The Marathon Diaries: Reports from the Sideline
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
Christina Erb, here. Here's where we left off: I was debating running a marathon on a bum knee. Thanks, all, for weighing in. I decided not to. But, I still went to support my friend and Outside's assistant managing editor, Ali Troxell, who nabbed her goal. And here's the story:
The night before Nike’s Women Marathon, Ali and I discussed our game day strategy during a carb-heavy dinner at the delicious if not slightly mafia-like North Beach Restaurant. (Read: we ate in the basement surrounded by dozens of hanging salted ham shoulders).
Since my left knee had officially sidelined me from running, we decided I’d skip the starting line and head to mile three to cheer her on and then grab a bus to mile 18 and walk to the finish line. It seemed like a glorious plan.
Trouble is, Nike’s Women Marathon attracts more than 20,000 runners each year and the one thing Ali and I had not discussed was how to spot her. What was her race day outfit, on which side of the road should I stand and what I would be wearing. I couldn’t find her. Not once. I cheered for hundreds of runners at mile three until my throat felt hoarse. I stood in the rain at mile 13 and watched runners stream past. I finally made my way to the finish line. Yet, not once, did I spot her.
I obsessively reloaded her Facebook page on my iPhone to check preset marathon updates that would load at various points in the course. She'd set that up the day before at the Nike expo in Union Square. But they weren't showing up. I worried that she wasn’t running on pace. I worried that she had been injured. I dawdled at the earlier miles, waiting for her to pass by. I hiked back and forth at the finish line, wondering, ‘Where is she?!’
Later on, I found out that the Facebook updates were significantly delayed. And that before her status had updated to mile 21, she had already crossed the finish line and was headed back home on a bus. The girl ran sub 4 hours and I’ve never been so proud of her.
You know what, though? I may have missed Ali’s entire race but I did find my obsession for competition again. Ever since I burnt out from competitive swimming my freshman year in college, I’ve strayed away from competition-based sports. I rock climb. I mountain bike. I take my mutt, Santos, on long hikes up mountainsides, but I haven’t felt that burning desire to hear the gun go off and start charging, edging my way in front of other people, toward a finish line and a win.
Seeing thousands of women, young and old, racing side by side re-awoke that competitive streak in me. It also made me realize that I didn’t waste the better half of the last year training. That instead, it got me in shape to train harder for next year’s marathon. I lost five to ten pounds. My quads turned rock solid. I ran farther than I thought was possible (20 miles) without stopping to catch my breath. I re-entered the yoga world and worked on my core muscles. This time, I’m no longer playing catch up. I’m in the best shape of my life. I’m ready to train.
Yes, part of me regrets my decision to not run the marathon. On my plane ride from Denver to San Francisco, I sat next to a dozen mile-high athletes and well-toned Boulderites who talked about Nike’s Women Marathon with such uncontained glee.
My seatmate gave me a play by play on her training techniques, her carefully picked marathon outfit, as well as her next marathon aspiration. I listened, enviously. I too had spent weeks strategically picking out the perfect sports bra, the very best tank top and the best pair of shorts with just enough pockets to pack five vanilla-flavored GU.
I moped on the plane ride. Ali and I had handpicked the Nike’s Women Marathon, which is one of the largest philanthropic contributors among organized races. It's also chock-full of girl power: firefighters hand out Tiffany necklaces at the finish line! They serve chocolate during the race! Some girls run in hot pink tutus! Very few men run!
And the training was so much fun. Ali and I checked in with each other on a daily basis. We traded training tips. We discussed nutrition and the benefits of quitting coffee. Training got me out of my deliciously warm house at 7 a.m. in the dead of Jackson, WY’s frigid winter to run in ankle-deep snow on the Cache Creek trail.
My mutt, Santos, fell even more in love with me. He jumped up when he saw me put on my Salomon trail runners. He’s always joined my friends and me on our mountaintop hikes, mountain bike rides and backcountry snowboarding trips but now he got to add running and, yes, a bit of moose chasing to his roster.
I moved to Boulder and discovered new trails in the foothills to prepare for San Francisco’s infamous hillsides. I cross-trained by riding my bike across the state of Iowa. I even quit coffee and dairy. And, here I was, surrounded by marathon runners, sidelined by an injury–a bone that had annoyingly decided to get jammed against a nerve.
Those accomplishments have eradicated any sense of loss I felt when I decided to let my knee fully heal. Standing in the freezing rain, watching hundreds of women pass by in tiny tank tops and booty shorts didn’t scare me away. It made me want to run Nike’s Women Marathon in 2011 and prove to myself that I can run 26.2 miles in sub four hours, too.
Watch out, bum knee. It’s on.
— Christina Erb, www.christinaerb.com
[Bottom photo by Susan Goldman, Nike]