These last two winters have not been kind to runners in the Philadelphia area. Last winter, we ran through two back-to-back snowstorms, over streets and sidewalk caked with snow and ice and snow caked in ice.
This winter, we've swapped out snow - well, most of it - for long, never ending stretches of below freezing weather made worse by howling winds. Thursday's storm just rubbed rock salt into that wound.
Too many times since December I've asked myself why bother. Aside from one blissfully warm week in Florida, I've been switching between boring treadmill runs done while staring at The Price is Right on the gym TV above me, and frigid runs that require face mask, mittens, and a prayer that my foot won't find an icy patch along the way. My favorite paved trails are frozen over. Streets are narrowed with accumulated snow that's turned black from street grime, leaving less space on which to run or shuttling me onto unforgiving concrete, which can cause injuries since it's harder than asphalt. It's enough to make me want to pack away my running shoes and look at my race medals like souvenirs from my past life as a runner.
If you're feeling this way, too, I have a reading suggestion: First Marathons: Personal Encounters with the 26.2 Mile Monster. It's an older book - published in 1999 - but is still in print. In it, 37 runners tell the stories of their first marathons to Gail Waesche Kislevitz, who writes them in an "as told to" form, so they read like 37 essays about running.
I bought the book in 2008. The farthest I'd raced then was a 5k, but it put a bug in my ear that maybe I could try a marathon someday. I've run five since, but I still flip through First Marathons when I'm feeling low about my running. It reminds me why so many people do this, and why I continue to be one of those people.
Some of the stories are incredible, like that of Sister Marion Irvine, who went from 200 pounds and smoking two and a half packs of cigarettes a day (yes, as a nun) to qualifying for the Olympic Marathon trials at the age of 54 (yes still as a nun). Some are of everyday people finding a deeper understanding of themselves through running, like stories from Bill and Leah Blegg, a husband and wife running team who both ran the Marine Corps Marathon for their first marathons, but in different years - with Leah Blegg seeing Oprah along the way. Running legends Bill Rodgers and Grete Waitz tell the stories of their first marathons, too.
In those 37 essays, people have overcome obesity, addiction, racism and grief by putting on a pair of running shoes and taking that first step. They laugh, cry, run and walk their way through their first marathons, just as I did.
First Marathons remind me why I run, too, even through this dreadful cold, that everyone has rough patches in training, and that this weather will eventually break. Soon enough I'll be complaining that it's too hot to run.