What I Learned from Helping My Friend Pace a Marathon
There's no 'I' in marathon! One runner opens up about the power of helping someone else reach her fitness goals
"Can we take one more walk break?" my best friend asked me wearily as we neared the 26-mile marker of the Honolulu Marathon in Hawai'i.
"No. We can see the finish line!" I said. "Let's do this!"
I could see she didn't need the walk. She was just used to the breaks as we traversed 26.2 miles through downtown Honolulu, Waikiki, Diamond Head, and points beyond.
Make no mistake: Marathons are arduous, painstaking endeavors made worthwhile by the personal glory they bring. I should know. I've run seven of them chasing my own goals, knocking nearly an hour and a half from my time along the way. Oh, the glory! (Considering running a marathon yourself? We have Your 12-Week Marathon Training Plan.)
But this marathon was different. This was the first time I'd put myself through the rigors of such a race for someone else. Stephanie trusted me to pace her through her first marathon. I was her running buddy, coach, cheerleader, and shoulder to cry on. Yet this seemingly selfless act turned out to be anything but. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed running for someone else-and how powerful the experience felt.
The Decision to Run
As kids on our way to the pool in summer, Stephanie would ride her bike slowly and I'd walk quickly or jog beside her. As adults, those are still our preferred modes of transportation.
So when she told me she wanted to run a "one and done" marathon, I tried to talk her out of it. "You hate running," I argued. "Marathon training is terrible and takes over your life," I pleaded. "It's all running all the time," I reasoned. Everything I said was true.
She couldn't be swayed. So I insisted she at least do it right: Choose a race in a place she'd always wanted to visit and I'd run it with her. We started planning (and her training) a year and a half out.
Hawai'i was her dream destination, so we chose the Honolulu Marathon. It's consistently one of the 10 largest marathons in the world, with nearly 22,000 finishers each year. A full 35 percent of them are first-timers. Honolulu's course has no cut-off, staying open until the last registrant finishes, usually after 14 hours and 30 minutes. The race seemed perfect for a reluctant-runner's first tangle with 26.2.
The Honolulu Marathon is loosely organized chaos, with the entire field taking off in a mass start. There are no corrals. Instead, runners self-seed, which effectively means they don't seed at all. The result? A 26.2-mile cacophony of bodies moving at different speeds. In our frame of mind, it was a ton of fun, like a roving street party. If you're out to hit a fast goal, the crowds could be aggravating and unnerving.
But for us, it was just right. The fact that we spent the week prior touring Hawaii, the Big Island, and Maui-sailing, snorkeling, stand-up paddling, hiking, and sightseeing-only made it more special. In the days after the race, we toured Oahu and took our first surf lesson on Waikiki Beach. In short, we made it an experience that neither one of us would ever forget.
The Race Itself
Although I have run plenty of my own races, I was surprised by the amount of pressure I felt in this one. Being in charge of your own destiny is one thing. Being the boss of someone else is another. I felt a huge responsibility to get Stephanie across that finish line. When she wanted to take on a challenging Maui hike just a few days before the race, I put my foot down. Only gentle hikes, I insisted. I wanted her legs to be fresh at the start of the marathon.
Come race day, I wore two watches-a GPS watch so I could easily track our pace and a sports watch with a timer that would signal our run/walk intervals. Stephanie's wrists were blissfully naked. We had a plan: I would set the pace and lead the charge; she would hang on.
Not once did she ask me how far or how long we'd been running, what time it was, or anything of the sort. She ran when I said, "Run;" she walked when I said, "Walk;" she ate when I said, "Eat;" she drank when I said, "Drink." Anytime she wanted to do something that wasn't on the program, she asked permission. She didn't say, "I need to stop and stretch." Instead, she asked: "Can we stop and stretch after this water station?" Had I said, "No," she would have kept running.
Only at one point in the late miles did she whimper, "Karla, I'm hungry. I want a ham sandwich." I laughed. "We'll get you one at the finish. Do you have any food left in your belt?" I asked as sweetly as I could. She nodded. "Eat it," I said. She did. (These are The Best Foods to Fuel Your Marathon Training.)
I realized she'd handed complete control to me. I set the pace, chatting away and checking in frequently to make sure she was feeling OK. She jogged by my side or just a step behind. We clicked along at our goal pace with Swiss precision for 20 seamless miles.
But the Honolulu Marathon proved to be hot, humid, and sunny. The temperature hit 82 degrees; the humidity hovered around 80 and topped out at 90. The sun was strong; shade was few and far between.
"Is it normal to be hot and cold at the same time?" Stephanie asked me before the 21-mile marker. I immediately told her to walk. She was showing signs of heat exhaustion. We stopped on the side of the course for a rest until I was sure it was safe for her to keep going-no dizziness, no nausea, or other severe symptoms. Then we walked until we could get water and ice. We stuffed ice down our bras and under our visors. We were so hot the ice didn't even feel cold. But it was enough to get Stephanie out of the danger zone. With four miles to go, we focused on finishing the race. It wasn't just her goal; it was mine.
Crossing the Finish Line
Soon, the finish was in sight-and as we crossed the line, we hugged, and tears flowed. I knew why Stephanie was crying. I've been there: overcome with emotion when you accomplish something you never dreamed possible.
But why was I crying? Sure, I was hot and tired, and marathons are known to make you emotionally vulnerable. But the race didn't have the same physical toll on me. After all, we finished two hours behind my personal best time. For me, it was an extra long, extra hot, "easy" run.
My tears were tears of pride. I was proud of her, proud that I'd seen her through, proud that we'd done it together. It's a pride I've never felt as a runner-something I imagine coaches and parents experience all the time. I was as proud of her finish as any of mine. And I think enjoyed the experience more too. (No friend to pace you? Try these 10 Marathon Songs to Set Your Pace.)
The entire experience-planning her miles, overseeing her schedule, being by her side-struck me as both an awesome responsibility and an inspiring example. When was the last time you asked someone to be the boss of you? Let them hold your fate in their grasp? When was the last time you embarked on a mission to fulfill someone else's (instead of your own) goals for once?
Try it. When a friend puts her faith in you or you put your faith in a friend, he payoff is heightened by the power of two.
I did it. She did it. We did it.