My first 26

From the time I was about 16 up until now, 28, I’ve had the same three life goals. They were scribbled into journals and notebooks at various points and no. 4 – 100 always changed, depending on my priorities at that time. But the top three have never varied.

Run a marathon.
Write a book.
Get married.

These ambitions have dictated my big choices. If I take this job, maybe I will have time to train. This city may be where I meet the love of my life. Take this leap and it could be a best seller.

I’ve started books, registered for marathons and dated guys that brought the sound of wedding bells but all my attempts have fell short in one way or another and I haven’t been able to cross these off the buck list.

Last November, I completed National Novel Writing Month and wrote a “book” of 50,000 words. I doubt another set eyes will ever see this atrocity, unless I heavily revise it, still I completed the goal. However, I am not crossing it off and altering it to “write a book and publish it.”

The marathon goal is the one that has bugged me the most. I’ve ran since I was 13 and it seems that I should have been able to accomplish this a long time ago. Training was not possible when I was school, working several jobs and going to class, but I had hoped the professional world would lend a more conducive schedule.

My first job, a sports reporter at a daily, did not. I worked such weird hours and was constantly stressed about my next story that I couldn’t bring myself to put on my running shoes.

When I got the 8-5, I was determined to make this work. I signed up for the Twins City Marathon and began the long journey to a thick black line across a life-long goal. The first weeks were great. I created this blog, worked up to nine miles and could envision the finish line.

Then I was approached about creating an online magazine and my energy was re-directed to that project. I moved. I became a commuter. My workweek bumped up to 70 hours. So, in addition to a persisting knee injury, I sat in my South Dakota apartment and cried the day of the marathon.

Then I went to the Peace Corps and I decided I would run a marathon when I returned to the U.S. That return was 20-months ahead of schedule, due to our friends Al Qaeda and security issues, and running was my clutch during one of the most miserable points in my life. A marathon was what I needed, but I had to settle for half because of a coughing fit I picked up in the Sahara that bruised a rib. After the half, I told myself, it was marathon time.

The half, in Fargo, was fine, but not my best effort. I needed a stronger drink and decided to train for an all-women marathon through Spearfish Canyon. The race would give me three months to train and I would be able to knock off this ambition before I returned to the Peace Corps.

The week before the Fargo half, I wrote a three-piece series for the local newspaper about increased releases out of the Oahe Dam. I was working at the paper as a cleanup reporter/editor for extra cash before I returned to Africa. One of the main reporters hadn’t gotten around to this story and asked me to take it on. At the time, May 2011, it was significant but not disrupting to daily life. My editor asked me to do the series before the weekend so that they could run Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday the following week.

I came home from the race ready switch into marathon mode and on Wednesday, the final day of my series, things changed. The releases were going up. Two days later, another announcement of an increase. And then another. The river expanded, pushed people out of their homes for two months and forced another delay on marathon attempt.

I hadn’t considered running a race in Lesotho, although it makes good sense. The only food consistently available is carbs and I have plenty of time. I ran a few times a week during training and at my site, but it wasn’t until last April, when other PCVs traveled to Cape Town for the Two Oceans, that I decided I was going to compete.

Ideally, I would do a marathon. The half didn’t interest me but the Two Oceans doesn’t have a marathon. There are trail runs, a half and an ultra. The ultra it was.

When I started training, I hadn’t run further than 13 miles ever and nine in Lesotho. Many people gave me, “Umm, OK” looks when I announced my ultra plans and confessed that I had never done a marathon. I found this detail irrelevant.

Slowly, my long runs got longer. 11 miles. 13. 15. 17. 18. 20. 23.

Pride came with each new distance. My legs were getting stronger and my confidence deeper. I knew at some point, while training for 34, I had to do a 26-mile training run.

I dreamed about my first marathon the way people do about weddings. My family would be there. It would be in some big city with bands and people in costumes along the route. I would likely wear pink. There would be a beer afterwards and piles of cheese.

Today, I ran my first marathon. There were no big crowds, rock ‘n’ roll bands, pink jerseys or a Heather Mangan Cheering Section. It was just me and the rolling hills of Lesotho.

The day before I was a bear at school. We usually close at 1 p.m. on Fridays and I had planned to go home, take a nap, lay out my stuff for the morning and stretch intensively. Well, we ended up keeping the kids later to clean up for a big festival next week and then fed them. I was more than annoyed, mostly because of nerves for this run rather than what was happening, and I finally just had to leave. I napped, stretched, carbo-loaded and was in bed by 8:30 p.m.

My alarm sounded at 3:30 a.m. and I groggily put together a breakfast of bread, peanut butter, banana and honey then feel back asleep. At five, I woke up to stretch, lube up and mentally prepare myself.

Before the sun was over the mountains, I was running. I traveled down the dirt road for 3.5 K, and then took a left toward the mountains. The kilometers are marked along the main road, which I join at no. 12, and I ran till 17, right as the foothills become the mountains. I ran back to 12 and then turned toward 17 again. I refilled my water bottle at the lodge just beyond the marker and let go of my pack so I could have a lighter 10 K. It helped because I ran the first half a good minute above race pace, which was not at all smart but gave me some reassurance because the rest of the run was slow.

When I hit 12 for the second time, I was at 24 K and had run up 10 hills of varying inclines. Another pit stop and I continued along. From marker 12 to 4, it’s a rollercoaster of rolling hills. A few down hills, but mostly up. It’s great for the return, but this is where my mental game was tested. I wanted to quit. I dreamed of hoping on a taxi using the money I always carry in case of emergency and ending this. But I didn’t. My pace slowed to a crawl, but I kept going.

My attitude boosted when I turned at 4 and then at 5 when I realized I only had 10 K left. Because I run in Vibram Five Fingers and there are large rocks scattered everywhere, my feet were throbbing. “Let them hurt,” I kept telling myself. “Be friends with pain.” My legs were actually OK, but it was now into mid-day and the heat was relentless.

Besides the hills, running in a foreign country can be daunting. People often stop to stare at me, usually with their mouth agape. Sometimes children join me, which is not as adorable as one would think because you are tired and they can outrun you without shoes. They also often ask for sweets. Plus, the cars zoom pass at dangerous speeds and many drivers disregard lanes. I nearly cried when a taxi got a little too close for comfort. Everyone wants to know where I am going or where I come from and sometimes, although it makes me feel guilty, I have to blast my music and drown them out.

The Ks ticked off slowly. I decided to devote a kilometer to people I love, including my best friends, everyone in my Peace Corps training group and my family. For the kilometers with big hills, I chose those who have incredible strength and tried to foster that as I trudged up.

Finally, I was able to turn back on to my road, which can be tough because the rocks are absolutely unforgiving to worn feet. My parents were my last two motivators and I envisioned them cheering me on.

I made up the slight incline and was at 42 K, or 26 miles, a full marathon. But I had one K left – dedicated to me. I thought about my previous marathon attempts and the fact that my ultimate goal is actually 34 miles. I thought about the girl who cried herself to sleep because she hated her body so much. But mostly, I just said, “Keep going.”

And then I finished. I nearly toppled over but was able to move my shaking legs back to my house (I always finish at the main part of the village and then walk home to cool down.) When I got there, I fell to the cold cement floor and thought, “People who run ultras are stupid.” It was several minutes before I could move and stretch. Usually I am ravished after a run, but this time I sucked down some Gatorade, took a bath and fell asleep.

My legs don’t hurt nearly as much as I expected, the biggest pain coming from chaffing. I still don’t have much of an appetite but plan to have a hearty dinner. And I am still not convinced I actually ran 26 miles today.

But I did. I ran a marathon, full of hills and uneven terrain. It was not glorious, but I was still triumphant. There were moments when I wanted to quick, or even just walk, but I didn’t. I grabbed myself by the shoulders and said, “You are going to do this. You will not quit.”

My training schedule calls for a 28 or 29 miler in two weeks and then I taper. My long runs are still too slow to be able to complete the ultra in the allotted time of seven hours. Yet, I am not worried. When I practice my goal paces, I am hitting the numbers, sometimes 30 seconds faster. There are not nearly as many hills as what I train on and I will be at a much lower elevation. Plus, I will be racing and thriving off adrenaline.

But the race is still six weeks away. Today’s celebration is a marathon. I didn’t envision my first to be lackluster and in rural Africa, but maybe this was the perfect setting. It was still 26 and maybe more honest than if I was racing. What is kind of satisfying is that I don’t stop here, I keep going and pushing myself to a further limit. So, I am not going to cross off a marathon until the world ultra is in front of it.

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