Guest Blogger Courtney Alev

Last year, on May 1st, I ran my first marathon. I went through the same ups and downs of first-time marathon training that many of you are probably going through right now: the huge highs of realizing you could run farther than you ever thought you could; the lows of soreness, nagging pain, doubt creeping in making you question what was possible. I slept probably a total of 15 minutes the night before the 2011 Big Sur Marathon, and the race that followed will go down in history of one of the most special days of my life. There is simply an amazing feeling when you cross that finish line for the first time and realize that you are a marathoner, and that no one can take that away from you.

Yesterday, I returned to Big Sur to run not my first, but my fifth marathon. I was celebrating my marathon anniversary (marathoniversary?) with another run across the jagged California coast. This time, the circumstances were much different. Gone was the fear of the unknown, the gaping black hole of whatever would happen once you got past mile 22. In its place were a new set of anxieties—should I be doing this so soon after injury? Exactly how slow can I go before they close the course? Will my knee be okay? Is it a good idea to wear new arm warmers, a new fuel belt and a new shirt on race day? (Answer: no, don’t do that, but luckily it worked out fine.)

The day began much like last year, with a 2:30AM wakeup call and a bus ride full of sleepy yet energized runners. Last year when I crossed the start line, I still wasn’t sure what my “marathon pace” would be after four months of training, and I just guessed. This year, I made a strong effort to keep my pace easy, almost insufferably so, to make sure that once my endurance inevitably failed me my legs would be able to carry me across the finish line. Last year, I was so overwhelmed with the entire experience that my mind was racing, thinking about pace, the runners around me, what layers I should shed, when I would fuel, if I should take walk breaks. Yesterday, I didn’t think about any of those things. I simply set out running, slowly, with the goal of “never be wishing that it would be over.” Meaning, keeping it slow and easy the entire time, taking pictures, walking whenever I wanted, not caring about the finish time. (There are marathons that you race and marathons that you experience, and yesterday was meant to be the latter for me.)

Instead of pushing through pain and chugging up hills, I did what I wanted to do. I laughed when the 30+ MPH headwinds made it impossible to run. I tweeted pictures of the coastline to share with friends. I dedicated each mile to someone in my life and spent a few minutes sending good vibes and thoughts their way. I let my breath get taken away when I finally made it to the top of a two-mile hill, couldn’t see the magnificent view because of the fog, yet could hear the refrains of the grand pianist piercing the grey clouds surrounding us and motivating all the runners to keep moving.

There were moments that I definitely did not want to run (or walk) anymore. Yet there were equally as many moments that I savored: stopping to watch the performers, to enjoy the view for just a few moments, to encourage struggling runners, or to enjoy as many fresh strawberries as possible, generously provided by locals, at mile 23. I crossed the finish line sprinting and happy, having succeeded at my primary goal for the day: to ENJOY.

My 5th marathon was much slower than my first one year ago. But that didn’t matter. This year has thought me that I love the thrill of the distance, the realization that your legs are aching but are getting stronger every mile, the moments of self-realization when you get really honest with yourself after hours of running. There are races you race, races you run, and races that you merely take in and soak up, which yesterday was for me. It was an ideal marathoniversary, and I can’t wait to find some new challenges in my second year of running.