It was mile 15 when the right side of my body cramped running the NYC marathon. It had to be the physical manifestation of one throbbing thought, “Quit.”
I don’t know when it showed up. This would be my second marathon and first time running one of the largest in the U.S. I had put together 15 weeks of Nike App training. Translation: waking up at 5 AM on the regular to run through Passaic county. When that failed putting hours on a 24-hour fitness treadmill. Weeks prior, I had injured my left tendon running an 18 mile warm up. But nothing felt like this. Why did all my yoga stretching decide to fail me now?
It’s hard to find an excuse to quit when I’ve seen people that don’t fit the elite runner profile: light weight, sub 5 miles from Eritrea, giving it their all. Once I saw a man on crutches run his way through a 10K. Now I was witnessing a blind runner do this 26.2 miles. Besides being attached by bracelets alongside another runner he had to find the will without seeing the road.
I took a deep breath to find a rhythm to run to; sometimes counting while pushing for 180 seconds then pacing for 60. I couldn’t visualize what borough I was running like the 3D mapped displayed at the expo. When I’m in the zone I forget everything else around me. I settle for any piece of information.
“What mile is this?” I ask another runner.
“Just keep going,” she says.
The run has nothing to do with my body. Running three days a week with an occasional weight training day only proves my body is physically able. But crossing the finish line is a mental decision.
By now my pace has dropped almost two full minutes. People I had passed are now the wind blowing by. I’m not racing them, my reason to run is my own. But if anyone would have asked, “How you holding up?” A head nod is all I could offer.
This race is different from training. A lot of times it’s you versus nature. But here from the 1st mile and beyond there’s sign holding and bell swinging cheering us on. Other runners beside me are pushing themselves. The look on their faces says it all. One, or me, no all of us hit a Super Mario made star for kicks.
By about mile 20 Ray, a college buddy taps me on the shoulder, “You good bruh?” I was stunned that I see him. At first, I thought I had fallen way behind that people who started in the wave after me had lapped me. But I missed my actual starting time.
“I’m good. I’ll crawl to finish if need be.”
We jog together for a couple of miles. I hear and see people I know in the crowd. One friend did her own marathon trying to time her arrive with my miles. But then Ray cramps up. It’s like all my doubts and fears jumped from my body into his. He couldn’t feel his leg than his body didn’t agree with his head. I make a decision I never did as a runner. I’ll see him to the finish line regardless if I break my personal record.
It wasn’t about being the fastest. I wasn’t. It was about digging deep inside and bringing forth the best offering of myself. We ran more miles until finally we got through Harlem into central park for mile 23.
The steep hills were mostly gone. But my feet felt on fire. I would find out later I ran a hole in one. What separated my toes from the concrete were my Asics soles.
But my energy was returning. Like mile 9 when my feet felt loose. A handful of miles left and I’m hungry for more. Keron, a training partner shouts me out in the crowd. Without exchanging words, he knew I had to exceed expectations. That’s how we run.
I had told myself I would never do something like this again. Only crazy people took strides outside of comfort. I didn’t see the athlete in me. The last sport I’ve officially played was intramural college basketball. But I had found a fire for running from working out. Back then I didn’t want to have a ripped chest with string bean legs. Now this black man runs!
Once I ran my first 5k run. I felt I should keep going. If I willingly take on the challenge of running maybe, I would be prepared to handle life’s misfortunes. It was the same motivation needed to write. Thoughts of it sprinkling in my mind as I pounded the pavement and when I wrote wondering how fast I could get. Could I run a mile in under six minutes? Could I run 100 miles in a month? Could I keep going in life and in this marathon when even I said give up?
I keep going until I faintly see the sign. The race has gotten narrow and my phone has died. Note to self: never waste your battery on the shuttle ride to a race. Then I push a little harder to run across the finish line. The answer was simple. The will to do it was always better than the skill.
Framed In Excellence is a blog series that show how African Americans pursue the American Dream despite being woven into dangerous, unsafe and vulnerable spaces within our nation
Rashaun J. Allen (@rashaunjallen) received his MFA in Creative Writing and Literature from SUNY Stony Brook. He’s eyeing agents to help publish his coming of age story, Christine’s Dream – A Memoir of Love, Loss & Life. He is the author of A Walk Through Brooklyn & In The Moment and has been published in TSR: The South Hampton Review. When not writing he runs for the thrill of crossing the finish line. Find more of his work at www.rashaunjallen.com