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Back of the pack: What I learned from my first marathon

Maureen Shelly By Maureen Shelly

older and younger female runners

I ran with the cross-country team in high school. If you’re picturing a ponytailed jock, let me set the record straight. Teenage me loves reading and sweet treats. In the silly sitcoms I watch, characters are either/or: athletic, smart, popular, rebellious. At a time when so much is uncertain, it’s a relief for me to embrace the bookish label and toss out the possibility of being anything else.

Until a friend tries to rescue me from my foolishness. A swift and lanky cross-country star, Karen talks me into keeping her company during weekday training. I carpool to school with her at 6 a.m., then wheeze through 3.5-mile runs. I work hard but don’t progress. Midway through the season, our coach suggests I find another sport.

Still, for the next 25 years I continue to run ― but slowly, casually and always alone.

Around 40, I start questioning old assumptions. Could I go farther if I believed I could? I enjoy running alone, but I understand that I’m running circles inside my head. I wonder what would happen if I got advice from a health coach or a group of like-minded runners. What if?

A period of trial and error follows. I see personal trainers whose programs leave me in such pain that I can’t exercise again for a week. I run with fast groups that leave me behind without a second thought. It takes a while for me to find a running club where I feel comfortable. Its founder, Jeff Galloway, is an Olympic marathoner who never won a medal but speaks passionately about the intangible rewards of running.

His group is for “average people,” but they are all extraordinary to me. Members include men and women well into their 70s, reformed couch potatoes who have lost over 100 pounds, people living with chronic illnesses, patients in cancer treatment, former athletes who have been sidelined by serious injuries. I meet folks in demanding careers ― research scientists, judges ― struggling to find work-life balance.

And then there’s a band of oddballs who want to enjoy their runs, at a pace that allows them to chat and take in the scenery. They run at the back of the pack in races and may cross the finish line after the event is officially over. They joke loudly and have brunch together after Saturday morning runs. I’m thrilled when they invite me along.

Week by week, I learn what clichés like “listen to your body” really mean. Some members talk about eating five eggs before every workout. Others flatly refuse to eat beforehand because it upsets their stomach. I learn to carry a big jug of water and salt tablets, because I sweat so much. I dress in lots of layers, because I’m always cold in the beginning, but quickly heat up. We laugh at one another’s quirks in a knowing way.

I run 6 miles for the first time. Then 9, then 11. I’ve accomplished my goal and then some. The runs can be hard, but I’m realizing that other factors besides distance affect how I feel: the temperature and humidity, running on blacktop or a dirt path, even the mood I’m in. I keep showing up, mostly because I like seeing my oddball friends each weekend.

They are all signing up for a marathon the following year and talk me into joining them. I need a new goal, so why not? Now I understand that “pushing your limits” doesn’t mean exercising to exhaustion. It’s about taking a deep breath and expanding your identity. Those 26.2 miles feel like less of a stretch than 6 miles used to be.

Long runs during training can last five hours. The group fights off boredom with epic conversations. We talk about dating and relationships, politics, movies and TV, career changes, kids and aging parents, health issues. We talk about pancakes and bacon, beer and burgers, ice cream and donuts. It reminds me of my old book group, where the assigned reading was a doorway to many other topics.

Eventually, the marathon appears on the horizon. I worry that I haven’t taken my training seriously enough. I spend more time running with my group and less time on everything else. As the weeks slip by, I begin to miss the things I’ve given up to make room for training: TV, sleeping in, happy hour, books, clothes shopping, cooking, zero unread emails.

The marathon is two weeks away, and I’m stressed. The farthest I’ve run is 20 miles, and that took everything I had. Will I be able to do another 6 on top of that? Family and friends are coming out to the course to cheer me on. I feel pressure to go faster, to look good for the pictures. Should I get my hair and makeup done? (Am I losing my mind?)

Fellow back-of-the-packer Ken offers to run alongside me the whole way, even though he is faster and has run several marathons before. He says our only goal is to enjoy ourselves. Michelle, another member of our group, runs her first marathon two weeks before mine. Afterward, she looks into my eyes and says with great conviction that I have what it takes to finish: “You’re really stubborn.”

Early one morning before work, on a solo run around the large park near my home, a pro marathon runner slows down to ask me how it’s going. The frontrunners are very supportive of the back-of-the-packers. They make a big deal of how they train to complete 26 miles in just over two hours, and claim they could never run for seven hours straight like we do. The pro gives me a warm, encouraging smile and speeds away.

Day of the marathon

Maureen and Ken stop to hydrate during the marathon.

Maureen completed her first marathon in six-and-a-half hours. Next year, she hopes to finish in under six. Since running farther than she ever thought possible, her health ambition has evolved into an ongoing desire to test her limits.

About the author

Maureen Shelly is a health and science geek living in New York City.