Between March 2012 and March 2013, almost everything about my daily life changed: my work, the continent I live on, the amount of time I get to spend with my husband, the language I speak to the people around me, the side of the road I drive on.
Since moving to Japan last year, I have changed, too. I’ve pushed all kinds of personal boundaries. I quit my job and am trying to figure out how to make money doing what I love, writing. In my volunteer job, I practice public speaking and financial counseling, two things that used to terrify but I now really enjoy. I eat crap I never thought I would eat. Like a cow diaphragm. I ate a cow diaphragm.
Each new thing I try, and either fail or thrive at, gives me confidence to try out some other new thing. Running a marathon is one example.
Within 60 seconds, I realized I was not an E. I started the race with the E group, which meant everyone around me estimated they would finish running at about the same time. As I ran, I tried to remember what that time was, because whatever I estimated in my application was not happening. My husband and I had made up a finish time for me when we applied for the race six months ago. At that time, I’d never run more than six miles and I think my calculation was something like, “I bet I can run faster than Oprah, but slower than Paul Ryan.”
Most of the advice offered me for my first marathon concerned keeping a slow and steady pace, at least in the beginning. Don’t rush too much. Hold back a little. Don’t start out with an unsustainable speed. People will pass you, and that’s okay. You will pass some of them later.
But what happened in the beginning of the race did not feel right. Everyone was passing me. E’s, F’s, G’s, even the rogue J. Should I have been a J? Should I care?
As the big group of runners snaked its way out of the arena where we started and into the streets of Kyoto, I stopped worrying about being slow. I kept thinking, This is what it feels like to run a marathon. It’s actually happening. My feet are moving and I’m doing it. Later today, I will have run a marathon. I had doubts during my months of training, but as I started out, it didn’t occur to me for a second that I wouldn’t finish.
The feeling I had during the first two kilometers was strangely similar to what I’d feel later as I crossed the finish line. I wasn’t nervous anymore, not even excited, but there was some big, heavy emotion somewhere inside me, and I realized I was about to cry. I looked around and most people were smiling or looked determined. But my chest was tight and as I blinked back tears I realized it was because I felt grateful.
Gratitude, that was what I was feeling.
I thought, I am healthy, and I have two legs and two feet. I live somewhere safe enough where I could train for this, and I had the luxury of enough time to train and travel to this race. I have a husband who runs with me, and motivates me. And he is going to beat me today by at least an hour and a half.
As I started to let myself cry, because I felt like it was more of a waste of energy to actively hold it back, I ran past a high school cheerleading squad who went crazy when they saw me. They reached out into the street to slap my hands, and their enthusiasm cheered me up.
When my husband and I were dating, very early on, he took me on a “hike.” Hike is in quotes here because today I would call it “a very short walk on gravel,” but to me then, it was a hike. I remember being so proud of myself when, on one of our first dates, I told him I didn’t “do things,” meaning physical activity. I don’t know why I would ever admit that. Why would I think laziness would endear me to anyone? He laughed and thought I was exaggerating. I wasn’t. He said, “That’s okay with me.” It wasn’t. He had plans for me. Soon we went on that first hike. Then a bike ride followed by jogging and ultimately a gym membership. Once he even got me into a kayak.
Learning to run was the toughest for me. A lot of times I complained. Once, in the middle of a run that I thought was too hard, I threatened divorce. But after almost every run I was happy to have been pushed. And sorry that I’d yelled so much.
The crowd had not thinned at all. Everyone around me wore very fancy running clothes with matching visors and expensive-looking sneakers. I felt underdressed. Most people had on at least long pants and long sleeves, but I was in shorts and a t-shirt. I was already warm, and I thought I’d really warm up after 26.2 miles. I was almost completely distracted from the task at hand by watching all of the people around me. A few excited runners hammed it up for the crowd and the cameras. We passed homes and small stores, and little boys jumped up and down and yelled at the runners, begging them to come over and give them a high five.
I watched a young blind runner almost fall. He was running with an older man who guided him, each holding one end of a short piece of line to stay together. As they passed me, someone tried to run between them and got stuck on their rope. All three lost their balance and the blind man stumbled and cried out. Other runners stepped in and helped them get going again as I watched. I got emotional again and thought, They worked way harder than me to get here, as they resumed their pace.
During my first few training runs, I’d kept getting faster and faster. I felt stronger, slept better, and I thought I was looking better too. My body, I was pretty sure, would be the major beneficiary of this race and all the work it would take to finish. Then, after a few months, three maybe, I stopped feeling stronger, and I started feeling really tired at the end of the day. In the winter, I had to bribe myself to run. Especially in the rain or in the dark. In my head I repeated, Just do it. Just do it. Just do it. You can eat so much ice cream later.
A man with two prosthetic legs passed me and I watched him for a couple minutes. He slapped every hand on the sideline before he moved out of my sight. I thought about all the people in the military I know, and know of, who’ve lost legs and feet and more, and I wondered if my husband, who is active duty, was thinking about them too. Could I do that? Could I run like him? I found myself saying another thanks to whoever I kept thanking, this time for my husband’s health and for our relationship, and I told myself, Hang on to this feeling after the race. This lesson, not how cute I look in a bathing suit this summer, will be the best thing to come out of this marathon.
During our long training runs, the 14, 16, 18, and 20 miles, my husband, who did all of the same training as me, had beaten me by a lot. He was home, showered, dressed, and making ramen for lunch when I burst through the front door. On those days, I cursed the Japanese tradition (and legal obligation per my lease) of taking shoes off before stepping inside. Blood rushed to my head when I bent over to untie my sneakers. Overheating and thirsty, I’d take one arm out of a shirt, or one leg out of my tights, and then stop for water. I also liked to walk cool-down laps in the living room for a few minutes. So I was a mess, is the picture I’m trying to paint. I would pace the house and wait for my heart to slow down and say, “Can you believe I just did that? I could have stopped, but I didn’t. I just kept going, can you believe that?”
It started to rain. A little rain had been falling for the last 15 minutes, but now the sky really opened up. And it was a cold rain. I had a vague feeling I should have been upset, but I laughed instead because I remembered I was wearing a pink bra and a white shirt. And unless they canceled the race, I was finishing, so why be negative now?
I knew there would be food along the route, but for some reason I assumed it would all be Cliff Bars and maybe fruit. It was not. Random spectators held out baskets of bread and pancakes and mochi snacks, and the race provided bananas, candy, cookies, mochi, and seaweed. I ate everything except the seaweed, because by the time I got to it at 30-something kilometers, my hands were so cold they’d become claws and I couldn’t figure out how to pick up the little pieces.
I tried to keep myself distracted by the people shouting at us from the side of the road. At temples, there were large crowds standing out front, and at a lot of big parking lots, high school cheerleaders or what looked like youth drumming groups preformed. A big portion of the race was along a road up a hill, through some woods and a large tunnel, and then back again, where no spectators were watching. That was boring. But almost everywhere else, people held out food, or signs, or waved from their balconies.
The only shouts I understood were Gambatte! (“Good luck!”) and Fighto! (“Fight!”). Twice, someone yelled encouragement in English. Specifically, “Keep running!” and “You are running great!”
I had started running regularly, and alone, as soon as we moved to Japan. I can’t explain why, since I sort of hated running before we got here. I’m glad I did, though, because I feel like I know my neighborhood, and Japan, better because of these runs.
I know, for example, when a new house is built or a new restaurant opens. I know when the local temple has a festival. I know when the mailman and the milkman and garbageman come. I know the seasons for fishing, seaweed harvesting, and diving. I know how adorable the school uniforms are. As I learn more of the written Japanese language, running also has turned into a reading lesson. Recently I figured out what a sign that I run by four times a week means — Mai Nichi = “Every Day.”
After every training run, except when it was raining, I finished up at my parking spot on the main street, turned a corner to pass my house, and walked up to the beach. In the summer I put my hands in the water and walked down the cement fishing pier. In the winter I just looked at it quickly and walked home. When I leave Japan next year, I think my running memories will always be connected to the beach.
I was soaked from the rain and cold. I’d slowed down a lot, but no one had passed me in a long time and I was still feeling strong. Slow, but strong. The rain hadn’t stopped but I stopped noticing it.
As I rounded the corner for the last half kilometer, the sidelines of the race were full of people cheering. My vision filled with smiling faces of strangers. The temperature had fallen and it was wet — they didn’t need to be there, but I was glad to see them. At the last turn, I saw my husband and heard him yell my name. I’d been waiting for hours to see him.
After the race I waited in a long line to see my husband. Someone put a towel around my shoulders, someone put a medal around my neck, someone helped me take the chip out of my race number because my hands were so cold I can’t make my fingers move. Someone handed me a banana and a pack of deodorant wipes.
Then I was free. And somehow still moving. When I found my husband, he had a towel on his head to block the rain and he grabbed me and brought me under the towel and kissed me.
I thought this would be a proud moment. Instead I felt lucky.