My First Marathon in Two Falls

By:Content Team

My First Marathon in Two Falls

 📷: Tim Serrano

I was told you’ll always remember your first marathon, and now after having run it, I hope not to forget what it taught me. As while it humbled me, it also revealed a gentler reality: that showing up and putting one foot in front of the other is enough.

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My mid-twenties hit different.

With the age came the realisation that I was living in the space occupying the life I’d always imagined myself living. The drumbeat of existential angst thumps louder these days–and I didn’t really think that was possible. This is where I arrived after asking myself why–out of all the things I could’ve spent time doing–I decided to give marathon running a try. 

At least in my limited experience, the goal of running a marathon gave me a fine chord in a sinking pit of meaningless sand. With it in mind that I’d be carrying myself across the 42 kilometres of The Bull Runner Dream Marathon 2024, the questions of being, the hollow echoes of what is my purpose on this earth, softened as I wholly concerned myself with not just surviving the distance, but giving it my very best shot as well. Training for a marathon hoisted me up out of the pit and allowed me to embrace myself as a being in progress to some tangible end–the coveted title of marathoner. 

Some sense of control in life’s expansive shower of loosely connected events. The rest of my life could do as it pleased, but as long as my 80 to 100 kilometres got done for the week, I was certainly moving forward and making progress. 

  📷: Arto Deleon

Pre-work

As much as the marathon proper is the main event, it really is the culminating activity topping off months of consistent effort–the pre-work before the real deal. 

Isn’t it just the most exhilarating thing? Planning months ahead, figuring that in just a hundred days or so you can be a stronger, faster, different version of yourself. Figuring that as your body twitches and changes, fashioned under the auspices of a will to improve, your mind can change too. That at any point in your life, as hardened into limits and routines you may feel, the possibility of a refreshing new sense of self can arrive by design in less than a year.

My plan was to run a “conservative best effort”. Maybe that was my own way of committing to nothing, of just riding through the process of a marathon and accepting the result, whatever it was. Or maybe, it was my ego peeking through my words, assuming with far too much certainty that the marathon distance in a competitive time was already in reach–that I just needed to show up and the race would run itself.

The process of training was gruelling. Not so much the running, but integrating the 10-15 kilometres per day into a schedule that was already a string of meetings, work, and social engagements–and a non-willingness to miss anything. There’s something about the 4AM starts, the background fatigue that lingers in your mind and body throughout the day. But there’s something about the time spent with people trying to do the same thing too.

Looking back on the last quarter, more than the training runs I did alone, more than the intervals I feel like I blitzed through, I remember mostly the faces and smiles owned by the people I’ve come to think of as lifelong friends.

As while I thought the process of marathon training was solitary, I’ve come to realise that it can be savoured in the company of others. Early starts are easier to stomach when you’re meeting friends at the University of the Philippines loop, when you’re already thinking about the post-run coffees you’ll be toasting. When you become just as concerned about their training progress as your own.

Suddenly the dread that had occupied the concerns of what you’re doing with your own life melts away in a genuine curiosity around how your friends’ training is going.

    📷: Arto Deleon

And suddenly you’re at the starting line

Me myself, I was in line for the porta-potty. While the announcers at the starting line at Pacific Rim in Filinvest City were commencing their countdown from a minute, I was shaking my legs, nervous, well aware that I was about to pee a senselessly small amount.

But I was committed to seeing the inside of that porta potty, to find myself shut in the darkness of those four, odorous, plastic walls. I did my business, took a shallow breath through my mouth, walked out the door and started jogging just as the gun signalling the beginning of the marathon went off.

Things felt good.

My new New Balance Fuelcell Supercomp Elite V3s felt gummy and bouncy. Soft. I felt light. As I started picking my pace up, I did my best to exchange hi-hellos with the familiar faces in the mass of runners. I couldn’t begin to estimate how many times I must’ve said “let’s go” that early, early morning.

The course itself didn’t feel beginner friendly. It’s an assault of gravelly road and steep inclines with patches of flat tarmac. It’s also a big loop with each lap measuring roughly 10 kilometres in distance. There is a portion of the course, a long flat, which winds back and forth like an intestine–about three and a half kilometres worth. 

Running through this on the very first lap to be greeted by cheering friends, camera flashes, and offerings of every which kind of beverage (and I could have sworn I saw a beer somewhere in the mix), is an experience unlike many others. These folks gathered and showered you with kindness just for showing up and being there. “Just run your own race,” shouted one friend, somewhat ironically prompting me to calm my pace just a bit.

I was running well. My splits were looking fairly consistent between 4’20”/km and 4’30”/km. I supposed that this was within my ill-defined goals and by the second lap of the course, I felt an extra confidence in my kick–perhaps experienced prematurely.

 📷: Tim Serrano

Kilometre 23

I’d consumed three gels. I didn’t time them very methodically and I was chugging Gatorade whenever I had the chance to grab one. And the sharp pain in my stomach had just begun to set in.

My pace slowed.

In pictures taken around this time, I look back and see myself poking into my stomach with my mouth wide open. These pictures chronicle what felt like my personal descent into a running abyss.

Although I had slowed my pace well into the 5’00”/km area, I remained committed to getting over this feeling and back on track. As much as that’s true, I can’t pretend I wasn’t panicking. How the hell can this be happening right now? Should I just give up the whole thing and try some other day? 

I’d lay down a few good strides only to experience the same stab in the gut, which was now radiating out of my stomach area and into my chest. Breathing was growing laborious. My arms must’ve been swinging further away from my body. My legs out of instinct rather than by training were just clobbering one in front of the other, bringing me forward in a clumsy ensemble of frustrated will.

By kilometre 30 I was on the ground. Josh, a good friend and pacemaster at EZ Run Club, was pacing me at the time. As I slinked down, butt on the floor with my two legs out in front of me cramping, he took a knee and began pressing my toes–creating tension on my hamstrings and briefly relieving the pain. Another friend, Ross, an actual participant in the marathon, stopped beside us and asked how I was doing.

I decided that my goal would now be just to finish. I wasn’t doing great. I wasn’t doing how I had loosely planned to do. But I was going to control the outcome. I was going to finish.

The last two laps of the course were a hobble of occasional cramps followed by 400 metre segments of smooth sailing. Each step felt as though I were flirting with cramps; I didn’t know which step was going to cause the whole leg to just seize up. Just when a sense of confidence would begin to return and I’d try to bring my pace back below 5’00”/km a slight cramp would remind me that that wasn’t going to happen for the rest of the day.

I’d pass the cheers of my friends trying to wear a brave face, but the support I felt was overwhelming. As I passed their clapping and spirited cheering, as I waded through cramps and a pain in my stomach that wasn’t letting up, I suppressed a strong urge to cry. I don’t know why it arose in the first place. Was I just feeling sorry for myself? Or was I just so overwhelmed by the support I was receiving?

Just as I could see the finish line around a bend over a kilometre away, the grand finale of my run was about to commence. I couldn’t continue the awkward locomotive dance I’d adopted for myself. My legs just wouldn’t pick up their part. My stomach was about to make its misgivings known in a uniquely frustrating way. I sat by the side of the road as Josh, my good friend-turned-pacer, watched–and began revealing the content of my stomach.

I’d fallen to the ground for a second time, but this definitely felt more dramatic. I sat with my head between my legs, my pride nowhere to be found, and my arms around my head. My elbows covered by eyes returning me to the same darkness I’d enjoyed just a couple of hours ago in the safety of the porta potty.

The idea of just sitting there for the next couple of hours dawned on me and I found gentle solace in that. I could just kinda stop. And just give into how I was feeling. But I remembered my newfound goal of just finishing; I recalled the eager encouragement from my friends. I propped myself up and started moving forward with a determined limp.

    📷: Arto Deleon

03:40:45 

A set of numbers that’ll have significance for me as long as I live. That’s my first marathon in six digits. That’s every fall, every cramp, every millimetre of lost fluid–lost in vomit and sweat and tears–every word of encouragement, every crazy thought I had of quitting, every kilometre which sailed by quickly, and every metre which took an infinity. 

It’s all of it.

Every training run I ever had that led to that moment and every coffee shared in the company of friends. It’s every embrace I fell into that day–both those congratulating me on my culminated effort and those I gave to friends as their tired bodies crossed the same line mine did.

It’s a number that humbles me. It’s a glowing reminder of my own limitations just as much as it’s a hopeful look at my own possibilities–it’s a number I plan to beat.

But it’s a number whose significance is ultimately lost in the communal sense of victory I felt that day. It wasn’t my own win which I wanted to celebrate, but the shared win of the running community. We had achieved something. In a tumultuous time, with a million things going wrong in the world, we gathered as a community and did everything we could to lift each other up.

It’s a community which has kindled a new light in my life. In a time darkened by a consuming sense that I’m meant to find some sort of purpose on the earth, the running community glows with a promise that you’re here and that’s enough.

Although I wasn’t running the race I’d dreamed for myself, my friends celebrated me and all of us participants for just putting a foot in front of the other. For just willing ourselves forward.

And maybe that’s an analogy for life. Maybe that’s why I wanted to cry.

Maybe just moving forward is enough. 

  📷: Arto Deleon

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