I knew she had taken up running. In her 50’s. Then she announced that she planned to run a marathon in late 2018. Wow. This wasn’t some athlete or super-star person with oodles of time and resources on some PR kick. This was my friend Marlene, an ordinary mother and friend living her life on her terms, setting goals and going after them.
Marlene and Me: The Back Story.
I met Marlene in 2009. I had been laid off from my job in one part of the organisation and was invited to interview for a position in a related unit. Marlene was my interviewer. She was moving to another part of the same organisation and was hunting for her replacement. I liked her even before we met face to face. When Marlene called me to schedule the interview, I was sitting in a dentist’s waiting room. I was unable to tell her definitively when I’d be done. She was laid-back and clear: “Call me when you’re done and let’s see if we can meet.” I appreciated her sense of urgency and informality. We met later that day and I like to think we connected immediately. She was a petite, no-nonsense woman who came straight to the point every time. Long story short, I was hired and we became friends outside of work. I was included in her circle of friends, The Village for short, and after work drinks at regular intervals where we swapped stories about marriages, relationships, motherhood and career challenges of various kinds, became a welcome feature of my life back then.
Marlene turned 58 this year, before she ran that marathon. Yes, spoiler alert. Marlene completed 23.6 miles of running. She had announced her intention some months prior, and I enjoyed seeing her preparation unfold over 4 months as she journaled on Instagram and Facebook. There was one particular run that she did just a few week before Marathon Day that moved me in a way that shocked even me. I think I am clearer now as to why her account of that particular run moved me the way it did, and I’ll try to explain why as I tell Marlene’s marathon story here, with her permission of course.
Jamaica: The Sprint Capital of the World!
Allow me to back up a little here, and establish a context for running on the island. Jamaica is the sprint capital of the world. That’s no secret. With only 2.7 million people living here, it is simply phenomenal that some of the fastest runners on the planet were born here, grew up here and trained here! Usain Bolt still holds the world records for the fastest times over 100m and 200m. A natural superstar and any marketer’s dream, Usain is an iconic figure worldwide, drawing huge crowds wherever he goes. It is not unusual for the 8 men in any given final of a 100m dash in our National Stadium to run sub 10 seconds over the hundred. We love track and field, and have proven excellence in the sprints in particular.
In the last 5 or so years, the popularity of 5K road races has grown exponentially. It started as a marketing initiative by a few larger private sector companies to raise their public profile and raise well needed money for various charities, and seems to have taken the Jamaican public by storm. On any given weekend, there is bound to be at least one 5K that one can participate in for a modest fee. The current government also started an initiative aimed at tackling non-communicable diseases related to lifestyle like high blood pressure and diabetes called “Jamaica Moves.” There are many free workout sessions in various public places, certainly in capital city Kingston, providing the means for anyone who will, to increase their movement and get their sweat on. It’s a good look and a necessary and welcome move in the fight against obesity and the quest for healthy living.
Why Marlene Runs
Back to Marlene’s story. Marlene used to be a sprinter herself back in high school and college. It’s not hard to imagine that when you see her and size up her tiny frame. She’s short and slim and agile looking. But over the years, she had stopped running. Then when she turned 50, her career trajectory took an unexpected turn. Very abruptly, Marlene found herself no longer on a payroll. She ventured into entrepreneurship for a brief moment before walking away disillusioned and dejected. Uncertainty about her future loomed large. It was an unpleasant, unsettling time, and one that Marlene, always a high achiever, was unused to and uncomfortable with.
Her bestie Beth, who was living overseas, kept close. Marlene says Beth would FaceTime her daily, a sort of temperature check on her friend, who she knew was going through a difficult time. One day Beth remarked that every time they spoke, Marlene was on the same spot, on the same couch, in the same t-shirt. Something had to give. Marlene agreed to get up and move.
She found company in her neighbourhood and they started with walks around her community. She knew she was on to something. With the increased movement, and I’m sure fresh air and good Jamaican sunlight, energy slowly returned. Perspectives started to shift. Marlene started to feel lifted. They were walking 3 to 4 times per week. Marlene signed up for one of the ubiquitous 5Ks one weekend and when she completed the course, the realisation that she had just completed a 5K of her own volition, not as part of maintaining a corporate image, hit her. She realised that she had literally become unstuck, that running was liberating body, soul and mind.
Those closest to her noticed the positive changes and her daughter from another mother gave her a gift that started her on her path to a marathon. Marlene was given the gift of membership to a running club.
Women Who Run
Yes, there are clubs comprising people who get together, lace up at the crack of dawn, in many cases before dawn, and hit the pavement before reporting to their offices all over corporate Jamaica. They do this during the week and on weekends, pounding the pavement in Kingston city and outside of Kingston city, logging the miles and checking their times as a team. Here she found a group of people of all ages, all fitness levels and various levels of running experience and expertise that she fit right in with.
There was a sub-set of this group who dubbed themselves “Women Who Run.” Marlene is part of this group. Bonding with these women who ran simply because they chose to, in diverse locations around the city and even out of town, became Marlene’s thing. Finding new places to run became a critical motivating factor for these Women Who Run. It proved to be effective at getting them out of warm, comfy beds on dark mornings when they’d rather turn over and pull the covers a little higher. Their progress was wonderful to watch. I enjoyed seeing the pics and stats on Instagram. The changes in their bodies as they ran day after day, week after week were obvious. Marlene, never fat to begin with, grew lean and cut. These women were happy and comfortable in their skin, posing triumphantly at the end of every run, sweaty faces and all.
The decision to run a marathon…
Then she announced it. She was embarking on a 4 month training programme in preparation for a marathon in Savannah, Georgia. Man… When I quizzed Marlene with one simple word: “WHY?”, her response was simple: “It felt like a natural progression as I grew stronger with each road run. The club provided the training plan and a means of accountability. It felt good having this huge goal.” You see, running was the means by which Marlene regained control. As Marlene and I chatted in preparation for this post, the word “control” kept popping up again and again.
Life had happened to my friend. Life happens to us. Career changes over which we have zero control. Children who have minds of their own. Spouses with different life goals than ours. Shit happens. And there are moments when we feel helpless and perhaps even like a victim of the events unfolding around us. That is a very uncomfortable place to be, especially when you have always managed to live your life on your own terms, over-achieving every step of the way. When Marlene decided to get up off that couch, and put one foot in front of the other, slowly at first, then regularly, then faster, then finally breaking into a run, she was essentially putting herself back in the driver’s seat. Here is something that no one could take from her. She was running, running free, and in control. That sense of control that came from her decision and follow-through where running is concerned, permeated other areas of her life, and Marlene started living again, happily so, on her own damned terms. Amen!
Let the marathon training begin!
So the training for this marathon was on in earnest. I followed her progress, and the progress of the rest of the Women Who Run with vested interest. None of them were full-time athletes. They all worked. Some had kids, some of those kids were grown, some of those kids were troublesome teens, some were single moms, some were slim, some were fat, some were fitter than others, but they were all running and heading towards the Savannah Marathon. It was awesome to follow. There were days when they did shorter runs under 3 miles, and there were days when they logged 6 miles, 10 miles and even 18 miles! They were actually going to do this thing that they set out to do!
One Saturday, Marlene posted pictures of a run they had just completed. These women ran the Bog Walk Gorge. I looked at the pics of these women running along a route that is not typically a running route. It snakes along a road that was cut many many years ago through a deep gorge, snaking alongside the Rio Cobre, over the infamous Flat Bridge that has seen many a vehicle careen off it and into the river beneath. Many of the pics were dark as they had set off before dawn. But I felt the freedom that I know they felt as they pounded the pavement with the sound of the river roaring beneath the road, as they inhaled the damp, fresh mountain air, as they ran past the lush roadside vegetation wet with morning dew, a group of women, strong in mind and body, working together, supporting each other towards this big, hairy goal of completing a marathon outside of our island.
There was something very moving about this Bop Walk run. You see, I am not a runner, but I consider myself a road trip warrior. I live for road trips in and around Jamaica. There is too much to see and do and enjoy on this not-as-big-as-we-like-to-think island of ours. Road tripping is part of my livity. It is one of the simple pleasures that we enjoy as a family and we’ve created so many beautiful memories on our road trips around Jamaica. Decades ago, I had actually gone tubing in the same Rio Cobre that Marlene and the rest of the women who run were running beside. Her pics stirred up memories of that exciting day long ago, and I got goosebumps. I think the goosebumps were a reaction to the certain knowledge of how blessed we are right here in Jamaica. Here was my over 50 friend, pushing her body, brain in gear, working towards a hell of a goal, and doing it across some of the most beautiful landscapes you’ll ever see. That’s being blessed right there.
Women Who Run had done other runs in other beautiful places. Irish Town up in the mountains was a favourite venue. Cool and challenging with waterfalls springing from the fern covered hillsides is Irish Town in a nutshell. What’s not to be in awe of. And naturally, after their runs, came the nyammings. That morning in the Gorge, they ate fried chicken-back river side. The chicken back in Jamaica has long been a cheap source of protein for the less affluent. It is curried, stewed, fried and even jerked. Celebrating a glorious run in rural Jamaica with ghetto steak was the only way to do it!
What Livity Is
Here’s the thing: long after they stop running and long after the marathon medals have been put away in their boxes, their memories of that Saturday morning, having conquered the Gorge, an iconic route in Jamaica, sweaty, tired and triumphant, bonding over fried chicken-back as a tribe, united by their similarities, joyous and stronger even with their differences, will live on forever. That, my friends, is livity.
Marathon weekend came. I logged into the various social media platforms while the Women Who Run laced up. I was vested. Hell, I had been tracking their progress for the past 4 months, right? And I was cheering on my friend Marlene in particular. I remember going as support for H some years ago when he ran the Negril half marathon (if you are a runner, this is a marathon worth planning for. Negril is Paradise. The race finishes right alongside that glorious stretch of white sand and blue water called the 7 Mile beach). As I stood at the finish line, camera in hand, I was surprised at the tears that came unbidden, as people crossed that finish line. Fat, slim, old, young, fast and slow, man and woman, couples, singles all ran triumphantly across that line. I sensed the personal victories with each and every finish and it was profoundly moving. There is something powerful and profound about humans pushing their bodies to their physical limits by harnessing the power of their own minds. When someone is able to push their bodies to run 26.2 miles, that sheer mind control is awesome to me.
Bestie Beth who lived in the same state that the marathon was being held, drove hours to support our girl and kept The Village back in Jamaica updated on our girl’s progress.
The hours went by. There was one particular video that Beth shared where we saw Marlene flagging. One of the Women Who Run, Naki, would not allow Marlene to quit. Even when race officials tried to get them to quit as the hours wore on. Naki and Marlene were the only two people left on the course. Naki held Marlene’s hand and pulled her, giving her strength for the last few miles of the course. Dropping out was simply not an option. And seven hours later, my friend Marlene, to the cheers of the rest of her running club who had traveled to Savannah to run the marathon, claimed the title of marathoner. She did it.
I am truly proud of Marlene and all the other Women Who Run. They are truly living, exploring our island, giving new meaning to the word “livity” and proving to us and to themselves, with each mile, that we have control over more than we think.