Why did I sign up for this? Why did I sign up for a marathon?
That’s what I was wondering on Saturday morning.
The day before, exhausted after little sleep and a day of work, I got to Taipei and onto a high-speed train to Taichung. From Taichung, I assumed one taxi ride separated me from my hotel and a good nights sleep. But the driver got lost. We spent at least 20 minutes driving around, talking to the hotel manager on the phone before she drove to out location outside a convenience store and escorted us to the hotel.
The “Seven Star Hotel” was tucked away in an alley and looked quite grundgy, both on the outside and inside. Strips of wallpaper were held together on the wall by tape. My first thought was bedbugs, but I had no choice. I had to sleep so I went to bed hoping my fears were entirely in my head.
Then I woke up scratching myself uncontrollably at 2 AM. Bed bugs?! No. There was intermittent buzzing. A mosquito had engorged itself multiple times. I covered myself completely with a blanket and went back to sleep.
At 5 AM, I woke up. Why did I sign up to run a marathon?
I had no idea what to expect. Tired, itchy, and about to go to a place where most people did not speak English and then run 42 kilometers. Seriously, why was I doing this? In one of my training runs, I did 32 kilometers. Why didn’t I just run 42 on my own instead of signing up for this dumb marathon in the middle of nowhere?
The marathon was marketed as an international event, but there were no foreigners there. I was a race oddity. People asked to take their picture with me. I laughed at how funny it all was. I was a fish out of water on so many levels:
- I was a swimmer for 12 years so I never really learned to run and get disparaged by the fact that I can’t float in air like I can in the water when I get tired.
- I’d never done a running event before so where do I put this microchip?
- Everyone is staring at me because I’m black.
The race began and immediately my legs felt tired. Great start, I thought. Can I do this? I pushed the thought from my brain, remembering how all my training runs started that way. I focused on the people and scenery around me. Mostly there were men, young and old. Several were wearing flip-flops and I thought they were badass. There were very few women. In a field of hundreds of men, there were maybe a few dozen women. They too ranged from young to old. I felt lame when the older women passed me, but I remembered that I was not racing anyone, not even myself since I didn’t really have a goal time. I just had to keep running. I just had to finish.
We ran through a park for the first few kilometers. Then we were on country roads flanked by rice patties and cabbage fields. Women covered from head-to-toe tended their crops. Men packaged up cabbage in boxes and loaded it onto a bus. Every once in a while I would get a whiff of taro and be overwhelmed with joy (I love taro). Every once in a while I would get a whiff of burning garbage or manure and be overwhelmed with a feeling of nostalgia for my study abroad time in Kenya.
I was generally surprised by how social a marathon could be. I always envisioned individuals running solo, or maybe with one other person, but here people stopped to take pictures of scenery and of each other.
Several people wanted pictures of me or with me. I obliged, but kept running slowly. Mostly people just smiled and said “jiā yóu!” (加油). Add oil.
Around ten kilometers, one man asked me where I was from and we chatted for a bit. He saw me blow past a water station (I would stop to fill up my cup and maybe grab a banana half or a guava slice, but I did not dawdle) and he told me to stop and rest. “We have seven and a half hours!”
“But don’t you want to go as fast as you can?” I replied.
There was one old lady in particular whom I would pass at water stations and then she’d run past me later and we’d do this back and forth for kilometers until I overtook her for good. I guess a certain amount of inherent competitiveness also made me not want to stop.
At 20 kilometers, I pass the turn off for half-marathoners. I saw several people with red marathon bibs turn off. But I was jamming to my tunes. With “Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass” bumping in my ears, I kept going. The crowd had thinned. I approached a hydration station. No other runners were there: I could feel the eyes of volunteers and spectators from nearby homes on me as I jogged up. Through my earphones I could hear then oohing and aahing. I smiled and gave ‘em a “WHOO!” I felt like a celebrity even though I had no reason to be applauded (I suppose that’s true of most celebrities…).
Water. Guava. Keep running.
A navy captain caught up to me and we had a nice long convo about his family (2 kids: 1 boy, 1 girl), his visits to the U.S. (he’d only ever been to California, but he’d been there twice), and the fact he had run 84 MARATHONS IN 5 YEARS. I was so blown away bu this 48 year old man. At first our conversation was a nice respite from the monotony. It distracted me from the hot sun and the pain in my feet. But then running with someone became stressful. I wanted to get back to my electroclash (I had Crystal Castle’s “Air War” and “Courtship Dating” queued up). And I worried that the Captain wanted to go faster, but slowed down for me. I was surprised, then, when he said “I have to walk,” and dropped behind. “Okay! We’ll see you later Captain! jiā yóu!”
His friend from the army was still running ahead slightly, then falling back to remain with me. I told him he didn’t need to stay with me, but he said it was OK. He was mostly silent, but then, around 28 kilometers, mentioned how we had 7 and a half hours to finish.
At 10, I had responded to this thought with: yeah, but don’t you want to try to go as fast as you can? Now, I thought: yeah, but I want to be done with this AS SOON AS POSSIBLE so I can sit in the shade and stop running. If I slow down it’ll just take me longer to get to that point.
I was feeling a high at 30 kilometers when the path double backed and I knew I was in the final stretch. Army guy fell behind. I could feel myself hitting the wall in my legs and feet and back. I could tell I was not engaging my core. I switched my audio to All Sleater-Kinney. I smiled at the other runners, but I couln’t tell if it was more because of silly exhaustion or squinting from the sun. I hammed up pictures other runners or race photographers were taking, sticking my tongue out, throwing up V signs. I was trying to convine my mind not to go sour. It didn’t, but my body got slower nonetheless. With three kilometers left, I passed a man and shouted “jiā yóu! We can do this!” he began a conversation with me (“Where are you from? What do you do?”) and I mentally kicked myself for initiating because I didn’t actually want to talk to him this close to the finish.
At the final water stop, I blew through. Water. Guava. I think someone jokingly asked if anyone wanted beer. A volunteer asked me “are you okay?”
Over my shoulder I shouted: “Great!”
With two kilometers left, I queued up the most pumping S-K hits from their eight album discography (“Words and Guitar,” “A New Wave,” “Youth Decay”) but I couldn’t get my tempo up. Half of my brain wanted to, but the other half thought: your feet are tired, dude. Just chill. You’re gonna finish before six hours. That’s way better than the seven and a half limit. Only when I could see the finish line float in the distance did I lean forward and start pumping my legs to the beat of “Dig Me Out.”
I crossed the finish line and got a medal just for participating (this is what’s wrong with America. Taiwan, your healthcare system is better than ours, don’t start making the same mistakes we did. I expect better from you.) I hobbled around on shaky legs. I got a bag full of guava, water, and a towel. I got a free lunch (well, I had to run a marathon first ‘cause there’s no such this as a free lunch). More people wanted to take picture of and with me.
Getting taxi back to the hotel was a whole ordeal, but luckily as an obvious foreigner and semi-celebrity, one woman was incredibly helpful. Back at the hotel, I bathed, and slept, and hobbled to the nearby convenience store to buy a microwave meal. About two hours after finishing, a mixture of headache, exhausted, and nausea from hunger made everything, every motion, draining.
That night, mosquitoes returned and such me once again. Tired and achy, I woke up this morning and began the long trek north to Keelung. For some reason, I thought I would be capable of exploring Taichung the day after running, so my high-speed rail ticket is not for until 6 PM. But, I can barely even write down this whole thing without falling asleep at a patio café at the Taichung Creative and Cultural Industrial Park. I ordered a pizza and picked at it. I have a craving for Coke and chocolate.
If only you could run a marathon and suddenly be back in your bed? If only I ran 42 kilometers on my own in Keelung, the finish line a warm cozy bed with a bedside table full of snacks. I would be in my bed right now. I would not need to write this whole thing down.