The desperation of a Tel Aviv marathon runner
For almost six months I prepared myself "by the book" for my first ever full-length marathon, but there was something illegible in that book, which my body couldn't read.
That wasn't how I imagined my first ever marathon. Thoughts raced through my head on Thursday night, imagining a totally different ending to the one I faced the following day: I rapidly sail through my final 2 kilometers, cross the finishing line and throw my arms in the air, having finished the race in great time, with a smile from ear to ear. After about six months of meticulous and exhausting preparations, everything was supposed to end differently. Not for a moment did I even imagine the possibility that my body, being a body, would betray me in such an ugly and cruel way at the moment of truth.
What actually happened was that from the 21st kilometer and until the end of the marathon, at 42.195 kilometers, the race turned into one great fight for survival between me and my body: me demanding it to continue and it demanding we go home. Home!
Friday morning was perfect for a marathon. The weather, in contrast to a gloomy forecast, was mildly cool but not too cold. The site of the Tel Aviv Gillette Marathon looked exemplary. Lines and lines of toilets set up for all the thousands of runners, just waiting for a visit moments before the marathon was to start, so that competitors won't have to go along the way. Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai arrived to give his blessings, and everything looked ready for the perfect competition.
On the night before the marathon I had filled my stomach with pasta, exactly as the sports dietician prescribed, so that my would have enough available carbohydrates. In fact, for three days leading up to the race I engaged in what's called "carbohydrate loading" – increasing the servings of carbohydrates in every meal: more bread, more rice and, of course, pasta. Delightful. While daylight savings cut an hour off my sleep, that wasn't enough to have my body betray me. In the morning I ate sweet challah bread with honey, drank a cup of coffee, and off I went. I didn't forget to stretch, take catchy music.
In short, everything was done by the book.
I've always been crazy about running. Ever since I was young. But, until now, I sufficed with half marathons, or competitions of 10 kilometers, no more. After my last half marathon, which I wrote about in Haaretz, I received a message from "A," a security and basketball commentator and a fan of amateur long-distance running. In his message, "A" said, "If you want to cut the nonsense and start playing grown-up games (full marathons)" I should speak to him and he would prepare a training program for me.
A few years went by and that sentence didn't stop gnawing at my mind. My insulted male ego decided it was about time I face the real deal. "A" put together a training program that at first looked simple. But as the weeks passed, the load just got greater and my body more tired. I trained in rotations, increasing the intensity for three weeks and then resting on the fourth. The hardest week of all came at the start of March, and without even meaning to, I ran 93 kilometers in one week in Washington, at zero degrees Celsius on the banks of the Potomac River.
No matter how tiring and demanding the program, I didn't miss a single training session. And with the zealousness and determination of the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, I didn’t yield even 1 kilometer: slow runs, tempo, intervals and all. Miraculously, I didn't even get wounded (which is unusual for someone preparing for a marathon). From that week in Washington - when I ran 36 kilometers at in overwhelming feat - until the marathon in Tel Aviv, I considerably reduced the load, as per my training program. During the week before the marathon, for example, I ran only 45 kilometers.
Everything was by the book.
But something in that book was illegible for my body. The plan, written by "A" and myself, was to start the marathon at a pace that wasn't too fast, to speed up slightly after 10 kilometers and then, toward the end, to finish it off with whatever was left. And that was precisely what I did. While it was faster than my training, my body had received three weeks of rest leading up to the marathon, so I believed anything was possible.
I ran the first 10 kilometers according to the plan, and even the 10 that followed. But something wasn't working per usual already within the first few kilometers. My body felt heavy almost right from the start, my muscles started hurting after less than 10 kilometers, but I kept up according to the plan. I took the energy gels on time, the amino acid supplements and salt supplements – all like a Swiss clock. But the pace felt too fast and my body too tired. At around the 21st kilometer I decided to slow down, thinking if I wouldn't, the run become one long suffering.
So that's what I did. But no matter how much I slowed down, my body just got heavier and my muscles burned. I hadn't hit a classic "wall." It started too early to be a wall. But something in my body gave in. There were moments I thought about stopping. Vomiting. Running out onto the road and hailing a cab. The energy gels just made me even more nauseous, as did the water. The ambulances waiting in the park for people to collapse seemed tempting and inviting. Every drink stop became a burden on the body, not a refreshment (a note to the organizers: the idea of handing out cups of water is not good. The moment you take a cup, half of it has already spilt, and after that, as you run, the other half spills on you). The music I prepared in time for the race didn't manage to wake me up. I ran in silence. Just silence. I thought of the song, "From the Depths" by Idan Raichel. I felt as though I was in the depths. And I just kept sinking deeper and deeper. All sorts of weird thoughts went through my head. Suddenly, I thought of tahini and honey. In Kurdish they call it "Tchin and Dusha" but go find tchin and dusha in the Yarkon Park. The park ended and it was back to the city streets.
I must say that the streets of Tel Aviv have never seemed so long, threatening and torturous. But then I understood that that was it: it was time to forget about the results and just finish. Finish. Seven more to go. Six. Five kilometers before the end I finally understood I was going to finish this marathon. Until four. I reached the corner of Nordau and Yarkon streets, one last inclination and two last kilometers along the sea which looked like an eternity. I felt totally worn out.
On the horizon I could already see the compound. For the final 500 meters I was accompanied by "Y," a friend who by chance ran by me and decided to accompany me to the bitter end. I crossed the finish line swaying like a drunk, with spasms in every muscle, unaware that my legs still existed. I felt like I was about to fall, but "Y" managed to hold me up. I had finished. I finished a marathon. Forty-two stinking kilometers, and – how could I forget – 195 meters. That's it. The nightmare was over.
And what now? My body can hardly move. Totally weak. But "just wait," I tell my body. "We will meet again. At the next marathon."
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