The Race That Could’ve Been (But Will Someday Still Be)

I didn’t grow up as a runner. For the longest time, I’ve considered myself incredibly average when it came to fitness. I could keep up in gym class growing up, I pushed myself as a swimmer in high school, and I kept up a somewhat regular workout regimen in college.

I can’t remember why I signed up for my first half marathon. It was during college, and maybe I felt the need to accomplish something that wasn’t a paper and had nothing to do with what I was going to do after graduation. I don’t really remember training for the race – at that point, I was joining my sorority sisters at the gym regularly, so I probably just spent more time on the treadmill than the elliptical and thought nothing of it.


But I do remember the race. I remember smiling like a maniac through the first half, feeling self-conscious of how much fun I was having as the miles climbed. It was a hot summer day in Chicago, and I was surrounded by hundreds of strangers, also pounding the pavement along Lake Michigan in the pursuit of — what? What are we chasing, after all, when we run? Maybe for some people, it’s about running from instead of running towards. In that first race, I didn’t know. So I ran some more.

I slowly added races to my calendar. A 10K here, a 5K there. It was a while before I did my second half marathon, this time in Brooklyn. It was not quite as fun as I remembered (especially miles 11-13), but the buildup was better. Because this time it was intentional and methodical. As I discovered how to stick to a routine and push myself, I discovered that I loved doing both of those things.  I wasn’t running to or from anything. I was running through everything. Sticking to a weekly training schedule helped me feel in control of my life, no matter how crazy my schedule got or overwhelmed I was with the various stressors that inevitably come with life.

Don’t get me wrong — I still dreamed of the day I’d wake up and want to run more than anything else. It hasn’t happened yet, and I’m not sure it ever will. Sometimes I have bad miles where I wonder why I even started in the first place. But then I hit my mileage goal, and every time, I forget the pain in my lungs, the soreness in my legs. I remember my strength.

Sometime along the way in my life I created an unwritten bucket list. Travel to every continent, publish a book, get married, etc. All somewhat attainable goals, yet monumental nonetheless. High up on the list: run a marathon.

Every time I thought about it, I told myself that I wasn’t ready. The training regimen is so intense, I’d say, blaming work or life or a combination of both. Wait for the perfect time in your life, my internal voice would say soothingly, that’s just not now. But every time I watched a race, whether it was on TV or in real life, I felt that twinge of disappointment in myself, that perhaps I was ready after all but was too scared to try.

A few years into this internal struggle, hearing about the race from a family friend was enough to push me over the edge and submit myself into the lottery for the NYC Marathon. When drawing time came around, and I didn’t get in, I was equal parts disappointed and relieved. ‘It’s not my time after all!,’ I’d think, grateful that the decision to finally commit was in someone else’s hands. Two years went by of this, and in the meantime, I signed up for my third half marathon, recognizing the pull of racing was too strong to ignore.

Maybe fate stepped in at this point, because on February 27th, I got an email from TCS New York City Marathon. “Emily, Get Ready to Run the Streets of New York City!” it proclaimed. I remember clearly opening it at work and gaping at my phone mid-meeting (sorry, work). Holy shit, I muttered under my breath. It’s happening. 

In my memories of that day, I’m a little giddy, a little honored, and barely nervous. Not only was the decision to finally run the big one made for me, but it fit perfectly into my training schedule for the Brooklyn race that was a few months away. I’d just run that half, then keep on riding that high until November 3rd. It felt right. 

Unsurprisingly, I took training for the half marathon a little bit more seriously this time around, and despite a few weeks of sickness where I couldn’t keep up, I stuck pretty rigidly by my weekly mileage goals. I felt great. 

On race day, despite a temperature that felt 20 degrees warmer than it actually was, an a persistent pain in my hip that wouldn’t let up, I finished the race with another PR and even more evidence that I finally did it — I became a runner. You know, the ones who call certain runs ‘enjoyable’ and who want to talk about racing and who talk confidently about pacing like they have any control over it (I’m still not sure I do, to be honest). 
Not to skip over the important part, but the next few months weren’t standout. That’s why I loved them. I transitioned comfortably into a 3 run-a-week regimen, not quite starting over from before the half, but not jumping up to high mileage right away either. I adjusted my workout class schedule so at least one a week involved a treadmill, but I kept on spinning and going to yoga. One thing that was standout? How quickly my body changed, tightening in places I didn’t expect it to. As someone who’s struggled with body image for my whole life, this was an unexpected and cherished side effect of training, because it felt like I wasn’t doing that much more, but all of a sudden I looked so much stronger! And it wasn’t just in my head, because a few people even noticed enough to comment on it. Externally, I’d try to play it off. Internally, I’d send up a shout of thanks to the universe that set me upon this marathon journey. 

For the first time in as long as I can remember, I stopped thinking about the things I hated about my body on a daily basis and instead felt strong and confident in myself. I’m sure my physical makeup didn’t change too much — after all, I was still working out the same number of days in the week — but having a purpose and intention made my efforts to be in shape so much more than just a repetitive, endless cycle. I had to be stronger to make it through the race, and that meant taking better care of myself on a daily basis (something I’m notoriously bad at doing. Just ask my therapist or boyfriend). 

The hurdles were still there, of course, but looking back, it’s not what I remember. The hip pain I experienced during the half stuck around, so I started going to a physical therapist. I remember feeling SO proud the first day I walked into her office and told her why I was there. “I can run through the hip pain,” I told her, “but I don’t want it to affect my overall marathon pace.” She worked with me on loosening my IT band, which was apparently appallingly tight, and I carried on with my thrice weekly runs with an added attempt at better stretching. 

Before I knew it, the mileage trickled into the double figures. I had a few bad long runs, with side cramps that wouldn’t give up, and then I had a great one. I took a selfie and posted it to Instagram, proclaiming that I 'finally had a good long run!” I was trying hard not to become the person who talks all the time about their marathon training, but inside, I was so, so proud of myself. I found that my training kept me more focused at work, where I was about to undergo a major transition, and at home, where my boyfriend was reprieved of my self-deprecating comments about my weight for the first time in a long time. 

And then came the Saturday in late August when, halfway through my long run, my knee seized up so badly that I almost feel right over. I had already gone from my apartment in the East VIllage, across the Brooklyn Bridge, and was finding my way towards Prospect Park. I tried to shake it off, stretch it out, and keep going, but the pain was there to stay and keep getting worse. Thinking it was a cramp and dehydration related, I kept going, largely out of stubbornness that I wouldn’t waste the 7 miles I’d already put towards my 14 mile goal. By the time I finished, I could barely walk, grimacing in pain as I limped back home with a fear in the pit of my stomach that something was really wrong. I spent the rest of the weekend icing and resting my knee, hoping it was a temporary thing and that I’d be hitting the mileage again in a few days. 

That, obviously, was not the case. I’ll spare you the details of the trips to physical therapy, the attempts at running that ended oh-so-quickly, and the tears that came when I found myself sidelined for what I thought was a matter of weeks. I moved jobs, focusing my energy on apartment searching and the other pieces of everyday life, until it dawned on me that getting my knee healed simply by resting wasn’t a matter of when, but if. Time was running out and I wasn’t getting any mileage. Not only was I losing momentum, I wasn’t feeling any better. But still, it didn’t occur to me that I wouldn’t be running the race, because of everything I’d said about — I didn’t consider that an option I could choose.

But then my physical therapist wrote me a prescription for an MRI and described to me the difference between the two types of meniscus tears, which is what she strongly thought I was going through. The game had changed: surgery was being mentioned, and I still couldn’t walk down stairs without grimacing. All around me, people were urging me to take care of myself, that there will be more races, that my health was most important, that I had enough going on in my life to let this piece go. I couldn’t — or at least I thought I wouldn’t. 

The day I realized I probably wouldn’t be running the marathon was, quite simply, a defeat. I’d had a rough day at work, which I hoped to erase by a quick run on the anti-gravity treadmill. With a high percentage of my weight lifted, I assumed I could at least keep the hope alive with a few miles under my feet. My knee buckled immediately, and I left the gym sobbing, knowing it was over. 

In the weeks since, I’ve gone back and forth, partially out of desperation to keep the dream alive, and partially out of fear that I’m giving up. Maybe my knee isn’t as injured as it is, and maybe I should just push through it. After all, I’ve been working towards this for the better half of the year. My parents, who haven’t visited me together in NYC for a long time, bought plane tickets for the weekend of November 3rd. I’d told far too many people about the race to give up, I found myself desperately reasoning. Maybe, just maybe…

Last weekend I barely left my apartment, suppressed by a heaviness that I described as unbearable disappointment in my journal.’ I told my mom I felt like I was mourning someone who had died, and though melodramatic, I was. I wanted to scream at every runner I saw on the streets: “Don’t take it for granted! How dare you be healthy while I’m not!” It was one of my worst weekends since moving to NYC five years ago.

In therapy the following week, I worked diligently at the idea that letting go of the dream this time around doesn’t mean that I’m failing. It means that I’m putting my physical health first, which will in the long-term reward my mental health. It’s okay to be disappointed, I keep hearing, but don’t let it derail you from everything else that’s going on in your life. But it’s hard not to feel a void, left open and empty, from the miles I used to conquer each week replaced by the knee brace I hate wearing. 

This morning was the 18 mile training run that I signed up for a long time ago. I didn’t go. It was the final acceptance of the decision, made both for me and partly by me, that this year isn’t the year I run a marathon. I am devastated, which is the result both of months of eager preparation and stubbornness to let go of a highly visible goal. 

I know I can defer my lottery entry to next year, and I can get over losing the hundreds of dollars in the application fee I’ll have to pay again. I know, logically, that healing my knee matters more than this one race, this one day, this one goal. I’m still bitter about how my journey ended this time, but I know deep down that it’s not over. It’s merely on hiatus, waiting to be lovingly picked up again whenever my knee is healed and ready. And next time around, I’ll be infinitely more grateful to a body that takes me miles and miles around the city I love. I’ll think of running as a gift, not a given.