Say Yes - Elliott Smith

Things started to go wrong early. 

I couldn't sleep. Too excited. Too scared. Too many feelings to have for sleeping. Also, I have a cough. I never get sick. I'm from that hearty kind of Eastern European Jewess stock, thick thighs and thicker lungs. I'm like a goat. I eat anything. I stay up too long. I just keep going. And just in time, my newly functional right ass cheek was sore from being used for the first time, apparently, in years. The good news is that the physical therapy is sending me into the land of good health. The bad news is that it's happening on Marathon Day.  Some days you get up and you hit the road and everything feels like a movie. A nice movie in which you are the hero, a gorgeous, muscley, raven-haired hero, each stride a poem of triumph. And that, of course, was not how I woke up for race day.

Me and Ginger made it downtown before dawn, the streets teeming with runners. Every kind of piece of humanity you ever saw. Who are the 25,000 people lining up before the sun to do this strange thing? Some people have done it literally hundreds of times. Some of these folks run 26 miles ONCE A WEEK. There's plenty of folks there like me, nervous and unsure they can make it, knowing the clock is not an issue, that the streets will be closed up on them and the sidewalks will be their red carpets of quiet glamor, the kind of personal glamor called sticking it out. 

I can't believe I even make it to the starting line. There is some dj-ish dude saying kind of dumb things, at some point letting us, the last wave, know that he's saved us a special song to send us on our way. Tony Bennet. Tony Fucking Bennet. Does that say, Eye of the Tiger to you? The runners display an array of facial expressions as the piano beginnings of I Left My Heart In San Francisco swell. I can spot confusion, humor, irritation, disappointment, and just plain rage. What a tool. Turns out he's made a mistake anyhow, and we get one more song. It's my jam. Journey. My eyes pool with tears immediately.

 I'm at the starting line of a goddamn marathon. That first week in December I ran one mile. Just one. And somehow, for months I tacked on hundreds more, never really enjoying it, playing out a battle with my body, my self esteem, my guts. I found ways to meditate, to grow more honest with myself, with my life. I slowly inched toward appreciation of my body, the places it took me, the ways in which it provided me such joy staring wild-eyed across my city having scaled an actual mountain. It brought me to understand despair in new ways, to imagine the loneliness of a falling body to the bay, it brought me new pain that led me to ask for help. The body brought my mind to doctors and to therapists that are helping me to piece back together the damage I've quietly done over years of neglect and misuse. It taught me to see pain as a message and a clue, a big show of sensation and nerve endings, a fireworks display of what's bearable, and what's not going to work. The starting line. I made it. I already won. All except the pesky 26.2 miles ahead. It's feels both life assuring for me to begin this last journey, and totally unimportant at the same time. It feels like getting here has been my tale, that arriving is the actual answer. 

And also, like I said, I know already that it's not going to be pretty.

I take off down the road in the sausage outfit, tears rolling down my face. It's foggy. It's damp. Off to my left I see Ginger for the first time, joined by my friend Grant who rode his bike down to see me off on my journey. Seeing friends will eventually save me, as it always has.  My mind won't settle, my right side feels strange, and while the left heel isn't screaming, it's weighing in its constant dull protest. 

I make it over the huge hill up to the Golden Gate and immediately a woman coming towards me trips and goes down hard, face first, into the road bed. Her ponytail jerks left as her face hits the cement and her long elegant fingers reach helplessly for her careening iphone. It's kind of weird, really, the iphone. But that's what I see, in slow motion really, limbs and fingers and electronics. And it makes the worst sound, her body going down so hard. I feel like it should be louder, like a sound engineer should have jacked it up like for a film, but it's pretty quiet, the air leaving the body, a small smack of skin on road. A groan. The pack keeps me moving, along with shock and fear as she scrambles up again, I think. 

I can't get out of my own way in my mind, six miles in and all my counting tactics are failing. I stay calm. I stay kind. I know things are coming apart. I get to the other side and finally have a chance to pee. I will not regale you with the horror that is the bathroom over there, or the band that would be thrown from a bar mitzvah by a mob of livid semites. They are both equally soul crushing. But not nearly as bad as the feeling that washes over me as I pass the 8 mile mark on the bridge. I see the eight, my lucky number and my right hip just seizes. The whole right side of my body follows and I dig my thumb into it. I dig until something opens enough to let it keep moving, my six hour finish time dissolving on the bridge. I cannot make it like this. Eight miles is usually when I begin to feel good on a long run. Strong and immortal. Slow but capable. But on race day, mile eight is where things are clearly not going to improve.

By the time I make it over the Presidio hill, past Baker Beach, across more hills in Sea Cliff to the avenues, the cops are beginning to pull up the cones and let traffic through. I am still surrounded by a good sized hunk of runners, but the marathon has a contract with the city and cars need to be moving. I understand, but it's kind of a harsh toke for the old spirit. Maybe it's good, I tell myself, to be on the sidewalk like in real life. Just another run. Just another day. 

Golden Gate Park is upon us and my chunk of humanity heads in. Almost everyone, it turns out, is doing the half marathon and right about three hours into this, they retire and I am nearly alone in the park. Even the bison look depressed. My body is over it. I think about cheating. Not as an option so much, but that the possibility exists. That I could. Except I actually can't. Can't live with it. The sign up to the Presidio Hill had a quote from Confucius that said, It does not matter how slowly you go, Only that you do not stop. And so I got right with that way back there, I could go slow. I could take seven and a half hours, and I might. But I would finish. 

The race has been flanked with volunteers decked out in biker leather and pins blanketing the vests, like bad ass Scouts. They dot the side of the route in safety orange hats, reclining easily on their gargantuan Harleys. Northern California bikers that came down to volunteer, help with traffic. Heading into mile 16, I see a trio of them off to my right talking to a person in Levi's and Vans. I see curls kicking out from under a paperboy hat, arms gesturing toward a piece of paper. 

Sam. Sam!!!

She turns and comes toward me, arms thrown into a huge welcome, no care in the world for my sweaty body. 

Sam it's horrible. It hurts so much. Everything is wrong. My right side won't move. My heel is killing me. My lower back is so tired. It's awful. I feel like shit.

She laughs. She laughs more.
Yeah. Yeah.

She is beaming. She is so happy. She wears happiness across her face like a finish line. 
You just ran 16 miles. Of course you feel awful. It's terrible. Nothing is making me feel better than you right now. I love it. You're just doing it. I'm an athlete and I don't want to do this. But you are. You're just doing it. You're having a bad day and you're doing it anyhow. 

We walk. We walk fast but we walk. I am sobbing, telling her my fears. I am afraid my friends and family will think less of me in my bad performance. I am afraid the pain will rob me of my work. I am afraid to feel humiliated, to see people who had come out to cheer for me, standing and waiting too long. I am taking too long. 

The bikers said people are collapsing. You're not. You look great. You look strong. Look, there's Mr. Blue Heron. He came out to cheer you on. And the hawks are out. 

We basically proceed to have a nature walk in which Sam tells me about the animals and the trees in the park. The park goes on for fucking ever. I tell her when we finish Stow Lake, I need to head out on my own. I'm afraid I won't be able to run anymore at all. But I wantch Sam go, and then my legs pick it up. I run. I walk. I run. 

As I'm just about to the 18th mile a pair of bicyclists pass me, The man is saying 

Oh these are just the stragglers.
Unimpressed, she says, 
How long does it take the average person to run a marathon?

And all the love my heart has recaptured, all the courage and willingness turns catty. I feel scarlet rise. And I think,

Honkey, please. 
Average people don't run marathons 
at all. 
And I may be a straggler, 
but I am not 
Just a Straggler. 

I emerge from the park fired up, running dow Haight Street. First just to get out of there as soon as possible, and second, because I hate those people. Those biking mean people. I see my friend Eric on the road. He'd been watching for me. He is also beaming, unconcerned with my slow going. The bottom of the hill welcomes mile 20, and my first crew of cheering dykes. A knot of women going nuts with a french bulldog puppy. I am so happy to see them. I realize I've kind of felt happy the whole time. Even in fear and in discomfort, I've felt happy. 

By this time my heel has upped the ante of its protest from dull to insistent. The skin feels stretched over the bones and as if a small tack is living in there, a mean thing from an elementary school prank. Every step it pricks and yelps. And yet, I feel elated. My people are so amazing, out there in the cold waiting for me. Waiting as long as it takes.

Mile 21 brings another pack of folks, these ones wearing letters that spell out my name. Team Seinberg scrambles to get in the right order and stretch across the road stopping traffic. They go nuts. They go so nuts when they see me that even the people waiting outside a cafe for brunch across the street go nuts too. They even take off and run with me for a block. Because at this point, I am actually still running. I run almost the whole way to Mile 22 where my friends have again built an outpost, lining a corner to cheer for me.

By now we're all crying really. I am so happy. I am so drowned in endorphins and pain. And I think they are happy too. My time is pathetic and nobody cares. Even my pregnant friend has made it her business to haul it out to the course and cheer. I kiss her and her belly. Ginger pulls her truck into a spot after almost getting in an accident to catch up and I almost collapse into her. 

You look great babe! You're doing so great. I love you. You can do it. You're almost there!

Everyone keeps yelling that I'm almost there. Which is true and also seems like a joke. A bad joke. But I love a bad joke. I have four miles to go and they seem impossible. But I go. 

I stop to get water at Mile 23, where a questionable gentleman offers to take my hand in marriage for the third time of the day. Questionable gentleman apparently find me irresistable. So that's something. 

At Mile 24 I am by myself entirely, in the industrial backlands of San Francisco by the water on long 3rd Street right before you get to the ballpark. I see the sign for the 24th mile and I just burst out laughing. It feels so good. My heart feels so full. So enormous, I could love the entire world. I could love BP and the West Bank and the Bush empire. I could love that douche Glenn Beck and his lover Sean Hannity. I could love everything I fear and laugh along as they wish me death. I feel amazing. And my body feels destroyed. But at Mile 24, I finally know, I am going to finish a goddamn marathon. My watch has passed six hours, but not by much. 

I round the ballpark and spit my little carcass into the Embarcadero. I can find almost no signs that a Marathon has been run here. Cups have been swept up, cones are all but a memory on the road, crowds are dispersed and there's no water anywhere. In the distance I can see a bald man coming toward me in the sun that has finally peeked out. I check his gait over and over. 

Is that?
Is that my brother?

It is!!! Steve Seinberg walks toward me and I walk toward him. My running has been reduced to very limited hunks of 64 strides at a time. My brother!!!! He's seen it all. I just want to sob. I want to dance. I want to hit something. But I don't think I can lift my arms. 

We walk together and he ushers me to my mom. She's crying. I'm crying. We cry, me and my mom. We're cryers. My mom. I have never had anything hurt so much that feels so good. At the 26 mile mark I tell Steve

OK. I'm gonna run this bitch.

And I do. I pick up my ruined thighs, I beg my aching ankle full of brand new pains and my poor heel to just soldier on for two small tenths of a mile and they do. They even let me sprint the last few steps over the finish where my dad is beaming. Dad!!!

And that's how it went. It was kind of horrible. I had the worst day of running I've yet had, probably. And the best day of spirit. And I think that's exactly how it was supposed to go for me. I was supposed to just learn that it doesn't have to be perfect. It can be messy and ugly and blundering. You can hurt and groan and make weird faces. There can be bad photos of you and still, your friends will cheer wildly in the cold, your parents will weep with love, your brother will adore you and Ginger will take you home and run you your first of several ice baths. And hours later you will limp to your front door and find Coach Cadwallader there, an enormous bouquet of sunflowers in her arms for you, telling you Congratulations. You did it.

I came in 5907th out of 5980.

And that's just fine. I couldn't be happier, truly.
After months of saying no to everything,
I am ready for the Era of Yes.
Thank you for running with me.
Thank you for
Helping me be a better writer
and a better person. 

Thank you for everything.

Love from a former marathon runner,
Sara Elise.


  1. Chills and tears. Thank you.

  2. Dear Sara,
    You don't know me, Jen May - my best friend- sent me the link to you blog. I am sitting at my NYC office cubicle right now still teary-eyed having just read your marathon odyssey. I too am a runner - not a lifelong runner- but someone who was tired of saying no and I can't, basically someone fed up w/ what life was offering who decided to finally say yes. I decided 1 year ago to run the NYC marathon and have been training since January for 1/2 marathons (I have run 3 in the last 4 months) and WILL run the NYC marathon in 2011. The doubt, the tears, the aches, the triumphs, the chafing, the physical and emotional changes - your blog captured what I try to explain to "average people" when I am icing my knees when asked why I say I have to keep running. Thank you for describing it better than I ever could - maybe even to myself - and congratulations to the nth degree for all you have achieved.
    - Amanda

  3. Hey Runner,

    My friend Julie posted this on facebook and it is the funniest, most dead on, truest tale from a marathon that I have yet read. I laughed out loud reading your awesome sarcasm, humor, and crankiness, and wept at the emotional truth to the journey. I absolutely, completely, and totally loved this and I thank you so much for sharing. After saying never again, it actually makes me want to run LA again, tame that bitch right this time... Thank you! :)

  4. I almost never read articles in blogs that are as long as the one you just posted. This posting is such a powerful piece... it brought me to tears and it forced me to read through the whole thing. It actually felt like we (readers) were running with you through this marathon. But the end of...I felt exhausted and completely inspired. I hope to run my (half) marathon soon as a result of reading your blog. Thank you for your strength and courage. AMAZING WORK!

  5. seinberg, you made me cry. thanks for doing the thing you set your mind to doing and following through, it gives me hope that some of us will turn talk into action and run our own marathon. it inspires me. run leo run. xo ak

  6. You are so beautiful and so inspiring.
    I am so proud of you for reaching your finish line and pushing yourself and damn.
    You make me cry.

    So much love,

  7. We've never met - I'm a friend of a friend and am preparing for my first marathon (it's only 9 weeks away, yikes!) - anyways, I just read this and got teary. Thanks for a truthful, hilarious, messy, and beautiful description of your race! I've recently entered a place of feeling really scared and doubtful about my ability to complete the marathon and this was just what I needed. Thank you thank you thank you.....and congrats.

  8. Holy smokes. This is so, so wonderful, and I thank you so much for sharing! I hope to run my first full marathon this year, and reading this just filled me right up with goodness.