About a week and a half ago, my world turned upside down. Actually, it turned right side up. It was Sunday morning and I woke up at 3:30am, excited, nervous and energized. I had all my clothes laid out the night before and semi-quickly threw them all on. I popped my sprouted wheat bagel in the toaster and a minute later slathered it with peanut butter. By 4:15am I was out the door and headed to the train that would take me to downtown San Diego.
Sitting on the train, I munched away at the peanut buttery pastry and gabbed with fellow passengers about the event of the day. “I see you’re doing the full,” stated the woman who sat in the seat facing mine, “how many have you done?”
“This is my first,” I replied with nervous yet confident energy.
“Wow! What time are you going for?” asked the friend who sat next to her.
“Honestly, I’m just hoping that I don’t die.”
We laughed. That joke was my standing reply to just about any question regarding the marathon I was about to take on that day. Along the train ride to the event, I was comforted by waves of strength, allowing my muscles to assure me, “We are ready.” Conversely, I was assaulted by waves of concern, as I recalled images of marathoners collapsing from years before.
But alas, I arrived at Balboa Park, where behind the starting line 30,000 participants in the ½ and full Rock and Roll marathon were collected. Music was blasting and the buzz in the air was exhilarating. Everyone was friendly, from the medics dressed as Elvis-es, to the lady wearing a garbage bag to keep herself warm in the porta-potty line.
I eventually found my boyfriend, who 6 months earlier had agreed to follow me in training for the event. We made way to our corral, 4, and met our two other friends who we had done our training with. All of us had the same look on our faces – unbelievably excited but also realizing 26.2 miles is crazy…so a bit mad-hatter.
At 6:15am, the gun went off and we finally hit the pavement. .2 miles into it, a man dressed as a court jester was dancing in the middle of our path. He was dancing and cheering, holding a huge sign that said. “.2 down, only 26 to go!” My friends and I all looked at each other and laughed.
About another mile in, we hit Hillcrest, and in the center divider 8 or 9 bearded men were dressed like female cheerleaders, donning short skirts paired with shirts stuffed cartoonishly with boob-like balloons. They danced and flailed their pom-poms hysterically, cheering louder and more enthusiastically than any of the many, many groups of actual high school cheerleaders along the way.
Just after mile 7 we were headed out of Little Italy, and into a tunnel under the 5 freeway. A DJ was blasting beats just in front of the tunnel, and as I descended into the cave, her beats cascaded through the hollowed concrete like enveloping sound waves. The air was pulsating all around me not only from the sound, but also from the flashing LED lights lined through the tunnel, flickering with coordinated light movement that made that Sunday morning feel like the late night hours of the world’s hottest night club.
I was feeling great. The streets were lined shoulder-to-shoulder with supporters, and around every mile there was a band or DJ blasting music. The bib pinned to the front of my shirt had my name on it, and supporters often took the time to read my name and cheer, “GO JONI!!!!” The support from complete strangers was honestly one of the driving forces that kept my legs moving.
And that was very needed by around mile 16. Up until then I had no trouble flying up and down hills, but somewhere around Clairemont I was starting to feel my legs. That’s when the real mental games began playing, as I came to realize there’s another 10 miles to go and I was really nowhere near finishing.
But that particular wave of fatigue passed, and I made it to Friars road. Friars is a long stretch of garbage nothing in Mission Valley, so that’s when I realized I had better put in my headphones. After a few songs in, the “My Chemical Romance” song Welcome to the Black Parade came on. I promise my taste in music is normally more sophisticated than that, but I do love that song. It’s very anthemic and epic, just what you need when you’re testing your physical limits, so I let myself get into the lyrics and forget that I was still running:
We’ll carry on,
We’ll carry on.
And though you’re dead and gone believe me,
Your memory will carry on,
We’ll carry on.
And in my heart I can’t contain i,t
The anthem won’t explain it.
It took some effort to stop tears from falling down my cheeks, as I looked up and knew my Dad was somewhere in the clouds watching me run the greatest physical challenge of my life, cheering me on as he had all the years before. What can I say, I was on mile 19, anything was going to make me emotional. I instead channeled that energy and put it into my legs, stepping it up to hasten my pace a little quicker. I am confident he gave me that extra boost, with his hand on my back urging me to press forward.
At last I made it to the end of Friars but knew what was next…mile 20 and the 163. For months I had been dreading the 163, the portion of the race that covered the steep freeway, and the biggest hill of the marathon. This was certainly my monster to be reckoned with, as I really, really ridiculously am terrible at running hills. My hips lock up, my knees enjoy colliding, my lungs begin gasping and my heart threatens to explode.
But dammit I made it and found myself in the last stretches of the race. Around mile 23 people started cheering that I was “Almost there!” I was ready to stop and slap each and every one of them, as I knew damn well there were 3.2 miles to go. But they handed me water and Gatorade so I let them yell their nonsense.
At last, I saw the jester from mile .2…but this time he was at mile 26. He was cheering and dancing with just as much energy as he had 26 miles ago, but this time I was happy to see that instead his sign said, “26 down, only .2 to go!” I smiled and laughed, and am pretty sure I have never been so happy to see anyone again.
I looked up and in a small crane directly above me, cameras were flashing. I spread my arms wide and made peace signs with a giant grin. One of the cameramen gave me a thumbs up in approval, who I saw got the shot.
The crowd was now densely thick with people, as I learned later that 90,000 supporters turned out to line the streets with colorful signs and good will. Music was pumping, the commentator was screaming, and I could finally see the finish line. I reached deep into my now heavy wooden legs and with fury and exhilaration I stepped it up to a sprint. Complete strangers cheered me on those final steps as at last I crossed the finish line.
“I FUCKING DID IT!!!” I gasped to myself. One volunteer heard me and laughed as she handed me a water. I allowed another volunteer to place the coveted medal around my neck, and somehow I mustered out a “Thank you.” The area was absolutely packed with volunteers, supporters and runners. Everywhere I turned someone was trying to hand me something to hydrate or feed me, from Powerbars to chocolate milk to more glorious Gatorade. Camera people were frigging everywhere asking to take my photo. I realize they worked for the race and would try to sell me the shots later, but I decided to pretend I was a famed athlete and they were ESPN trying to get a good shot from my race. I posed and enjoyed the attention.
I decided I should try and find my friends. I knew from a Facebook invite my boyfriend had created weeks ago that many were going to turn out to support us. When I arrived at the family reunion section for letter S, I spotted a couple of my friends – one who did the marathon and one who did the half. “We did it!” I shouted as I approached. They turned around as quickly as they could, which wasn’t quick at all, and were both beaming smiles of pride. I learned the one who did the marathon had PR’ed (runner speak for Personal Record) and the other who did the half was handed beers that he accepted for the last few miles of his race. I was equally proud of both.
As the minutes passed, more and more of my friends appeared, congratulating me on my run. I was often asked my time, which I proudly could say was 04:18. Not too shabby for a first marathon in which you were hoping not to die. I chatted and bantered, but was anxiously looking for my boyfriend. He was nowhere.
“Where’s Scott?” I kept asking. I learned he was at the finish line and had wanted to see me cross. It was nice to realize that I ran faster than other people’s expectations.
“He’s on his way over here,” one of my girlfriends assured me confidently. So I chugged some more Gatorade and considered if I would ever bother doing another marathon again. While I was arguing with my exhausted muscles who pleaded with me never to put them through that again, I saw my tall, sweaty boyfriend approaching. “Finally!” I thought.
He was making his way through our now large group of friends and I couldn’t help myself but squeal, “WE DID IT!” I had my hands up in the air and gave him an awkward high five that somehow morphed into a hug.
He nodded, “Yeah” to my comment, but then didn’t seem to really want to talk about the race when I asked him about his time.
“Joni, there’s another reason why all our friends are here.” He said somewhat loudly and clearly nervously. All our friends heard and backed into a very neat circle around us. “Joni, we have been through everything together, highs and lows, we have now even run a marathon together.”
This is when I realized what was happening. My eyes widened and my already fatigued heart completely stopped. Out of the corner of my eye I saw my friends reacting similarly, holding up their phones to take pictures and slapping their hands over their mouths. A man with a giant camera was also filming, and I decided not to let my mind wander into what and who the hell that was.
Scott said some more words I can barely recall, and then got down on one knee. All around us men were cheering and women were cooing, as I stood there with my jaw dropped and my legs about to collapse. Scott opened a box, exposing a gorgeous diamond solitaire, simultaneously saying the iconic words, “Will you marry me?”
I tried to find my voice, but the squeaks I was able to mutter were inaudible. Giving up I nodded as quickly as possible a “yes,” smiling and determined to make sure he knew how excited I was. Now for every other girl in my situation that’s not very difficult to muster, but I had just run a marathon and I was just trying to see straight.
My now classic head nod was accepted and he placed the ring on my finger. I forgot there were other people near us but was reminded with they erupted in emphatic cheering. My eyes unlocked from Scott’s and looked around the giant crowd that had formed about us. I started waving and stammering, unsure what to say but wanting to say it all.
Turns out the guy with the giant camera was a newsman from NBC, and I was happy to learn that the little snoop had caught the whole thing. Trying to hold back Anchorman jokes, I accepted when he promptly requested an interview. I am confident that I sounded like a complete moron, but I was thrilled that our raw emotions were captured to always remember.
I am fairly decent at being able to articulate myself, but I will never be able to describe the cocktail of emotions I felt that day. After the newsman had left, my friends and I went to celebrate downtown. Somehow later I was at a rooftop pool, surrounded with amazing people, a diamond on my finger and a medal around my neck. In the same day I had met my greatest physical challenge and accepted the greatest love.
I don’t know how I have become so lucky, but all I can say is…YES.