It all started with a phone call late January 2008.
At the time I was in a cab en route to hospital for what I imagined was to be a “minor procedure”. I answered my cell phone and on the line was my good friend Johann. “Great news” he exclaimed, “you and I are enrolled for the New York marathon in November, and I’m really very excited! This is the opportunity of a lifetime, a great adventure for the two of us, and a unique bonding experience…” “How fantastic” I responded not giving it a second thought. Never did I vaguely contemplate the consequences of the news I had just received, nor did I even have the slightest interest. My mind was firmly focussed on the surgeon’s scalpel that awaited me, and all I could think of was impending doom.
A marathon, how bizarre? After all I was an exercise phobic, unmotivated, former smoker turned couch potato. The last time I had done any serious long distance training, was over 23 years ago, when I was definitely a lot younger, and definitely in a lot better shape!
In retrospect, were it not for the ridiculous circumstances in which I found myself at the time of the phone call, my reply to Johann would certainly have been a lot more considered. Most definitely it would have contained a few more expletives and what’s more, our ongoing friendship would have been in serious jeopardy! A marathon, how absurd….
Fortunately the conversation was quickly forgotten, as I drifted in and out of my post operative stupor. In fact, so bizarre was the notion of me completing a marathon, that I determined the entire conversation to be a figment of my imagination. Most certainly the by product of a very peaceful, hallucinogenic dream!
It turned out that the “minor procedure” ended up being a bit more serious than I had expected. What I thought would be a quick “in and out” of hospital, became major surgery, followed by a long and painful recovery. Needless to say, the marathon in November was the last thing on my mind as I tried to regain my strength as best as I could.
Unfortunately (or fortunately as it transpired!) my personal trainer Kristina got wind of this ridiculous notion of me running a marathon. “We’d better start getting you into shape soon” she said supportively, as I battled my way to recovery, “there’s a 26.2 mile race to be run, and November’s not that far away!”.
Stumbling into the gym a few weeks after surgery, I was so weak that I could barely do 3 push ups, let alone walk on the treadmill.
“8 months to go” said Kris, “we need to get you in peak shape. You’re going have to start working, and soon!”
And so it started, the transformation was about to begin. Very slowly at first, tiny steps forward towards a gradual and painful recovery. Each day however marked a steady progression, regaining strength, appetite, fitness and endurance. Gradually the process speeded up and results started to show.
Through it all, I had the tremendous support and commitment of my dedicated trainer Kris. Constantly working on my schedules and training routines. Motivating and encouraging. Planning speed work, hill work and even volunteering to run with me a few times a week.
What was once a dauntingly impossible task started to become more and more of a reality. As time went by I began to think of myself as a runner, and suddenly, I realized that it was all coming true. The idea of actually completing my first marathon, after all these years, was no longer as farfetched and bizarre as when it was first proposed!
Positive things were happening, with tangible results! I started to believe in myself and my ability to succeed. Most importantly, I felt confident that I could overcome all the challenges that lay ahead of me, provided I could stay injury free.
My support was incredible and training weeks turned into training months. Time passed quickly, and the reality of a November start was setting in.
Schedules and routines were followed religiously. Running distances got longer and longer, and the sound of feet pounding the sidewalk became all too familiar. Great personal achievements followed. Milestones previously unthinkable, started to become my new reality.
First it was a new personal best 200m, then 400m, then 800m and next it was a 5km time trial. Then a record breaking 10km run, followed by a great half marathon. Before I even knew it, I had a 32km run under my belt and was only 10kms short of my ultimate goal, the ING New York Marathon! “Wow” I said to myself, “I am actually going to do this!”
Race week arrived and I found myself boarding a plane bound for New York. In hand a running magazine which I had just purchased. Glancing through I read a truly motivational story about the race I was about to run. Tears came to my eyes as the reality finally sunk in. Great idea I thought, perhaps after I’m done I’ll write my own story. If only to motivate one more person, my time will be well spent! And so the decision was made…
Race day came, and we woke up real early after a fitful sleep. So early in fact that back home in the West, the clock had just turned midnight. I was so excited, the butterflies abounded. Little could I contemplate the life altering experience that lay ahead!
Boarding a bus, we arrived at Staten Island for a frustrating 5 hour wait. Sadly, very ill prepared, as the pre-dawn temperatures dropped and the wind howled. No rain fortunately but if I can advise anyone in the future, it would be to not underestimate this integral part of your preparations…
Time passed slowly, teeth were chattering and conversations were few. Our only thoughts focussed on the road ahead.
At 10:20 am exactly, we waited for the final wave to start. I rubbed my eyes to get rid of the tears that welled up inside. Bursting with pride I crossed the official start line, running into the great unknown ahead. “Savour the moment” I thought to myself, “live the day and soak it all in!”
The crowds were phenomenal and locals packed the streets. The support from strangers was heart warming, with acts of goodwill from every direction. Oranges, cookies and abundant enthusiasm. Passionate encouragement and empathetic respect.
“Go Harris go” I heard them call throughout the route, “come on Harris” they screamed, as I ran through the pain. Up the hills and over the bridges. Through the tunnels and along wide pavements, often 10 or 20 runners abreast. Never did I feel alone, never unduly stressed and certainly never unmotivated!
Coming out of the Queens Borough Bridge I felt, for the only time in my life, what a star quarterback feels like running into a super bowl. The roar of the crowd was deafening and the cheers so incredibly motivating that I even increased my pace. Never once did I doubt myself and all I could think was “Wow…. all this for me…!”
High fiving the kids as we passed band after band. Smiling policemen, cheering volunteers and of course, the odd broken down athlete. Despite the rising fatigue and the burning in my feet I kept on going. “Another drink, another gel, another few miles…and you’re there…”
Next thing I knew, I was at the entrance to Central Park. “Almost” I said to myself, increasing speed for the last time. “You’re going to do it…. from impossible to reality; you’re actually going to do it…” And once again, the tears!
In front of me stood the finish line and the official clock was telling me I was just a few seconds over 4 hours. That feeling of elation, like I was walking on air! A goal achieved…an incredible day…. a moment to remember forever!
And then the pain; the Advil, the ice cold bath and the massage…
Next day all the finishers walked around town proudly displaying their medals, like badges of honour. Some limped, some hobbled but all wore huge toothy smiles. It felt great, to be part of it all. Part of a winning team of athletes gathered from all parts of the world. Different languages, different cultures celebrating incredible personal achievements. All basking in our respective success.
The weeks that followed were somewhat frustrating. The high passed, and reality quickly set back in again. The race was fast becoming a distant memory. The months of training were finally done.
Laying low, re-running strategy over and over in my head, and not doing any exercise at all. “You’ve got to give your body a break” said Kris, “you deserve to take it easy”
And now, two months later my story is finally written. Right back into exercise mode again, right back to my new “normal”. My life forever changed.
Goals for the New Year have been set, another marathon and now, even a triathlon. You see, 23 years later not only am I back, but finally, I’m an athlete! Hooked again, and loving every moment…