Once I crossed the finish line, following the Spirit of St. Louis Marathon on October 21, I nearly fainted. It was one of the most incredible feelings I've experienced. That high continued throughout the rest of the day, and I woke up later that night smiling.
Seven months of almost daily runs ended in that one test, beginning before the sun rose and covering 26.2 miles and many hills throughout Downtown, Soulard, Forest Park, the Central West End, parts of Clayton and University City.
A day after my 4-hour-57-minute trek, the whole race felt like a dream. I remembered spectators lining the streets with Magic-markered signs for loved ones, or with inspirational words like "Persist" and "Courage." Cars were parked near the course with their doors open, blaring motivational music like the theme from Rocky and "Eye of the Tiger." Friends raised their arms and yelled my name when I passed.
This being my first marathon, I was caught up in the excitement more than trying to make a certain time. I was determined to finish, but I knew this was something I was going to remember for a long time. I handed my singlet to a friend at mile six and would run the next four hours in my sports bra, feeling free and alive. After I made it up a steady hill on Olive Boulevard around mile 8, I shouted out to the bagpipers to play a tune so I could jig as I went by. I joined a group of other runners in singing the folk tune "This Land is Your Land" while we ran through Forest Park near mile 12. At every water station after the halfway mark, I took two cups one to drink and one to pour over my head.
Runners would pass me and we sometimes spoke. A few asked how I was doing. I would return the question, and there would even be a bit of conversation. "This your first marathon?" "Where are you from?" And so forth. Strangers along the way would call out my race number and shout words of encouragement. There was a spirit and bonding that I can't explain. Not in words. We were all ages, all sizes, from many different backgrounds, and we all just kept pushing on.
Around mile 20, my legs went numb. My knees were still holding up, but my calves had started to burn. My loyal running buddy joined in for 100 yards on the way back through Forest Park.
Somewhere around mile 23, it felt like the little toenail on my right foot had ripped off. I shifted my weight to my left on each stride, imagining a bloody mess, and kept going. Only three more miles. I watched other runners veer off the street to stretch and massage their legs.
On the last hill before the finish line, my high school basketball coach, who traveled from two hours away to yell for me, ran along beside me. Those final cheers will ring in my head for the rest of my life.
My sister told me she got an adrenaline rush just from watching runners finish. "It's like everyone had their own story," she explained. There were packs of runners, crossing the line together. One man held his leg in pain but crossed with much applause and congratulations from the crowd. A young boy joined his dad for the final feet of the race.
A day before the marathon, Runner's World editor Joe Henderson told a crowd at the Science Center that most people begin running for reasons other than racing, or even health. "Fitness is just a byproduct of running," he said. For some, it's a way to relax. For others, it's an escape or a personal hobby. Many just enjoy the endorphins and fuzzy feelings after a long run.
I ran track for three years in high school and never made varsity. I tried sprinting. I tried mid-distance. I tried long distance. I could endure the workouts, but my times just didn't make the cuts.
When I began running this spring, I was searching for peace and trying to forget some bad memories. Running was a way to escape for a bit, while helping me feel a sense of accomplishment. It motivated me out of bed in the morning. My long runs on the weekends became something to plan for, to look forward to. So when the temperature reached 90 degrees and above, I took to the road. When it was dark at 6 a.m. on Sundays, I woke up to get the long runs in. In the rain, or at dusk, I jogged on. Then I wrote down the miles in my logbook.
Running is more of a mental than physical activity. Before this year, covering more than five miles seemed like an unimaginable feat to me. I think we often underestimate what we can do through discipline and resilience, and then end up surprising ourselves.
However, the physical aspects of training to run 26 miles cannot be overlooked. To avoid injuries, runners stretch before and after runs or while they are just standing. They learn how to deal with sunburns at 7 a.m., and underarm or upper thigh chapping from extended runs and the motions of the limbs. Three months before the race, I stopped eating meat. Not for any humanitarian reasons, but just because it seemed like the healthiest thing to do, and the thought of digesting it left me queasy. Slowly, alcohol and caffeine were eliminated from my diet as well.
Ten days before the marathon, my car was stolen in broad daylight while I ran a training loop around Forest Park. A jogger witnessed the crime, and watched as the thieves sped away in my Honda. Most of my personal items were dumped nearby, but the car wasn't recovered. As I stood there waiting to give my police report, I contemplated running the five miles home to release the frustration and feeling of violation.
Later, I reflected on the loss of the car and how its symbolism put everything in perspective. My health, well-being and overall life were in place. Running, in all its simplicity and individuality, reminded me of what very little I need outside a decent pair of shoes, an open road and a positive attitude.
I've found greater reward in running toward something a goal or finish line rather than away from something else. Maybe those guys who drove off in my car will realize that some day.
Traci Angel is a St. Louis writer and editor.