and be taken to straggler hell. After six months of training, running more than 500 miles, raising $2,600 dollars, completing 21 miles of a 26.2 mile course... to be placed on a bus as a "straggler"? I don't think so. Either I would make the bridge or I would get arrested trying to run it.

I decided the best idea right now was to devise a system to get to the finish line. I initiated conversation with a petite African-American lady wearing a "Team Leukemia" tank top who always seemed to be in my running sight throughout the morning. She seemed genuinely interested in pairing up and motivating one another to get to the bridge. We didn't talk very much and I don't remember her name, but I'll always remember her.

She began to lag at times and I would push her along, pull her with me. By mile 21, we were both hurting. She had blisters and I was just pooped from fighting the wind. I didn't know if I would make it to the bridge in time to cross. The wind factor had slowed my pace time by three to four minutes per mile.

I told her if she wanted to go ahead because I didn't want to hold her up from getting across the bridge. I said it was OK as I was not able to run at that moment and might not make it. This lovely, unselfish woman, placed my arm in hers and began to run, pulling me with her. She said to me, "I am not leaving you behind. We are going through the finish line together." I immediately loved her for that. It may seem silly, but tears come to me when I write this.

We did make the bridge, with time to spare. Seeing friendly faces such as my roommate Sabine and Linda pass us made me feel a spark of energy again. It's amazing how familiar things can get you motivated.

We still had four miles to go, but somehow, there was less to worry about. The stress of getting to that bridge was so overwhelming that it took away from running the race in some ways.

I don't know what would have happened or how long it would have taken me to get there, but I know I owe a lot to this woman from the D.C. area. I didn't have any friends or family there cheering me from the sidelines, only this woman and her need, like mine, to finish this race. Until I met her, I was alone in this race.

The Finish Line

We did make it to the end and did it together, like we promised one another eight miles back. Her lovely son and husband ran with us the last mile to the finish line. Once we both passed through the finish line and the crowds, I lost her.

I never saw her again. I wish I had, so I could thank her, from the bottom of my running toes to the depths of my heart. Thank you, mystery woman. You are special in my heart and always will be.

I loved each and every Marine out there for the incredible job they did for the runners. They never let us run by without a word of encouragement and were there to take care of any and all needs we had. They did a beautiful job. Their attitudes and support surely made a difference on how successful this marathon was for many, especially myself.

Light At the End of the Tunnel

For whatever reason it takes to get you here, be it weight loss or friends who have HIV, the experience from challenging yourself to run, to fund-raising for people you don't even know, the friends you make, to achieve things you never imagined you could, are priceless. Your first marathon will be inspiring and emotional to you and to those who watch you accomplish it.

I now look forward to my next marathon. I still volunteer at APLA and I now know people, friends with HIV. I know whom I will be running for next time.

Call (323) 993-1400 for information about the National AIDS Marathon Training Program Training for participation in the Chicago Marathon on Sunday, October 22 will begin on Saturday, April 29. Runners and volunteers are needed.

Syndi Tracton is a volunteer in APLA's Publications Program.

This article has been reprinted at The Body with the permission of AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA).

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This article was provided by AIDS Project Los Angeles. It is a part of the publication Positive Living.