In the Whirled: Four steps to the finish line

Published: Wednesday, July 2 2014 5:00 a.m. MDT

I never intended to run a marathon.

In fact, I distinctly remember saying, on more than one occasion, “I will never run a marathon.”

Yet last week found me at the starting line of Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota, wearing a trash bag and a running belt packed with fuel while the “Chariots of Fire” theme song played over the loudspeaker.

When I moved to Minnesota four years ago, I hadn’t run a decent five miles in years. Then I befriended some ladies who encouraged me to take it up again.

These women were hard-core. They routinely ran 30 to 40 miles per week for fun. Between them, they’d run more than 30 marathons.

“You don’t have to run far,” they assured me. “We’ll just loop you in for a few miles.”

We trained in the wee hours, when most people were still tucked in their beds. We trained through the dead of winter, running in multiple layers until our eyelashes froze over with ice crystals.

Those morning hours became sacred. A person talks about big things in the dark. And little things, too. We climbed snowbanks, dodged wild rabbits and churned out the miles by lamplight.

Before I knew what was happening, I was running 8 to 10 miles on weekends, with a standard base of 5 miles several times per week.

It became intoxicating. Running grabbed me by the sneaker and pulled me along. Before I knew it, I was running half-marathons.

“You should really try a marathon,” my friends told me.

“Ha, ha,” I said. “No, thanks!”

Writers, real writers, move beyond the articles and write books. Runners, real runners, break the running barrier by hammering out 26.2 miles.

In a moment of weakness brought on by peer pressure, I found myself signing up for not just one, but two marathons this summer.

The marathon has become so commonplace we almost forget that, according to legend, the Greek messenger Pheidippides died at the finish line.

This legend only fuels the craze. In the U.S. alone, more than half a million people have completed a marathon. Almost 7,000 runners joined me at the starting line for Grandma’s Marathon.

The field of runners caught me by surprise. There were plenty of tall, lean runners at the head of the pack, but from where I stood in the cozy middle, I was surrounded by everyday people: short, wide, old and young. Some boasted it was their 50th marathon. For others like me, it was their first.

“I don’t know if I can do this,” I told my friends during the national anthem.

“Of course you can,” they said. “You’ve done all the training. Your body will know what to do.”

We hit mile 1 and laughed. Only 25.2 miles left!

Around mile 7, I realized my running pals were right. My body knew what to do. Sure, I had 19 miles to go, but I had this thing. I had never felt better.

The crowd was inspiring. They waved fantastic posters (My favorite: "This is the WORST parade ever"), rang their cowbells and cheered us on. They handed out Jolly Ranchers, sliced oranges, wet sponges, even a pile of cooked bacon.

For the last 15 miles, I ran with an injured knee. I took the race one mile at a time, never looking past the next mile marker. I allowed myself a 30-second walk at each mile.

At mile 17, with “Eye of the Tiger” playing on my iPod, I thought to myself, “This hurts like the dickens. I’ve never had so much fun.”

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