Today marks my first day of rest since officially embarking on training for the Philadelphia Marathon in November. I ran five of the last six days, in soul-crushing heat and humidity. Mercifully, I had a great running companion at my side for Saturday’s grueling 8.5 miles. I’m delighting in my day off, but my mind remains focused on the 17 weeks ahead. I’m proud of myself for getting out there every morning this past week, but know better than to pat myself on the back too vigorously at this early stage. There are countless miles to go, literally and figuratively.
At the start of this berserk challenge, I can’t help but think back on my four months of chemotherapy for stage III ovarian cancer. Then, it was the bleakest of the bleak mid-winter. The days were relentlessly gray and cold. It rained forever. The sun, it seemed, had gone into extended hiding, as if it had no business shining on my fight.
Those black days were the beginning of a very different kind of marathon. My husband, hoping to gain some measure of control over a situation that seemed otherwise completely beyond any, printed out a stack of calendar pages, each one marking a week in the epic journey on which I was about to embark. Pages to keep track of my seemingly endless medications, pages to mark time, to give us some measure, some way to feel that we were moving toward something – health, cure? – and moving away from something else – death? In such moments, any small means of taking an active roll in your fight, doing something to push back against a seemingly invincible foe, must be embraced. Any tool at your disposal feels like a lifeline.
In anticipation of beginning training, I memorialized my running schedule on our family’s master calendar. Each day is marked with the number of miles I must run – or as a blissful “rest day.” As I plugged in the numbers, as they climbed up and up and up – 20 miles??? I am supposed to run 20 miles???? – I felt my heart begin to sink a bit. I thought not so much “I can’t do this,” as I did, “This is insane, and could prove incredibly difficult. I can only hope I am really up for this.”
Until that moment, I’d been in a state of excited ignorance about the rigors of marathon training. I was just so unabashedly fired up at the prospect of running my first 26.2. After all, I’d run five half marathons in the last two years, the most recent being my strongest by far. How could I not be ready for this? I’d also enlisted two friends to run with me, and I had their enthusiasm to bolster me. Wasn’t this just going to be a four month long psych-fest, as I shared virtual fist-bumps with my friend training in Denver, and actual fist-bumps with my local running partners? Wouldn’t we meet at the starting line in mid-November, lean and limber and as ready as humanly possible to rock 26.2 miles?
Well, much of this remains to be seen, but now that the reality of training is upon me, and the extreme heat of mid-summer is roasting our bodies and brains, I am prepared to acknowledge the arduousness of what I am setting out to do. It’s going to take all of me – discipline, a relentless focus, an unwillingness to quit when things get hard, a good few aches and pains, and probably no small amount of tears. Not unlike a certain bleak four-month stretch all those years ago.
When I started my treatment for Stage III ovarian cancer, my oncologist told me, with grim honesty, that the treatment was grueling, and would have a significant impact on my “quality of life.” (Who, at the age of 35, ever expects to hear those words, or even understands what they mean?) She also told me that some people find the treatment too taxing, and decide not to complete the prescribed six rounds of chemo. It never dawned on me that I wouldn’t undergo all six rounds of treatment, even as things grew harder as the months wore on, as my stamina flagged and my heart sank further into blackness. Quitting was never an option. I wanted to live.
Today, I want to run. I want to run 26.2 miles through my beloved city. I want to run for the friends I have lost to this wretched disease, and with the friends who have cheered and loved me through my trip to the brink and back again. Every stride will be a reminder of both how far I have come, and of a journey that will never end.