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A midlife crisis leads a novice runner to her first marathon.

Start to Finish


Miles behind the front-runners in this year's Richmond Marathon will be the first-timers, who are fueled by a potent combination of training, determination and optimism that verges on delusion.

I plan to be one of them Nov. 10.

If all goes well, I should be pavement-pounding proof that a person with no special ability can finish a marathon. I hardly fit the profile of the hard-core athlete who dashes out each morning for a 15-mile run. I'm over 40, slow (12 minutes per mile, twice the time of top female marathoners), and I started running less than a year ago. From the back of the pack, I expect little public glory but many personal rewards during the marathon's 26 miles.

My first attempt at running seven months ago gave no clue that I would one day be standing at the starting line in Richmond, my hometown. Within three minutes, I was doubled over with a stitch in my side, my breath burning in my throat. I staggered to the edge of the path and groaned. My vision of being able to move with the grace and resilience of the Boston Marathoners, who each year pass within a mile of my current home, was off to an embarrassing start.

I reminded myself why I was trying this. My 11-year-old son had recently competed in a road race, and I wanted to be one of the parents leading the practice runs instead of waiting in the parking lot. My 40th birthday — and my resulting midlife crisis — made me even more determined to set aggressive new goals for myself.

What I didn't bargain for was the immediate and intense physical challenge. I had no previous running experience, unless you count the three days in 1974 that I tried to join the Thomas Jefferson High School cross-country team. What did me in was an afternoon of swatting gnats as I circled a dusty field off Three Chopt Road. After that, I rode my bike, walked and cross-country skied right past the national jogging craze.

I chose Richmond as the place to register for my first marathon. The slogan, "America's Friendliest Marathon," sounds a lot more welcoming than Boston, which requires qualifying times. I know much of the Richmond route from my years of biking through the city. Mental games are a big part of distance running, and I plan to keep myself motivated by anticipating and passing landmarks from my past — the Monument Avenue house where my great-grandparents lived; the Mary Munford School, where I used to play dodge ball at recess; the Huguenot Bridge, where I went to watch the James River whenever a flood was predicted.

When I told my son I planned to run a marathon, he said, "To tell you the truth, Mom, I think that's a little too ambitious." My husband was more encouraging. "Go for it!" he said. When I learned that muscle stretching helps prevent injuries, my 8-year-old daughter led a "class" for me on the living room rug.

I survived my earliest training with more determination than ability. I thought I was in shape because I regularly walk and bike, but running feels entirely different. It took me two weeks before I could run for five minutes without collapsing. After that, I kept adding a bit more distance each week, until I could finally go a mile. About four weeks along, I finally experienced the famous "runner's high" — a surge of endorphins that numbs muscle soreness.

After reading numerous books and asking other marathoners for advice, I came up with a basic plan for running three to four times per week. One of these runs became the "long one" — a time to add a few miles each week until I could reach 20. I had to fit the training around my work and my children's schedule, sometimes quite a juggling act. I knew I was getting serious when I invested in an $85 pair of shoes, plus running clothes that matched.

I faltered a lot on my way into the double-digit miles. Humid summer days left me drenched and exhausted. I learned to slather myself with diaper-rash cream to fight chafing, and to develop a taste for sports drinks that looked like Windex and antifreeze. Because fluid replacement is so critical, I had to plan routes that would lead past my car, so I could keep refilling my water bottle. Sometimes, I hid bottles of Gatorade in the bushes. Despite the hours of grueling exercise, I lost no weight, though I did gain muscle. I'll never look like an Olympic competitor, much less a cover model for Runner's World.

What kept me plodding along was the growing sense of accomplishment and the joy of finding a rhythm that could carry me along for miles. My long-term commitment made the stiff or sore days easier to shrug off. I also tried to be realistic about what I could accomplish. My goal for the Richmond Marathon is simply to finish, even if I have to walk some of the way. If all goes well, that should take about five hours. Five days is even acceptable, as long as I finish.

In these uncertain times, simply putting one foot in front of the other is a good way to stay grounded. I'm grateful for every mile that I can go, during the marathon, and afterwards.

The SunTrust Richmond Marathon is Saturday, Nov. 10. Clara and the other runners start their 26.2 miles at 8 a.m., in front of City Hall. They head west on Monument Avenue, cross the Huguenot Bridge, run through the South Side east on Forest Hill Avenue, make their way up Boulevard to loop through the North Side, and — they hope — finish in front of the Omni Richmond Hotel on Cary Street.

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