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Matt Terl

The temporary tattoo on the inside of my right forearm reads “YOU are doing A FUCKING GREAT JOB.” The tattoo is a graphic designer’s nightmare, a hodge-podge of jaunty fonts. It is also lying to me. I am not doing a great job. I am twenty-ish miles into the 42nd annual Marine Corps Marathon, and I am convinced I am about to quit.

I didn’t particularly want to be here. My wife is the marathoner in the family—a success story. She went from couch to 5K to multiple marathons. She is also the one who put the tattoo on my arm. It is her fault I am doing this. 

One of her friends had to back out due to a training injury, and my wife “suggested” that I buy her spot and try walking the full 26.2 mile course. This was not an idea that came out of the blue. I’ve occasionally wondered out loud if I could walk a marathon, and my wife took note.

My plan to walk the entire course shattered against an insurmountable obstacle: “beating the bridge.” MCM rules dictate that you have to be on the 14th Street Bridge by a certain time. This year it was 1:15 p.m., five hours and twenty minutes after the starting gun. The bridge is at mile 20. Basic math indicates that you can mosey a 16 minute mile—well within my normal walking pace—and still beat the bridge.

But just because the starting gun fires at 7:55 doesn’t mean you start moving at 7:55. 

The starting gun fires as Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” plays. We don’t move. “Enter Sandman” ends. “Wake Me Up,” by Avicii starts. We don’t move. “Wake Me Up” ends. That Macklemore song about how the ceiling can’t hold us plays, and about two minutes into it, we finally begin trudging toward the starting line, a full sixteen minutes already gone. This slices my cushion for beating the bridge. It means I’m going to have to run.

I spend a lot of time doing math in my head trying to figure out how slow I can go. I can easily walk a 15-minute mile. With a little effort, I think I can maintain a 13:30-minute mile. But I can’t figure out when those numbers get me to the bridge, so I start running.

My running speed these days is only slightly faster than my projected walking pace. For six miles, I “run,” but then I tire and start walking. And that’s when realization dawns: I’m not even a quarter of the way through the course, I’m already out of gas, and I still have farther to go than I have ever ambulated in one session. 

I’m doing 75% walking, 25% jog/hobbling (jobbling?) when I realize I’m not doing a fucking great job, for two reasons. First, because there are still more than six miles to go, and I thought I was out of energy 14 miles earlier. And second, because it turns out the bridge is an undiscovered circle of hell. 

I was picturing the Arlington Memorial Bridge, a comparatively short stroll on lovely aging masonry. The 14th Street Bridge is something else entirely—a mile-plus of shadeless, grassless asphalt perfumed by car exhaust from the other bridge span. Halfway across, my water runs out. 

I am sure that I am going to give up once I get to the other side. Maybe walk straight off the course and into Crystal City’s Taylor Gourmet. Instead, I just … don’t. I keep putting one foot in front of the other, steadily although not quickly. With genuine help from the spectators—a handful of ice cubes from one, a Reese’s cup from another—and, thank goodness, a spigot to refill my water, I keep going. I plod back out of Crystal City, through the Pentagon parking lot, past Arlington Cemetery, up the final hill, and across the finish line.

I have no idea what to do. I had composed a draft of this column in my head entirely presupposing my failure to beat the bridge. I never so much as Googled “helpful tips after a marathon.” 

This should be a proud moment. Instead, I feel like an undeserving fake. In the days since, when people have congratulated me on the accomplishment, I don’t know what to say. I am now even more in awe of people who actually run these things.