Samantha passed the twenty mile marker with a small smile, followed by a slight wince. Every knew “thwack” her shoes made on the pavement sent a sharp pain from the balls of her feet to her lower back. Her arms, sore from the hours of swinging in rhythm with her legs, felt like they would come off her body. Her quads were chunks of metal beneath her skin. Her mind was numb from concentration. She could already tell that hers would be a long recovery.
“Only six more miles to go!” an onlooker shouted from behind the concrete barriers. Samantha shot a glare towards the crowd. “Only?” she thought. Six more miles was going to be well over another hour of running for her.
Up ahead was a water table. Volunteers, dressed in “Virginia Has Hope” T-shirts, handed out half-filled plastic cups of water and Gatorade.
Samantha took a cup of water. “Thanks,” she muttered to the volunteers. She drew a long sip and then poured the rest over her head. A cup of Gatorade was offered. This she sipped from several times before throwing the cup to the ground.
“You can do this.” She told herself. “You can do this.”
In her head, she practiced telling her ex-husband about her race. They were meeting on Wednesday to settle a few last details before parting for forever. He hadn’t seen her in months. She preferred to do all their talking through lawyers. The last time she had seen Terry, she was fifty pounds heavier. She had lost seventy pounds total since their breakup. She smiled at the thought. Would he look surprised when he saw her? Had any of their mutual friends mentioned her weight loss? Probably. But nothing would beat the look of surprise on his face when he actually saw her.
After his initial shock, she knew Terry would ask about her weekend. It was such a mundane question, and Terry was a bit mundane. “Oh, nothing much. Just ran a marathon.” She hoped she could say it casually. She hoped he would choke, just a little, on a bit of bread as she said it. Not enough to harm him, just enough to see him look silly.
Theirs was an unremarkable break-up, and maybe that’s why it had hurt so much. They had been married for four years, got married right out of college. There were no children and only a handful of possessions, so the actual divorce had gone quite smoothly. It was more businesslike than emotional.
They did the actual breaking up in his office. He invited her there, under the guise of a nice lunch, and then proceeded to tell her that he no longer needed a wife.
“Is it another woman?” she asked. Sitting on the opposite side of the desk from him, she felt too numb to cry.
“No. I’m not currently seeing anyone.”
“Because I noticed your secretary is very pretty.” She was clawing inside her purse for one of two candy bars she had stashed there.
“She is, but I didn’t hire her. Actually, I may be firing her soon. She’s incompetent.”
Samantha unwrapped her candy bar and took a bite. She chewed slowly in the silence, like a cow chewing cud, she thought.
“You really should try to lose some weight. If for no other reason, than for your health.”
She looked down at herself, at her white dress. She looked over her smallish boobs, over the round ball of her belly, down to her milky thighs. They were like two pillowcases stuffed with cottage cheese.
“I’m trying,” she mumbled through the candy bar.
“I see. I’ll come by to get my things tonight. You don’t need to be there, unless you want to be.”
She waited for a moment, expecting… something. Anything. An argument to sporadically break out, for tears to run down her own cheeks, for her husband to just come out and call her fat. But none of those things happened. Instead, her husband bent down back to his papers. “I’ll be in touch,” he said as a way of dismissal.
Mile 22. Twenty-four minutes later. Her legs hurt. Her back hurt. Her head was throbbing. Another cup of water, another of Gatorade, another pair of discarded cups forgotten on the ground behind her. This time, there wasn’t even a muttered “thank you” to the volunteers, not enough energy.
Her fellow runners made quiet pitter-patter steps on the pavement; their faces looking downward, as if compelling their legs to move, move, move. The hush was shattered by a scream up ahead. A man, maybe in his thirties, wrapped his hands around the top of his right thigh, and fell to the ground, hard. His running partner, a woman about the same age, dropped down beside him. Samantha watched as the woman tenderly massaged the sore muscle. The man’s face contorted in anguish. Two volunteers ran over with water and Gatorade. One volunteer had, Samantha strained to see it, a salt shaker.
She bit her lip hard. She’d have to walk in a moment, but at least the cramps hadn’t hit her too bad. She’d heard of that, of cramps hitting so hard you couldn’t run, couldn’t move, could only sit down and feel pain. She’d felt like that, herself, once before.
She stopped by two different fast food restaurants on her way home form their break-up meeting. Bags of fries, burgers, fried chicken and tater tots rested on the table, accompanied by three sodas and a giant chocolate milk shake with extra whipped cream. She sat down to eat, and eat, and eat.
Helen, her sister, stopped by to check on her. Her sister was tall and skinny, not like a model, more like a gangly, thin ogre. Helen stared at the empty wrappers cluttered on the table. “Don’t you think you’ve had enough?” Samantha didn’t answer. It wasn’t until hours later, when she lay in bed with a stomachache, that she found her sister’s question funny. “Don’t you think you’ve had enough?” Isn’t that what you ask an alcoholic?
Blisters had formed near the big toes on both feet. Big, fat blisters full of pus. She could feel them developing, the heat and the burning, but she was powerless to stop it. “Just keep going,” she told herself. “Just keep going. You have to keep going.”
She was surrounded by sweaty runners, some still running, some hunched over. People drank water and thick liquids from bottles tucked into fuel belts. Some were stretching on the side of the road, trying to massage their muscles. She read the pain and determination in all their eyes. The race had started five hours ago. These were not the elite athletes or the serious six mile a minute marathon runners. These were the new runners, the older runners, the slower “doing it finish the race” runners. These were her people.
It was weeks after her husband left her that Samantha first entertained the idea of running. She was lounging on the couch watching a blank TV screen, eating cold pizza from the previous night’s delivery binge. It was seven a.m.
Samantha sat staring at a blank TV, her hand lifting piece after piece of pizza to her mouth, the movements automatic and fluid. She hadn’t even noticed that the TV was turned off. If it had been on, surely the volume would have drowned out the patter of running shoes on the pavement outside.
It sounded like rain at first, with a few grunts like mumbled thunder. She looked out the window, expecting to see little droplets splashing into newly formed puddles. Instead, she saw tight, lean bodies dressed in brightly colored spandex shorts and tank tops run down her street. It was the county’s annual 10k. She knew of it, but she usually dedicated that morning to sleeping in. No one needed a reminder of their own apathy.
By that point, her brain was on auto-pilot. Terry had come, grabbed his things, given their messy house one last sneer and taken off. She had eaten her way through the pain and into a comatose type of mental vacation. She hadn’t showered nor gone to work for most of that week. She hadn’t really thought about her life or about her marriage to Terry, her college sweetheart. She certainly hadn’t thought of her future. In fact, she had thought of very little.
In that moment, the mind deafening numbness finally broke, and was replaced by a bitter rage. She rocked backward to gain momentum then launched herself off the couch. She was dizzy and disoriented; she had been lying in the same position for an hour, since she had grabbed the pizza.
Samantha steadied herself then charged down the driveway, her stomach and breasts jiggling loosely under the thin layer of cotton. “You get out of here!” she screamed at the runners. “You get out of here!”
At first, they didn’t notice her. Their eyes were glued on the road ahead.
“Nobody wants you here! We’re trying to sleep! We’re good people!”
The runners glanced at her with looks of intense fear and anger. She had worked herself up into quite a state. Her face was red, tears running down her cheeks. She was trying to run beside them, trying to chase them away from her home.
“You’re like a bunch of animals!” She huffed and puffed, going at a fraction of their pace. She made it half a block before her anger gave way to exhaustion. She sat on the sidewalk and heaved in air. Catching her breath, she watched the runners. She watched, them go by, one by one, not yelling anymore. Something about them struck her. Something that was different. They seemed… happy.
Some were smiling, some were running together and talking. Some looked grimly determined, but with a sense of purpose.
She wondered why anyone would wake up early and run a race on a perfectly good Saturday. Why were they all happier than she was? Why was she so miserable? She didn’t even like Terry that much, well, not anymore at least, not since his life had become the office. Not since he’d become an executive. Not since he told her she needn’t attend office parties with him because people would stare at his fat wife.
Samantha went back inside, pulled out an ancient pair of jogging pants, a pair of sneakers, a sports bra that was too small and an old t-shirt. She went outside, safe from embarrassment now that all the runners had passed, and went for a jog. She walked and jogged for less than half a mile. She felt her muscles for the first time in years. She looked down at her legs, and was surprised by how quickly they could move. She made her way home and threw away the rest of the pizza.
Mile twenty-four. More water, more Gatorade. Feet: hurting. Back: hurting. Quads: hurting. Calves: hurting. Arms: hurting. Two miles left. “I can do two miles. I can do two miles. I can do two miles. Just finish. Just finish.” She wasn’t just saying the words now, she was pounding them out in the air.
The sidewalks were still thick with spectators. Most of them were probably friends and family of the slower runners. They were cheering, clapping, their faces bright and shiny. It seemed like the worse the runners looked, the happier the crowd got.
Samantha returned her attention to herself. She felt better with their cheering, but only a little. “You can do this!” she said loudly.
“You can do this.” A runner pulled up next to her. She was thinner, a little younger and healthier looking. The woman said it again to Samantha, “You can do this. Just hang in for two more miles.” The woman smiled brightly and then jogged ahead.
The running hadn’t gone well in the beginning. Samantha, at two hundred and twenty-three pounds, wasn’t used to the discipline. She wasn’t used to the constant pounding or the degree of effort. Her heart would beat rapidly at the beginning of a run, sometimes causing her to panic and cry.
She started with a small goal, to run a mile. She could only make it a block at first. She would run a block, walk two blocks, then run another block. It took more than a week of attempts before she could run several blocks in a row.
A few weeks later, she made it a mile. She celebrated by visiting a running store. Nothing had scared her more. Here she was, two hundred and fifteen pounds now, and she had the audacity to walk into a running store. Would they laugh at her? Would they be phony and polite to her and then mock her after she left? She walked right past the front door her first trip there. She paused and did some window shopping the next day. It wasn’t until the third day that she was able to propel herself through the door and into the shop.
“Can I help you?”
It was only a voice behind the counter. Samantha was too disoriented by the racks of running gear and mannequins in spandex to notice a human in the room. She turned to see a disturbingly thin man.
“I just started running,” Samantha said, her voice a little shaky.
“Do you need some gear?” the skinny guy asked smiling.
“I think so. I’ve just been using some old tennis shoes.”
“Let’s get you some real shoes.”
She had expected laughter, or for his eyes to glaze over in retail-politeness. But instead, he helped her find some running shoes and a few outfits. He told her about dry wicking material and how it would help her stay cool on her runs.
Samantha told him how she was finally able to run for a full mile. She couldn’t keep the pride out of her voice, but he didn’t seem to mind.
“What are you training for?” the guy asked smiling.
“Oh, I don’t race.”
“You don’t now, but you should think about it. There’s a 10k coming up. Lots of fun.”
“How long is that?”
“Six point two miles. Not too bad.”
Samantha accepted a brochure politely.
“What are you training for?” she asked, assuming this was what runner’s talked about.
“Marathon. I’m trying to qualify for the Olympic team.” He didn’t smile as he said it, just nodded his head as if agreeing with himself.
Samantha stared at him, not sure what to say. She blushed, her cheeks growing rosy. She had heard of these people, the real runners. “Olympics?”
“Yeah. It’s an uphill battle. Wish me luck.”
“I can’t believe I just gushed about a mile. You must think I’m an idiot.”
“If you run then you’re a runner.”
“Thanks. That’s nice of you. I’m sorry, I don’t think I got your name?”
“Aaron the runner.”
She nodded, and attempted to smile as she paid for the outfits and shoes. He tapped her hand as she handed him the credit card.
His smile had returned. “You should check out some running magazines, they always have good tips.”
Mile twenty-five. She had to stop, to walk for just a minute. Her legs, how could they carry her any farther? How could she ask them to? Hadn’t they done enough?
She tried to stop it, but tears sprang to her eyes. It wasn’t fear or shame, but exhaustion that brought them on. She found herself sipping water, wiping away sweat, tears, and snot, and thinking about her life. She thought of herself, just a year ago. She was fat, she could say that now. She was depressed, bored, and lonely. Terry may have set the divorce in motion last year, but he had left her long before that. He spent most of their marriage at the office, not returning home until very late at night. She had lost touch with the few friends she had from college. Some lived in the area, but they were busy with careers and children. She tried to be social, going to the occasional happy hour with coworkers, but she found herself with little to talk about. A year ago, Samantha was desperately alone.
She began to do a mixture of jogging and limping. “One more mile,” she said through gritted teeth. Her stomach was hurting now, too. Maybe too much water, maybe too little.
Runners passed her on either side. This happened at every race she ran, and she had done a few by now. Some runners save up a little extra for the last mile, so they can run it with pride. Not
Samantha, she ran every mile as hard as she could. Her finishing time wasn’t much slower than those runners, but she had to push herself harder that last mile than they ever would.
Training for her first 10k was harder than she’d expected. She’d found a training schedule on line. She ran four days a week: one long run of over four miles, one speed run where she had to alternate between a slow jog and a run, and twice a week she did a three to five mile run at a slower pace. At first, there had been a lot of walk breaks, but she slowly eliminated those.
She also found a lot of recipes and nutrition tips. She swore off fast food and sweets. She ate a salad every day, come hell or high water. She cooked. Samantha never cooked before and now she was making nightly dinners and they were good. She drank water, lots of water.
At the 10k, she was one hundred eighty pounds. She ran the six point two mile race in an hour and fifteen minutes. She told no one, but signed up for another race.
She went back to the running store to get more clothes, another pair of shoes and to ask for some tips. Aaron was there, and he remembered her. She thanked him for referring her to the 10k, and told him she was almost ready for her second one, which was a week away. She was one hundred and sixty-five pounds, the lightest she’d been since college.
“You look great,” Aaron said, the smile broader than ever.
She gushed. She told him how she’d lost a ton of weight, how she’d never felt better. He smiled through it all and asked her out on a date. She said yes.
Half a mile to go. There was Aaron, holding a sign for her. She could make him out through the blur of tears. He was there. He was there and she was happy and she was going to finish this race. Here she was, finishing a marathon, and she was one-hundred and fifty pounds. She was mostly muscle, her belly was flat and her ass was perky. She was still chubby in areas, but no one’s perfect.
She had an apartment now, the house was on the market. She had a boyfriend and she’d even made some new friends when she joined a local running club. This was her life now, this was Samantha.
She crossed the finish line and almost collapsed. Someone shoved a water bottle in her hand. She sucked in half the bottle then heaved it back out over a railing. Fresh tears filled her eyes as she stood back up and faced the world. It had taken everything out of her, but she’d ran the twenty six point two miles. Every step was her own. Every single step.