Finding my Footing, 26.2 Miles At A Time

A middle-distance runner trains for the marathon with the local Dashing Whippets team

| 01 Nov 2021 | 12:43

After running competitively for nearly my entire life, I’ve come to know the two proverbial questions that are asked of runners, the first being, “What’s your mile time?”

Those on the outside of the competitive running bubble use the mile to standardize and simplify their understanding of the sport — if you say you’re a “runner,” people want to know how quickly you’ve churned out 1609 meters. As a middle-distance runner, this question was never difficult for me. The mile was my wheelhouse, the race that I’d run more times than I could count between my high school and collegiate running career. Quick enough to be over in under five minutes (depending on the day), and long enough to stave the slow, numbing burn of lactic acid that comes with a 400 or 800-meter race, the mile was undeniably my favorite event. So, when curious minds inevitably came asking for my mile time, I not only had an answer but also a bevy of stories to accompany it: good miles, bad miles, and miles that taught me the kinds of life lessons that only running around a track four times could.

The second question that non-runners will often ask a runner in their life, whether they happen to be particularly competitive or not, is, “Are you going to run a marathon?”

Like the answer surrounding my mile time, my thoughts on this inquiry had always been resoundingly and unequivocally clear: “no.” Not only was endurance-distance running a far cry from the quick and hyper-focused speed I specialized in, but I also could simply never grasp the obsessive fascination with a race that was both absurdly long and arbitrarily modeled off a legend about an ancient Greek messenger.

Certainly, I had the utmost admiration and respect for these individuals: marathoners, ultra-marathoners, and the particularly insane demographic of people who imbibe in the Kool-Aid that compels them to take on an Ironman triathlon, which packs a whopping 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and full (yes, full) marathon into one race. I wasn’t that athlete. I got enough of a runner’s high from a few quick turns around a track and the occasional 5K — though arguably the pinnacle of any runner’s career, I didn’t see the appeal of any race that challenged the confines of my competitive threshold.

Throngs of Runners

The first inkling of conversion came in November of 2018 when I attended my first New York City marathon as a spectator, to cheer on one of my lifelong friends. It was my junior year at Columbia University — having lived in Manhattan for nearly two and half years as a college athlete on Columbia’s cross country and track team, I recall my ego feeling slightly bruised at the realization that I’d never attended the marathon before. As I exited the quiet confines of a Sunday afternoon 1 train and stepped out on Broadway, blinking furiously, into the rushing autumn sunlight, I could hear the sound of thousands cheering — it was unlike anything I’d heard in other athletic stadiums around the world. As I neared the finish area, throngs of runners and families congregated on Central Park West, their silhouettes set against a dipping autumn sun.

I stood among people of all ages, sizes, shapes and colors, brought to tears by the sight of them, breathless, smiling, and swaddled in foil blankets with weighty medals hung around their necks. Light broke through trees’ branches, touching the tops of historic Upper West Side dwellings. Dazzling fall foliage drifted through the chilled air, swept up with the roar of cheers from across all five boroughs. I remember a distinct feeling of piety — for what, I don’t know, but somehow, it was bigger than perhaps even the city itself.

This year’s marathon will be the 50th for New York City and the first for me. Call it a COVID-19 induced ambition, but I’m incredibly excited to be taking part in what Dr. Barbara Mann, a pulmonary medicine doctor at Mt. Sinai, calls, “the most positive, energetic and kindness-filled day in New York City.”

Mann, who has competed in nine marathons and is poised to run her tenth on November 7, found a city-based running community through the Dashing Whippets, a running team that is founded on, and driven by, the diversity of its members. A nonprofit running organization founded under the Road Runners Club of America (RRCA), the Dashing Whippets’ mission statement is to “enrich and actively engage with the running community through hosting multiple training sessions per week, maintaining accessibility to all with a low annual membership fee, cheering at races, and giving back to the community through volunteering and fundraising for local nonprofit organizations.”

Locally-based Group

This past summer, a friend of mine introduced me to one of the Whippets’ founders, Matt Wong. I shared my objectives goals with Wong: to slowly re-immerse myself in the competitive running scene by joining a locally-based running group. More specifically, I needed all the help I could get as I began training for the 50th anniversary of the New York City marathon.

People (and Whippets) have told me many things about running a marathon, and about running the New York marathon specifically: don’t overdress, be sure to hydrate at every fuel station, rub deodorant in-between your thighs so you don’t chafe, wear headphones, don’t wear headphones, take the Verrazzano Bridge easy, have a race plan, carbo-load with Gatorade instead of rigatoni, and whatever you do, DON’T GO OUT TOO FAST.

I’ve been grateful for the advice I’ve received, the adages I’ve been told to follow by marathoners much more experienced than I. Initially, when I began my training back in July, I crowdsourced a bit too close to the sun, asking nearly every marathoner I knew for strategies and suggestions. I scoured the internet, poring over too many articles to count as I searched for the best GPS watch, training shoes, and race belts. I became overanalytical about the bad runs, often letting them dictate my mental approach to a race that was still months away. I relished the runs that clicked, still holding myself to a middle-distance runner standard amidst training for a long-distance race. My innately competitive nature often left me unsatisfied with myself as I yearned for a feeling within the sport that I hadn’t felt in a long time.

Interestingly, as I approach the day of the marathon, I find myself feeling oddly tranquil. My mind is quiet; a gentle flow of meditative thoughts has replaced the usual, constant buzz. Maybe it’s what a marathon does to you — I wouldn’t know, but I suppose I’ll find out soon enough. Come Sunday morning, I know I’ll learn something. Whether it will be about myself, New York City, or something entirely different, I do not know. But I’m certain it will be something that only 26.2 miles can teach me.