47 at 47

I can’t remember exactly when I decided to run 47 kilometers (29.2 miles) on my 47th birthday.

It was sometime in the summer after spending months in self-isolation and knowing we had many more months of the same ahead of us.

The tradition on my birthday has always been to go for a run. It didn’t have to be a certain distance or anything special. I had never thought of running 46 at 46, or 45 at 45. 2020 was different, of course.  In a year when there was so much suffering and nowhere to go, I just needed a goal to stay focused and avoid losing my mind.

Once I decided on 47 at 47, I briefly flirted with the idea of running 47 miles. It made sense: I live in the U.S. and ran 14 of my 16 marathons here. I think in miles when I run. But I was born in France, so I opted for the metric system – which conveniently meant a distance that would be a third shorter.

This would be my main running goal for 2020. I discovered that I am not into virtual racing at all. It surprised me – many of my fellow runners signed up to numerous 5ks, 10ks or marathons, providing much-needed financial relief to race organizers who lost all revenue after March. I didn’t. I had no inclination to register to virtual races to stay motivated.

There’s something stronger in me, a mental drive to get my daily exercise done no matter what. It’s not a healthy drive; it’s akin to an addiction. Part of me feels guilty about not being better support to the racing industry. Part of me knows that if I had done virtual races, I probably would have pushed harder and been faster than I am right now. I was just looking for excuses to avoid speedwork.

Racing and speedwork are two activities that are quintessentially social to me. When I’m among other runners, faster runners, I’m like an animal: I chase. In my late 30s, when my marathon times started to drop to below 3 hours, I couldn’t completely explain how. Sure, I was training hard, but it felt like another person was showing up on race day, a person that would outperform my wildest expectations. Running a minute on a treadmill at marathon pace was torture. I could barely hold it, and yet on race day I would sustain that pace for hours. The same is true for speed training; I would always run with a group of runners who were faster than I was. “You go ahead, I’ll be behind you,” I would say.

Arriving at the first stop, 23 kilometers from the start.

In 2020, I couldn’t be a social animal, so I opted for distance. No need to chase anyone: I would just run 47 kilometers during the course of the day.

My weekly average, on average, has been higher than usual since March. I have been running as many as six or seven days a week without any injuries (Five is usually the maximum: Even when I was training for sub-3 marathons, I would heavily rely on cross-training).  The secret to avoid injuries, it appears, has been to run slow. I didn’t slow down on purpose. I’m always trying to get faster, but the watch doesn’t lie. The 2019 Austin Marathon, where I ran faster than my younger self, seems like a decade ago. I feel like my body has been through a fast-track aging process.

My training for the 47-kilometer birthday event consisted mainly of easy week runs of about 6 to 8 miles with a long run that gradually increased from 16 miles to 22 on weekends (at a pace of 8 to 8:30 a mile, or about 11.5 to 12 kph). Oddly enough, the longer the run, the faster the pace, as it takes several miles now to warm up the machine. My longest training run was 35.4 kilometers, two weeks before the “race.” It took me about 3 hours.

When I woke up on Dec. 27 it was freezing outside. I was concerned about patchy spots of ice, remains from the last winter storm. I waited until after 10 a.m. to start – one major advantage over a real race is that I could choose my starting time.

The first leg of about 23 kilometers went relatively fast and easy, at a pace of 7:48 a mile, or about 12.5 kph. It felt like early 2019 again. At the first water stop, my invaluable support crew (my husband) handed me a bottle of water and an energy gel. It had expired in April 2019 but I figured those sugary things can’t go bad. We chatted a little, he handed me his coffee mug for a quick jolt and off I went to the next stop, 15 kilometers away.

A few minutes later I started to feel cramps in my stomach and stitches in my chest. It was so bad I had to stop. “Struggling with stitches. Am slowing,” I texted my husband. Was I paying for running the first half too fast, or was it the gel?

The course was out-and-back on a bike path, and the back was mostly misery. It didn’t help that it was slightly uphill. About 3.5 kilometers before meeting my husband at the second parking lot, it got bad again. I texted him: “Am about 2 miles away. Stopped a minute. Struggling. But making my way up.”

My pace slowed in the final 10k. After the second stop (water, coffee but I avoided gel), I had miscalculated that I only had 4.9 miles left, only to realize a couple of miles later it was in fact 5.9 miles. It crushed me. I didn’t feel any acute pain, just a slight hip pain, but I was out of gas. I remembered what my father told me as he was shuffling through the 2015 Boston Marathon. I ran alongside him that year. He was having a bad day. I’m not hurting, I’m just slow, he said. That’s how I felt, like I was never going to make it.

At the last stop, I took one last sip of water and one last sip of coffee before the final 5k.

That last 5k felt like an eternity. It got so bad that I stopped at traffic lights and waited for the pedestrian light to cross – even though I would have had plenty of time to cross. On a normal run, I hate traffic lights: They slow you down. Now I wanted plenty of cars on the roads. I wanted the pedestrian light to take its sweet time to show the “walking person.” I welcomed any excuse to stop.

The “finish line”

In lieu of a finish line, my husband waited for me with a camera. I stopped the watch at 29.32 miles, or 47.19 kilometers in 3 hours and 55 minutes, satisfied of the mission accomplished and grateful that I can run when so many can’t breathe.

Now off to 2021, when I’ll be turning 48.

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