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26.2 miles - it is accomplished

5am. Like the other 409 athletes running this morning's Malta Marathon, I wake for a light breakfast: toast and coffee. By 7am, Warren and I are on our way to Mdina, where the start-line awaits. We meet a few friends around, I get my first birthday wishes for the day, and after a few minutes (very few minutes) of warm-up, we get off our warm clothing and get ready for the start. I join Ruben, with whom I ran most of my long runs, with the intent of making the first few kilometres together before I try to get off at a slightly faster pace. As we make our way in the midst of the crowd towards the start-line, my emotions are already on a high. This is it. The day I've been dreaming of. This is my first Marathon.

For the first few kilometres, it feels good. Apart from the fact that most of the start is downhill, I am still fresh. All through the first loop in Ta' Qali, both Ruben and I manage to keep pace with Charmaine, Steve, and some other runners we know. But by the the time we get to Attard, we lose sight of them and I don't want to risk burning myself up in the beginning. The first part needs to be run with your head, it's the last part which needs to be run with your heart. At Mosta though, I realize that I have got away from Ruben. In any case, I rarely feel lonely. I run a short bit with a Spanish athlete, and another bit with an Italian athlete. Both have come for the first time in Malta to run the Marathon. Diane had the good idea of painting the back of my t-shirt with the words "26.2 miles, 26'02'12, 26 years today", and I end up getting birthday greetings by every athlete I overtake and by many other runners overtaking me. Especially when we join up with the people doing the Half-Marathon, at around 28km. Though at first it is slightly de-moralizing, having all those runners passing you by at a much faster pace, the constant stream of birthday greetings makes it almost enjoyable.

By the 32nd kilometre we are in Mriehel by-pass. This is the point where it starts getting much more difficult. Every muscle starts to ache, the sun starts to feel hotter, and the remaining distance feels too long. Supporting and motivating quotes set up along the way manage to keep pulling me forward. By the 35th kilometre, we're almost down the by-pass and on to Triq Dicembru 13 on our way to Valletta. For a few minutes, I curse myself for being here, questioning if it is really worth it, doubting if I will manage to finish. But there, stuck to a pole, I get a glimpse of a quote saying "This pain is momentary, 26.2 is forever". And I remember what I'm here for, what I've been dreaming of. I can't let it slip by when it seems so close.

I had convinced myself that by the time I reach Bieb il-Bombi it would have been almost over and done with. Only one downhill and a stroll by the front till Sliema, or so I thought. Well, it isn't exactly like that. If the climb till Bombi has killed my calves, going down to Sa Maison kills my quads. I have reached Charmaine again by this point, and we are both running on empty. Only adrenalin is pushing us forward, step by step, towards our dream, and something else which isn't flesh and blood. Flesh and blood on their own would have collapsed by now. I try to keep in mind my parents, my girlfriend, and friends I know are waiting for me at the finish-line, and whom I do not want to disappoint. My body is pleading for it to finish when Marco, who is running the half, reaches me and keeps me motivated, running a few metres with me. Then I don't really remember much. My legs are feeling just like two blocks of stone which I have to carry around instead of having them carry me. I remember another band playing, a sponge-station which gets me back to my senses for a few seconds, seeing a friend of mine, Corinne, waving and wishing me "Happy Birthday" at Ta' Xbiex, seeing another friend, Nathan, by Manoel Island, and then the search for a finish-line which couldn't be reached.

Until I finally see it.

The Promised Land after the Exodus.

Mecca at the end of the hajj.

The holy shrine at the end of the pilgrimage.

In a flash, I re-live all the training sessions and races done since I started running back in October 2009, all the sacrifices and steps trodden along the way. And before I know it, as the most indescribable and beautiful feeling in the world I ever experienced takes over and my eyes start to well up with tears, I close my eyes, and cross the finish-line.

It is accomplished.

The legendary 26.2 mile race of the gods has been beaten. The same distance run by legends like Pheidippides, Zatopek, Bikila and Gebrselassie. And it's only then that I understand why "no matter how slow or fast, that finish-line will change your life forever." It's because crossing that finish-line, I knew that from now on, no matter what shit life can ever throw at me, I can take it all, I can endure it all, I can beat it all.

Because I am now: a MARATHONER!

"When you cross that finish-line, no matter how slow or fast, it will change your life forever."
- Dick Beardsley

"I've learned that finishing a Marathon isn't just an athletic achievement.
It's a state of mind; a state of mind that says anything is possible." - John Hanc

I RAN the Marathon for Inspire Malta ( Donation lines are still open. If you want to make a donation for this charitable institution, send an SMS to one of the below numbers, with the text "Mark Sammut, Malta Marathon". Thanks in advance on behalf of Inspire.
50617359 - €2.33; 50618080 - €4.6650618926 - €6.99; 50619215 - €11.65 

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