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The first hill is a killer, straight up. But what a location for a marathon! Bluffs and cliffs and country club greens along the ocean. We pass a tall old man and a small skinny boy wearing yellow t-shirts that say Team Al Corwin, 81. The old man, Al, is indeed 81. He has done 50 marathons in his life so far. The boy is his great grandson, who is 10. Somewhere on the path are his daughter and three grandsons, although I think they’re runners.

Another sight I love are the barefoot runners. There is a whole crew of marathoners who run barefoot, and they are something to see. Their feet are smooth and muscular, and they move swiftly and quietly, like indigenous ancestors from any country, if you go back far enough. They run a woodland run, whatever that might mean. I am totally taken by them, by the idea of them.

And our team has the sweetest couple. Gayle points them out to us. He’s a runner; she’s a walker; they’re probably in their late 60s. He runs the full course of the training (today the race), crosses the finish line, then doubles back to find her and walk her in. We all fall in love with him.

Without pushing too hard or coming down to hard, I manage to keep up with Gail and Anjali. Thankful, I think. Walk softly. Easy, I whisper.

It’s a hot day and at every water stop, half goes on me, half goes in me. It’s also my first day using my Amphipod fuel belt: four clips for eight-ounce water bottles, a small pouch for ID, a large one for snacks, and a hanging tube of sunscreen. It sits on my hips like a holster. When I first put it on, Beth circles me in admiration. “You’ve got a home entertainment center,” she declares. “Where’s the TV?” But I love my Amphipod; I almost can’t feel the weight of the water I’m toting.

Thirteen point one miles, and I am keeping up. Two miles to the finish line, Beth says, “Deb wasn’t injured, you know. She was in secret training.” I cross the finish line in three hours, 32 minutes. Not bad for recovering feet!

But not yet good enough for San Diego, says Bert the Coach.  Beth and I are just on the cusp, too close to tell, not fast enough to guarantee a finish, not slow enough to rule it out. We’re going to have to strategize, to consider our options. I know what he means by that. One option is to accept being diverted, plan for it even, so that at least we get to walk across the finish line instead of busing it from mile 19. I don’t like that one.

My finish-line high plummets. It’s so unfair. The Kona folk get nine hours to finish their course, no diversions. They should have made this clear when we picked our marathons. I don’t want to be diverted. And I don’t want to hurt myself. Beth is just as grumbled. We struggle with what to do all the way back up to the cars. I can feel the dark cloud of the past few weeks moving in like fog. “There has to be a middle way,” I tell her. “There has to be a way to give it our best and surrender the outcome.” But the dark cloud slides into the car with me as I turn onto the freeway.

The conversation with myself in the car goes like this: I have changed a lot in this training process. This is the marathon I chose. So how might the restrictions serve me? And what does the woman I have become need from all of this? Do I need know I’m going to walk across the finish line? Or do I need to know I’ve given it my best shot? I am not willing to bet against myself before I’ve even started. Kona would be a no-brainer for me (barring the heat). I have walked 19 miles. I know I can walk 26. With 9 hours, it’s a done deal. With 8 hours, even 7.5, it’s a done deal. An endurance test, absolutely. But, barring the unforeseen, a sure thing. San Diego ups the stakes. I can’t predict the outcome. I go in not knowing. Like a real athlete. Can I beat the clock or not? Maybe that’s what serves me…the not knowing. The very thing I’m struggling against. The thing that makes this what a marathon is…a race. And I can’t walk in fear of failing. But I can walk in joy. What would it mean to walk in joy? How far, and how fast, can joy carry me?

With every thought, the car gets lighter. I get lighter. I’m not even home and I know my choice.

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In 2005, I stunned myself by signing up to walk the San Diego Rock ‘n Roll Marathon on behalf of the American Stroke Association. This post is one of a series of reflections and Training Tales from that time. The whole series begins here.

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