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In May of 2019, I went through a bout of severe depression. I was working night shifts, and it became an increasing struggle for me to get out of bed during the day. I was on summer break from university, working 40 hours a week in the receiving department of a warehouse. For eight to nine hours I drove a forklift, moving blue pallets from one area to another. I felt bored, uninspired, unmotivated, and at a complete loss with what to do with myself.

Maria Elsser

Maria Elsser. Photo: Sean Enns

So, I decided to train for another marathon.

I was in terrible shape; it had been six years since I had been on any run at all. However, I promised myself that I would create a training program and stick to it, if for no other reason than to give myself a reason to get out of bed.

“You’re looking good,” my mother said, serving me an extra big slice of the lemon poppyseed cake that she had baked for my birthday.

“I’m training for another marathon, same one as last time, in Victoria on the Thanksgiving weekend.”

“Good for you!” my father said, mouth full.

“Do you want to come watch?” I asked, careful not to direct the question at either of them. My father vigorously nodded his head. My mother said nothing, and piled a huge dollop of whipped cream on my slice of cake.

The marathon was in October, and I started my training on June 1st. I ran through three broken toes, an ankle injury, shin splints, road rash from a few good tumbles, sunburns, cool dark nights, frost-bitten mornings. I also ran through a promotion, a move, and a divorce. In September, during the last and most crucial month of my training, my strained marriage of six years collapsed. I took a week off work, did not run, withdrew, and spent a lot of time crying. During this period, I went and stayed with my parents.

“So, you’re going to drop out of your marathon,” my mother said while we hiked up a green, mossy hill with the dogs.

“No, I’m going to do it.”

“But don’t you think it’s a bit much? I mean, you’re back in school, you are going to have to move, wouldn’t it be easier on you if you weren’t training for two hours every day?” I looked at my mother and saw the genuine concern in her face.

“Hey,” I said. “I made a commitment, and you always taught me the importance of following through with my commitments.”

“I just worry for you.” She shook her head.

“Do you want to come watch? Dad’s going,” I said, tentatively.

“I actually am getting the car serviced in Nanaimo that day, sorry,” she replied a little too quickly.

The day of the race, my father met me in Victoria at the start line to give me a hug and wish me good luck. With all the training I had done, I was hoping to finish in four hours.

“Go get ‘em tigger!” my father yelled, still not understanding the difference between Tigger and tiger.

My heart pounded as I bounced along across the start line with the other runners. Dressed in our neon gear, we looked like a giant flash mob dancing down the street.

The GoodLife Fitness Victoria Marathon pairs half-marathoners with the full-marathoners for the first 16 kilometres, after which the course splits and the full-marathoners go right while everyone else goes left. As a result, for the first 16 kilometres, the road is packed, all 3,000 runners bumping shoulders, jostling to get ahead of the pack.

Watch: The Goodlife Fitness Marathon Route

Goodlife Fitness Marathon Map

Click here to see the animation in action.

I was enjoying myself, like I was in a very happy mosh pit. I was making excellent time, so at the 13-kilometre mark I decided to stop at one of the many water stations for a drink. As I ran up to the table, I accidentally got in the path of another runner, whose foot connected with my left ankle. My leg flew out from underneath me, and I landed on the asphalt on my left knee before crumpling to the ground. I lay there for a moment, processing what had happened. Other runners skirted around me. I pushed myself to a sitting position and tested my ankles. Right circles, left circles, toes up, toes down, fine. No issues with mobility, no pain. I rose to my feet, and fire shot through my left knee. Not so fine. The first aid attendants following the runners on their bikes saw me grimace.

“Are you okay?” one of them shouted.

“I’m okay!” I called back, and began to run again.

I kept pace for the next seven kilometres, but eventually the pain in my knee became unbearable. I began limping, watching so many of the runners I had passed previously zoom by. The first aid attendants rode up alongside me.

“You sure you’re okay?”

“I’m okay.” I said, gritting my teeth.

At the 35.5-kilometre mark, I was met again with the small hill. Slight as it was, the incline caused my knee to buckle, and my left quad seized up. I felt like my muscles were going to tear. For the first time, I stopped running, and cried. I had made it so far, and now I was in so much agony that I didn’t know if I could physically finish. I pulled out my phone from my little black fanny pack, and, for reasons that still remain a mystery to me, I called my mother.

“Hello?”

“Mom,” I said between ragged gasps. “Mom, I’m at 35, but I fell, and I don’t know, I don’t know if I can finish.”

“You’re going to finish,” my mother replied. Her voice sounded so calm and distant.

“Mom, I love you.”

“I’m going to need to call you back,” she said, and hung up. I let out a small whimper, and then pushed myself up the hill, my knee and leg and body protesting with every step.

 

I had trained to finish in under four hours. After five hours and eight minutes, I hobbled my way across the finish line. I looked to the side for my father and immediately saw his face. Then, a second later, my mother appeared beside him.

“Mom!” I said, and I limped over, tears streaming down my cheeks. My mother and father reached over the short chain fence that separated the racers from the bystanders and held me.

“You’re both here,” I said, high on adrenaline and the sheer joy of seeing both my parents.

“Well, good thing you were slow, your mom almost didn’t make it,” my father said. Mom shot him an ice-cold stare.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“The car is impounded,” mother said bluntly. “In a week I’ll need you to drive me back to here to get it.”

“You’re kidding,” I said to her. My mother never kids. She gave me a small smile, and said nothing.

My father loaded me into the back of their white Mercedes van so I could lie down. Mother had rented a car, which she went off to get. She would meet us at a restaurant and we would have a post-race celebration dinner.

“So, what happened to Mom?” I demanded, and my father laughed.

“She’ll kill me if I tell you,” he said, but then he told me anyways.

My mother had gone to Nanaimo to get her car serviced, as planned, and the car was ready two hours earlier than she anticipated. And so my mother, who is calculated and logical and reasonable, decided on a whim to drive to Victoria so she could surprise me at the finish line with my father. My mother, who has never had a speeding ticket in her life, was going 150-kilometres per hour down the Malahat when she was pulled over by a police officer. Initially, he was going to take away her licence for a year, but she bargained, and thanks to her clean record, got off with a massive speeding ticket and having her car impounded for one week.

When I called her at the 35.5-kilometre mark, she had been talking with a tow-truck driver, convincing him to give her a ride to the nearest car rental place. From there, she rented a car and drove to Victoria. Because of road closures, she was forced to park two kilometres away from the finish line. She had sprinted through the streets and avenues of downtown Victoria, and made it to the finish line just in time to see me cross.

We went to Frankie’s Modern Diner, sat in a vinyl red booth, and my parents ordered me three burgers and a pint of beer. They both watched, smiling, as I scarfed down my food.

“So, when’s the next race?” my father teased.

“I don’t know, I think it may be too expensive for Mom if I run another one,” I replied.

My mother looked up at me from her bowl of clam chowder. For a moment, I could see her in my imagination, running to get to the finish line on time. Running down Douglas Street, past The Bay Centre, past the Crystal Garden, turning towards the harbour, her greying blonde curls bouncing wildly, blue eyes sparkling. I saw her weave expertly through crowds and traffic, the same way she dodged deer and hobos back on Salt Spring. Jumping curbs and skirting sidewalk barriers, finally arriving at the finish line just before I did.

“Hey,” my mother said, pulling me back to the present. “Hey. I love you.”