I spent the summer of 2002 training for the New York City marathon. I had never run before, or rather, I hadn’t run since I’d been on the track team in junior high. I was doing this because I thought it might help me recover from the destabilizing depression I’d fallen into as a result of the attack on the Twin Towers the September before – for many years, I had stood on the sidelines cheering. I always found myself in tears at the grit and camaraderie of the runners thronging the streets. Now I wanted to join them instead of watching from the curb.
Because I lived in north Brooklyn on an avenue known for its heavy truck traffic and constant diesel exhaust, and because this was an unusually hot summer, much of my training took place on the treadmill at the air-conditioned gym up near Kellogg’s on Metropolitan Avenue. My gym was .65 mile from my house; the jog there and back counted toward my daily quota (training for a marathon involves doing more math on a daily basis than I had ever expected). Because I was insane at the time, because I wanted to finish the marathon in less than four hours, I was following an Intermediate training schedule I’d found online. The Beginning one didn’t seem ambitious or dreadful enough. This decision landed me in the emergency room with hyponatremia, a dangerous and often fatal sodium deficiency, but that’s another story. The point is, as soon as I was released from my weekend at Beth Israel, I resumed training right where I’d left off, only now I drank Gatorade instead of water.
My then-husband and I had planned a trip to Glacier National Park that August. We stayed in a motel near the lodge and hiked during the day. Every night, after our long, demanding hikes, we went happily to the lodge for dinner and drank tequila cocktails and ate enormous meals of bison burgers, venison steaks, and roast wild game birds.
Glacier National Park is full of stupendously beautiful trails through fields of wildflowers to aquamarine glacial lakes and up mountainsides to windswept glaciers and peaks, but I wasn’t thinking about the scenery, or rather, I wasn’t concentrating on it. I was counting the miles, timing our walking speed, pushing us to go as fast as we could so that I could count these hikes as part of my daily training mileage. I was determined not to fall behind; it was almost autumn already, and I was in the thick of it.
Maybe at least partially because of my unswerving, single-minded drivenness, my husband, who had easily managed to keep up with me, pulled his ankle on our third hike and was down for the count. Instead of taking the next day off and keeping him company in our cabin, as any rational, thoughtful spouse would do, I assembled a lunch for us both from whatever I could find at the general store attached to the motel, made sure he was supplied with ice and whatever else he needed, filled my water bottles, and stuffed a sweater into my day pack.
“I’ll be back in less than five hours,” I said. “Promise me you won’t worry till then.”
“I can’t promise that,” he said.
And so I set off for a 13-mile round-trip hike up to the Continental Divide and back. I was delighted to be able to do it alone. I’d been terrified all summer, trying to run my daily miles, that I’d never be able to do 26.2 of them, all at one go. This hike was my test.
For the first few miles, I wound over streams, through lush meadows, blooming and bright. Eventually, the trail turned vertical, running on a narrow cut-out up the mountainside. I charged up it, passing two people on horseback admiring the view, not bothering to look at it myself.
Up and up I climbed, my muscles working well, my breathing even and steady. I was walking, not running, but my pace was extremely fast, and I wasn’t winded. This hike was half the length of the marathon; New York City is pretty flat. If I could keep up this pace, I told myself, I’d do all right on November 3rd. I’d run the Staten Island half-marathon in well under two hours, after all.
Feeling cocky, I left the vegetation behind and scurried across a bare, rubbled mountain face and continued up and up, winding through a gravelly moonscape. The wind had picked up, but I wasn’t cold, I was sweating and exhilarated. I felt like I had the place to myself, but then I saw, coming toward me, a park ranger in a green uniform and hat.
“Hello!” he said. “You’re the first person I’ve seen in a while. Be careful around Devil’s Elbow, there’s a hailstorm going on up there.”
He tipped his hat (literally) and continued down. I had no idea what Devil’s Elbow might be, but when I got to it I knew: it was a narrow section of the rocky path that took me out and around a jutting cliff face. Down below, the green valley looked very far away. Hail pelted me and the wind tried to blow me off the mountainside, as if I were a bug. For the first time, I was spooked. I caught a glimpse of the mountain range I was in, stretching away, dizzyingly far. I was up very high.
The higher I climbed, the colder and windier and more desolate it got. I climbed past the glacier field near the top, past a hikers’ cairn I added my own rock to, and then there I was, on the roof of the world. I crouched in the howling wind, shivering in my sweater, and ate my lunch as fast as I could, shoving it into my mouth with both hands – 2 hummus sandwiches, an apple, 2 carrots, and a chocolate bar. I drank all my water. I was still hungry and thirsty, but that was all I’d brought. A black storm was boiling up on the other side of the mountain. Two weather systems were colliding right where I sat.
In a hurry to get back down now, I started back, down past the glacier, across Devil’s Elbow, down the mountainside. An hour later, I recognized that I was exhausted. I was a city girl, used to flat streets, air-conditioned gyms, and a deli on every corner. My feet were heavy, my back was sore, my teeth were clenched, my breathing was shallow, my foot was cramping, and I was shaky; I was out of gas. I thought of my husband waiting for me in the motel room, trying to keep his mind on his book, with only a radio for company. I knew him: If I were one minute late, he would feel compelled to come and find me, and he was in no condition to walk. I hated thinking of making him anxious if I were late. I wasn’t even into the valley yet. I had miles left to go.
I kept going, faster than I thought I could, but my mind was in charge now, not my body. I forced myself to forget I had a body at all, much less a depleted one. I came to the verdant valley. It was filled with hikers in the late afternoon sun, groups of schoolchildren and couples out for a little adventure. I stomped past them, as single-mindedly set on my goal as ever. The valley was shockingly gorgeous. I had no time for it.
Then, with two miles to go, beyond hunger and thirst, I experienced a strange, unexpected thing: I recharged. Out of the blue, I was given a surge of energy, as if my body had held it back to spur me at the end, to reward my persistence. My feet were light again. My muscles worked again. I charged along, amazed and grateful.
When I flew into our motel room, my husband looked up from his book with a furrowed brow and a relieved smile. “In five minutes I was going to go out there and find you,” he said.
I helped him gimp into the lodge to dinner. I ordered a venison steak with extra potatoes. I drank all the red wine I wanted. I looked out at the lake and surrounding mountains, replaying in my memory all the views I’d missed that day. It had been worth it.
Gluten-Free Carbo-Loading Dinner
I was extremely gluten intolerant when I trained for the marathon, but I didn’t know it yet. Because of all the pasta and bread I was eating, for more than I normally would have, my symptoms intensified, and, to make things worse, they were all the things my training had been intended to eradicate: namely, an ongoing crushing sense of doom, hotheaded irascibility, bloat (especially depressing when you’re exercising constantly – I gained 8 pounds of water weight in my stomach and hips and had permanent waterbags under my eyes), insomnia, fluttering pulse, and foggy brain. I ate almost none of what I should have eaten – cornmeal, potatoes, quinoa, gluten-free pasta, brown rice. With tremendous difficulty in the final 6 miles, I managed to run the marathon in less than four hours, but the doubt has always stayed with me – what if I’d trained without gluten?
In any case: melt a good lump of butter. Saute a cup of well-rinsed quinoa and 1/3 cup sliced almonds in it, stirring, over medium heat, until the almonds start to brown and the quinoa crackles and pops. Add 2 cups of hearty broth and simmer uncovered till the quinoa absorbs all the liquid. Stir in a large dollop each of hummus and babaganoush, a handful of pitted chopped olives, and a handful of minced parsley. Eat the whole thing all by yourself. This goes very well with roasted spiced vegetables.
Ah yes, the insanity that is marathon training; how well I know it. I am amazed you were able to train and meet your goal even being gluten-intolerant – force of will is very strong (I trained for a marathon in about 2 months, though I’d started from a decent base, because … I was going to do it no matter what. And I did, but it was damn hard.) I find this a comfort and a curse at the same time.
Had a similar experience–except for me it was walking, on a beach in North Carolina, surrounded by lounging, tanning folk. For me it was the sun–had set out early in the morning without water to walk; turning back around realized how dehydrated I was and how many miles I had to go before I’d be back at my starting point. For half the way, was terrified–and even though could’ve approached the loungers and asked for water, some sick pride prevented me from doing so. And then, a second-wind, I was back! And drank entirely too much water and ate, almost everything in the house, it felt like.