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She Who Finishes 13,643rd Finishes 1st

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The ritual is performed every year.

On the eve of the Los Angeles Marathon, I walk over to the credenza in my dining room. I pull open the top drawer, dig past the tangled string of Christmas lights, the plastic jack-o'-lantern and the cardboard Easter bunnies.

Eventually, I find it.

The medal.

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The only medal I’ve ever won in my life.

Considering what it took to get the medal, you’d think I’d have it squirreled away in a bank vault, hanging in the Prado or at the very least tucked safely under the mattress. Nope. It sits unprotected in the holiday junk drawer.

The annual dig continues as I root around in search of the photo and the booklet “L.A. Marathon VIII: Official Race Results.”

Eventually I find them too.

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With booklet and photo in hand and medal around my neck, I sink into the sofa cushions, plop my feet onto the coffee table, reach for a beer that has been sweating on a coaster, and settle back for a good read--and a toast.

Considering it’s 4 years old and a flimsy 30 pages, the booklet is still in pretty good shape, except now it opens by itself the way books do when you’ve turned again and again to your favorite passage.

Mine is on page 26, in the fifth column from the left under the “Women 35 to 39" category. There, you can find my name and my finishing time in the 1993 L.A. Marathon: Seven hours, 27 minutes, 38 seconds. (In the interest of context, the winner did it in 2 hours, 14 minutes, 29 seconds.)

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And yet, I celebrate.

I celebrate the fact that I finished. That we all finished.

And I celebrate a phrase that never had much meaning for me until Marathon Day, March 7, 1993:

Sense of accomplishment.

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Each year, I celebrate the fact that others have taken my place, as they will on Sunday morning when Marathon XII takes off from downtown Los Angeles. (My feet won’t be there this year, but I’ll be sending warm wishes. My policy: Been there, done that.)

There have been movements afoot throughout the country to thin the herd and allow only the true marathoners to compete. But I would argue that for those of us in the middle and at back of the pack, finishing means more to us than to those at the front. Finishing means winning.

Think about it. It takes training, talent, endurance and strength to complete a marathon in two-plus hours. But it takes something deep, deep down to haul your comparatively out-of-shape butt hour after hour after hour after hour after hour and not give up despite the signs that perhaps you should.

But I had no intention of giving up. Since the August before the race, I had been in training, leaving the house at 5 on weekday mornings. I’d walk-run four miles on the Venice-Santa Monica beachfront. On weekends, I did eight to 10 miles a day. My self-designed training program also included three days of aerobics, a drastic cutback on smoking, drinking and--eeek!--a moderate reduction of my barbecue ribs intake.

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The non-planner in me even had a Marathon Day strategy. I would walk most of the way and run only when I was going downhill, having remembered a little something about momentum from that physics class in college.

But come Marathon Day when the theory was put into practice, I nearly went for my own throat.

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Never before and not since have I done anything as difficult as that marathon. I had never really known pain or exhaustion until that day. By midpoint in the race, any dignity I might have had was gone. Sweaty, stinky, cranky and praying that my Walkman’s batteries lasted until the finish line, I found myself grabbing for bananas, oranges and endless cups of water. Replacement of electrolytes became paramount to my existence. Vaseline on Q-Tips was my lifeline as parts of my body proved the laws of friction to be true.

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Several times I considered stopping, but the thought of having risen to train at 5 every morning for all those months for nothing kept me going.

Still, it was tough. Just imagine--26.2 miles. That’s the distance to Catalina.

To not give up as you see other runners in peak shape with minus 12% body fat breeze by you.

To not give up when your thighs decide, “We must get together, don’t you think?” And the flab under your arms, not wanting to be left out, gets in on the chaffing action too.

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To not give up when you get to the halfway mark and realize, with some disappointment, that you’re not the optimist you always thought you were. You have halfway to go and the glass really is half empty.

To not give up when you get to Venice Boulevard, eyeball a bus and think, “I could just go home.”

To not give up when you spot your reflection in a storefront mirror and gasp, “My hair!!!!”

To not give up two miles from the finish line when your left foot, obviously confused, goes into labor and sends shooting pains that make your teeth ache.

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To finally cross the finish line, to hear strangers applauding and yelling, “Yeah, you did it!” to have another stranger put a medal around your neck and shake your hand and say, “Congratulations.”

To want to cry, not because of the pain--and Lordy, there is pain--but because you finished.

To take your last microgram of energy and cry, sob.

Saturday night I will once again relive the 1993 marathon and look at that color photo of me crossing the finish line.

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And I’ll probably cry as I toast coming in 13,643rd.

Sense of accomplishment, baby. Sense of accomplishment.


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