Update: Tune in today to see if she can … run her first half marathon.
The short of it is, I finished the race. I ran 13.1 miles with thousands of my closest strangers. The long of it is, it was probably the hardest physical feat I’ve ever accomplished in my life. Tougher than child birth, you ask? Oh, 100 percent. See, with labor, once that little human is in the chute, you can’t just opt out of the process. With running a race, you have to will yourself to keep going, knowing with every step that you could technically just step to the sidewalk, ask an onlooker for a ride to the nearest bar and call it a day. I mean, you really could. They’re just standing there. Not that I considered it or anything …
I woke up early, around 6, and had a super-safe piece of whole wheat toast with almond butter and honey. I did some quick yoga, changed and drove south to Britni’s house so her husband could drop us off. I walked in to find Libby, a dear, sweet friend and former coworker, standing in Britni’s kitchen. I knew she was driving up from Indy, but wasn’t expecting to see her before the race. That was the first time I cried on race day.
I’m not sure what it is about getting up early and standing around with a thousand recently hatched, abnormally fast-fluttering butterflies in your stomach that makes you have to pee so much, but porta-pots were all I could think about before we started. We found my girl Jill (who I also trained with) and she also seemed severely nervous, which made me feel better about my churning stomach. She’d been here before, more than a couple times. We opted to leave Jill and her friend Cassie in Corral F and go find “our people” in one a little further – and slower – down the line. Boom! The cannon fired a shot through the crisp, softly lit sky and the crowd started to shuffle and trot toward the start line. This was really happening.
The first 4 miles were uneventful. The weather was glorious for a run, the other folks at our pace were pleasant and we just kept our rhythm and moved along. Our first surprise came around mile 6. Hank’s mom and sister, Natalie, were there with her adorable little family. She had sent a package with an exciting assortment of running snacks and said she wouldn’t be able to make it. But it turns out, they made the 2 hour drive just for the occasion only to turn around and drive back. Again, the tears.
Somewhere around mile 8 we saw our road crew: Britni’s husband and mom, Libby and another dear friend and former coworker, Ashley. Libby, a wispy blonde bottle of spirit and support and a runner herself, ran along with us for a bit in her cute little flats to take our vitals. “How are you feeling? What have you eaten? You look great! Great pace!” We parted and Britni admitted she was about 5 strides from peeing her pants, just in time for a porta-pot. We took a pitstop, drank some Gatorade and ate some magic jelly beans. This is where things took a turn.
As soon as we started back up, I could hear that familiar constriction in Britni’s chest. Her eyes got a little wide. We’d been here before … the wheezing breath, the drainage, the cough. Her upper respiratory infection had given her a reprieve for almost 9 miles, but now, here it was, in spite of her double dose of Sudafed that made her, admittedly, just a little geeked up. I would liken that mile after her chest tightened up to the first hour of a baby giraffe’s life. She would try to jog, only to have her body refuse. We’ll call it 4 or 5 times she tried to just push through. Way more than I would have. Between labored intakes she said, “I need you to leave and go run this. Run it for me.” It was, without a doubt, our Saving Private Ryan moment. It was dramatic and emotional and so out of character for the two of us it just makes it all the better. So, somewhere just before mile 10, two became one.
I saw Libby and the crew shortly after we split and probably a bit over-excitedly instructed her husband to take her inhaler back to her. In retrospect, I might have induced a bit more panic in regard to her condition than what was necessary. My emotions were just so heightened and I felt so awful for her, and, to be honest, awful for me and the wheels just seemed to be falling off the wagon. This isn’t how I saw this thing ending. Libby came running up beside me. “You OK? It’s going to be OK. It’s just a 5k now. She was scared she’d hold you back. She knew this might happen. You got this. OK? You got this.” This was the third time I cried.
Now, it was just me, a sore knee (I tweaked in when I turned back to point to the corner where I’d abandoned Britni) and 3.1 long ass miles. This is where the mental aspect of this sport fascinates me. I started by telling myself, “OK, Courtney, act like you’re just starting now. You have fresh legs and you’re just out for a short 3 mile training run. You can do this. You can do this.” But with no music or sidekick and dwindling energy, my body was entering into negotiations with my brain. My legs put quitting on the table for consideration. My mind considered it. My lungs countered with walking for a bit, just to get through. My mind considered it. It was a game of table tennis that went on for the entirety of my time alone. In the end, my mind took guardianship over my body, ruling it too weak and therefore temporarily insane, and thus, deemed its plea bargains inadmissible.
I came down the final street before you enter into the baseball stadium and round to home plate for the epic finish. I had fumes left in the gas tank, but fumes are all you need at the point, I suppose. I looked up as I came into the out field and saw Spike and Hank. I heard the girls’ sweet little voices yelling, “Go, Mama!” I cried for a fourth time. I heard Jill and her family willing me on to the end. And then it was over. I had done it. Jill had come in under 2 hours, I clocked in at 2:28 and Britni was a mere 10 minutes behind me.
As my group of girlfriends, some I hadn’t trained with at all (mainly because they are stupid fast) and some I had a bit, came together with salt crystallizing on our faces and offensive odors and the biggest smiles you could imagine, I felt consumed by joy. I think that’s part of how running gets ya. It’s an individual sport where, really, all of the contestants just want to see you finish. For those toward the front of the pack, there’s more of a competition to it, sure, but for the vast majority, it’s a competition against yourself and everyone on the road with you is fighting the same battle and rooting for everyone in front of and behind them. The camaraderie is like a drug.
You realize, too, that everyone has a story. I was matched stride for stride by a gentleman in his late 70s on those last 2 miles. The only difference was he was man enough to take a beer shot, when I couldn’t even begin to stomach it. “If I puke, I’ll know what I did!” he chuckled as we shuffled on. I saw a young man with his military pack and boots, a firefighter in his gear, and spoke with a woman who told me she dedicates every mile she logs to a young woman, who was a stranger to her just a year ago, who is battling a terminal disease.
Today, I took the girls for a walk around the loop behind our house. It’s just under .5 mile. I can’t help but think of how I started out, last spring, begging my body to make it around that loop twice without having to stop. That was just about 5 months ago. I’m going to say the thing you’re not supposed to say here, but I am so gosh dang, holy crap, unbelievably proud of myself. In a life where it’s easiest to be self deprecating and always want more from yourself, for once I am insanely impressed with and proud of myself for putting in the hours and the pain and seeing this bucket list item of mine all the way through to the finish line. I ran 13.1 miles. The strength of the mind’s will to prevail and the body’s ability to follow is amazing.
I’m thankful to every stranger who stood along that course and cheered me on. Unbelievably grateful to the family and friends who made a special trip on their Saturday morning just to see me accomplish this goal. It didn’t have to mean anything to anyone else but me, but it did and that fills my heart with gratitude and humility in a capacity I’ve never known. I’m thankful to my brother, who not only ran 7.5 miles with me in the dark with very little warning, but also helped with my kids so I could keep training while Hank was out of town. I’m thankful to Jill and Britni for the companionship, encouragement, inspiration and friendship every step of the way, even if that meant asking each other repeatedly whose stupid idea this was to begin with. But most of all, I’m immensely grateful for my husband who had to make sacrifices these past 3 months and stand aside while I continued to complain about self-inflicted pain, exhaustion and fear. He never made me feel guilty or like I was a bad mother for chasing this dream down for myself.
Before we left the stadium after the race, Spike said, “Mama, did you win?”
“I sure did,” I said. “You want to wear my medal?”
“Mama, I’m so proud of you.”
“Thank you, baby. That means the world to me.”
And I realized how much she’d been watching and the weight of that responsibility. It was one more shot of validation and, at least for the day, I did feel like Superwoman. At least to her.
Until next time …