It took me over seven years to finish the Marine Corps Marathon. I dropped out of the first marathon I ever ran, the 2007 edition of the race, after 18 miles. I didn’t listen to anyone on how to actually run the race, and I didn’t know how to pace myself or my limitations.

I thought I could race the distance in under three hours—it was just additional miles as I had run up to 20 miles in training.

What I wasn’t telling myself was how I felt after those 18- and 20-mile training runs. It took me up to the edge of exhaustion just to run those distances, I was usually crampy and tired the rest of the day. I hadn’t yet learned how to listen to my body. I hadn’t learned what I call racing perspective, or how to learn from others and to just appreciate and love life simply for what it is.

I finally got back to the race last year, and this time I finished it. Seven years of running and life experience between the two marathons taught me to enjoy any moment running for what it is—precious time with friends and being outdoors moving—and to not expect PRs or BQs every time I lace on a pair of shoes.

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Joshua Harriman running the 2014 Rosaryville 50k. Photo by Jon Valentine.

I started running in 2006 after moving back to the Annapolis area. I ran by myself mostly and with a running group. I met other runners who ran marathons every year for fun. I started training with them with long runs on the weekends and additional runs throughout the week.

Where before I didn’t think I had the time for a long run on the weekend, I started making time for running on weekends and after work. I signed up for the Marine Corps Marathon and looked forward to not just running the distance, but racing it—pushing my body to the limit.

What I didn’t know then was that the distance alone was a challenge enough to finish, without trying for a specific time. I now know from experience that it takes years to get used the distance. The wear and tear on the body takes getting used to, and developing the hip flexors and core muscles to run effectively takes thousands of miles.

On the day of the marathon in 2007 I felt great through about 10 miles. I had tapered, and so my legs were ready to go and I went out at way too fast a pace. I was breathing heavily at about mile 13. By miles 14 and 15 I really started to worry and doubt myself if I had run too fast a pace early. At mile 16 at Hanes Point I started to get side cramps. By mile 17 the cramps had spread to both calves—so painful I was slowed to a crawl. I was afraid to bend my legs because it felt like my muscles were tearing in half. When I slowed to a walk the cramps spread to my thighs and hips. I literally stopped and could not move without cramping. I walked stiffed legged like the Tin Man as I saw the pace balloons pass me and continue down the road. By now the cramps had gotten so bad I stopped completely. Friends passed and wished me luck as I stood at the side of the road. The medical tent was on the other side of the bridge, about a mile away. The pace balloons kept going by. I doubted I could make it.

A friend stopped and offered some words of encouragement, assuring me that I would make it to the tent, and that I wasn’t going to die, and that I would be able to walk again, one day. I somehow made it to the medical tent and drank heavily of salted soup and Gatorade. I got to the point where I could shuffle without cramping but my muscles still felt like minced meat, millions of micro-tears. The medical tent personnel encouraged me to continue and finish since it was still early and the course was open for four more hours. I declined and stepped off the course. I was a DNF. I wanted to finish on my terms, and not just finish.

The memory of how much pain I felt that day lived with me for many years. I was afraid of the marathon because of that pain, and I did not want to repeat the experience. When I got close to exhaustion running other marathons in subsequent years, my body would remember that day in 2007 and shut down. I had to retrain my body and muscles so I could keep running. I did it through progressive running—purposely running faster at the end to train your body to speed up rather than slow down as the race progresses. Getting past that marathon also came through running multiple races, long training runs and reading that other runners overcome cramping as well. I learned that a little bit of cramping can be mitigated by keeping moving.

The biggest factor to finally being to move on from the 2007 race occurred with my becoming a nurse in 2012. For almost three years now I have worked on a busy surgical floor in a county hospital, where we see all walks of life, from politicians to homeless drug addicts, come through the doors.

For most of the people I meet as a nurse, the illness or trauma has occurred out of the blue, like a car accident or being diagnosed with cancer after coming in with back pain. The experience of working with all types of patients has given me such an appreciation for life, and the realization that there are large swathes of our destinies that we cannot control. I now know that every waking moment is a gift and should not be wasted.

I am so grateful to be able run on my days off. I don’t know how to describe it in words. It’s not even being able to run: I am grateful to be alive, to have two hands and two feet, to be able to move them on my command. Grateful at a primordial level.

Nursing has taught me so much, and given me a healthy perspective on life. I run because others can’t anymore, and not to run would be wasting a precious gift.

All of this came welling up in full fruition during the 2014 Marine Corps Marathon, where I ran with other runners who had overcome much more adversity than I ever have. There were many injured runners from Afghanistan and Iraq, who never gave up hope, but overcame and finished the distance. After seven years of running and life, I feel so blessed just to be alive, that to finish a marathon and feel the effort in my body is just a bonus. Just finishing was mission accomplished.