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Last night I had several nightmares that I was running a on a road alone and almost got crushed by a van. I tried to go faster, but the van sped up behind me. Just as the vehicle got close, I woke up frightened. What was that about? Well, yesterday morning I decided to walk a half marathon (21 kilometers or 13.1 miles). A half marathon that I registered for several months ago, but hadn’t trained for. We all do silly things. This is a post about the most recent silly thing I’ve done.
I used to take great pride in telling people that I’ve finished 7 half marathons and have never come in last. Well, I now have to change that statement to “I’ve finished 8 half marathons and only came in last once.” Enough foreshadowing, let me tell you what happened. Some time in November I registered for the RAK Half Marathon, also known as the world’s fastest half marathon. I had a goal to beat my personal best time by training via walk run intervals. That never happened. What did happen was depression, isolation, a breakup, eating my feelings, weight gain, and then depression again. Vicious cycle. I tried intervals a few times, but the weight gain took a considerable toll on my body. I gave up on racing and was prepared to take a loss on my registration fee like I’ve done for 4 other races over the past year. Anyway, the day before the race, I woke up and decided I had had enough of giving up. I’ve done 7 half marathons – one of them with minimal training and at what was then my heaviest weight. Worst case scenario, I figured I could just walk it. The race cut off was 4 hours. I can definitely walk for 4 hours. So that’s how I found myself one chilly morning in Ras Al Khaimah at the start of a race I was woefully unprepared for.
I crossed the start about 2 minutes after the gun went off. Crowds of people were running by me with what seemed like lightning speed. Being the experienced half marathoner that I am, I knew better than to try and follow those people. Instead, I followed a fellow plus-sized woman with a pink Camelbak who had a nice trot going. As long as I could see her, I was good. She did her trot and I did my power walk not too far behind her. This worked well for about 5 kilometers (3.1 miles). And that’s when shit got real. My breathing became shallow, and I felt like I was moving through jello. In that moment, I became keenly aware that I had made poor wardrobe choices. Underneath my running capris, I was wearing a pair of CW-X Stabilyx capris. For those of you unfamiliar with CW-X, imagine running with a tight girdle on underneath another pair of support hose. I knew the compression was good for my legs because they felt great, but that’s where the benefits ended. Wearing two pairs of pants meant my stomach couldn’t expand fully and the range of motion around my upper legs was limited. I couldn’t stop to disrobe, so I rolled down the compression pants to give my belly more room. Somewhere between releasing my buddha pooch and readjusting my clothing, Pink Camelbak either picked up speed or I slowed down – likely the latter. I could still see her, but she was getting farther and farther away from me. Try as I might, I never caught up to her.
Having lost my pacer, I resolved to find a way to pace myself. I sped up my walk and noticed some people who had run past me earlier were starting to slow down. One lady, in a yellow shirt, had jogged past me near the start with her friends, but was now walking alone. Eventually, I passed her and a few others. I felt like maybe I could actually pull this thing off. And then the numbness began. My right foot felt strange. I couldn’t feel anything in the last three toes. It took me about 3 more kilometers before I realized what was happening. That numbness was a precursor to blisters. Great! I still had 13 kilometers until the finish line. I adjusted my gait and told myself that if I still felt numb by 10K that I would stop. After 10K (6.2 miles) I slowed down to give my foot more room in the shoe. Yellow Shirt caught up with me soon after that and she had found a friend. We greeted each other with encouraging words and I kept it moving. After eating the protein bar I stashed in my Camelbak, I found the strength to start a trot. I passed more people and thought, again, that I might be able to pull this off.
By 12K I was miserable. I was in pain. I wanted to quit. I was hot. I was bored. I was lonely. Yellow Shirt and her friend were now well ahead of me doing jog/walk intervals. I told myself that once I made it to 15K I could stop. I mean, 15K is a pretty great effort for someone who hasn’t trained. There’s no shame in quitting. Just make it to the 15K marker. Ambulances and sweeper buses, passenger vans that trail the last runner, were starting to gain on me so I sped up. Just before I hit 15K I looked on the other side of the highway and saw a man jogging who smiled and told me to keep going. A few meters after him guess who I saw? Pink Camelbak! She gave me a head nod and thumbs up. OK, Universe. I get it! Before I knew it, I was on my way through the 15K marker.
Another kilometer and I was talking myself out of finishing again. The sun was blazing and I felt wobbly as I climbed another damn incline. I was 16 kilometers in thinking, “Fuck this!” I looked back and saw the buses not too far behind me. At this point, I had 5K remaining and an hour before the race closed. It seemed impossible. I told myself I could tap out once I got to 17K. I eased up some, pulled my shirt over my head to expose the tank top I was wearing underneath, then took off one pair of my running tights. Sidenote: Why the hell was I wearing so many clothes? That’s when the cameraman, riding on the back of a motorcycle, started filming me. There I was, a struggling Black woman, feeling every bit of the fat I’ve gained, titties bouncing, and looking a hot ass mess for anyone watching to see. To make matters worse, the struggle bus was looming behind me. Shame and immense anxiety rushed over me. I wanted to shrink. No, I wanted to disappear altogether. The cameraman never cracked a smile. He never even said a word. He just kept that damn camera pointed on me (I was the only person around) for far too long. Had I fancied going to a UAE jail or getting deported, I would have given him two middle fingers and told him where to shove his fucking camera. Instead, I rolled my eyes and picked up my pace. That was my polite way of saying, “Nothing to see here. Move along!” Once he was bored with me, he sped ahead and I finally slowed down.
Approaching the 18K marker I was done, but, thanks to the cameraman’s shenanigans, the slow bus was now a little further behind me. I would have to stop and wait to be picked up. I thought, “How stupid is this? If you have to wait to be picked up, that means you’re still moving within the allotted time.” I threw my hands over my head and released a loud grunt before I started talking to myself out loud. At first, softly, I pleaded. Don’t quit. Then a little louder. We DON’T quit, OK? Through threatening tears, I yelled. DON’T. YOU. DARE. QUIT! That’s when I caught up to Yellow Shirt and a few others.
The five of us, three ladies and two men, introduced ourselves and willed each other to keep going. Around the 19K marker I was in serious pain. Both of my feet were alternating between cool numbness and spurts of hot fire. I asked the group to help me through it. The other two ladies immediately spoke up and said, “You have come too far to turn back now. We’re gonna finish this.” I thanked them and our group picked up the pace through the 19K marker. Despite this, the struggle bus was closely on our heels. Another cameraman on a motorcycle passed us, slowed down, then pointed his camera on us. The others put on happy faces and flashed smiles. Me? I focused on putting one painful foot in front of the other. At one point, we heard the cameraman say something about how slow we were going. “They’re going slower than the bus can drive.” And then I was pissed. I told the ladies what I heard and one of them clapped back, “Don’t worry about him. He’s not doing this race. He’s on the back of a motorcycle.” Why, yes! Yes he was. He was being carried while we were slugging through nearly 12 miles and counting. I picked my head up and soldiered on.
The cameraman left, but that damn bus was still there messing with me. As it crept behind us we talked about how demoralizing it was to have a bus follow you so closely. I looked at the time and saw that we had over 30 minutes remaining before the course closed and less than 2K (1.24 miles) to go. A little math for you folks, the course closes 4 hours after the last runner crosses the start line. That means as long as you can maintain a pace of 11 minutes and 19 seconds per kilometer, you can finish with about a minute to spare. Given the time, we could have gone as slow as 14 minutes and 30 seconds per kilometer and still would have been within the cutoff time. There’s no way we were going that slow. I looked back at the bus and thought, “Not today, Satan. Back off!” I was going to make it across that finish line. Even if it took me 3 hours and 59 minutes. I didn’t care. My goal was to finish. And, just so we’re clear, I hated that fucking bus!
Somewhere after the 20K marker, two men who had already finished the race ran over to our group and cheered us on. “You’re nearly there,” said one. The other said, “Once you hit the 300 meters to go sign let’s see if you can try to run.” I tried to run those last few meters, but the pain was excruciating. The group charged on and I fell behind. I could hear the crowd cheering for them as the announcer said their names as they crossed the finish line. In that moment, I have to admit I was so ashamed and angry. I was ashamed for not taking better care of my body and letting myself gain back all of the weight I lost in Korea and more. I was angry at myself for not training like I should have. I was angry at my feet for having blisters. I was angry that I was going to come in last. The tears that were once threatening slowly began to fall as I saw the group plug on without me. There I was, 13 miles into a half marathon feeling defeated and sorry for myself. That is until I looked to my left and saw that one of the guys who pushed our group to run had stayed with me. He said, “It’s OK. Try to run again at the 200.” I agreed and told myself that the anger, shame, regret, pity and defeat ended when I had 200 meters to go. I wiped my tears and gave it everything I had as I heard my name being announced over the cheering crowd. As I approached 100 meters to go, I pushed both my hands up signaling for the crowd to cheer louder. Listen! If I’m gonna be last, then dammit I’m gonna be memorable. The announcer, barely audible over the now thunderous crowd, said, “And Fatimah gets the biggest screams from the crowd as she crosses the finish line.”
It wasn’t my best time. It certainly wasn’t my best race. However, that was by far, the most meaningful race I’ve done. Yea, even more meaningful than the 3 half marathons I’ve run for cancer charities, or the one I ran in my hometown beating my own personal record. Those of you who have been following my blog for a while, or know me in real life, know it’s no secret that I’ve been battling depression for several years. A year ago, it got so bad that I was suicidal. I got help and moved on. Six months later, I felt the depression creeping back into my life. For many days, getting out of bed, putting on pants, and facing the world has been a real struggle. Last month, I got serious about self-care and resumed therapy. That I even showed up to the race lets me know I’m making progress. In spite of my lack of training, my doubts, my pain, I did it. Starting the race was me choosing life. Finishing the race was me NOT giving up on myself. Someone’s got to be last. I’m glad it was me.