I am a flailing giraffe.

I found this essay I wrote after my first marathon while scouring my laptop for old papers I can use as a writing sample for grad school apps.  Anyways, I liked it.  Enjoy.

I am not a pretty runner.  I’ve spent my life watching other people fly by, their feet barely seeming to touch the ground, bodies in such obviously natural motion that it seems they were designed expressly to run, specifically past me.  When I run, on the other hand, to the outside observer the experience looks nothing short of painful.  Graceful I am not.  My knees turn in, so on every stride you can nearly see my hips, knees and ankles straining under the impact.  I pronate horribly, and my right foot inexplicably flails outward.  When I run through town, friends honk from far away, recognizing my gait long before they can see my face.

For the first eighteen years of my life this was not a problem.  I come from a family of jocks, both parents former marathoners, and my sisters all excel in various athletic endeavors.  For years I blamed my lack of coordination on the idea that I was secretly adopted, so different was I from my able-bodied siblings.  I turned to other pursuits, mainly theater and music, and longed to escape from my rural Maine town for the excitement of a big city.  Sometimes I envied those who could effortlessly kick a soccer ball in the direction it was intended, sprint around the track in a cloud of dust or ski for hours on end without feeling a searing pain in their quads, but for the most part my lack of athletic prowess didn’t bother me.

When I finally made it to the city, choosing a college smack in the middle of Manhattan, a strange thing happened.  I missed trees.  Stranger still, I felt cooped up in the endless streets and tall buildings.  I had spent my adolescence moaning about the lack of excitement in my tiny town, but now that I was in the center of excitement I missed the serenity of my old natural surroundings.  So Central Park became my oasis; I had to get there at least a few times a week to escape the madness of the city.  I started just jogging a loop or two around the reservoir, taking the subway there.  Soon I was no longer using the subway to get to the reservoir, but running the two miles or so to get there.  Not long after that I thought I would go a bit further, and ended up running the entire park.  By that time I was completely hooked.

The next summer I found myself back at home, bored, basically jobless and miserable.  I spent most of the day glued to the television and wishing I was back in New York.  Worse, in the busy end of freshman year I had pretty much stopped running, so I was back to the point of out of shape where it hurts to even think about going out for a few miles.  My younger sister, meanwhile, was training for a marathon.  Out of boredom more than anything else, I started doing long runs with her.  We started with loops near our house, but by the end of the summer I could comfortably run fifteen miles.  There was no aim in sight, I was running just for fun, because I could, and that surprised me.

My sister and I ran a few races that summer, and even though I was barely running faster than my usual training pace, I started to feel like I was a member of a very cool club.  I could now talk about the pain of blisters, the pleasure of the post-race bagel, and the sheer joy of crossing the finish line.  Never mind that I still looked like baby giraffe on speed while doing it; strangely, this didn’t seem to any of the other runners I met.  I didn’t have to be pretty or graceful as long as I made it to the finish like everybody else.  As soon as I got back to New York I joined a running club at school and started racing nearly every weekend.  I loved everything about it: the people, who seemed much more laid back than my usual theatrical crowd, the way my body had completely changed shape, and the satisfaction of reaching new PRs.  The beauty of being a beginner, of course, is that nearly every race is a PR.

Inevitably, I set my sights on the marathon.  Not just any marathon either, but the New York City marathon.  I trained hard all the following summer, running endless loops around Central Park.  Of course, there are drawbacks to running like a baby giraffe rather than a giselle.  When I went home right before school started I decided to run a sixteen mile loop that had a notorious mile-long hill about ten miles in.  Halfway up the hill, my left hip started to throb.  It hurt, but I thought if I could just make it up the hill I would be fine.  By the time I got there my entire left sidewas achy.  Still, I thought I could finish the run.  Which I did, but by the end I could barely walk.  Turns out I had managed to destroy not only my piriformis (a muscle buried underneath the glutes) but also my IT band.  Needless to say, the marathon was out of the question.

All through the fall I watched my running friends train, gleefully pounding the miles in the crisp October air, while I dutifully went to physical therapy twice a week.  I hated myself for not being more of a natural athlete.  I cursed my knock knees, my flat feet, and my weak hips.  How could I be a real runner, I wondered, if my entire body was fighting against it?  On the day of the marathon I bitterly stayed inside, working on a paper.  I could not bring myself to cheer on the friends who had stuck by my side through my injury-caused petulance.

Still, the date of the marathon came and went, and I was able to slowly start running again, bit by bit and frustratingly slow.  By the time the next summer rolled around I was in decent shape again and convinced that nothing would stand between me and Tavern on the Green.  Then, once again the third week of August hit, and suddenly I felt a weird pain in my leg, this time the right one.  Unlike the previous summer, I stopped before the pain became unbearable.  Diagnosis?  Severe tendonitis, which put pressure on one of the nerves in my calf, causing shooting pain up my whole leg.  Back to physical therapy I went, but this time I stated my goal up front: “I am training for the New York City marathon.  I am going to finish if it kills me, but I need your help to make sure I can run again afterwards.” The therapist sighed in acknowledgement of the shared insanity of the runners he was treating (four at the time) and told me that he’d do his best.

I lost three weeks of training, and in the end only got in one very long run, a twenty miler three weeks out from the race.  The week before I was a nervous wreck, worried that I would crap out, that I had lost too much training time, or that I would finish but break myself in the process.

November 5 dawned misty and a bit chilly.  I climbed onto the start bus with my teammates, stomach churning in a mixture of excitement and anxiety.  We were on one of the earlier buses, so I had three hours to sit with my friends and freak out.  But soon enough it was time to line up in the corrals, and my running buddy Violeta and I giddily made our way to the start.

The race itself was everything I had imagined, only better and far more painful.  Violeta and I had our names on our shirts, and it never got old hearing people cheer for us.  I felt like I was in the middle of a huge block party, and I was the feature act.  I lost Violeta on Queensborough bridge when she had to stop to use her inhaler, but my uncle ran with me from Brooklyn Academy of Music, and my aunt from First Avenue on.  I had two personal cheerleaders the entire way, and two million more along the course.  Amazingly, none of my injuries flared up, but around the Bronx I started to feel like there were daggers in my legs.  At one point I had the distinct perception that my right big toenail was completely gone.

By the time I got to Central Park, I could barely feel my lower body.  I heard people cheering my name and was more or less aware that I had run on this stretch of pavement many times before, but everything was blurring together.  I was finding energy from a source deep within me that I never knew existed, a source that no amount of pain or exhaustion could diminish.  Suddenly I was running faster, and though the finish line seemed eons away it no longer seemed impossible to reach.  I blazed down Central Park South, passing scores of runners who were limping along, looks of sheer determination on their faces.  Minutes later I was climbing the final hill up to Tavern on the Green.  I heard the roar of the crowd as I came through the last stretch.  I raised my arms as I crossed the finish, cracking the biggest grin I could muster.  A second later I burst into tears.

The cameras at the finish captured this very instant, the moment when my smile broke into a sob of triumph and relief.  That moment encapsulates the whole experience of the marathon for me.  To make it to Tavern on the Green, I had to endure countless long runs, painful physical therapy and a whole season of disappointment, not to mention the agony of the final miles of the race itself.  Still, what I gained in the process was the knowledge that I can do pretty much anything I put my mind and body to, in spite of and perhaps to some degree because of my flailing, knock-kneed legs.


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