A mid-marathon selfie Credit: Kelyn Soong

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In the final miles of my marathon, I stopped checking my watch and simply stared at the path ahead. As I headed down the Capital Crescent Trail not far from Georgetown on Sunday morning, the final time hardly mattered to me. My pre-race goal of finishing in less than 4 hours and 30 minutes had long passed.

Instead, in those moments where my arms grew heavy and my left hamstring and right ankle ached, I thought about the weeks leading up to the race. I had felt mentally and emotionally depleted. My motivation waned. Typical cathartic outlets like tennis didn’t bring me the same joy. 

But one constant continued to push me forward: running.

I ran to take a break from doomscrolling. I ran because it allowed me to get out of my apartment and away from my screens. I ran because I felt fortunate that during a global pandemic, running is one of the few activities deemed relatively safe. I ran because it made me happy.

In the first week of November, I completed my first 50-mile week—a milestone that I did not expect to achieve this training cycle, especially without the support of group runs. Three to five mornings a week, I woke up early, often before sunrise, to get in miles. In an even more shocking development, that meant I would frequently wake up before my alarm. I had, somehow, become a morning person.  

And I ran because on Nov. 22, the day I was supposed to run the Philadelphia Marathon, I had decided I would do the next best thing. I would run my own marathon.

***

A tight hamstring greeted me on the morning of the race. I hadn’t felt the pain the days prior, and with just an hour to go, the timing couldn’t have been less ideal.

In any other year, this would have sent me spiraling. I spent years chasing a sub-four-hour marathon, training for months toward that singular goal, which I finally accomplished last year in Richmond. I had only signed up to run in Philly this year after being inspired by the Olympic Marathon Trials, and I didn’t plan to run a virtual race until I watched a few friends finish their virtual Boston Marathon in September. Running solo during the hot and humid summer months meant that my pace slowed to more than a minute and a half slower per mile than previous years. 

On Sunday, I arrived at Fletcher’s Cove just before my friend, a training partner who I had turned to in recent months for conversations and miles. Gray clouds covered the sky as I stretched out my hamstring and at 7 a.m. sharp, we made our way down the Capital Crescent Trail into an empty and still waking D.C. I’ve run this route dozens, if not hundreds, of times, and I never tire of seeing the sun rising behind the Kennedy Center. I stopped on the dock to take a photo.

Another friend met me on the sidewalk leading up to the Watergate Steps across from the Lincoln Memorial. In a normal marathon, I try to focus all my attention on the task ahead. I don’t listen to music, I don’t chat with fellow runners, and I don’t look around to absorb the scenery around me. Running a virtual marathon made me realize just how much I missed when the only thing that mattered to me was the time.

As we reached East Potomac Park, the tightness in my hamstring lingered, but not to a point where I needed to stop. In the weeks leading up to the marathon, I had invited my friends to come out and spectate the marathon, a self-indulgent request that I’m sure those close to me have gotten used to receiving. 

A third friend met me just before the entrance of the park. It wasn’t until minutes later that I noticed she was wearing a shirt that read, “THIS GUY is running a MARATHON,” on both sides with an arrow pointed toward me. (Ah, so that’s why she asked which side I preferred to run.) A few other friends stood on the side of the road near Hains Point with signs. They put some on the grass, including one quoting Rashida Jones’ character, Ann Perkins, from Parks and Recreation. “I know it keeps you healthy, but God, at what cost?” she opines when describing jogging.

I smiled. For weeks, I had been calling this a solo marathon, but rarely did I feel less alone.

I had a few miles to myself until I reached the National Mall, where my friend Kelaine met me at the corner of 14th Street Southwest and Jefferson Drive Southwest. In April, she wrote an article for City Paper about how running two solo marathons in one day broke her out of a mental funk. I read the article every few weeks. It makes me emotional every time.

When we reached Key Bridge, I decided to run the last 10K by myself. I spotted a friend and her dog at Roosevelt Island and paused to take a few photos and let my legs rest. When I ran back to the bridge, my entire body ached. 

Thankfully, only two miles remained.

***

A large, raucous crowd of spectators didn’t appear at the finish line. There was no “finish line.” Volunteers weren’t handing out water bottles or medals to runners. Instead, I waved at the friends who cheered me on in the final steps and tapped the trunk of my car to signify the end.

I clicked the timer on my watch: 4:45:08—my second slowest marathon. I thanked my friends for showing up and sat in my car to collect my thoughts. My legs had carried me through 26.2-plus miles despite the nagging pain. A few minutes later, on the drive back, I reflected on my morning. In a year where kindness, empathy, and care for one another has been absent, I got to experience all of that in a few hours. 

I don’t take for granted that during a pandemic, I am healthy, and so are those who are close to me.

The marathon may not count as an official result or time, but I have never felt more supported in a race. I had friends. I had community. I had another reason to fall in love with running.

I had everything I needed.

The author finishing his marathon at Fletcher’s Cove. Credit: Chris Jacques