I said it, but I wasn’t sure I believed it: “I’m running the Marine Corps Marathon.”
I’m not an impulsive person, so when I shared this news with my father, a former marathoner himself, he probably thought I was as unsure as I sounded to myself. It wasn’t so much the fact that I had never run a marathon before or even expressed a desire to run one. I had four half-marathons and countless other shorter races logged in my running book. Under normal circumstances, I could get myself in marathon condition in the 7 months between registration day and race day.
The problem wasn’t my fitness capabilities. The problem was that those 7 months weren’t going to fall under the category of “normal circumstances.” During that time I had another marathon to get through – one that would require most of the focus, energy, and mental strength I possessed to ensure I’d still be standing at the finish line.
That marathon was my divorce.
When I decided to run the race my husband and I had been legally separated for several months. We still had a long road ahead before the divorce would be final. I hadn’t shared the news with most of my friends and even some of my family. I had no idea where I was going to live or if I’d be able to support myself. Just hearing the word “divorce” was enough to bring me to tears. I probably didn’t need to add marathon training to my to-do list.
While my father the runner told me to go for it, my mother suggested that maybe I already had more than enough on my plate. Torn between my dad’s endorsement and my mom’s trepidation, I decided to leave it in the hands of the gods of registration.
The Marine Corps Marathon is the third largest marathon in the country, and in 2012 the race filled its 30,000 runner limit on registration day in less than 3 hours. The chances that I’d be one of those lucky runners to get in were slim.
Thirty minutes after the online registration opened, I had yet to make it past anything other than a “try again later” message. By the hour mark, other hopeful runners were voicing angry complaints on the marathon Facebook page about the website crashing and how technical difficulties were ruining their running dreams. I had managed to get through to the registration form a half a dozen times, but each time I was knocked off before I could fill in my information.
I had been clicking the refresh button for an hour and six minutes on two different computers when, finally, my registration form was accepted. In a record 2 hours and 27 minutes, the 2013 Marine Corps Marathon reached its 30,000 registrant limit, and I was one of them.
The marathon took place at the end of October, a month after my divorce was supposed to be final. The timing felt poetic. Completing the marathon would be my closure, the official celebration of my new independence and my hard-fought journey to a sense of self, happiness, and forward movement. It would also serve as my graceful exit from my life as a military spouse, a way to show my pride and gratitude to the military community I deeply respected.
My seven months of marathon training were time consuming and physically demanding, even punishing at times. For all of my running experience, I’d never logged as many miles week after week. I started the process relatively out of shape, thanks to the stresses that led to the separation agreement. My mental and emotional endurance were lacking. As the weeks passed, I struggled with physical aches as well as emotional beatings rendered by major life transitions like losing the familiarity of my home by moving out and adjusting to a co-parenting schedule that accommodated the new reality of two households as well as my husband’s latest military assignment that took him out of town during the work week.
There were days I flew through 12-mile runs, finishing with a bursting feeling of invincibility that I could conquer anything. Other days I barely managed 6 miles, relieved to press the stop button on my Garmin as I fought collapsing after an hour of being trapped inside my own head.
Some days I relied on my training partner, who understood the stress I was under but also pushed me to bank on the good days and muddle through the bad. I couldn’t hide under my pillow on long run days because I knew he would be banging on my front door until I laced up my running shoes. Other days I ran alone, leaning on the playlists on my iPod for the support it took to keep going.
Race day finally arrived (in spite of a government shutdown that a threatened to cancel it because the course went through several national parks). I was no stranger to running races, but standing at the start line of the Marine Corps Marathon was unlike anything I had experienced before.
The crowd buzzed with nervous anticipation as strangers told tales of past accomplishments, wished each other luck, and attempted last-minute stretching. Uniformed Marines were everywhere, double checking race bibs, collecting runners’ “throw-away" clothes in trash bags, and offering high-fives. I soaked in the energy that surrounded me, and just when I thought I couldn’t wait one more second to start moving, I heard the howitzer fire, signaling the start of the race.
The crowd collectively inched toward the arch that marked the official start line. I took my first marathon steps walking, then jogging. Soon I was off and running, weaving my way into a space of my own and finding my rhythm, not unlike the path I had traveled from day one of my separation to these last days leading up to the divorce.
I ran past monuments and national landmarks. I posted photos on Facebook to share my progress with friends and gather virtual support. When I needed an extra push, I took out my earbuds and let the cheering bystanders carry me until I fell into my groove again. When I hit a mental wall at mile 17, I called a friend. And as I thanked the Marines who handed me cups of water throughout the race and cheered me on as I climbed that last hill before rounding the bend to the final stretch, I realized that I would truly miss being a part of the military world, but the lessons I learned and the experiences I gained will always be a part of me.
I finished after 4 hours, 48 minutes and 59 seconds. At the finish line, I was embraced by co-workers, friends, and family – my support team, the people who had both made the effort to watch me race and answered every late night phone call, weathering my tears and rants, listening when appropriate and giving advice and tough love when required.
Twenty-six days after the race my divorce was final. As I stood watching a judge sign the document that ended my marriage I was reminded of how I felt at the end of the Marine Corps Marathon. I was grateful that moment felt familiar. If it hadn’t I’m sure I would have lost my composure, something I’d later regret.
The Marine Corps Marathon kept me from indulging those inner voices who nagged at me to yield to the stress of divorce in non-productive ways. Running prevented me from succumbing to depression. It got me out of bed in the morning. It improved my mental tenacity. It kept me from drowning my sorrows in cartons of Ben and Jerry’s and glasses of wine. It gave me something from which to draw strength and confidence. It reminded me I have a lot of life left to live and that I might just be able to live it happily if I try.
My divorce challenges aren’t over and I don’t expect they will be for quite awhile. But on more challenging days, I’ll remind myself that I ran the Marine Corps Marathon.
And that should keep me standing.