Melissa Gonzalez was struggling in mile 21 of her first ever marathon. I knew this because she was was messaging me about it as it happened—
“I’ve hit a tiny wall, but trying to push through!”
We’ve never run together. We’ve never even been in the same place at the same time. Still, in the time since our first interview, a few weeks before her big race, Melissa has become an international running buddy. We’ve celebrated new personal records. We’ve encouraged each other through long-ass training runs. We’ve theoretically invented the bar mile (a beer mile mixed with a pub crawl).
Waiting to hear news that she’d finished wasn’t just waiting for the ending to a story—it was anxiously anticipating the triumph of a friend and role model. We had connected. I was invested. If she did the damn thing, if she pushed past this wall, I thought maybe I could too.
Getting on Track
During our first call, Melissa said she grew up in California. She was an overweight kid with three brothers—three athletic brothers. She started running to lose weight in middle school, and even joined the track team with some needling from the coach. She trained and competed with her fellow student athletes, despite having some hang ups about it.
“They put me in situations that I wouldn’t feel comfortable in,” Melissa said. “I hated it, but at the end, I was like 'I’m so glad you guys made me do that!'” (Note: words probably spoken by every runner at some point.)
When she went to college as an Arts major, she stopped running, and most of the weight she had lost returned.
“I remember stepping on the scale,” she said. “My heart started pounding. Little by little I started running again.” She would head out to the local high school track and add a little distance at a time. Then a co-worker suggested running a half marathon with a group from work. Melissa, who is also a hiker, fearlessly plunged into the challenge.
“I thought, ‘What have I got to lose? Just a little bit of money.’ So the training began. Needless to say, she crushed it. Then on, top of THAT she crushed two more, completing the Beach Cities Challenge—races in Surf City, Orange County, and Long Beach.
It was after that—three races and a big medal to show for it—she decided to sign up for the LA Marathon.
Training and Trials
In that first call, she used the word “jogger” a lot when referring to herself. When I asked if she thought of herself as a runner, she hesitated.
“I feel like I’m not ‘worthy’ of that title of ‘runner’ or even saying I’m in training. ‘I’m running a full marathon’ is a little easier to say,” she confessed.
By that point she was working up to distances of 20-22 miles in a single run. The more intensive training DID, however, help shift focus away from weight loss. It was a victory in the face of a longstanding calorie-counting obsession.
“I’m in a place right now where I feel good. Running makes me feel good every day. The training has helped me focus on putting the energy into my body that I need,” she said. “When I realized how much energy I was exerting [into disordered eating] it scared me. Right now … I don’t think about how much I’m eating.”
March 18th 2018, the day after St. Patrick’s day, Melissa joined 25,000 other hopeful (and possibly hungover) runners in Los Angeles to run to Santa Monica.
“I Hurt So Bad!”
“At the starting line, I was very nervous,” she confessed. “But … seeing all those people that were going to run with me—I was pretty excited!” She had her Camelbak with cash, ID, phone and Tylenol. She was ready for anything, except perhaps the unexpected new pains that come with taking on huge distances.
“I started cramping,” she says. “I was like, ‘okay this has never happened before. Is it going to get worse?'” According to Melissa, the marathon experience was hitting mini wall after mini wall. “I just started hurting really bad. I kept seeing people sit down during those last few miles… But I knew if I sat down, I was not going to get back up. I pushed through the pain.”
She pushed. She ran. She added an Instagram story about some guy was running in a Pikachu costume. Every mile closer to the finish line was more exciting and exhausting.
"I knew if I sat down, I was not going to get back up."
Spoiler alert: she made it past that wall, all the way to the finish line. Hundreds of people screamed and cheered, ushering Melissa into her and her fellow runners into marathoner life.
“It was unreal. When I crossed it, I just cried! There were photographers wanting to take a picture of me, and I just needed a moment.”
We had another Hangouts call a few weeks after the race. When I congratulated her, there was a beat of silence.
In a post on her Instagram on the same day of the marathon, she said she probably wasn’t done with the distance. In Hangouts, she said she’d probably try to find another marathon before the year ends.
The real final question though: does she FINALLY consider herself a runner? Has she earned her title?
“Honestly, I still think it’s awkward, and I feel not good enough to call myself a runner,” she admitted.
“I know I’m a runner … I still struggle with body image issues. But this is a goal I want to get to—CALLING MYSELF A RUNNER without thinking twice about it!” She’s living proof that you can still accomplish goals, motivate others, and still struggle. Ain't nothing wrong with that.
It’s impossible to know which finish line she’ll find this revelation on the other side of—but she’s in no hurry. After all, she’s got races to run, and a whole community of people to inspire, yours truly included. It works out—they inspire her right back.
“You see all these kinds of people with you doing marathons. You don’t expect it, but you see these people … bigger, smaller, with disabilities. Everyone around me is so inspiring. There’s no reason I can’t do it, you know?”