My Journey Home

When I started this journey I weighed 240 pounds. I had been an athlete in my younger days and always worked out in a gym. Later, even at my heaviest, I continued to work out in the gym, but I wasn’t eating right, consuming large amounts of sugar, and I also wasn’t doing enough cardio exercises. I knew I couldn’t go on this way and would have given anything to be slender. But what else could I do? I had gone to nutritionist, a doctor, and a personal trainer. Was it my age? I was 62! What had happened to that 17 year old athlete? 

I was at my gym one day when a trainer named Ariana Gordon came up to me and offered to help with an exercise I was doing. I paid attention to what she said but later still felt like a failure because of my weight. The next time I saw Ariana she asked me how serious I was about losing weight and I said serious! She started training me four days a week, two hours a day. We would exercise for an hour, during which I would push my heart rate up to 145, and then I would train by myself for an hour doing cardio and interval training, again pushing my heart rate up to between 130 and 140. (There is a caveat here: to prevent injury, don’t try this on your own; you have to have a doctor monitoring you and a trainer who is well versed in physical therapy and also understands the body as well as a doctor.)

I hated the exercises Ariana was giving me and would always ask if she was taking my age into consideration. In one exercise, she would have me crawl along the floor. I was absolutely terrified of this exercise and frankly dreaded our sessions together! Before each training session, I would get the “shakes,” both psychologically and physiologically, but I continued nevertheless.

Another exercise I detested was burpies. Ariana would make me do this exercise when I was spent and felt like I had reached my limits. She would tell me to go past my mind and suspend the thoughts of the exercises being too hard! Afterwards, I would go to my locker and cry, because I didn’t know how much more I could take, but I slowly began to believe that I would lose the weight. Soon my friends started to tell me they could see my face getting thinner. Ariana never gave up on me even when I doubted myself. She would weigh me and measure me every Monday just to show me that I was making progress. She would steadily increase the intensity of the exercise and tell me, “You’ve got this, you can do it — you were an athlete.” Slowly that 17 year old girl’s spirit came back to me and I could see the changes in my body. I would never give up on myself again!

I had planned a trip to Paris for the summer of 2015 and my goal when I started with Ariana was to be 158 pounds for that trip. Believe it or not, by the time I got to Paris I was 160 pounds and fit. I had lost 80 pounds! There was skin hanging off my body but I felt strong and had more stamina than I had had in a long time. I now actually looked forward to the exercises I had previously abhorred! Ariana also put me on a walking plan, carefully mapping out how many miles I should cover every day.

I had always believed that one day I would walk the marathon in Paris, my favorite city. I had signed up for that marathon twice before but my doctors had discouraged me from participating. Now, however, I had a walking and training plan and I started to believe again! Then, one day in late 2016, with the encouragement of my life partner and soulmate Murray Rosen, I signed up for the official Schneider Electric 2017 Paris Marathon. I was on my way home! Even though I was born in New Jersey, I still considered Paris my spiritual and intellectual home.

I officially started my marathon training at 63. I began walking up and down hills to prepare for all possibilities of course elevation change; even though I had been to Paris fifteen times I had not walked in all areas of the marathon route. The harder the training, the better, I thought. As I trained, I would listen repeatedly to Pharrell William’s song “Happy.” It kept me going on my long training walks through Westwood, Beverly Hills, and Los Angeles where I lived. I was going to do that marathon no matter who believed in me, and I would do whatever I had to do to train for the race. I would even train in the rain, no matter how hard it was pouring, always listening to the song “Happy.” I owe Pharrell Williams so much! His music was there through some of the loneliest miles of my training, and, believe me, there were some long, lonely miles.

The day of the marathon finally came. I had arrived in Paris on March 29, 2017 to prepare for the race on Sunday April 9th. The tension before the race was intense and I was as nervous as I have ever been, and, believe me, I have been very nervous in my life!

I was determined, after all my training, to earn my marathon shirt and medal, but that would require me to finish the 26.2 mile course in less than six hours, which seemed physiologically impossible based on my fastest walking pace. Mindful of that fact, when the race started, in the excitement of the moment, I found myself running, not walking! Amazingly, I kept running for the first five miles, even though I had not done any running at all in preparation for the marathon! But I paid the price for that: my toes began sending pain signals of such intensity to my brain that I thought I would have to stop the marathon. The spirit was willing to endure any pain to get that shirt and medal, but the body and mind were not, so I finally had to stop running and begin a run/walk routine. Furthermore, I was running on cobble stones and that was a big problem because I had not trained on that surface at home. I felt like an idiot because I had started with the second group of elite runners in order to gain more course time and now everyone was passing me. The crowd along the way must have thought I had given up because I heard “Allez Allez, continuez!” I, of course, did go on, encouraged by a continuous wave of spectators begging me in French not to give up. I will never forget the compassion the French fans showed me! Henceforth, I will always shed a little tear when I hear “Allez, Allez.”

Nor will I forget the many runners who stopped to offer assistance when I later slipped on a banana peel at 18 miles and lay on the street bleeding profusely from the knee. Dazed and in pain, I got up and continued; a French woman offered to run with me but I told her to go on and I subsequently began to walk with a Chinese man named Song, who was to become a bosom comrade in pain.

The plan was for my beloved Murray to meet me at the 20 mile point, where he had been waiting for me for nearly two hours. When he saw me, the course was nearly deserted and he decided to lead me and my eventual companion Song to the finish line, no matter what obstacles we faced. Joking with us all the way, as is usual for him, Murray provided encouragement to us as well as the few other remaining participants in the race. Meanwhile, my two loyal Parisian friends, Eleonora De Gray and Guillaumette Duplaix, had positioned themselves at the finish line, and began a concerted effort to convince officials not to close down the race so I could get my shirt and medal. We were now at the 7 hour mark and still had 6.2 miles to go.

Some other participants just stopped, but I absolutely refused to give up, even though I must admit I was approaching delirium. I had trained too hard and too long, injuring myself on numerous occasions and also irritating a huge bunion I have on my foot which will need surgery. Believe me, that bunion was with me every step of training and the race! 

I had trained in pouring rain, walked up steep hills, and walked on loose gravel, all to prepare for whatever the Paris Marathon would throw at me, and I was not to be denied my goal.

Earlier, I had hit a wall around Mile 9 in Parc Vincennes and that frightened me because I had not expected to hit a wall until 20 miles, which was roughly my longest training walk. Why was I hitting a wall so early? I was absolutely tired of that park and Murray was calling me asking me what mile mark I was at so he could locate me.

I kept saying to him that we would be leaving the park soon but the path through it seemed unending and by then I really wanted to stop, but I was driven on by my goal to finish in under 6 hours. The pain was increasing in my feet as was my hatred of that park. I had to get out of that bloody park! Don’t misunderstand me, it was an absolutely amazing park. I think I saw a lake but I was in that weird zone between determination and craziness. Yes, there is a lake in Parc Vincennes – I wasn’t crazy, I was just disoriented. We finally left the park around Mile 11. Thank god! I preferred to be in the city with its spectacular topography.

Now I was back! I was moving as fast as I could, listening to “Happy” and, no pun intended, I was happy to be back to my normal walking pace. I was happy to be in Paris alone with Pharrell and my training was finally kicking in, because never before had I encountered such trouble in the early stages of my long walks. Note to future runners of marathons: while training don’t stop and take breaks, as you will tire out too quickly during the actual marathon. I was used to stopping and this was hurting me psychologically now. I had to listen to the words to the song Happy, “Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof, clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth… Sunshine is here you cannot take away, a hot air balloon that can go to space…can’t nothing bring me down…”

Now, I was back to being that 17 old girl who was a winner, that 17 year old who was an athlete. I went on like that until Mile 18. As I rounded the Eiffel Tower, one of my favorite places in Paris, I took as many pictures as I could while continuing my pace, a pace I had trained so hard and so long to maintain. While training back in LA, I would often take copious pictures as I walked, even if it was raining. Now, in Paris, I was keeping up a good pace inspired by both the sprightly playing of many bands which were positioned along the marathon route and Pharrell playing and singing continuously on my headphones : “Ain’t nothing gonna bring me down, level’s too high to bring me down.” Then, suddenly, bam, I went down on a banana peel a runner had discarded on the course. I really went down hard, and the asphalt tore a hole in my sweat pants and opened up a nasty gushing cut. However, I really didn’t even notice that at the time – I just got up and kept going!

Murray called and said they were taking down the spectator barriers and that he was coming down to walk the last six miles with me. I cried like a baby to know he loved me that much that he would come down and walk with me.

But, if they were taking down the barriers, that meant they were closing up shop and I might not get my shirt and my medal, both of which I had already paid for when I registered. I had come too far to stop and I was now determined to finish no matter what happened.

Despite all this, I was still in the “happy” zone because I felt a certainty that I would indeed finish, even though I had more than 6 miles to go. I also knew Murray would write a letter to the President of France if he had to in order to get me my shirt and medal. But, I didn’t really need a medal to be my own captain, because I felt like a champion, just as my friend Dylan Ramsey had been saying to me and just as my friend Eleonora De Gray kept repeating to me.

Around this time, Eleonora, still waiting for me at the finish line, began calling me repeatedly, encouraging me: “Allez, allez, you can do it!” 

I started to sing a Broadway melody from “Hello Dolly:” “Before the parade passes by I’m going to get some life back into my life.”

I finally got to what I thought was Mile 20 and there was Murray, frantically waving and trying to get my attention. He jumped onto the course and began pushing me to walk faster. 

Eleonora called again to say that they would keep the finish line open for another hour; she and my friend Guillaumette Duplaix had talked them round, as it were.

The end was in sight!

Murray and I picked up speed and he started leading the way, joking with me every step. He kept my spirits going, but when I saw a sign that said 32 Km, meaning that I still had ten more kilometers to go, my heart sank. “Oh, god,” I cried, but I knew that Murray wasn’t going to let me sit down. We just kept walking — ”Nothing’s going to bring me down…my level’s too high to bring me down.”

Then, all of sudden, we came across another race participant, Song, on the course. He was from China but was working in Sweden. He had come to Paris specifically for the marathon. Song had been running and was now walking and he, too, hadn’t given up when he saw the officials starting to take down the barriers, virtually abandoning the few marathon participants remaining who had not yet made it to the finish line.

And so we went on, the three of us, seemingly to oblivion. We entered another park and felt as if we were completely isolated. We followed the green line marking the course, which sometimes was there and sometimes was not. Murray took command of his troops, marching ahead of us, because Song and I were now deliriously tired, and the heat, gravel, and sand became even harsher impediments to our finishing. More jesting and encouragement came from Murray, every 10 seconds like clockwork. When we came across some other runners who were sitting down, Murray said, in his typical paradoxical style, “You have to keep going no matter what, because the end is in sight, even though we can’t see it.”

This park represented another looming menace for me; I now know how Patton must have felt when he had to move through the Black Forest to go against the mighty Nazi regime.

We kept talking to keep our minds off the suffering. I asked Song about his reason for doing the marathon. He, too, wanted to challenge himself. We also talked about our hopes and dreams and our trips around the world. Murray was still telling jokes nonstop and encouraging us to go faster. We only had an hour to get to the finish line. The sun was beating down and its warmth was even more noticeable because we were walking faster on a stone-laden path. We were actually in the Bois de Boulonge, a famous park in Paris where the Rolling Stones gave a memorable concert and also where the Louis Vuitton Foundation, an architectural wonder, is situated. Suddenly, after much suffering, that edifice, in all its splendor, appeared on our journey, as if to offer a bright beam in our dark walk to the finish line on Avenue Foch.

We could smell, but not see, the finish line. We knew it had to be close, but that little green line was taking us through countless turns. Oh, god, where is that finish line?

Concentrate on the goal, I told my mind. I remembered what Ariana had said, “It is all in your mind: the walking, the pain you feel in your feet, and the anxious feelings. 

When is this ever going to end, I said to Song, and he just smiled. And then, in the distance, we saw some white tents and two lone people, both of whom were waving their arms in a frenzy! It is Eleonora and Guillaumette, yelling “You made it!” I had to put my head down again because I was crying – crying because I couldn’t believe it and crying because of all the people who had believed in me: Ariana; Dylan; Eleonora and Guillaumette; Halman, Kevin, Doc, and Makram from the gym; Dan, my neighbor; Sue, my friend; and, of course, Murray. Ariana, my trainer, had become a good friend and without her dedication to my conditioning and words of inspiration I never could have completed my marathon. Dan had run fifteen marathons and had given me much encouragement and tips on how to do a marathon.

It was then that I felt the pain in my hip, the result of my fall on the banana peel. I also realized I had torn my Nike leggings and saw the blood caked on an ugly wound on my knee. But, all this was of secondary importance to procuring my finisher shirt and my medal for the marathon, the ultimate goals of two years of rigorous training, sometimes eight hours a day.

We had reached the end of the race, but could not find any race officials. So, at this point, I had neither the shirt nor the medal. Then, not one but two miracles occurred! A gentleman overheard me talking to Eleonora about my fall during the marathon and my comeback from that, and he ran over to me and said he had, wondrously, not one but two marathon medals from the race and wanted me to have one because I certainly had earned it. I was overwhelmed! Then, just as we were about to give up on acquiring the T-shirt, we found a guard who directed us to the last tent standing and the lone race official remaining, who was loading his car with boxes. After my girlfriend Eleonora explained to him in French that Song and I were the last to finish the race after 9 hours on the course (yes, 9 hours!) and also that I had fallen during the race, the man opened up one of his boxes and kindly gave both of us T-shirts that said “Finisher”! 

I had now reached a state of ecstasy and shock simultaneously.

Wearing my shirt and medal for pictures, I never felt better. We took more pictures of all of us celebrating and finally ordered an Uber, although I, obviously delusional, thought I could still walk back to the hotel.

Against all odds I had walked the entire Paris Marathon and miraculously obtained my medal and finisher T-shirt!

I will always remember those final steps and that feeling of seeing those white tents in the distance and my girlfriends waving and screaming that I had done it. Both of them later told me I had inspired them in their own lives. I felt pretty good about that! When we got back to the hotel after the race, my friends went out and bought me champagne and I took a very long bath. Then, Eleonora, Guillaumette, Murray, and I sat in the hotel room and drank that champagne while watching the sun go down on one of the greatest days of my life. Later that night, we all went to our favorite Parisian Brassiere, Cafe Drouot. Many years ago, when I had first stepped on French soil in Paris, I sensed that city of light and enlightenment would become my true home. Now, having completed the Paris Marathon, I had not only found my journey home but had firmly embedded my heart there.