Marathon Woman


The alarm wakes me at 5:30 after an up-and-down night, in which at one point I woke up grateful that I had had a nightmare, because that meant I did get some sleep! My husband, Mark, and I came in last night from Long Island and stayed the night at the Manhattan brownstone of my good friend and former Penn classmate, Norma Molitch Deull, ’55CW, so I wouldn’t have to travel so long this morning to reach the starting line of the 1993 New York City Marathon. Norma attaches two-inch-wide adhesive tape reading “GO SALLY” to my midriff and my back. I won’t be anonymous even after I take off my tee shirt, which, in this heat, I know I’ll do early on. I’ll be ready for the cheers of the crowd.

When, as an undergraduate, it came time for me to pass the swimming test that was required for graduation from the University, I was afraid that I might have to follow in the (dry) footsteps of our family friend, M. H. Goldstein. Three decades before me, in the 1920s, M. H., a brilliant student, had failed the test three times. Finally, the swimming coach said, “M. H., I’m going to turn my back, and I’m going to assume that this time you’re going to reach the other end of the pool. When I turn around, I want to see you standing there.” By the time the coach turned around, M. H. was at the other end; he went on to graduate with honors—and to become both an eminent labor lawyer and a loyal alumnus.

I was the same ilk of athlete. I had no problems with writing a paper about themes in twentieth-century American novels or taking an exam in psychological testing, but I dreaded and did miserably at spiking a brown ball over a volleyball net, or lunging with an épée, or sprinting down a field. Which makes it even more astounding to me—and to just about everyone who knows me—that a month and a half after my sixtieth birthday, I found myself at the starting line of the 26.2-mile New York City Marathon. How did this happen? It’s a long story. Fourteen years long, to be exact.

I get to Fort Wadsworth, the starting area in Staten Island, at about 7:45, three hours before the race. From the bus I have a full-length view of the world’s longest urinal, being put to good use by a standing army of (male) runners. Marathon etiquette is in a class by itself. At the portable toilets set up in the women’s area, the lines are long, but the conversations are spirited. Zita and Marcella, 68 and 71 years old, have come over from Italy to run, and they speak hardly any English. I practice my “brutto italiano”; we embrace each other at the starting line and wish each other “buona fortuna.” Throughout the day, I’ll have many more of these intimate moments in a fellowship that cuts through barriers between strangers.

In my mid-forties I was cajoled into running by my athletic friend, Fran. Lured by the promise that a daily jog would counter the mounting consequences of chocolate-chip cookies and mint-chip ice cream, I found myself running two, and then three miles a day. Much to my surprise (and that of most people who knew me), these daily runs became a precious part of my life. They gave me an entirely new view of the world around me and of my place in it.

Aside from the triumph of knowing that determination could win out over minimal athletic ability, I reveled in the bouquet of sensory experiences my morning runs gave me. Before I began to run, I had never seen the sun blaze up through the trees over the little pond below the house where I live and work. Before I ran, I had viewed the rain and the cold from inside as often as possible. I went out in “bad” weather only when I had to. Now I found myself running all year round, in every kind of weather, down to zero degrees. No day was a bad day for running.

The cannon booms, and I want to take off like the cheetah of my fantasies—but the bridge is so crowded that I can barely shuffle along. Within seconds, it seems (my sense of time is askew in my altered state), runners in front of me and next to me open up a space; waves of runners come from behind to pass me. The first mile, over the Verrazano Bridge, is the highest elevation in all five boroughs. I had pored over the route often enough to know this, but I don’t feel the uphill surge at all. I’m moving effortlessly, with the gentle wind at my back and the blue skies above me, looking over at the shimmering water below, at the runners ahead, at the railings on the largest single-suspension bridge in the world.

From time to time people would ask me, “Have you run a marathon?” Invariably I would laugh and say, “No—and I never plan to.” I would fulminate about how 26.2 miles could wreak havoc with knees, backs, ankles, feet—how marathon runners ruined their bodies by putting them through this amazingly grueling test, which stressed bodies as no body was ever meant to be stressed.

But mostly I didn’t expect ever to run a marathon because I was sure that I couldn’t do it. Then one sunny fall day during a 10-kilometer race, an older runner told me, “You really should do a half-marathon. If you can do a 10K, you can do a half.” “No,” I replied, shaking my head. But four years later I did run the 13.1-mile distance—and didn’t die on the spot, which made it a monumental personal success. But a full marathon? No way.

One afternoon a year later, I was trekking through Nepal. For six hours I had been climbing up and down steep rocky paths in the foothills of the Himalayas. I was hotter and more exhausted than I had ever been in my life. My thighs had assumed personalities of their own, begging for mercy. The blisters on both my heels hurt with every uphill step (of which there were more than I care to remember) and the neuroma on my left foot burned on the downhill segments (also more numerous than comfort would dictate). My back ached from my backpack, and my shoulders suffered from sunburn. My heart was beating double-time, and as an added bonus, my head was on fire from the relentless sun. “If I can keep going for another two hours,” I thought, “I can run the New York City Marathon this fall!” I kept going.

When I came back home from Nepal on May 2, 1993, I was astonished to find, clipped into my calendar, a note telling me that the earliest date I could request an application for the New York City Marathon was after midnight on May 18th. I had no memory of receiving the notice, or of clipping it into my book. I was even more astounded to find in my “running” folder articles about “running your first marathon” going back four years! Clearly, this was something I wanted to do, needed to do, was going to do—something I had thought about before last month.

I’m astounded to see some of my fellow runners wearing headphones. Aside from not wanting extra weight or having to deal with any unnecessary distraction, I don’t want to be distracted, I don’t want to run on automatic. I want to be totally here, here in the full richness of every moment. I already feel my body tingling as all my neurons and dendrites, for every sense, reach out to be open to all the sights and sounds and smells that are part of this full day, this crowning even. Halfway over the bridge, just after I pass my first mile (at a surprisingly fast—for me—9:23 minutes), I’m hot; I knew I’d have to take off my purple tee shirt that identifies me as an “OUTRAGEOUS OLDER WOMAN,” but I hadn’t dreamed it would be this soon. As I run, I unpin my number and repin it to my shorts, tuck my shirt into my waistband, feel comfortable running in my running bra—which I’d had to pull out of the summer clothes box when I heard the 70-degree forecast for this mid-November day. And then I’m over the bridge and in Brooklyn, and my second mile is 22 minutes—a major slowdown!

I had trouble answering all the people who asked me “Why are you doing this?” because the decision to run the marathon was an emotional one like falling in love or having a baby. First I used George Mallory’s answer to why he wanted to climb Mount Everest (“Because it is there”). For runners, the Marathon is our Everest.

But there was more for me. Because I was about to celebrate my sixtieth birthday and I wanted to herald this new stage of my life not as a slippery slope of deterioration, but as a new beginning. Because I wanted to confront myself in a way that I’d never been challenged before. Because I wanted to see what I was made of, physically and mentally: What would I do when the going got tough? Could I keep up a mean training schedule? And how would I see through the day itself? Now that I was of an age where I should be well formed, as well as well seasoned, what was my character like, that vital quality defined by the late cardiologist-philosopher-runner Dr. George Sheehan as “the ability to persist in the direction of the greatest resistance”?

I love looking at the backs of runners’ shirts: A handprint and the words “Please, God, push me here”; “In memory of my mom”; “Pain is temporary, pride is forever”; “Go Daddy Go”; “To join the 4-hour-plus club, sign up here”; “Kick me—I gave up football tickets for this”; “Vive la France”; “The determination in your heroic effort will permeate your mind and heart even after your success or failure is long forgotten—Sri Chimnoy.” Names, sentiments, cities, countries, companies, clubs, races—you name it, someone is wearing it.

At 6:00 a.m. on May 19th I mailed in my request for an application. On June 7th, five months before the November 14th running of the New York City Marathon, still not knowing whether or not I’d make it into the magic throng (even with a field of 25,000, some 40,000 wannabes get turned down each year), I signed up for a 10-session training class sponsored by the New York Road Runners Club. Couldn’t hurt to get in better shape, even if I didn’t make it into the Big One.

The first Thursday of class was my granddaughter’s first birthday. I was the only class member old enough to have a conflict between running and grandmothering. We celebrated Anna’s birthday on the weekend.

Early in July I received a fat envelope holding a letter: “Congratulations!! You’re in the 1993 New York City Marathon.” I read it—and gulped. I phoned my friend, Steven F. Gadon, ’54W, with whom I’d kept in sporadic touch since we graduated. Steve, a Philadelphia attorney, had completed nine marathons. After his initial reaction (“I thought you were saner than that!”), he would be a constant source of long-distance encouragement (“Sure, you can do it! Go for it!”) and advice (“Buy new shoes a couple of months before M-day and break them in. Don’t eat anything new on the day. Use Vaseline. Wear polypropylene everything. Do your long runs: your 20-milers”).

Over the summer I upped my weekly long run to 10, then 13, 15, 16 and 18 miles, and I ran two half-marathon races in about 2.5 hours each. But each time I was wrung out when I finished and wondered, “If I feel this way after these runs, how will I ever do 26.2 miles?” I resolved to start out in the marathon, to run as far as I could and if I needed to stop, to take a subway to the finish line where I’d meet my family.

The crowds! The wonderful, blessed people all along the route. The neighborhoods blend into one another—not a melting pot, but a stew of roots—of the ethnic and cultural bloodlines that define New York City. The merengue musicians filling the street, the women with vivid serapes shouting “Mexico! Mexico!” in honor of the men’s front-runner, the Latino and Italian and Irish and Polish names on the stores, the accordionist, the astronomically decibeled rock band, the skirling kilted-and-tartaned bagpipers. In Williamsburg the somber, staring black-suited men and little boys in side curls, the smiling modestly garbed women, the vivacious little girls in long dresses cheering us on.

In September one of my toenails turned blue and another fell off. In October I did a group run of 20 miles in Central Park. I started out with the slowest group (11-minute milers), got separated from them and ran alone for four hours.

Running the serpentine loops in this great city park, I was totally directionless, as if I were in a dreamscape. For much of the time I was in a dream, in an altered state in which my body moved on its own, with no instructions from me. And the running felt so natural. My nonrunning friends had been telling me, “You’re crazy. Running 26 miles is not a normal thing to do. It’s not what the human body was meant to do.” An echo of what I had said myself. But running, using only your body, is far more natural than waving a wood-and-catgut arm extension in search of a wildly spinning ball, or strapping wheels under your feet, or hopping on top of a narrow-wheeled instrument.

Twenty miles! The longest distance on my training schedule, and I did it, with no sequelae besides fatigue and a lone blister. If I can do 20 miles, I can do 26—even though I kept hearing horror stories about “The Wall” that fells the hardiest of runners.

At 10 miles I feel my legs and I ask myself, “Did I really run twice this distance in training?” At 11 miles I think of a short-term goal: in 5 miles I’ll see Mark and Norma in Manhattan near the Queensboro (59th Street) Bridge. Queens goes by in a blur, obscured by thoughts of reaching The Bridge.

This is the bridge that many marathoners consider the true halfway point, the hurdle to be overcome by those staying the course. Uphill, it’s the second- highest elevation of the route; although it’s less than half the height of that first mile, coming at this point in the race, the rise feels like K2. Even with the plush carpeting laid down the length of the bridge, my legs protest, and I do my first walking except for my water stops. Walk 50 steps, run 100; walk 50, run 100; lose track of my counting; walk 100, run 50; walk 100, run 100. Then with a burst of newfound energy, I run, run, run, energized by my desire to come into Manhattan looking alive as I face that roaring wall of spectators.

The day I ran those 20 miles, I took the train home, and when I stepped off at my station, my right foot plunged into a wide trough between train and platform. My left leg bent under me, my knee and shoulder muscles bore the brunt of my special way of disembarking, my right shoulder blazed with pain. I couldn’t get up because I didn’t know what to move first.

I finally made it home, climbed into bed, put ice packs on shoulder and knee, slept for 10 hours, and woke up stiff in body, depressed in spirit. Would this split-second of carelessness cancel out six months of training and keep me home on November 14th?

In bed, blanketed with self-pity, I read in Women Who Run with the Wolves my message: “In fairy tales, when something bad happens it means that something new has to be tried, a new energy has to be introduced, a helper, healer, magic force has to be consulted.”

I called my friend Elise, a physical therapist, my helper and healer. A few days later I made an appointment with a sports medicine orthopedist. And I looked within myself for a new energy, a magic force.

The next week, I found it, inspired by a radio eulogy to Dr. George Sheehan, who had died the day before. The excerpt from his writing seemed written for me to hear at this time on this day: “Through all the pain and not knowing whether I would finish, the dragging out those last terrible miles, I always felt safe. I knew I was surrounded by friends and family and those who would take care of me no matter what happened. And knowing, too, that if I stopped they would say, ‘You gave it your best, George.’ Knowing that whatever I did, I would not disappoint them. There would always be a meal and a soft bed and a good day of running tomorrow.” Yes, I too needed to remember that even if I didn’t even make it to the starting line, my family and friends would love me and take care of me and know that I had done my best. I would know that too.

Once off the bridge I keep swiveling my head, looking for Mark and Norma. I hear “SALLY! SALLY!” and I’m happy not to be going for time and to have the luxury of running over to kiss and hug my friend Marilyn, who shouts out to the immediate world, “This is her first marathon! And she’s sixty!” The Channel 11 newscaster shoves a mike into my face and asks me, “Are you going to finish?” “I think so. I’m just putting one foot in front of the other, doing it one step at a time.” “You’re 60?” “And this is how I’m celebrating my birthday—with the greatest party anyone could have, with all of New York City coming out to celebrate with me!”

And then I’m under the bridge and trotting up First Avenue, where I spot the bouquet of red balloons Norma is holding high. I get my fresh shoes and sit down on the curb to take off the Nikes, damp from spilled cups of water and sprays from hoses held by well-meaning well-wishers, and put on the dry Sauconys, in the hope that the different lasts will rub my feet in different places and minimize the chance of blisters. (I think of Washington Irving’s words: “There is a certain relief in change, even though it is from bad to worse; as I have found in travelling in a stagecoach, that it is often a comfort to shift one’s position and be bruised in a new place.”) Norma, Mark and I kiss and hug, and then I’m running on the sodden mass of wet paper cups carpeting First Avenue.

Two weeks, two orthopedic visits, and three physical therapy sessions after my fall, I was jubilant. The knee was fine, and although the rotator cuff in my shoulder was still inflamed, it didn’t hurt when I ran. And I did not plan to run on my shoulder.

Meanwhile, I asked myself: “What is the gift in my wounding?” Is it that, facing this physical setback in this start of my sixty-first year forces me to think about how I’ll adjust to the inevitable physical reverses of aging ahead? What I’ll do when and if I can’t run any more? If someday, I can’t walk, can’t see, can’t hear? Will I find new outlets for my energy, creativity, life force? Will I use denial creatively—and keep going the way Sheehan did after his cancer was diagnosed? Will I find new compassion for other people held back by disabilities that are much more severe than mine, and turn my attention to them somehow? Will I find a new purpose in life? These questions will remain long after the Marathon, whatever my performance, is only a memory.

At Mile 18, still on First Avenue, my quadriceps are killing me. They hurt every time I come down on my feet with some two or three times my body weight. I walk a few steps, run a few steps, find I’m keeping almost perfect pace with fortyish Tony from Tucson (as advertised on his tee shirt), who is also hurting and walking. In the crowd’s mind we’ve become a couple, as they shout, “Go Sally! Go Tony!”After Tony says, “This is tough,” I say, “Come on, Tony, we’ll go through The Wall together.”But I lose Tony when I stop at a first aid station where a volunteer medic massages my quads. These heaven-sent volunteers dispense Band-Aids, Vaseline, Advil, smiles, encouragement.

By Wednesday before the marathon, I had given up all hope of doing any work until after the big day. Norma went with me to pick up my race number and tee shirt; we stopped in at the Marathon Expo, crowded with thousands of other runners. Every time I thought of the race my stomach did cartwheels. Maybe, I thought, it’s that very edge of nervousness that brings me up as high as I am. If I weren’t nervous, if it weren’t a big deal, if I knew I could put it away easily, it wouldn’t matter so much, wouldn’t be the kind of challenge it is, wouldn’t make the eventual experience such a satisfying triumph.

Mile 19 and my quads still hurt, as do the soles of my feet. I remember what our coach told us in the first running class: “When your body hurts, welcome the pain, the aches, the tiredness. Because you’ll know you’re pushing yourself to do more than you’ve ever done before. And smile, knowing you’re getting a really good workout.” Okay, Sally, you’re getting a really good workout. Mile 20. My previous record for miles run at one time, but now I don’t even think about that. What I do think about is how this is, according to many experienced runners, another half-way point: the site of the famous “Wall,” the distance that, said Dr. Sheehan, distinguishes the “ordinary distance runner” from the marathoner. Why 20 miles? Maybe because, at 20 miles the body has used up its available sugar supplies and has to switch to another form of fuel; maybe this is why spectators offer us Tootsie rolls and hard candies.

“What makes you think you won’t finish?” Elise asked me. What indeed? Was this my protection, my armor against possible disappointment? I was suddenly back in school, worrying about every exam, every paper—even though I usually got an A. I had worried about getting into Penn and had applied to a “safe” school, when not only did I get in, I got a full scholarship. What does all this worrying do for me?

Still, I knew I was not alone. Practically every marathon runner gets jitters before the race. If not, I wouldn’t be reading so many articles about dealing with questions like: “Did I train enough? Did I eat right? Will I wear the right clothes? Will I suddenly break down in the middle of the race? What will hurt first? My shoulder, my knee, my back, my blisters? Will I have to stop?”

Just before Mile 21 I cross the Madison Avenue Bridge into Manhattan. I’m now on the true final stretch, and I know—as I’ve known all along—that I’ll finish. It’s down Fifth Avenue, through Harlem, where knots of women—old, young, fat, thin—are cheering, especially for us women. “Come on, girl, you can do it! Not far now! Almost there! Keep it up! Go, Sally!” The men are cheering too, and an occasional ministerial-looking man or middle-aged woman in church finery smiles in a pleasant, dignified way. A few boom-boxes blare out a beat, and I almost break into dance, as the music puts a new, needed spring into my step. Since my initial troubles at my Wall at Mile 18, I’ve been alternating between feeling so tired and footsore that I have to walk a little—and being fired up with tremendous bursts of energy that send me into cheetah mode. My feet fly, taking me ever closer to that elusive Finish Line.

Saturday, the day before the marathon, I packed my bag. I would be prepared for any eventuality, short of invasions from outer space. I took undershirt, long-sleeved shirt, Lycra tights and mittens in case the weather forecasters were wrong and the temperature would plummet. But just in case they were right I also took running bra, sleeveless shirt, short shorts, and a bandanna to wipe my face and dip in water and put on my head. Plus Kleenex, Vaseline, water bottle, alarm clock, Band-aids, paper surgical tape to wrap my toes to prevent blisters, Second Skin in case the wrapping doesn’t work, Power Bar, extra pair of running shoes, warm-up suit, the book that held my hand during these months of training—The New Competitive Runner’s Handbookby Bob Glover and Pete Schuder.

I also brought my runner’s breakfast, to be eaten before dawn—an orange, a whole-wheat bagel, low-fat cottage cheese, and no-sugar orange marmalade. (I looked as if I was moving in.)

Into Central Park at 102nd Street, where I’ve run so often in class. But when did that hill become so Himalayan? I run up a few yards, slow down to a walk, run a little, walk a little, finally get down past 90th Street and Fifth, where so many of the Road Runners races have started. Familiar territory now, past the back of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, continuing south on often-trod paths. I’ve tried to respond to most of the cheerers shouting my name, with a wave or outflung arms, but even when I don’t, I hope they know how grateful I am. One young woman calls out to me as I near 59th Street, “Come on, you’re almost there! You should be very proud of yourself!” I am. My eyes fill and I almost weep in total joy, but I remember some advice: “Don’t cry—you can’t breathe right when you’re crying!”

The official marathon psychologist told me this morning, “They’re using a new kind of blue paint this year to mark the line along the course. It’s magnetic, so as you run along it, it will pull you up the hills. And, say, you’ll be behind 10–15,000 runners—as they breathe in and out, they’ll be creating a vacuum that will suck you along with them. Remember these.”

And then along 59th Street, taking up half the street this time, not sticking to the sidewalk as in all those training runs. Knots of policemen have been guarding usand cheering us—all along the course. The crowds of spectators know how much we back-of-the-packers need their help, and they give it liberally. Their shouts of encouragement reach a new pitch now that we’re so close.

Past Columbus Circle and up the park drive, where I hear the speaker on the public address system: “If you can hear my voice, you can finish in under six hours. Almost there, just 1/4 mile to go.” And then the glittering lights on the trees creating a fairyland outside Tavern on the Green. And then, and then—the arcing rainbow of balloons over the Finish Line. I can see it! I can make it! New York Road Runners Club president Fred Lebow, who made this race what it is today—probably the best marathon in the world—in the middle of the road shaking hands. Shaking the hands of those of us bringing up the rear. Shaking my hand, as I bring it in in 5 hours, 54 minutes, 29 seconds. Standing in the chute, waiting to move forward, the man in front of me suddenly turns and smiles and enfolds me in an exuberant hug. I pass it on to the woman behind me. A volunteer slides the red-white-and-blue-striped ribbon with its hard-won medal over my head. Another gives me a single scarlet rose (which I accept even though it goes against my feminist philosophy—the men don’t get flowers). And then I go to the white tent where I’ll get food and drink and meet my family. I start to feel light-headed. Could it be from the way I wolfed down an apple, a banana, a can of Gator-Lode, a cup of coffee, another of hot chocolate after not having eaten since dawn? I tried to sit down—but my legs are so stiff that I can’t get down on the ground! It’s easier to stand or pace. It’s even better once I connect with my daughter Dorri and we walk out of the park.

Dorri asked me, “What did you think about all that time, all those hours you were running?” What did I think about? I was never bored. It was like seeing an all-day movie, except that I was the one who was moving, while the other actors and the scenery stood still. I thought about the route, the other runners, how I was feeling, what neighborhoods we were going through, how New York City on this day was a Fantasy, a Utopia, Camelot. How the people in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx—despite the inconvenience of having their streets shut off—were still so warm, so welcoming. How, at a time when racial tensions and ethnic conflicts make the newspapers daily, New Yorkers in all five boroughs cheered us all. How 8,000 volunteers—ranging from little kids offering water, to teenagers cleaning streets, to doctors patching us up—took such generous care of us. How this one day was like the perfect day of all time, when nothing but love and community and caring for each other mattered.

Now that I did it, I know that—as with every significant experience in life—I am altered by it. I have a new respect for my body as a good place to inhabit, a good instrument for insuring my health and fitness. I have a new respect for my mind too, for what it did to transform a devout couch potato into what my medal proclaims is now an athlete. And I have a new sense of my capacity for change. A runner friend of Dorri’s said to me, “I couldn’t run 26 miles.” “I couldn’t either—at your age,” I told him.

This article was published in The Pennsylvania Gazette, May 1994. It received the 1995 Outstanding Article Award for a personal essay from the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

©Sally Wendkos Olds