I was 48 when I started running marathons. I did not do it to get into better shape; I did it because I was desperate to go to Hawaii. So what if I was middle-aged and had not run in twenty years? I only had to raise several thousand dollars for Aids research and cover 26.2 miles without stopping for a nap. In six months, I’d be snorkling and giggling at the luminous, rainbow of undulating fish in Hanuman Bay. I’d read all about these gilled guys. This was the non-suburban experience I needed.
I also needed a nearly impossible physical, emotional and psychological challenge - a big ass mountain that I might somehow conquer. My life was hung up in the shallow end of the pool and this was a way to get over my sorry self. Did I succeed? Yes - I made it over the finish line in 5 hours and 45 minutes. The letter I sent to my supporters waits for you at the end.
It’s Too Late to Quit begins with a few pages of wisdom I gleaned from running marathons. I’ll share this particular page, because it relates to the first huge lesson I learned:
- Know, in great and thrilling detail, what accomplishing your impossible goal will look like and feel like. I fantasized swimming with magical fish. Feeling free and adventurous, and doing something for myself, by myself. Not as Dan’s wife or Sophie’s mom, but as someone I used to be, and missed. So, know in your heart why you want that thing. Once you’ve logged it there, you are good to go.
- Once you have a nearly impossible goal, it is your job to break it down into chunks that are manageable and that will serve as markers for you. If you are realistic about how much you will need to do, the list will intimidate and depress you. Good. It should be scary. Today, all you need to do, is focus on hitting the next marker in sequence. At the beginning of training, getting to five miles was a huge accomplishment. Later on, five miles was just a warm-up. You get better and stronger.
- Here I’ll insert another page from the book, about bringing it to every run:
- I did it by myself, but I did not do it alone. I had the extreme benefit of a marathon training group. These were fifteen people between the ages of 22 and 48 ( I was the oldest) who were also not experienced runners. We kept each other company for six months, slogging over 500 miles of Los Angeles concrete, sharing life stories, recipes and the long distance giddiness that erupts with galloping endomorphins. I remember laughing with the unbridled delight of a five year old. These were my teammates, who shared my impossible dream. Ask the universe to help you find others who are also going in the same direction. Find a way to concretely support each other. A weekly check in, maybe? And don’t worry:
- It’s possible that the people closest to you won’t be your cheerleaders. Please do not waste your time feeling resentful. Remember, this nearly impossible goal was your decision. Start moving forward, keep your heart open and your eyes open for your team. It may be lonely at first. You may be under a lot of pressure to quit, from people who are uncomfortable by the change. Stand your ground and send love. It will also be crucial to send sympathy, compassion and calm to the screaming meemies in your psyche having tantrums. In that silence, you will also be tested.
- Starting is hard, continuing is hard. You will need to find a way to hop over, break down or skirt the obstacles that block you from doing what you need to do. Quite often, that massive stop comes in the form of stuff you feel compelled to do, first. It was proven to me again and again, I was being an asshole to myself. “You have to do this first - wash the dishes, make calls, check social media, etc.” Surprise, surprise I ran out of time to do my training run. Of all the lessons that came with training for the nearly impossible, it was identifying this moment of ego-resistance; the babbling undertow of “It’s not important and it doesn’t matter and you have no idea how pathetic and ridiculous you look.” Thing was, how else was I going to get to Hawaii? Truly. And there was the painful fact that if I didn’t do the miles, I couldn’t do the distance, and would be abandoned at the curb during the marathon. It was a hideously pathetic vision, but it worked. Even though I did not want to do that run, but I did it anyway. Do not expect to want to do these things that are good for you.
- There’s a lesson I learned through the painful reality of marathon training that I hope can also apply in your situation. I was not prepared for the burning feet, lactic-laced stumpiness of the legs, chafed thighs, none of that.. I had to endure pain and not suffer more by making it personal.
- As an additional nod to the Angels, I want to urge you to go for the joy and giddiness and love of what you are doing in service of your nearly impossible goal. Unleash your aliveness in the flow of your own good. Allow yourself to feel good and proud throughout the journey.
- There’s some stinkin’ thinkin’ around age that I had to deal with when I started running. I had good reasons to be trepidatious - my first run around the block, I tripped and face planted on the sidewalk. My husband walked me home, limping and sobbing. (Me, not him.) As for my team, I was pretty much the same age as my running mates’ mothers. But here’s what I learned. You don’t have to surrender to what was, or what is for other people. You can grow stronger and healthier. Go all in for you. Be in your own corner to be the best you can be at any age. The final pages of It’s Too Late to Quit are devoted to my mother, Sylvia Myers Willoughby, who celebrated her first solo art show at the age of 92. Despite the fact she is in hospice, she enjoys a thriving card and print business springing from her website: sylvia-art.square.site
- For anyone who feels incapable of moving forward on their nearly impossible dream because they tried and failed or even worse, never even tried because they were too frightened, I want to leave you with this simple compassionate reframe:
Now I’ll share my description of running my first Honolulu Aids Marathon.
Here are a few images to help illustrate. First, this is the pre-dawn start:
This is the volcano we ran up and down, twice:
THE MARATHON EXPERIENCE... It’s 2:00 a.m. Waves sweep the dark Wakiki Beach below my hotel window.
I am dressed to run as I slurp down a cold coffee from the mini bar. Six months, 700 miles of training, the day of the 26.2 mile Honolulu Marathon is here. I meet the 8 other runners in my pace group. As we nervously chew on Power bars, write our names on our yellow Aids Marathon singlets and relace our shoes, more runners pour out of the elevator - all ages shapes, and sizes. There will be over 20,000 of us.
It’s chilly and damp as we join the human stream flowing toward the buses that shuttle us to the starting point. It’s only 3:30 a.m., 90 minutes to race time, but thousands of runners are filling the park.
My pace group has sworn to stay together throughout the Marathon. Now is our first big test - we will brave the long lines at the porta potties and then regroup. I feel like a kindergartner with her class of playmates, embarking on a field trip - it’s not exactly perilous (to walk from school to the fire station) but YOU NEVER KNOW! We devise signals, in case someone is in distress or left behind. Shivering and hunched, we sit on the curb in the starting area, telling ourselves it is a soft, gentle tropical rain. The smart runners have slipped on tunics of plastic garbage bags.
Vanity is useless when it comes to a Marathon. I am cold and wet. A very LOUD speaker tries to cheer the crowd, yelling “ALOHA!” and encouraging us to “ALOHA!” back. A Japanese woman yatters loud excitable phrases to the thousands of Japanese runners. Everyone is desperate to get started. Finally, a woman warbles the “Star Spangled Banner” in an impossibly high voice, then the fireworks flash. It’s 4:55. We cheer - thrilled to begin. Perhaps there is a pistol start, but back where we are, there is just the ROAR and the sound of many many shoes hitting the pavement.
The river of runners breaks open, and we become part of the current, aligned along the curb. For some reason, there are few street lights. To maneuver around slower runners is tricky. The mass of humanity rolls through the Honolulu downtown. Not much talking, no more laughing. Clusters of citizens on some street corners, holding umbrellas, yelling. I’m thinking, “Well, this isn’t too hard.” And it isn’t, until we start up Diamondhead - once a volcano, now a crater that towers over the Pacific.
Fortunately, the sun is breaking over the ocean to our right. What a view. The water stretches like a gorgeous silver sheet over the world, wrinkled, gently pulling back as the new day glints at the horizon. Radiant pink pieces of clouds drift up into the sky like lovely little dreams. I am in Hawaii, and, as I promised, I am sending kisses back to all of you. I so appreciate this day, this moment, and your support. Do you know, that if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be here? It’s true.
As the light fills the street, the sidewalks also fill. People yell, ring cowbells. This is welcome. We have been running two hours, and the climb is steep. We crest Diamondhead, and start down, suddenly seeing thousands of runners ahead, and thousands behind. Sunlight and relief pour over us. But it’s only mile 10. Not even halfway. The pain in my right foot is throbbing. Time to refuel.
We pull out the Power bars and the Advil. As we advance, two by two, we inventory the injuries: Robin’s knee hurts, my foot, Angelo’s foot, Rich feels nauseous... We’re not exactly bitching - after all, no one put a gun to our heads to get us here. Just then, we hear the wheelchair racers coming - already on their way back to the finish. A dozen amazing souls have done Diamondhead plus 10 miles using their arms. All the runners crowd the sidelines to cheer. It is a wall of gushing admiration as they spin past, heads down, muscles bulging with the task. We are humbled, and inspired.
Our vision opens to include other amazing sights - the blind runner being led by his sighted friend, the Japanese man in a kimono, making the journey on wooden clogs, another man with a prosthetic leg, old timers in their 70s, wearing T-shirts that say, “I’ve run a marathon in all 50 states - 3 times!” Young men with military haircuts swish by, holding a huge American flag. I pass by my roommate, who is walking the 26.2. Heroes everywhere.
Teenagers have been handing out cups of water for hours. Others hand out sponges of cold water that we squeeze over our heads. It’s so hot now, and bright. Around mile 19, young women beat big drums, throngs of folks yell our names. I am so grateful I could cry. Along the last 6 miles I understand what a Marathon means. Simply...Continuing. Not giving up. Feeling pain and saying, “I am going to finish, no matter what.” And why? Because you said you would. Because you know you can.
Along the last couple of miles, we sing Christmas songs. A guy passes out little cups of beer. An old woman in a muumuu plays the accordion. As we trudge back over Diamondhead, we note that the ocean is now on our left - beautiful and sparkling. Who cares. Along the last mile, the crowds are thick, shouting, “You’re almost there!” but the FINISH banner seems to recede as we approach.
At last, 5 hours, 45 minutes later, I am jogging over the finish line, on legs I barely feel. A small Hawaiian boy drapes the seashell lei around my neck. I collect my Honolulu Finish medal and fumbling, attach it to the lei, then join my fellow Aids Marathoners in the victory tent to eat peanut butter pretzels and drink Gatorade. We look at each other, wide-eyed, dazed, wondrous. WE MADE IT!