My typical route, which I run about three times per week, is between 5 and 6 miles. I head down the street to the National Mall and turn west toward the Potomac River. There are always other runners, and a variable amount of tourists, depending on the time of year and what’s happening on the Mall. I pass the Washington Monument (still under renovation from the earthquake in 2012), the World War II Memorial, and the Reflecting Pool. Some mornings, I’ll climb the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial and pause to watch the sun rise over the Capitol. Occasionally, I’ll stand on the same spot where Martin Luther King, Jr. stood and gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. More often, I’ll simply run around the Lincoln Memorial and retrace my steps back home.
In September 2012, without otherwise deviating from this routine, I decided to try a half-marathon to see what it felt like and whether I could make it. I made it, and didn’t feel too bad. Since then, I’d gone on a couple of 9-milers, and those also felt pretty good. A significantly longer run appealed to me, and I wanted to really push myself.
On a warm Friday evening last month, I had just finished my first week at a new job and was enjoying a taco and beer with some friends. Among them was Carl, a much faster, longer and more devoted runner. I casually mentioned to him that I was considering a long run the next day, around 20 miles. Being familiar with my routine, he was surprised.
I woke up at 9am on the next morning, checked the weather, saw that it would be getting fairly warm later, and decided to get started quickly my run. I drank a glass of water, grabbed my keys and iPhone, and did some stretching before heading out. As I jogged along the familiar path of my usual route, I kept my pace very slow in the hope that I could sustain it over a several miles. Instead of rounding the Lincoln Memorial, I kept going across the Memorial Bridge and entered Virginia.
At this point, some four miles in, I started considering the logistics of my route and how far I was really going to run. My body felt fine, and when I thought about 20 miles, I couldn’t help but feel that, if I was going that far, I might as well run a marathon. In calculating my out-and-back route, I nonchalantly prepared myself only for the distance out, assuming that the distance back would sort of take care of itself. After all, I had no choice but to get home, right?
Once over the Memorial Bridge and out of the District of Columbia, I had hopped over a battered fence and joined the Mount Vernon Trail, which soon became the Custis Trail, and headed toward Falls Church. It was on that trail, full of cyclists on a sunny Saturday morning, that I decided to try to finish the marathon, and the resolution that I felt in that moment stayed with me. I was at Mile 7.
The Custis Trail joined the Washington and Old Dominion Trail, which went missing in Banneker Park. I managed to find signs and ran on suburban streets for a couple of blocks before joining the trail again, passing a power station that buzzed audibly with electricity. Music was a comfort, and I allowed my entire library to shuffle randomly, which has resulted in an enduring synesthetic association with profound exhaustion for many songs in my collection. I turned around after 13.5 miles, almost at the Capital Beltway, and started back.
I flagged, of course, and slowed with heat and fatigue. There were quite a few hills, which proved slow going both up and down. My legs became painful and cramped, and I stopped at each of the few water fountains I passed. Even my shoulders and arms, kept in a crooked position to hold my keys and phone, grew extremely sore and required stretching as I ran. Back in Rosslyn (Mile 22), I opted to take the Key Bridge and run through Georgetown because I didn’t trust my legs to hop the fence again.
I badly needed water. Georgetown proved a disaster in that respect, with not a single water fountain to be found along the boardwalk by the river. It seemed intentional, designed to make people buy plastic bottles of mineral water, and I still haven’t forgiven the neighborhood. I pushed on toward the familiar territory around the Lincoln Memorial, where I knew there was a water fountain.
After reaching it (Mile 24), I wisely started listening to my body. There was no sweat on my forehead, despite the heat, because I was too dehydrated. It was lunch time and I hadn’t eaten since dinner the night before. I was dizzy and struggling to focus. I wanted only to lie down in the grass and sleep. I felt dangerously giddy.
At the same time, I possessed an incredibly deep understanding of my body, and a kind of elation in finding my physical limit, and how far I had pushed it. My friend John, in talking about his marathon experience, said “I felt more connected to my primitive impulses than I had ever experienced before…I had no filter that was keeping me from crying, so my eyes just started leaking.”
I walked two slow miles, my head gradually clearing. Most of the water fountains were out of order, but I drank at the ones that weren’t. For the last quarter mile, I managed a slow trot across my imaginary finish line, then walked a few more blocks home. I drank a glass of water, drank a fruit smoothie with two bananas, ate leftover pizza, a sandwich and a pint of ice cream. Then I slept for three hours.
I finished my marathon in 4 hours 22 minutes and 41 seconds.
Did I underestimate the difficulty and distance? Of course, though I’d guess that most first time marathoners do the same, whether or not they train for it. I would have certainly done some things different, like eating breakfast, starting earlier, carrying water and not holding anything in my hands. It was difficult to walk for a few days afterward due to tendonitis in my left foot, and it was a couple of weeks before it fully healed, but I was lucky to avoid worse. I am happy that I did it, and believe I’ll do it again. This time, I think I’ll train for it first.