The Making of a Marathoner


I never had a desire to run a marathon.

But one December day last year, I changed my mind.

Up until then, I had been a very content “fun run” participant, running in road races such as Wharf to Wharf, a scenic 6.2-mile run from Santa Cruz to Capitola, and Run to Feed the Hungry, a Thanksgiving Day jaunt around East Sacramento and midtown. I also was (and continue to be) a gym rat—averaging five to six days a week.

But I was looking for a challenge, something new to focus my attention on. In deciding to run a marathon, I was attracted to the idea of doing something less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the world’s population has done, of taking my fitness level up a few notches and, perhaps more importantly, of learning about myself through challenges both physical and mental. If I proved to myself that I could push my body to the limit and have it bounce back even stronger, I reasoned, then maybe it would spill over into other areas of my life. As an editor and writer for Sacramento magazine,  I also would be writing about my experience.

Six months later, on June 6, 2004—a month and two days after my 35th birthday—I ran the Suzuki Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon in San Diego as part of the American Stroke Association’s Team Sacramento.

Training for a marathon requires more specialized knowledge than training for a  10K, so I wanted to align myself with experts—coaches, nutrition and fitness professionals—to help make this a healthy and successful experience. As a means of fund-raising, nonprofits such as the American Stroke Association—a division of the American Heart Association—offer marathon training programs to runners and walkers; the ASA’s is Train To End Stroke. The deal: You raise money for the organization, and ASA provides you with professional coaches; a detailed training schedule; and health, fitness and apparel seminars. The organization also arranges and pays for travel—Hawaii, Phoenix and San Diego are frequent TTES marathon destinations—including a hotel, and pre- and post-marathon group dinners. Perhaps most important of all, TTES staff members and coaches are with you at weekly training sessions and at the marathon itself, providing encouragement, aid, even a running partner if needed. For spring 2004, TTES trained more than 100 participants for the San Diego marathon on June 6, the one I chose to do.

Jan. 24: I drive to the kick-off meeting at American River College gymnasium at 7:30 on a cold, rainy Saturday morning. What have I gotten myself into, I wonder. It’s the middle of winter. I could soon be running long mileage on days like this one. Upon arrival, Train To End Stroke staff members and volunteers greet me warmly.

Jan. 27: Health Fitness Consultant Ellen Karpay-Brody presents a seminar on fitness. For motivation, she gives us “Mind Refreshments for Exercise,” which include reciting an affirmation for every letter of the alphabet: “I am alive. I am blessed. I am creative”; giving thanks to your body parts for the functions they provide: “Brain allows me to think, lungs allow me to breathe”; focusing on a loved one, an enjoyable experience, a favorite song; etc. Hmm . . . I wonder how I can apply these “refreshments” to other areas of my life in moments of stress and anxiety.

I befriend Bill, a fellow runner; his father passed away from a stroke. Bill’s chosen to do the San Diego marathon because it falls on what would have been his dad’s 89th birthday.

Like Bill’s, my decision to train with and raise money for the American Stroke Association was because of personal ties to two stroke survivors. They became my stroke heroes—people in whose honor I ran. The first is my father, a guiding force in my life who has seen me through careers shifts and graduate school. While Dad’s strokes were relatively minor, he’s also battled heart problems and survived a four-way bypass and mitral valve replacement surgery at age 76. My second stroke hero is Tom Eblen, my graduate school journalism instructor at the University of Kansas. Tom’s gentle guidance when I took his hands-on copy-editing course influences me to this day. I think of Tom every time I catch myself instinctively proofreading a billboard or a menu, every time I flinch at horribly mangled punctuation and every time I read brilliant newspaper headlines because I know firsthand how difficult they are to write in the space provided. I believe research on the part of both the Stroke Association and Heart Association is a big reason both of these men are alive today.

Jan. 31: Our first of several 7 a.m. Saturday trainings. This one is four miles. It’s chilly out, overcast and drizzly, and I soon learn that the green fleece jacket and sweat pants that got me through a 10K will cause me to chafe and be too warm once I hit high mileage. I see Bill, along with his friend Linda, who also is training for the marathon. Lori, director for Sacramento’s TTES program, so vivacious and bubbly, welcomes us to our first Saturday of training. Team Coach Jeff, soft-spoken by nature, takes the bullhorn. “Good morning, everybody! Thanks for coming out. You guys are awesome!” I exchange smiles and hellos with other participants, but much like the first day of school, we are all just checking out the scene.

Feb. 20: I receive my first donation—a mere two days after I mailed my first round of letters requesting donations! It’s for $131—much more than I ever expected. I wonder if this is going to be the norm or just a pleasant exception.

Feb. 21: Prior to today, the most I had run at one time was 7.2 miles—a 12K. Yet today I ran 10 miles—and without enough sleep. Running with these hundred or so people and cheering each other on is truly one of the best experiences of my life. I’m not even a month into this program and I’ve already started to develop acquaintances, preludes to friendship perhaps, with others on the team: marathon veteran Lisa, who is somewhat of a big sister to me out on the trail; team mentors and fellow runners Bill, Tony, Jennifer and Diana, who encourage—and commiserate—when needed; faster runners Erika and Joyce, who let me know the turnaround point “is just up ahead”; power walkers Paulette, Bill and Linda, who provide encouragement when we pass each other on the trail; fellow first-timers Carissa, Alison and Debra, with whom I exchange nonverbal “we’re going to get this done, girls” messages via nods and hints of smiles; our team’s honorary hero, Patty, a stroke survivor, who drives up every weekend from Napa with her husband, Conrad—both training for upcoming marathons: Patty, Hawaii; Conrad, San Diego.

Feb. 24: My left Achilles tendon has been sore for five days now. I don’t notice it when I am running, but it starts afterward and seems to be exacerbated whenever I wear any shoe with a high heel, such as my beloved black boots. I hope this isn’t a sign of something serious. I hope this doesn’t prevent me from running this marathon. I debate whether I should see a doctor but am afraid he’ll tell me not to run. I think back to 1996 when a stress fracture on my left foot, due in part to improperly fitting running shoes, had me limping about for two months.

Feb. 28: I try my first “energy gel”—a raspberry sorbet-flavored Clif Shot—a little more than halfway into my 12-mile run. Coach Michelle has been drumming into us the importance of taking energy gels, or some kind of nutrition, since Week 2 when we were running only six miles. Although I certainly don’t want to “bonk,” the term for going too long without nutrition and suffering an extreme energy deficit on the trail, I know people who had negative reactions—including nausea and vomiting—to these gels.

Not too bad. To my surprise, I like it. I laugh to myself at the way I gulp it down. No negative reaction.
Ah, I’m over that hurdle.

March 12: This morning at the gym, my physical therapist friend, Jason, asks how my Achilles is feeling. When I tell him it’s been recommended that I get a few sports massages, he seems skeptical, worried that I am only dealing with the symptoms, not the problem. “It’s like changing the transmission, when the problem is the tires,” he says. I realize I’ve tried to ignore this problem for long enough, and I sign up to attend a free consultation he’s offering a week from Saturday. If I decide to retain him as a practitioner, I will be paying out of pocket. But if the results are a healthy body and the ability to run the marathon, I will consider it money well spent.

March 22: Now my knees are starting to hurt, too. The pain is not bad, but it concerns me. After our 20-minute consult on Saturday, Jason suspects I’m suffering from a limited range of motion in my left ankle but that the larger problem stems from the way my pelvis shifts when I walk. So, when I call him and tell him of my latest malady, he assures me that my knee pain, like my Achilles, is normal, and the lack of inflection in his voice while telling me this—like he’s just been waiting for these symptoms to crop up, so common are they—puts me at ease. I need someone like Jason to assure me my ailments are fixable.

Others are less reassuring. My dad urges me to use caution. “You have a full life ahead of you. Don’t ruin it by injuring yourself permanently,” he warns. “What’s Plan B, El?” magazine publisher Michael O’Brien, a four-time marathoner himself, asks one day, spying my ice pack-wrapped ankle (I’ve been icing my ankle at least once a day, as instructed by both Coach Jeff and Jason) and wondering if I’ll be up for running the San Diego marathon. I tell him I do not have a Plan B. This is it. I am doing this marathon. On June 6. I am committed—and maybe a tad stubborn. Sore Achilles and all, the good outweighs the bad. If I could bottle up and sell the high I get from running these long miles on these painfully early yet tranquil Saturday mornings, I would surely eradicate the illegal drug trade. With each passing mile, I feel stronger, healthier, more vibrant. These feelings reverberate off the trail. It’s like I am simply having more fun in life.

March 27: Ellen warned us there would be peaks and valleys during training. I wonder today if I am entering a valley. A 15-mile day, this is the first one where I thought, “This hurts!” The first 11 miles are fine, the final four brutal. I feel slightly nauseated, crampy. I replay the morning in my mind: Did I take my energy gel too close to my Gatorade? Did I not hydrate enough the first half of the run? Did my body have an adverse reaction to the Revenge Pro drink my cycling-buff co-worker, Johnny, gave me? Was it because I took ibuprofen before I ran? Was it just an off day? Lisa walks with me to my car and we chat for a few minutes before I finally have to sit down, nausea starting to overcome me. It’s all I can do to shove half a banana down my throat to get something into my system. I drive home without turning on the radio, just focusing on getting home quickly. The nauseated feelings pass and I never get ill. But I am tired, like I am just getting over an illness.

That night, I go out to see Jackie Greene perform at Marilyn’s downtown. I am wearing heels much too high considering I completed a tough run just 12 hours earlier. My stomach cramps up throughout the evening. The tiny club is packed, standing room only. The kind bar manager and his wife offer me a seat at their “reserved” table. Later, as my friends and I walk to the car, I catch a chill and cannot stop shivering until I finally get home and take a hot shower.

I know my determined spirit will see that I finish the marathon. I just worry that I will be in intense pain doing it.

March 31: Recommitment day for the San Diego team. This is the day that you decide if you’ll continue with the program. For many people, the decision is based on how far they’ve come in their fund-raising. I’ve met my entire fund-raising goal; all I was expected to be at was 25 percent! I wish everything were this easy.

I feel simultaneously humbled, appreciative and excited. People I know to be starving students wrote me $50 checks. A man I barely know at my gym gave me $100. My neighbor donated $140 in cash. I fantasize briefly about using this money for my own financial endeavors—a partial down payment for a house, to pay down graduate school loans, a pair of Manolo Blahniks. I snap back to reality. I look around the room at my team, the people who will see me through this marathon. And I can’t imagine doing it without them.

April 3: We cross paths with people running the American River 50 Mile Endurance Run—commonly referred to as the AR50—which starts near California State University, Sacramento, and ends in Auburn. I am slightly dismayed, fearing my 26.2 mile accomplishment will pale in comparison to this. Caught up in the throng of people, Debra and I miss the turnaround mark and run an extra two miles. I guess we should see this as a good sign that we didn’t notice it.

April 6: I have my first official physical therapy appointment. I am somewhat uneasy in Jason’s and my shift of roles—from friends at the gym to therapist/patient. Standing in a sports bra and shorts, I feel vulnerable as Jason, sitting in a chair directly across from me, looks at me from head to toe, verifying that his initial analysis of a tight pelvic region (“dysfunctional pelvis,” he calls it) is the cause of my Achilles and knee pain. Jason can tell things about my body that I wouldn’t be aware of if I placed a mirror in front of myself for all my waking hours. This both comforts and unsettles me. I fight the urge not to fidget, not to fold my arms across and in back of me.

I should care what the core problem is, but instead I sift through his words, mostly medical terminology—“L5 and L6 are stiff” . . . “your IT band is tight”—listening for the most important ones: “You’re OK to still run. This is treatable.”

Jason has me lie down on the table and starts to apply pressure to various parts of my upper body. At this initial session he simply is trying to get my body in balance; he says my body’s shifted—probably the result of car accidents, among other traumas, however slight they seemed at the time. “Does that hurt?” he asks. It does. He appears to know intuitively the really sore spots. He does this for an hour, bidding me gently to relax my tense body, to let him do the work—“It’s OK, honey, I’m not going to break you”—and I try my best to comply. Although he does not say it, he’s asking me to relinquish control. He’s asking me to trust. I can’t help but be struck by the symbolism of this as a mirror to my daily life where relinquishing control is sometimes an issue.

Jason gives me the prescription: 20 minutes of stretching daily—not the 30-second, going-though-the-motions stretching that I had been doing; continued daily icing of my knees and left Achilles; ibuprofen for pain; minimal high-heel wearing; and a yet-to-be-determined number of sessions with him.

But most important, Jason gives me the green light to continue training.

April 10: Lisa isn’t around to run with and I decide to let my running partner for the day, Erika, dash off and indulge her naturally gazelle-like tendencies. I run at my own 10-minute-mile pace, and I feel pretty good. It’s a low-mileage day, 11 miles (funny how that’s now considered “low mileage”). I hug power walkers Bill and Linda as we pass each other on the trail and say hello to other team members, a few of whom I am still trying to recognize. I greet other runners on the trail, many of whom look more familiar week to week. And, at times, I lose myself in my thoughts. I find that while I like running with others, I also like running solo, with the camaraderie of others coming in spurts.

April 17: Sixteen miles. The last two miles nearly do me in. I want to cry. My whole body hurts; it’s like I never took the ibuprofen this morning. My stomach hurts, too. I almost feel like I could get dry heaves! I’ve taken only one energy gel and no Gatorade; I’m beginning to see the error of my ways. Coach Jeff greets me when I have two miles left. “How are you doing?” he asks. “OK, a little tough,” I muster. “Just two more miles to go, keep it strong,” he says. Later, I take solace in the fact that Beth had to walk/run the last six miles just like I did and that marathon veterans Diana, Tony and Bill, the latter of whom also is dealing with a sore Achilles, had challenges this morning. At least I’m not alone.

April 19: Today, Jason works to loosen my tight quads and hamstrings. He’s pulling and pushing, twisting and turning—working mainly my legs, my low back. When I’ve seen trainers stretch athletes out before sporting events, it looks like it feels good, but this is actually painful. I joke with him that he should have a toy barrel—similar to ones found in some pediatricians’ offices—but filled with scented body lotions, lottery tickets, etc., and allow his patients to chose a “prize” at the end of each session. Still, when he works my Achilles, I visualize him taking the pain away. The good news is that I am feeling improvement from my therapy, combined with longer stretching sessions and more frequent icing. And the truth is the discomfort of the therapy is a small price to pay as long as I can complete the marathon, continue to run afterward and not be banned indefinitely from wearing the occasional “nonsensible” pair of shoes.

May 1: My physical therapy and increased stretching routine seem to be working. I don’t feel pain. I took my energy gels at one-hour intervals throughout the run, even though I didn’t feel like I needed to. It worked! We ran 18 miles today and I actually felt good.

May 15: We’re running 22 miles today—and it’s tough! I run/walk the last 11, at each step wondering how I can make another. I vainly try to conjure up my “motivations”: meeting a goal, running for the stroke association, what this means for me personally. I think of my publisher’s inspiring words (“You’re looking more and more like a distance runner.”). I think of my stroke heros, Dad and Tom. “Surely, these men have suffered worse themselves,” I think to myself. “I can run this for them.” Seven miles left, six, five, will it ever end? I spy the Hazel Avenue overcrossing, signaling that I am near the end. Team mentors greet us when we have three miles to go. “You’re doing great,” they tell me. Hang on, just a little farther.” I run a little farther and come upon Jeff and Michelle.

“How’s it going, Elena?” Jeff asks.
“It’s a little tough,” I reply, downplaying my agony with a smile.
“But you look good,” Michelle says.
“That’s what’s most important!” I joke back.

Just a little farther. I see the road leading out of the parking lot where our team’s base is, just a few more yards and—some 4 1/2 hours later—I’m home! Tony, Diana, Bill and Lisa are there; Carissa and Beth have finished and gone home. They cheer when they see me. Lori greets me with a high-five. I see Patty, and she smiles as she watches me try to converse with Lisa—who is complaining about post-run bloating—while stretching my tired legs and fighting the urge to just sit down on the hot pavement; she knows I’m spent but trying not to show it. The Foo Fighters’ remake of Prince’s “Darling Nikki” is playing on a boom box, and the racy lyrics seem somewhat out of place at 10:45 a.m. I am in an altered state of consciousness. A few minutes later, I eat a berry-flavored ice pop offered to me by Lori. Its cool texture and fruity flavor—staining my tongue a dark magenta—are like a taste of heaven. I swear it’s the best ice pop I’ve ever had.

Later that day, I feel the familiar scratch in my throat. I have a cold. I also have a plausible explanation for today’s extra-difficult run.

June 1: I am starting to feel pain in Achilles again—as well as in my knees and lower back. It’s as if all of the miracles of my physical therapy are being erased right before the big day. A slight panic is starting to simmer, and I worry that my body will indeed break down before—or on the day of—the marathon. Is it nerves? My period? I kick myself for wearing a pair of heels just days before the marathon, seeking to blame them for my relapse. Coach Jeff assures me my body is just recovering from the 22 miles I ran couple of weeks back. I have a PT appointment on Thursday. I hope it helps.

June 6: Marathon morning. The hotel wake-up call comes at 3:30 a.m. I get up, splash my face with water and pull my hair back into a smooth ponytail. Before dressing, I slather my body with Bodyglide to help prevent chafing and dab Thera-Gesic—a numbing salve—on my lower back, knees and left Achilles. I consume my ritualistic breakfast of half a 2-day-old blueberry bagel from Manhattan Bagel, 1 teaspoon of peanut butter, half a banana, a few sips of Gatorade and three 200 milligram tablets of ibuprofen—just in case. While stretching, I read hard copies of e-mails sent to me in the days before the marathon from well-wishers. And I say my prayers. This is it.

Lisa, my running partner/roommate, and I meet our team in the hotel lobby at 4:15 a.m. No one has gotten a full night’s sleep, but that’s OK. Adrenaline will make up the difference. We arrive near the starting line in San Diego’s Balboa Park at 4:45 a.m. It’s quite surreal; this park just before daybreak is buzzing with some 17,000 runners and walkers, sleepy-eyed, bed-haired, keeping warm in everything from traditional sweats to garbage bags. It’s like we’ve all heeded the call of the Pied Piper. Some people drink coffee; others line up for the portable toilets. Crowds of friends and teams sit together on the grass waiting. I place my sweats, along with a pair of flip flops, a cookie, and a pad of paper and a pen for post-race note taking into a bag and hand it to volunteers at the UPS truck that corresponds to my race bib number. The bag will be waiting for me at the finish line. I feel a strange sensation as I hand over my bag because I know the person picking it up will not be the same one who’s dropping it off now. Something will change in the four to six hours it’ll take me to run this marathon. It may be subtle, below the surface, but I know something will change. I’ve felt the metamorphosis begin these past four months.

A man with a megaphone appears. On his T-shirt he wears a sign that reads “Relax Shoulders.” He tells us to visualize a string attached to the top of our heads. It’s to remind us to relax our shoulders, keep our heads up and our eyes on the horizon. He tells us that when we reach Mile 20 the safety pins on our shirts will magnetize toward the finish line.

At 6:15 a.m., I get in line for the portable toilets with Joyce and Debbie. The race is due to start in 30 minutes, but the lines indicate a wait slightly longer than that. Joyce and Debbie abandon the line in favor of a more readily available tree, and I am left alone. It’s 6:50 by the time my turn comes and goes, and I jump into the race. I have no idea where my teammates are. Are they all ahead of me, even the walkers? I just start moving. Here I go across the start line. “You’re simply the best,” singer Tina Turner is lauding us from nearby speakers, and my mind shifts to my co-workers. I—as well as my co-workers—am very familiar with the song’s refrain, played repeatedly at the magazine’s annual Best of Sacramento party.

Having lost all 44 other members of the team I trained and traveled with, I feel, at first, all alone. But I’m not; I’m surrounded by walkers and runners and I find it easy to make a friend or two along the way—even if the connection lasts only a couple of miles or a couple of minutes.

Coach Michelle and other TTES staff members, coaches and volunteers cheer me on at Mile 3. I brighten. I’m feeling strong, my ankle, knees and lower back coasting through.

Two men cheer us on from a balcony. One of them—a 30-something man with sandy blond hair—holds a megaphone and repeatedly shouts to us that we are “awesome, wonderful and blessed.”

We run through San Diego’s Gaslamp District. I look for Cafe Sevilla and my mind shifts to my friend Angela, who lives in San Diego. Ange and I have had fun times at Cafe Sevilla during my previous visits: dining, catching up—and playfully ogling the cute waiters at the popular Spanish restaurant.

Somewhere between miles seven and nine, squeaking out a tiny spot away from the nearly 50 different bands that have stationed themselves throughout the marathon course, a local radio blasts The Emotions’ “Best of My Love,” and the song’s steady rhythm and upbeat lyrics provide me with a boost of energy as I run along a stretch of Highway 163. I chat with a stroke team member from the Midwest, a woman whose name escapes me but whose face will remain forever imprinted in my mind as she reminds me—with her pleasant smile and her quick and steady gait—of my marathon-veteran friend Sharon, and my mind shifts to Sharon, who, as I run this marathon, is awaiting the arrival of her second child back home in Sacramento.

Crossing Mile 13 I feel strong; I’ve made it halfway. I perform a mental check: ankle, knees and lower back are doing fine. I watch a young man and woman drive alongside us slowly in their SUV, looking for their friend.

How’s it going, buddy?” the male driver asks the male runner.
“Fine,” the runner replies.

“Want some gum?” the driver asks and passes his friend a piece of gum through the window. The woman snaps a photo of the runner from the back seat.

“I’ll see you at the end,” the driver says, and takes off.

I smile to myself at this vibrantly illustrated exchange of friendship and I allow the encouraging words from my own friends and family to waft through my mind: “Stay focused.” “You’re ready for this, you’ve trained for it.” “I’ll send you good vibes—but you won’t need them.” “If you’ve already done 22 miles, it’s already under your belt.” “I will be with you in thought and prayer and just coaching you along.” “Good luck! We’ll be thinking of you!” “We love you.” My mind shifts to my family, friends and acquaintances who’ve supported me in this goal emotionally, spiritually, physically and financially. My mind shifts to my teammates, running and walking alongside me somewhere in this crowd. My mind shifts to Jason, my physical therapist, who has helped get me to this point.

My mind shifts to Dad and Tom and to the 28 other people—most of whom have suffered from stroke—named on the back of my race singlet, in whose honor I am running. My mind shifts to Patty, our team’s stroke hero, waiting at the finish line for all of us, most especially her husband, Conrad, who is running this marathon in her honor.

ASA staff members Lori and Tiffiny are stationed at Mile 14. When they see me, they yell my name and cheer wildly. Lori runs up ahead and snaps a photo of me.

I look at my watch; I’m keeping about a 10-minute mile pace. Now at Mile 16, if I keep up this pace, I realize I could finish this race in less than five hours, my original goal.

I get a side stitch, which forces me to run off to the side to stretch. I feel in good company as I see many others doing the same, using lamp posts, freeway overpasses and sidewalk curbs in an effort to help relieve tightened calves, quads and hamstrings.  “Are you OK?” another TTES participant asks. I assure her I am; I’m just stretching. I nod to yet another TTES participant as he runs by with a “Do you need assistance?” look.

The sandy blond-haired man from the balcony appears again. He and others are following the race—mostly on bikes; it’s nearly impossible to follow by car—offering support and cheers.

Jeff is waiting at Mile 19 1/2. He runs up to me. “How’s it going? Keep up your form. There’s a hill coming up, take it nice and slow.”

Thousands of spectators throng the path. The crowd hasn’t dwindled since we started. They treat us like rock stars, or Olympic athletes, with their screams, cheers and high-fives. Several pass out pretzels, gummy bears, sunscreen wipes and sticks of Vaseline.

The bands play on. Spectators—and possibly a few runners—at times become distracted by some of better bands and watch them for a few seconds. “You guys are doing great,” the singer of a band yells out before launching into another song.

I am at Mile 22. Uh-oh, my stomach is feeling slightly queasy and the desire for a Sprite is overtaking me in a way I’ve never experienced. I slow down to a run/walk as I search the crowd for people with Sprites in hand—at this moment I would unabashedly ask for a sip; I look to the side of the road for a convenience store or a vending machine. I eat some words I’d spewed about Sprite a number of years ago.  My mind shifts to Rob, my Kansas City-based friend, whom I met while I was attending grad school—and know he’d laugh if he knew the intensity of the craving I am experiencing. My motive for drinking soda being caffeine, I once told Rob that drinking Sprite, a caffeine-free soda, was “a waste of time.” Realizing I am out of water, I panic slightly. A quarter of a mile later I come to an aid station; water sates my thirst and my Sprite craving dissipates—perhaps I simply was dehydrated. I realize I will not make the four- to five-hour time frame at this pace. I’ve spent two weeks—at the urging of others who cautioned me not to run this, my first marathon, under the pressure of time—trying to get this time limit out of my mind; but I am still disappointed. But stronger than my disappointment, I just want to finish—even if I have to crawl across the finish line.

Around Mile 23 a man walks toward us, clapping and cheering. “You can do it,” he tells us. He acts like the other spectators: impressed that we are completing a marathon, a phenomenal feat in most people’s eyes.

However, this man is not like the other spectators. He is an elite runner who traveled here from Kenya. He finished this marathon in a little more than two hours, which at this point is nearly two hours ago. He’s had time to shower and change, and his demeanor belies the fact that he just ran a marathon averaging a sub-five-minute mile. I am overwhelmed at this man’s generosity of spirit.

I see the man with the “Relax Shoulders” T-shirt. Megaphone in hand, he’s cheering us on.
My ankle, knees and lower back are going strong.

Most people will say that crossing the finish line is the most emotional part of a marathon. For me, it’s crossing Mile 25. Upon seeing the timeclock that greets us at every mile mark, I search for the Mile 25 flag—which is engaged in a desperate struggle with the wind to stay unfurled—wanting to assure myself that I have indeed reached it. And when I do, I heave tearless sobs—water perhaps too precious a commodity for my body to spare at this point—because at Mile 25 I know I’ve made it. I will complete this marathon, this goal that was so important to me and that I have worked so hard to achieve. I’ve made it despite my “dysfunctional pelvis” and its sidekick bum ankle. I’ve made it without nausea taking me off the course and without other bodily functions vying for my attention midway through.

A TTES coach runs alongside me. “Just a little further,” she assures me. “You’re almost home.”
I smile, thank her for the encouragement.
But I’m already there.

Elena Macaluso crossed the finish line at the Suzuki Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon in 5 hours, 19 minutes and 15 seconds. She raised more than $4,500 for the American Stroke Association far exceeding her fundraising goal. This past October, as part of a 12-person team, she ran in the Providian Relay, a 199-mile run from Calistoga to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.(The grand finale of the event had her running on the beach at Santa Cruz with her teammates.) She also plans to run the California International Marathon in Sacramento on Dec. 5 and desperately hopes that friends and family will greet her along Miles 20 through 26.2 with Sprites in hand—just in case!

For more information on the American Stroke Association’s marathon training program, call (916) 446-6505.