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LA Marathon: It's body over mind

Running a successful marathon is all about training.

March 20, 2011|By Hilary MacGregor

Sunday, I attempt my first marathon. I am 44 years old, a stay-at-home mom and in the thick of a midlife crisis. I guess I hoped that training to run 26.2 miles would turn me back into my more powerful former self.

I have trained alone, working from Hal Higdon's "Marathon Training Guide," downloaded from the Internet. I have seen my endeavor as a test of my mind, my will and my vitality.

One recent Sunday, I ran in Griffith Park. It was a 15-miler — the most I had ever run in my life — and I was scared. I struggled to rein in my anxious mind.

Runners went by in every direction, solo and in packs. Some fast, some slow, some overweight, a community of secret weekend athletes. I slipped in and joined them.

At around mile three, a man made eye contact. He ran across the road and started to keep pace with me. He was in his 50s, with a beautiful smile.

His name was Gonzalo. Was I training for the LA Marathon? Yes, I said. He said I looked strong, and really good. (It was not a pickup line, I swear.) He had run since he was a teenager in El Salvador. He had done 30 marathons. He ran 20 miles the day before, to the top of an inland mountain I had never heard of. (He kept pointing between the trees, trying to show me.) On this Sunday, he was doing his recovery run — 12 miles!

He loved running. You could tell. He was beaming. His joy felt unnatural beside my determined, hunch-shouldered, I-can-push-myself-through-the-pain form. He kept saying I should run up mountains, to make my legs stronger. He suggested 12-mile runs where the first three miles were all uphill. I panted in protest.

"Have you ever run up by the Hollywood sign?" he asked me. "It is so beautiful up there. You will love it. It is the only way. Do the hills and mountains."

Beauty, I fumed to myself. That was the last thing I was thinking about on these long runs. I thought of my father, when he had done his marathon in the 1970s. A Navy officer, he trained for two months by running in place in the missile compartment of his nuclear submarine (where there was enough headroom for him to bounce up and down). He returned to port and trained alone on land for six weeks. Then he powered through the Newport marathon in Rhode Island in 3 hours and 29 minutes.

My mother drove him back to our house in New London, Conn., his 6-foot 6-inch frame laid out in the backseat of our Vega station wagon like a corpse, his size-13 feet pointing skyward. He couldn't walk for a week. My father was all about pain and suffering. Mind over matter. That was the mantra of my childhood.

I asked Gonzalo: "Do you think the marathon is about the mind or the body?"

"Oh, the body," he said. "The mind has nothing to do with it."

If you are strong enough, if you have put in the miles, he said, you will finish. If you have not, you will not.

My father's daughter, I would have answered differently. I was sure the marathon was the ultimate test of the mind. It must keep you going when your body is giving out. But Gonzalo said no: If you do not train, and prepare, there is nothing your mind can do. You will not finish. I was running in fear. He was running in joy.

Since that Sunday, I have carried Gonzalo's words with me, running at dawn in Griffith Park, huffing up the heights, strengthening my legs on steep dirt trails. I have lost myself in the fields of yellow mustard flowers, the swallowtails, the coyotes, the rabbits and the majestic view of this city stretching to the sea. I have breathed in the smell of wet, wild fennel in the morning.

I have fallen in love with Los Angeles all over again. When I grow weary, I think of Gonzalo, and his glorious smile, and the joy he feels from running.

Sunday I will pin on my number, tie on my shoes, pack dates and oranges into a fanny pack and head out from Dodger Stadium to the sea. I have put in the miles, Gonzalo. I'm ready to run.

Hilary MacGregor is a writer living in Los Angeles.

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