For most of 2020, I have been training for my first marathon.

Back in January, back when COVID-19 was “a mysterious illness in China,” there were still 13 candidates vying for the Democratic nomination for President, and Australia was on fire, I was interviewing for a job. I told the interviewee, “I’m going to run the Philadelphia Marathon in November.”

Though it was 9 months away and I hadn’t even registered for it, I felt confident saying that, even to a stranger. I’d been working with a long distance running coach who specialized in marathons, having run 13 herself. I’d been running 20-25 miles a week consistently and without serious injury for the past year and a half. I’d started strength training. I was feeling healthy and strong. And I had the whole year ahead of me.

And what a year it was. I started a new job on Monday, March 9. That Friday, as COVID-19 cases in the United States were rapidly increasing, the state of Pennsylvania went on lockdown. I never returned to that office. Fortunately, I was able to keep my job, and have since become a permanent work from home employee.

During those early months of quarantine, races like the Philadelphia Marathon were slowly being cancelled. For some, like the Boston Marathon, race organizers tried to reschedule the race for a later date in the year. Others, like the Broad Street Run, turned virtual, and runners were offered the opportunity to run the race on their own, anywhere, and then submit their time in exchange for a medal and a t-shirt.

Eventually, the Philadelphia Marathon was cancelled, with no option of running the race virtually.

Somehow, 2020 kept moving forward, and the world made it to August. My running coach announced that she was hosting her own (virtual) Philadelphia Marathon. It would take place the Saturday before Thanksgiving, the same weekend that the Philadelphia Marathon and Half Marathon are held every year. Here it was – my chance to complete my goal of running my first marathon in 2020!

I remember my friends and family telling me that the hardest part about running a marathon is the time commitment of the training. Your long runs take hours to complete, and thus hours of your weekend, every week, are spent running. Which means other things get deprioritized.

As it turned out, I didn’t mind this sacrifice. This surprised me. Although I love running, and I’ve been running for 20 years, I didn’t think I’d actually enjoy running for hours at a time. This sport is frustratingly mental, even more so as you’re running longer distances. Even if you distract yourself by listening to music, or running with a friend, the voice inside your head that is telling you to stop, slow down, walk, or give up, is still there. As I was training for half marathons, the longer I was running, the more physical pain I was in, the more tired I was, and the easier it was to listen to that voice. The louder it sounded, the more persuasive it became. And the more doubtful of myself and my abilities I became.  

I’ve completed 7 half marathons. With each one, I balance a love/hate relationship with distance running. One of them, my fastest one yet and my first half marathon, ended in tears because I couldn’t believe how fast I’d run and I also couldn’t believe how physically demanding 13.1 miles was. During one of them, I rolled my ankle on MLK Drive in Philadelphia and hobbled to the finish. One of them even ended with a DNF. There was nothing physically wrong with me. Overwhelmed by the intense pressure I’d put on myself to achieve a goal pace and a goal time, I simply stopped at mile 9.4 and walked off of the course.

For the marathon, to be able to run it and finish it, I knew there couldn’t be a time or a pace goal.

And there wasn’t. I had no pace per mile that I was supposed to hit for each of my long runs. I had no “BQ” or “under 4 hours” or “under 5 hours” finish time that I was supposed to achieve. My only goal was to finish the race.

The goal was similar for my long runs. Each weekend, I just had to complete the distance. 15 miles, 16 miles, 17 miles, 18 miles. My longest run, which I ran on Halloween, was 20 miles. Each weekend, I decided what day I was going to run, Saturday or Sunday. I checked the weather and picked out my clothes the night before. I planned where I was going to run, and what time I was going to leave. The morning of, I filled my water bottle and set up the coffee maker for when I returned. I told my husband I was leaving, and I texted my Mom and my sister.

And so I didn’t mind the time commitment of this training, because I really enjoyed those long runs. I didn’t bring headphones with me for listening to music or a podcast. I ran these runs by myself. During the quiet monotony of the miles, each run became peaceful, almost meditative. It was a break from my to-do lists, social media, the steady stream of information about the upcoming election and COVID-19, and my own anxiety, fear, and worry about the state of the world. For hours, I didn’t read a single news article. The latest tweet about the Presidential Election passed me by. I missed Dr. Fauci’s updated guidelines for Thanksgiving gatherings. The only people I saw were other runners, cyclists, and walkers. Each of the people I passed had the same goal: to exercise. Some waved at me, some said “good morning.” One cyclist even shouted, “Have a good day” as he passed me. I didn’t know what his political beliefs were. I didn’t know which Presidential candidate he was voting for. Here, on a Sunday morning on the Schuylkill River Trail, it didn’t matter.

On race day, the goal was to have the same experience as my long runs. This marathon was considered a weekly long run, as my farthest distance yet.

I’d be running the same 8.4 mile loop three times, then running a half mile out and back, to complete 26.2 miles.

The “loop” is a well-known training loop for many Philly area distance runners. It’s entirely on the sidewalk, parallel to the Schuylkill River. It takes you down Kelly Drive, past Boat House Row and Lloyd Hall, around the Art Museum to MLK Drive, down MLK Drive, under Strawberry Mansion Bridge and into Fairmount Park, over the East Falls Bridge, and back to Kelly Drive.

Race morning was a beautiful morning to run. The sky was clear, the air was dry, and it was warm for November, with a temperature in the low 40s. By the time I finished the race, the temperature would be close to 70 degrees. As I stood on Kelly Drive, next to the “Start/Finish” sign my coach had taped to a card table, three other marathoners stood beside me. I set my watch to Run and waited for it to find a GPS signal. My mood fluctuated between overwhelmingly excited and dreadfully nervous.

“Ready, set, go!” my coach shouted.

At the end of each loop, I’d pass the Start/Finish line, my coach would quickly refill my water bottle, and I’d run it again.   

That morning, I passed so many other runners, mainly running by themselves, on that loop. Some wore race bibs with numbers, running a different virtual race. Some wore Philadelphia Marathon shirts from marathons past. I also passed walkers, cyclists, and even photographers taking pictures of a Saturday morning on the river. I passed the pumping music of a boot camp class on the Art Museum Steps. I passed a Students Run Philly Style race at the start of MLK Drive, and a small group of people wearing blue t-shirts with lime green lettering. Two race organizers were holding megaphones and clip boards. Seeing my race bib, they cheered for me.

By the third loop, my legs were burning and my feet were numb. The heavy ache in my legs was unlike anything I’d ever felt during a run. My legs felt like tree trunks somehow attached to my body, weighing me down as I dragged them along. The sun was stronger, and I felt it during that long stretch of MLK Drive that follows the Schuylkill Expressway. There was no shade.

I started taking bigger sips of water from my water bottle, but I still felt thirsty. My breathing had turned shallow. I could hear it, loud and agitated. It was too quiet on the course. I missed the cheering of large crowds of people. I ached for a marathon where I spotted a running friend in the crowd, one who could see how much pain I was in. I pretended she appeared next me to me, shouting, “You’ve got this, Sarah!” And I when I feigned annoyance, I imagined her saying, “Want me to run with you?” I pretended to feel the relief of having a partner in crime during those difficult miles. It helped. I wished there was someone holding a “Just 2 miles to go” sign as I hit mile 24 and crossed the East Fast Bridge. And then I pretended there actually was. I imagined there was someone yelling, “Go random stranger, go!” as I passed mile 25. I saw volunteers in sweatshirts handing out little green and orange cups when I ran out of water.

Apparently, I really needed water. After mile 25, I blacked out. I don’t remember finishing the third loop. As I passed my coach, her friend, my husband, and the two other marathoners who had finished the race before me, my coach said I had a determined look on my face and didn’t make eye contact with any of them. I kept going, set to complete the half mile out and back to finish the race. And then apparently, I started weaving, and staggering. I made it to 25.5, before I passed out on Kelly Drive.

Just 0.7 miles short! My next memory is being woken up by a team of nurses and doctors. A blonde-haired nurse wearing two masks and a face shield was hovering over me shouting “SARAH!” I was at the Emergency Room at Penn Presbyterian Hospital in West Philly.

The cause of my passing out was dehydration, something that had never happened to me before during a run.

Though I’m disappointed I didn’t complete the full 26.2 miles, so much of my first marathon experience was about the training. That exhilarating feeling of disbelief when I finished my first 16-mile run. How proud I was to share with my friends and family that I’d run 20 miles without stopping or walking. The excitement I felt in telling my coworkers that I was training for my first marathon. Standing on Kelly Drive the Saturday before Thanksgiving and reflecting on the past 16 weeks of running. Feeling grateful for all of those weekend mornings on the trail. And feeling proud.

And, given the year we’ve all had, it was an ending that is awfully appropriate for 2020.