January 17 2018
Renee DeMarsh thrives on extreme physical challenges. She'll soon participate in the 2018 World Marathon Challenge.
My phone rang during mile 23 of my first marathon. Since my headphones were already in my ears and my phone was already in my hand, in my delirium, I picked up. It was my friend Ashley, trying to find me at the finish line festival. But all I remember her saying is, “Oh my God, you’re still running. I’m so, so sorry!”
That was the first moment the thought hit me: I need to get better at this.
I was a total newbie to running when I’d signed up for the marathon (yep, I’m that girl), so it honestly hadn’t occurred to me that some people actually raced them for time. I’d thought the challenge was just to make it through 26.2 miles. Wasn’t that hard enough?
I’d never really been a competitive person, especially when it came to sports. (As a kid, the highlight of my softball career had been making daisy chains in the outfield.) Like most women, I grew up thinking adjectives like “sweet,” “nice” and “humble” to be the highest compliments. So many of us try to never look like we’re trying too hard, or let anyone know how badly we want to win. Aggressive ambition isn’t typically seen as an attractive female trait.
But something got unleashed in me during that race. As proud as I was of crossing the finish line, finishing didn’t feel like enough. I wanted to be good at running. And, honestly, I wanted a time I could brag about.
Within a week, I signed up for another marathon, determined to break five hours. I threw myself into challenging tempo runs and intervals. I attended form workshops and joined group training sessions. I started racing shorter distances every few weeks.
Yet I kept it mostly to myself. Admitting how hard I was training would mean too much pressure to succeed—I’d feel like I’d need impressive times to justify all the energy I was putting in.
Even with the people I trained with, I’d find myself torn between instincts: I loved the thrill of beating other runners, but I’d question whether it was polite to speed away from a group. I always went home disappointed whenever I didn’t push as hard as I could have, though. It wasn’t even about being fast, necessarily; it was about giving each mile everything I had. Slowly, I started letting myself run ahead if I needed to get in a serious workout and no one could keep up. I began embracing my panting instead of trying to hide it when I was the one having trouble keeping up. It paid off: Bit by bit, I got faster.
What I never expected was how much more I’d enjoy running once I embraced this competitive side of myself. I’m no longer just heading out for another run every night; I’m working to become better than I was yesterday. Now, I daydream about the elation of hitting a new personal record, or the excitement of leaving old friends in the dust (particularly if they’re men), or that full-body satisfaction of exhausting every ounce of energy.
There are still moments in races, usually a mile or so from the end, when I’m tempted to give up and just take it easy. My body complains that it’s tired, and my mind starts telling me I’ve already put in enough effort for the day. But then I remind myself of that moment after the finish line when I look up my time and—no matter what the clock says—how I will feel if I know that I didn’t keep pushing. So I’ll find the nearest bobbing ponytail, pick up my cadence, pump my arms and give everything I’ve got left to pass that ponytail. And then the next. And the next.