When I was signed up for my first marathon, I was not a runner. I had run places, but mostly because I was being chased or was late for something — I most certainly was not running for three or four hours consecutively, slamming weird protein packs and making sure my nipples weren’t chaffing.
My step-father loved running marathons and my mom thought it would be a great birthday gift to surprise him with a trip to Paris — where I was going to college — and run the marathon with me. This was pitched as an opportunity to “bond” and “grow together” and before I knew it, his birthday gift had turned into a twenty six mile ordeal for me. Never one to back down from a challenge, my twenty year-old self figured if my not particularly fit stepfather could complete multiple marathons with a sizable gut in tow, then I could surely finish one. How hard could it be?
As I only had a couple months before the race, I began training right away, which for me meant also learning how to run. Not completely sure what I was doing, I started going on gradually longer jogs around the city. I ran through parks, around monuments and past confused Parisians, who blew clouds of Gauloise smoke in my direction, signaling their bemused displeasure at my garish American display of exercise. This was before smartphones and watches began tracking our every move, so I had no idea how many miles I was covering, instead measuring my progress by the time spent out of my tiny apartment. First twenty minutes, then forty, soon an hour and eventually — incredibly — two plus hours running and sweating and cursing the idea of birthdays and how long was a marathon supposed to take, anyway?
My stepfather instructed me to focus on two things: being properly hydrated and overcoming the “wall” most runners hit around mile 18; the moment your body decides it has had enough and your brain needs to take over, somehow convincing your feet to keep moving forward. Oh please Humpty-Dumpty, I thought, I’m twenty — I‘ll be fiiiiiine.
The morning of the marathon I drank my bodyweight in water before crossing the start line, which resulted in spending the first hour of the race popping in and out of port-o-pottys, between cars and down alleys, attempting to run with what felt like the bladder of a pregnant woman. Once I had marked the entire city of Paris like a bald Cocker Spaniel, I was able to relax and enjoy myself, weaving through this incredible place I was somehow lucky enough to call home. I didn’t need any protein packs, my nipples weren’t chaffing and whatever “wall” everyone had talked about clearly wasn’t going to be an issue.
We were somewhere in a park just outside the city when I slammed into it, stopping to grab a water and realizing my body was all set with this whole running thing. This is a beautiful park. Let’s just stay here. Forever. My stepfather walked with me for a bit, offering words of encouragement and a steadying presence, and slowly my brain talked my legs into running again, mostly by playing on my ego. If this old and bulbous guy can keep going, then your young ass has no excuse.
We eventually finished that marathon, and I’ve been a runner ever since. I’ve come up against multiple walls — both in running and in life — and have had to talk myself around or through each one. And the good news is while these pep talks used to rely solely on ego and shame, the more walls you break through, the easier it becomes to find the strength you had all along. And the best news? My nipples have never, ever chaffed.