What goes through a runner's mind in 26.2 miles
By Emily Overcarsh
When I was 14 I woke up one morning with an inexplicable terror in my chest which told me that if I didn't start running, I would regret it for the rest of my life. Unnerved, I obeyed without question and bought a pair of running shoes and a sports bra and forced myself — against my own whining and bitterness — out the door. I jogged around and around my little neighborhood, and it was a slow and miserable labor to shove my weight up against the gravity of the earth in small low steps, arms jerking awkwardly, lungs pulling painfully for air. I worked my way up to two miles, and then three, and I thought about the people who run marathons. Twenty-six point two miles was unfathomable to me. Marathoners were not human. Not in the plodding, gasping, staggering way that I was human. They seemed to me like spirits, flicking along the road like water spiders on a lily pond. Like spirits, unreachable.
Aunt Debby drives me to the starting line. "What's your number?" She asks to fill the silence of the dark car ride — she never allows silence.
I look down at the paper bib safety-pinned to my jersey. "Nine three one," I say around a chewy bite of an energy bar. I have the bar in one hand, a Gatorade in the other, and energy gel packets tucked into my shorts and under my hat. There is nervous energy humming inside me which makes me wide-eyed and motionless, like a rabbit listening for danger.
"Nine three one," Aunt Debby says. "That sounds like a lucky number to me."
I nod. "It is a lucky number."
It will not be a lucky number.
The runners are allowed to wait inside the local high school before the starting gun. The line for the bathroom is as long as the hallway, so I join it knowing I’ll need it by the time I get to the front. Indoor plumbing is the greatest luxury to over-hydrated road-racers accustomed to villages of porta-potties or discreet clusters of trees.
The crowd of runners is swelling steadily. An older man stands with his shirt in his hands, his spine curved with decades of labor, his neck sagging, yet the sharp curve of his calves shows he’sbeen running his whole life. Two overweight women gossip nervously behind me, adjusting fuel belts and ponytails. A willowy man skips up and down the hall like an ostrich, stretching his fast-twitch muscles with eyes glazed over. A group dances in a ring, laughing and stomping. A new mother bounces her baby on her hip, her husband standing by to take the child and meet her at the finish. The whole spectrum of humanity mills about, bundles of nerves and glycogen, and it inspires me. I jump up and down on my toes. I grin.
As soon as I get out of the bathroom, I walk back to the end of the line and rejoin it. I know I’ll need it by the time I get to the front. After that, it’s time to go, follow the other runners out the front doors. The icy wind outside is a shock, as jarring as the clear, pale sky. Last night, a freak storm thrashed against my windows in warning, but now there is no evidence of it. I weasel into the mass of runners, trying to catch their body heat. A Gullah woman begins to sing the national anthem, and I hop back and forth on each foot,looking for the flag.
The marathon is designed to break you. In the days after, the muscles are broken down and must be rebuilt; the immune system crashes; the brain goes through endorphin withdrawal; and the runner lapses into a brief depression, physically and emotionally beaten through chronic self-inflicted abuse. You can't run a marathon without desperation, without having something to fight for.
My first marathon, three years earlier, two months warmer, and an hour darker, I was running for Drew — handsome and athletic Drew, whom I had secretly adored when he was dating my older sister. Drew, who had lifted me onto his shoulders at a Sister Hazel concert on my fourteenth birthday and danced. Drew, who had hundreds of tumors growing silently on his nerves, one twisting its way into his spine like a jellyfish wrapping tight, eventually paralyzing him. Drew, bloated from steroids, pale from months of hospitals, hands warped into claws from muscles pulling tight with atrophy, skin that flashed in pain from the lightest touch. Drew, with one tumor pressing gently against his heart, growing bigger every day. In the months after that race, he was dying. At times I wondered if death would be a relief to him.
We could never have imagined that a miracle would come and doctors would test a prototype drug on him which would, to everyone’s astonishment, make the tumors stop growing. He would live. He continues to live. And there was a day my freshman year of college when my mom called to tell me that Drew had woken in the middle of the night and twitched his foot.
This marathon in Charleston I wear the NF Endurance Team singlet under my UNC jersey as an expression of solidarity, but this time I have come to fight for myself. When the national anthem ends, I jump and clap with nerves and excitement like a horse stomping and nodding wildly in her starting gate. We are all animals, desperate to bolt. We countdown to the gun. Snap. The first runners are off. The shuffle forward with the mass like a tide surging. The fumbling with the watch. The last roll of the shoulders. The quickening of the pace. Then with one easy stride the starting line is crossed, the timing chip triggered, and the milliseconds start tumbling in frantic flickers that can't be retrieved.
Go. Take another long stride, then another. It's natural, effortless. Adore the feeling of the muscles finally stretching into use, the feet tapping lightly against the pavement. Get your arms into a rhythm; get your breathing into a rhythm. Easy does it. Do not — do not — allow the adrenaline to push you ahead of pace. That is the fatal mistake. Every movement should be reined in, gentle. Find the pace team, and ease back. Settle in. This is how it starts.
The first mile of a marathon is the most overwhelming. Thousands of runners jostle around me, fall back, surge forward. These tiny adjustments of pace and stride which make me bump against a group of women running side-by-side or make others dash up onto the curb to get around me will eventually have the crowd spread thin, will eventually set me on a quiet residential street alone, with no one around to notice as I stagger, double over, and whisper “Help. Me. Help. Me. Help. Me.” But not yet. Right now I am dodging and skirting and checking my watch frantically, trying to keep a rhythm just slightly off-beat from every other rhythm around me. The sound of breathing fills the air.
It’s strange how the tiniest miscalculation will trigger a breakdown. Mine was this: an easy 8-mile run around Decatur, GA over winter break, the mindless tup-tup-tup-tup of shoes on sidewalk, and then, without warning, the right foot did not lift high enough. The body rammed against the concrete. (But pay closer attention — notice what I did not: the body, thrown forward by the left foot, made first impact on the right kneecap, and the momentum released through it like lightning cracking into the earth.) I got up fast, in shock, saw the blood, saw my watch still running, and frantically went back to running. Must not get off pace.
Afterwards I sterilized the wound, and changed the bandages regularly, and monitored the scab, and above all ignored the little bruise-like complaints deep in my joint when I ran in the weeks that followed.
By the end of the first mile (the first mile!) I feel the old bruise grind back into my knee. Oh no, God no. It’s just a dull throb, but I took four Aleve before the start. I have two more tucked in the lining of my shorts. Ignore it. Push it back, deep into the recesses of your brain. Focus, instead, on the musculature of the 4:00 pace team leader.
Through his soft buzz cut I can see muscles in his scalp. Astonishing. I can stare at the curve of his shoulder for at least half a mile, and that will lessen the pain in the right knee. The mental training — learning to compartmentalize pain and movement — is the hardest part.
The first several miles are scenic along the Battery and past Waterfront Park and down King Street and Market Street and through the historic district of colonial homes kept in stately condition by the Daughters of the Confederacy and the Board of Architectural Review. But by mile seven we end up on a highway running parallel to a train track, the areas on either side of us barren, nothing beautiful to distract us and nothing to block the aggressive coastal wind, which is pushing relentlessly against us in its rush from the Atlantic. Only overpasses stained by rainbows of graffiti, yet they somehow make the scene more desolate: “Hugo Was Here,” and two decades later no one has returned. By mile seven the crowd has thinned, but I am still holding close to the pace team. By mile seven I am getting tired.
Water stations are a holy sight: long tables covered in paper cups and a row of volunteers bundled up in scarves and hats, reaching cups out into the flow of runners, chanting “Water first, Gatorade second!” It’s an excuse to shift into a walk for a few yards. Those 10 to 20 steps of walking are miraculous. My legs burn with the grateful pain of relief. I chug the water, let it spill down my chin. I wipe the sweat from my face. I dread pushing my legs back into a run. The transition is what hurts the most. And then I crush my water cup — toss it to the side — steel myself — surge back into a run — because this is the race, and the race stops for no one.
Three more miles go by like this. We are, as a collective, starting to get sick. Track runners pee down their legs while they sprint and vomit at the finish line — it’s an expulsion, a release. Distance runners abuse their digestive systems in ways that hold sickeningly deep within. We are on a carbohydrate overload because glycogen is the fuel we’re burning dry — even still it will not last us the whole race, yet it churns heavy within us. We’re sucking sugary energy gel in a doomed attempt to postpone “the wall.” We’re sloshing water and Gatorade down our throats. With every step we’re pounding our intestines. And our bodies, pushing past their limits in a way that can only signal danger to our instincts, have shut down all systems but those vital to survival, so the digestive tract is locked up, poisoning itself. We feel the clammy sickness kept at bay only by sweating it out. At mile nine I see a girl squatting behind a column of an overpass, shorts down, getting sick. Marathon runners are not the beautiful spirits I once imagined them to be. They are earthy and dirty and smelly, profoundly human.
At times I get stuck behind a cluster and lose the pace team, and then I must push myself into a new pace, pound harder against my aching legs, hitch my breathing up faster, and I catch up. It’s not that hard, not yet. But I am always aware that I am not halfway done, not even close, and the hardest part stretches in front of me as an endless dread.I am terrified of my own looming exhaustion. No, it’s all in your head. One mile at a time. Keep it up. This is the race. But even as I think this, with every step my right knee pounds a little harder, and the bruise feels a little deeper. Everything in me listens to the pain and wants to stop, yet to stop requires decision and action.I simply don’t act, and my body keeps running.
Ten miles. I feel the pain and terror building. This is the race. There is no fixing anything I fail at now. I think of my mother’s texts to me the day before: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me;” “Those who hope in the Lord will run and not be weary.” I try desperately to draw strength from the religion I’ve been neglecting for years, which has felt empty to me. I repeat those verses a few times, hoping they’ll take hold of my muscles and push me forward. But they feel just like words.
At mile 12 we run onto an old shipping dock. We reach the end. We turn around. The wind knocks us like a solid force. Every step is blown back, the stride shortened, the body catching like a sail. My hat is knocked up by the brim and so I bow my head down and charge. This is a fight. I am so tired, but I push my muscles harder, faster, to compensate and keep race pace. Off the dock again, but the wind doesn’t back down. I shout at it, furious: “GODDAMNIT. STOP.” I’m not making sense anymore.
And then: mile 13. The old trigger, from the fall a few weeks ago, which has been pounding a warning in my knee for twelve miles, suddenly snaps. There is a sharp pain that splinters like a shard of wood wedging into the joint. My body jerks sideways. I stagger. “FUCK.” Yet I do not act to stop. My left foot lands, and then I control my right step so it hits square on, and there is only the pounding ache from before. No snap. No splinter. In a matter of miles this sharp pain will jolt me with every step, send me reeling and sobbing, but not yet. Okay. Okay. You’re okay. Keep pushing; keep pace while you feel okay. It will get worse.
After the first sharp pain, I make it about 100 yards before the next. And then 50 more yards. And then, before the end of this mile, mile 13, my knee completely gives way to it and every right step there is the skewer wrenching into my knee tup snap tup snap tup snap tup snap. I am overwhelmed. What do I do? Okay, the pace team. Focus on nothing else but the pace team tup snap ignore it, it’s all a head game, compartmentalize pain and movement tup snap block it out block it out tup snap it’s all in your head tup snap stick with the tup snap pace team snap focus on the snap muscles in his snap head snap tup snap tup SNAP tup SNAP tup SNAP. My God my God, do not forsake me. My God SNAP my God SNAP my God SNAP.
My knee stiffens as it fills with fluid. I can’t stretch it out as long as the stride needs to be without the pain spiking and making me gasp. And I can’t keep up with the pace team if I can’t keep my stride. I begin heaving my leg, using the momentum of its own weight to swing it ahead. I keep up. But I feel myself slipping, and I realize that discipline alone is not enough to carry us. Sometimes something goes wrong with the mechanics of the fight. Something snaps.
But I haven’t lost, not yet. I find rhythm in my new gallop. I can’t ignore the pain, so instead I explore it, relish it, embrace it. This energy takes me two miles farther, and with every step I feel my anguish leaving me, draining away, healing me. But by mile 16, the swelling in my knee has progressed to such a point that I can no longer swing it forward, so every other step is short and slow, and I watch the muscles of the pace team leader surging away in the current of the pace as I falter back. I am losing. The dream which I had been cradling, which had sustained me through all other exhaustions over the months I had been relentlessly training, is running away from me, and I watch it helplessly until a bend in the road sweeps it out of sight.
By mile 18 the pain is blurring my vision and nauseating me. I have eight miles to go. There are some things we cannot do. I look wildly at the runners around me who are somehow oblivious. They, too, are in pain — focusing either very deeply inward or very far away, unable to help anyone else. Somehow we all race the same hard race and never look each other in the eye, never look up from our own tired feet. On the sidelines of mile 18 a woman in a bright yellow “volunteer” windbreaker is chatting with a resident. I migrate to her side of the road, approach her, and as I do I stagger as if my body has been holding out just long enough to be saved, and the grief that has been trailing behind me for two miles catches up and rushes into my chest, and the full weight of what is happening — that it is impossible now to catch up with the pace team, that I have lost — bears down upon my ribs as she says, “Are you okay, honey?” And all I can do is let out a moaning sob and breathe in a wheezing breath and sob again.
“What is it?” She asks, now worried. “Are you injured?”
I nod. “I. My knee. I just. Help.”
“Do you need us to call you a medic?” She’s already snapping her walkie-talkie out of its holster.
“No,” I say, my sobs now shuddering like a child, “I just need a brace or something.” Telling her makes it more real, and I cry some more.
“I don’t have a brace. All I can do is call a medic.”
A medic would waste too much time. “No. No. No. I’m fine. I’m fine.” I turn back to the race. I can keep going for one more mile. And then I will ask for help again. I clench my hands around each other and press hard against my ribs to smother the sobs because I can’t run if I can’t breathe right. I stagger into a painful gallop, ram my fists harder into my ribs, and I find deep within me enough grit to make it one more block, and then one more block, and then one more block. Snap tup snap tup snap.
At mile 19 I run to a police officer.
“Chapel Hill!” he says reading my UNC jersey and not my expression. “Well you sure did make a wrong turn somewhere, didn’t you?” He’s tickled. But then he notices that my leg is moving wrong and my mouth is twisted in pain, and all humor drops. “You alright, darling?” He asks. Here comes the walkie-talkie.
“It’s-my-knee,” I heave. “I-need-a-brace-or-crutches-or-something.”
“I’m calling a medic,” he says, and I panic. A bigger race in a bigger city would have medical stations along the course. I am finally forced to accept that this one does not. Medical assistance, then, means disqualification.
“No,” I say, “No. I can’t do that. I’m fine.” And I gallop from him as he calls after me. My brain is swirling with exhaustion and pain and the bizarre hypnosis of running for hours on end, which seems to blur the distance even as it drags out. I swear that I would rather die than be disqualified, and I mean it. At this point in my overwhelmed state, death does not seem so far off: I understand better than I ever have before what it would feel like for my body to become so exhausted that it shuts down and the whole world disappears.
At mile 21 I find another police officer, this one in a truck — maybe he carries emergency supplies — but this time I am in too much pain to speak. I hobble to him and make a crutching motion with my arms. Surely he understands. I point to my knee. He pulls out his walkie-talkie. I leave him as fast as I can.
At mile 22 I am forced to a dead stop. I stagger to the sidewalk just in time, my vision blacking out, and I double over and clutch my knee, abruptly dizzyingly motionless. If I move a muscle I will collapse to the ground. If my legs are released from my weight, nothing can bring me to stand back up. I hold my knee until my vision clears, and I hear someone ask if I’m okay as he runs past. I straighten back up. Push into a walk. God Almighty it hurts. Push into a jog. God Almighty. Keep going. This is the race.
At mile 23, I am done. There are some things we cannot do. I must stop again, hold my knee again, and when I straighten back up and gaze around me for a volunteer to finally disqualify me, my blood runs cold as I realize that I have passed up all chances for help. I am on a silent residential street. The houses are dark, driveways empty. There is no one in sight besides two or three runners who are blind to everything except the concrete a yard ahead of them. I must walk to find help. I push into a walk. It feels like my knee is splintering. With every step I whisper “Help. Me. Help. Me. Help. Me.” No one hears.
This lasts two blocks. The rhythm of the limp and the sob and the quiet around me are calming. My nerve slowly, miraculously works back up again. I push back into a run. At mile 24, three familiar faces are among a small crowd — Aunt Debby and my two friends — and recognizing them overwhelms me with the realization that I am not alone. “It hurts so bad!” I cry to them, and they scream, “You got this, Em! Keep going! Keep going!” I keep going, fists against my chest again to help me breathe against the sobs.
At mile 25 we run through an industrial park and then a civilian park, both empty except for us. I have found enough strength to be able to pass the people who once passed me. I don’t knowhow. There are no thoughts at this point — no motivation, no rationalization, just numb movement, and I thank God for it. One man notices me run by and starts singing the Tar Heel fight song. “Go to hell, Duke!” I manage to pant at the end, pumping my fist in the air, and I almost smile.
At mile 26 the 4:00 pace team leader stands on the sidelines, looking for his stragglers. He catches my eyes. And then I turn the corner to the last .2 miles, lined with crowds on either side, and I am crying, and it sends them into a refreshed wave of cheering. They are with me. I am not alone. I fight it out every step as I run past them crying, crying, eyes on the finish line, and then it is crossed.
A medal dropped over my head, a water bottle pushed into my hand, a heat sheet wrapped around my shaking body, three voices calling out to me for a picture, and I see them, want to tell them what has happened to me, but there are no words that can encase it, no way for them to ever understand what four hours of broken running does to the human heart. I feel the weight of defeat and of victory at once, and it pushes me to the ground, crouching doubled over with sobs. I close my eyes, try to feel it all. I am brought back to the beginning, back to Drew, who last year, with the help of his two brothers and against all medical logic, heaved himself out of his wheelchair and balanced on shaky legs. I rise back up; lift my fists into the air. The camera snaps and snaps.
I cannot imagine what lies ahead. In this glorious moment, I cannot possibly guess that the very triumph I swore I would die for will end up breaking me down much more painfully than the snapping knee. That with my injury I will be prescribed a month of no running, and that my immobility will cause a toxic anxiety to build up within me. Something gone wrong with the mechanics of the fight. But I know that despite what the marathon has done to me and will do to me, I will run another because it is a part of who I am. Yet it will make me wonder about the cost of victory, if conquering does not destroy us more than surrender — if giving up is not an act of self-preservation after all.
After the pictures: the medical tent. The mat, the stretching, the ice pack.
“On a scale of one to 10, 10 being that you need to go to an emergency room, how bad is your pain right now?”
I consider. Lying on my back, with no weight charging my knee onto concrete, it is bearable. “Six. Seven.”
If it doesn’t get better in a few days, get an MRI, they say. It won’t.
The cup of boiled peanuts. The car ride to my aunt’s house. The Aleve and the ice. The delicate removal of sweat-soaked clothes. The tender motion of the washcloth over the skin. Now cover what happened: pull the leggings on gingerly, apply the mascara, and then:
“Are you up for exploring downtown for a couple of hours before dinner?”
“Yeah, we should go to the market. I’ll get my keys.”
The day goes on.