Mile 24…

I’ve given you my recap of yesterday’s events as they happened, so I’m not recapping them again. I feel like I’ve got a marathon hangover, which at first seems weird, but as my friend Amy said, each runner is responsible for him/herself but we took care of 50,000+ runners. So it’s no wonder I feel so drained.

That said, I’ve been thinking about Mile 24, where I spent every minute of the day yesterday. About what it means to so many…about what it’s been to me.

From my experience both in volunteering at Mile 24 for three years and in having run three marathons, Mile 24 is really a microcosm of every possible emotion. You see them all there – not always in one person. Many people say that Mile 20 is the wall, but I contend that for many and in many cases, the wall is in fact Mile 24. As I told my squad yesterday before the first elite wheelchairs passed, you truly see every emotion at Mile 24.

Mile 24 can be that place where people want to give up. Yes, you’re only 2.2 miles from the end (but don’t you DARE say that to a runner – I did yesterday, but only because I knew the person I said it quietly to, and I knew she needed just that little push…that’s the only time it’s allowed – and you might still expect a smack if you say it), but that 2.2 can seem like an eternity. Especially when you’re in the back of the pack. You may never have gone that far before and your mind may start perseverating on that fact. You’re exhausted and just want to finish and get off the damn course. You know you have to keep putting one foot in front of the other if you want to finish, but you wonder if you can even move your foot an inch.

I saw plenty of that yesterday. Of people questioning if they could do it. We had two runners go down with cramps and others limp past who were visibly cramping. I don’t know where they went after passing us – if they stopped at medical or if they courageously kept going. But none of them dropped out in front of me.

Mile 24 can be that place where you realize that you’re actually doing it. That you really CAN finish what you set out to do so many weeks (and possibly months) before. The tears of happiness, of pride, and even of well-earned exhaustion start to flow as you realize that you’ve come this far and you’re going to finish. And if people are cheering you on, pushing you as they can, sometimes it makes the tears flow more.

I saw plenty of that yesterday as well. The woman who looked at me with gratitude as tears filled her eyes at my encouragement. The Achilles athletes who all gave me a reason to never say I can’t again. My friends who found me for a hug and encouragement helped to keep me going even as they say I helped them keep going. And while I don’t think I was still out there when he passed, the story of Jimmy Jenson inspires as well. Again, how can I say I can’t do it in the face of courage like that??

I’ve experienced both sides of Mile 24 – the desperation and the elation. And at Disney it can be both. At Disney, Mile 24 is around the Boardwalk, and there are almost always spectators out along that section, usually including a woman in an electric scooter who is at practically every Disney race holding a sign that says “Perfect stranger, I’m proud of you too!!” She and everyone lining the path encourage me to keep going even as the sight of Spaceship Earth in the distance shows me how close I am to the finish…and yet I know I have to go around the world to get there! Well, all the way around World Showcase anyway. And I know if I’ve made it to that point, I can keep going, that I’m really almost there (even if I don’t want to hear it!).

And then there was Chicago 2012. Chicago where I’d started so well and so strong only to hit a divot and jar my knee enough my ITB started aching. And then cool winds on warm muscles causing cramps. I’d gotten stretched at Mile 21 or 22 and was managing. And then things all fell apart. I’d randomly met up on course with a couple of running club teammates who are usually much faster than me, spoken briefly and then been left in the dust. Not unexpected, but at around Mile 23 and with it (I choose to believe) happening to coincide with photographers close by, my brain went to worst-case scenario of “They don’t want any proof that they were anywhere near slow, slow me” (in spite of the funky starting arrangements they had that year where it was very likely that a lot of Wave 2 would have passed me and have better times despite starting after me) and just spiraled down so that by Mile 24 I was choking on sobs and ready to walk off the course and wait for the sweep vehicle. And then I heard a woman yelling my name and encouraging me to keep going. I looked over at her and her friends and they all screamed my name and said variations on “You’ve GOT this baby girl! You keep going!!” like angels sent from on high. Somehow I was able to get control of my sobs and keep going. And I finished. But I still wonder in my heart if I would have kept going if they hadn’t been there.

So for me, Mile 24 is really the wall. For me, it’s the make or break point in the race, that precipice of “I can’t do this” and “Holy shit, I CAN do this.” And that’s why I love being at Mile 24 – even if I sometimes question belonging to my club (another story for another day). For one day – one very long and emotionally exhausting day – I can do my part to be even a tiny part of someone’s journey. I can give back – pay it forward so to speak.

Mile 24 for me is really a microcosm of the marathon. And as such, I love being there to experience and encourage all that that mile marker entails.

Mile 24, I love you and I hate you. And you will continue to be my home in the NYC Marathon.

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