It was in the middle of the night in Benin in 2001 when I cooked up the idea to run a marathon in Amsterdam.
I was living on a ship in Africa, and bad relationship induced insomnia had me tossing and turning in my sardine-like four berth cabin. Rather than wake up my ship-mates, I wandered the narrow corridors with my thoughts. In the ship’s stuffy library I flipped through an issue of Runners World magazine and stumbled onto the international Marathon Calendar.
As a teenager I was a wanna-be track star. I’d often wore a LA Marathon t-shirt and always dreamed of finishing the 26.2 mile challenge someday. Late this night I began to scan the list. I was nearing 30, and decided that a marathon was something I should definitely accomplish before the end of my 20’s.
One of the problems with living on a ship, however, is that you don’t stay in one place very long- which makes geographic commitments difficult. But when I saw the Amsterdam marathon on the calendar the same week that we were to be docked in Rotterdam, I knew this was the one.
The next morning before the African sun rose I told my little running group on the dock, “We should run a marathon this year.” And so, as we ran up the jetty, the training commenced.
A few weeks into my 16 week running plan I moved to Bremen, Germany for a few months to prepare for the ship’s arrival there. Over the course of 12 weeks I covered most of the small city by foot: the green path, the stadt wood, and the river way were my favorite, and all my best long runs ended with buying flowers in the market.
As a travel opportunist living in Europe, I’d often spend weekends away, and put in my miles wherever my feet found themselves. I trekked through training runs in hilly Monte Carlo, and the fields of Southern Austria. I ran through the royal gardens in Sweden complete with deer dashing through the fields, and in Appledorn, Netherlands with a friend cycling slowly alongside as water support.
It was an adventure, but there were many, many days that I wanted to quit. Working a summer in Germany had its challenges and midway through training my knee began having some challenges too. A nice German doctor took care of the knee part by giving me some orthotic advice and some snazzy custom insole Birkenstocks for free (yes, I was very fashionable).
The ship arrived in Germany as the weather began to get cold, and sailed me on to Kristiansaand, Norway where I finished my last weeks of training in a wooly hat, running up and down foggy hills through picturesque villages and around little islands.
Finally, in Rotterdam there were taper runs across the Erasmus bridge and around the little park where I once celebrated my 27th birthday with a potato soup picnic.
The night before the race I dreamed I forgot my socks, but when marathon day finally arrived, there wasn’t enough time to be nervous. Our Landrover of runners rolled up to the race late and we barely made it to the starting line before the gun went off.
It was a painfully amazing day- two laps through the Vondel park, a loop around the entire city, a long windy out and back down the canal, a view of Central Station, a few painful miles on cobblestone streets through the old town, pot-scented tourists wandering out of coffee shops yelling profanity, and unintentionally losing my running partner (who was also mumbling profanity) at the 18th mile.
The last .2 miles of the race (the part that you don’t even know exists if you’ve never run a marathon – and the part that you will never forget if you have run one) was nearly a full lap around the track in Amsterdam’s Olympic Stadium. I nearly screamed with joy as I came around the final corner. I had achieved the marathon dream I’d finally birthed in Benin and trained for across countries and continents. At last, I could finally stop running.
And so what is the morale of this story? First: it may take you several countries, lots of pain and countless miles, but you can realize your dreams. Second: If you’re dumb enough to run one marathon, you may be dumb enough to run a lot more of them, but they all will be awesome in the end.
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step”
What finish line are you running towards?