There I sat, the night before the race, in the hotel room with Tom and my sinus infection. After one last super encouraging chat with my coach, Susie, I decided then and there that I would do my best to run strong, and at the very least to run free. I knew that there would be challenges during the race, moments where I felt less than stellar. There would most likely be elements that would create a less than perfect race scenario, like it being too hot or my stomach cramping or my head pounding from the sinus infection. I prepared myself for this. And I also sat in the belief that no matter what challenges would come my way over the course of 26.2 miles, I could still have a great and strong race, challenges included. I have to say that it helps the mental game having a few marathons under my belt. I knew to expect poor sleep the night before; I knew to expect the wall; I knew to expect that my body would want to go out too fast.
I don't believe that God cares about marathons or about sporting events, in general, but I do believe he cares about people, about me, and anything that draws me closer to him. So, with my alarm set for 4:40 am, I laid in bed, totally not sleeping, which thankfully, I planned on. I prayed that God would either take my headache and congestion away for the race or give me the strength to somehow float above it.
The alarm went off as planned, always a bonus, and guess what? I kid you not, I didn't have one bit of a headache or congestion. Not one bit. Chalk that up to whatever you want, but after a week of feeling like crud, I felt extremely grateful. So, in the darkness of the hotel room, my friend Renee and I got up, got dressed, and ate our breakfasts. I made some last minute fuel changes (Susie, close your eyes or pretend you didn't read that. She has a strict 'nothing new the week of the race' policy. But those who know me well know that rule following has never been my strong suit.). Why did I change up my fuel plan? I don't know. It felt right. Or, it all felt like a little bit of a crap shoot, but at least it was one I was excited about.
Renee and I kissed our husbands goodbye and went downstairs to catch the shuttle to the start line. As I walked out to the bus in the darkness of the morning, I was reminded of a saying I declare to my kids every morning at home, as I open the curtains. My kids know it so well now, that all I have to do is open the curtains and say to them, "guess what?" And my boys will shout out with all of the excitement that a four and a two year old have at 6am, "IT'S A BEAUTIFUL DAY, FULL OF POSSIBILITY!" And as I stepped onto that bus, I thought, "Indeed it is. It's a beautiful day, full of possibility."
Upon arriving at the start, I was a ball of nerves. I think Renee, for whom this was her first marathon, must have been too, which is probably why we hardly said two words to each other before we took off. It didn't help that as we were waiting for the port-o-pots, there was a military dude shouting, "It's zero six ten!" The race will start in twenty minutes. Then he would shout it again. Then five minutes later he would yell, "It's zero six one five, that's zero six fifteen. The race will start in fifteen minutes!" I thought to myself, "Ok, we've got it! We're all wearing watches. People can't rush their business. Let it be." The port-o-pots are always a risk for me anyway. With my hyper acute sense of smell, it rarely leads to a win-win situation. Win-win would be if I could do my business AND not vomit. Let's just say I came out with a Win-Half Win...I only dry heaved. I know, TMI, but this was the start to my race, and I counted it as a win.
At zero six two five, we lined up among the crowd of runners. The energy was palpable. I set my watch, turned my tunes on, and gave Renee a hug and a "go crush this thing." The pop of the start gun echoed into the dawn, and we were off! I had my first hour of music set with calm, relaxing songs, reminding me to go out slow, slower than I knew my body would want to go. The idea being that if I restrain myself in the first 5-6 miles, I would conserve energy and have gas left in the tank at the end. I admit feeling nervous thinking that if I conserved at the beginning, I might still run out of gas at the end, and then I would feel like I had wasted that time early on when I was feeling fresh. But I realized that I had to be either all in or all out on this one. I needed to pick a plan and stick with it. So, I decided to trust my coach. After all, that is why I hired her, right? I was all in. So I set out on the trail, making myself go slower than I wanted to go. I just kept telling myself, "you're just storing it up. Take that extra energy and store it somewhere in your body for later."
The trail felt soft beneath my feet and the air, so perfectly cool. The pre-dawn red glow of the sun splashed itself all over the mountains. Sunflowers danced alongside the trail, as though they were cheering us on as they waved in the breeze. I felt good. No, I felt great. I felt strong. I felt free. The miles began to fly by, 2, 3, 4, 5. I knew Tom would be waiting for me around mile 7, simply to check in and throw some encouragement my way. I couldn't wait to see him. I also couldn't believe that I was already almost to mile 7. I felt like I was on top of the world, which most people do in the first ten miles of a marathon.
Somewhere in the midst of mile 2, I had found myself reflecting on Blake being two years old and how challenging life has felt at times throughout the last four years since we had kids. And then the idea popped into my mind as I was finishing out mile 2, to pray for Blake at age 2; and to pray for Ben at age 4 as I made my way through mile 4. As I rolled into mile 5, I began to wonder what they would both be like at age 5, and 6, and 12, and 17, and so on. So, right there in mile 5, I decided that I would spend a portion of time during each subsequent mile, praying for my boys at that age. At mile 12, I imagined them being 12 and entering the awkward middle school years, the ones where boys seem to think that it's hilarious to do super obnoxious silly things to gain attention. I call them the "only as cool as you are annoying" years for boys and the "only as cool as you are dramatic" years for girls. As I thought about them in that stage, I prayed for them to know their worth, that they would walk in confidence without feeling the need to do too many obnoxious or dangerous things. One thought would lead to another prayer, and another and before I knew it, I was ticking off the miles thinking about and praying for the people I love.
Back to mile 7. Shortly before the mile 7 marker, as I imagined Tom standing in the distance, waiting for me, it occurred to me that we would be married 7 years in October. I reflected on how my life has felt exponentially richer with him in it, and I was experiencing heart-busting gratitude for the support and encouragement that he had given me during this marathon training journey. And I would get to see my best friend in .3 miles. I was already crying...happy, happy tears. Man, I thought, if only I could feel this good for another 19 miles! But as quickly as I thought that, I cut it short because I had promised myself that I would only think of this race in sections, 4 mile sections. This race, in my mind consisted of six 4-mile sections with a 2.2 mile finale. I was already almost through section #2 and feeling good. And there in the distance, I spotted Tom on the side of the trail. As I approached him, I flashed him a big smile, grabbed some glide, gave him a thumbs up and told him that I was feeling phenomenal. And just like that, I was off again. The next time I would see him would be mile 15, when he would trade me my vest for a run belt and would essentially become my sherpa for the last 11 miles.
I had been feeling so good for the first 7 miles, that it felt as though I was holding back to maintain a pace that was just under 11 minute miles. So, in mile 8, I decided to see what 10:45 felt like. It felt fantastic, despite some hills and a decent headwind. Some people might have viewed the headwind, which picked up throughout the race, as a curse. And by some people, I mean the really fast people. I however, saw it as a blessing, because it kept me cool. The expected high for the day was 81 and sunny, and I don't run well in the heat, though I was telling myself I could if I had to. The wind kept me cool for the entirety of the race, and for that I felt incredibly grateful. I ran miles 8-14 at a 10:45 pace, and I felt like I was getting stronger with each passing mile. I did notice a little overall fatigue in my body around mile 12, but I still felt happy and strong in my mind. I convinced myself that my body was just getting warmed up, and another reservoir of strength awaited me.
As I made my way to mile 15, a song from the new Planes movie blared through my headphones; the song that the boys had listened to on repeat, oh about 20 times each day in the previous three weeks; the song that we all sing together as a family; the song that we all raise our hands in the air to when we hear the words, 'touch the sky.' This was that song that was playing:
There's a time in your life, when the world is on your side. You might not feel it, you might not see it, but it surrounds you, like a light, makes you stronger for the fight. I'm never letting go, gotta learn to grow, watch me as I touch the sky, still I fly. Now I know it's what I gotta do, find a dream that's new, and give it all I got this time, still I fly.
I lifted my gaze and caught sight of Tom standing there, ready to run me home. I lost it. The floodgates opened. So many tears. So many emotions. When the words, "watch me as I touch the sky" played, I almost lifted my hands into the air like the boys and I always do in the car. Man, was it good to see Tom's smile and his gentle eyes, waiting for me. My emotions erupted, in the best of ways.
After I picked him up, we lost about 4 minutes to a gear mishap. The buckle came off of my fuel belt that was holding my phone, and then it kept hitting a button on the phone, turning the music off. This happened about 6 times before Tom threw out a solution that worked. I didn't care about the time lost, but I was worried about disrupting my rhythm because I had been running so strong. The stop threw me a little, along with a series of small hills. By mile 18 I was so over the hills and found myself longing for some flat to cruise home on. I cannot describe the calm I felt having Tom by my side. We didn't talk much. When I'm in my zone, I'm focused and I don't talk. At all. In reality, he probably welcomed this gift, as me not talking is uh, rare. He tried to read me texts from people, but found it hard to both read and run. So, he relayed encouragement to me from Susie and my friends and I just listened for the pings on his phone, feeling my spirit lift every time I heard a text roll in. This season of life and running has reminded me of the incredible value of community, of sharing in life together, the triumphs and the difficulties. I could not have trained or run this marathon without community; without Tom's support; without my coach, Susie's guidance and encouragement; without the company of my girlfriends, logging mile after mile on the trail; without friends near and far sending me encouraging messages and cheering me on; without Renee to share this marathon goal with. Well, you know, I probably could have done it without these people, but it would not have been the very rich and rewarding experience that it was. I can tell myself that I can do this life alone, because sometimes alone feels safer. But going it alone would mean missing out on the connection and meaning that comes with relationship, the opportunity to know and be known. Those are the very things that deep down, I desire, and I think most humans desire.
As I neared the end of mile 18, I envisioned the boys at age 18, preparing to graduate high school and perhaps head off to college. My eyes welled up with tears once again, as I almost could not bare the thought of it. Just as Tom and I teach them by example, the importance of running and exercise, I realized that we are also teaching them to run after their dreams, to run hard after things that scare them, to run free in who God made them to be, to take the trail least often traveled. In essence, we're teaching them to run in strength out into the world, away from us. AWAY FROM US. As this thought drifted across my weary mind, I remember feeling the urge to run backwards, to fight the forward motion that comes with aging. It was as though, maybe if I ran backwards, I could stop time and they wouldn't grow up, because I simply don't feel ready for it. It might have been delirium, because as I stare at the words on the page, I recognize that they sound totally ridiculous. But I think that's when it hit me, something totally clicked. Just as the miles had been passing by so unbelievably fast, so too are the years. My boys growing. SO UNBELIEVABLY FAST. It's happening too fast, time is slipping through my fingers. Changes are happening daily. And I often find that I'm not quite ready for change, or the challenges that sometimes come with change.
I prayed for my boys at age 19, hoping that as they step out of the nest and face head on, a world that is often times harsh and cruel, that they would be filled with a humble confidence, with an unwaivering hope, passion and faith, all their own; that they would have the courage to step into the hard places, into their big dreams, and into challenging relationships. And just as I was imagining us waving goodbye to them in their dorm rooms, leaving them to survive, I mean thrive, among the wolves, I mean their peers, it happened. I felt a burning-like twinge in my left hip. In denial, I tried to ignore it for a while, knowing that when running I often feel a little tweak or pull or twinge, and if I keep going, it works itself out and I'm usually good to go. I tried to convince myself that this twinge was just that, something that simply needed to be worked out.
Somewhere between miles 19-20, I let Tom know that my hip was hurting a bit. It felt painful just to utter those words out loud because somehow saying it to him made it more real. The burning sensation intensified with every step. My body had held up for this long and now, at mile 20, it was failing, or so it felt, six miles short. I stopped and tried to stretch it out. Tom pulled on my leg. We tried all kinds of things with little to no relief. Tom encouraged me to walk. But it hurt just as much to walk as it did to run. Either way, I was limping hard at this point. Tom kept asking me what I needed. I love him for this. But what I needed, was something that he couldn't give me. I needed a new hip. I needed a hip that would let me run to the finish without feeling like it was blowing up. Or at least that's what I thought I had needed. I proceeded on, sporting a granny-style limp-walk for a ways. The frustration grew to where it would set me off into limp-run for a quarter of a mile or so, at which point I would need to stop for a minute or two and bend over, the only position in which I felt some reprieve from the pain. Why it never actually occurred to me to stop and not finish the race, I don't know. But it didn't. I really was just contemplating how I was going to get to the finish. But I was going to get there, I was sure of that. This was the moment that I had prepared myself for, the moment when things would get hard, the moment when I would have to choose to believe that things could be hard AND I could still have a great race. At one point, around mile 24, as I was limping along, I watched the 5 hour pace group pass me by. It was deflating, to say the least. Long before I toed the start line, I had accepted that this would likely be my slowest marathon to date, and it took me a while to even be excited about a goal time of 4:45. And now, I would surpass the 5 hour mark. When my hip blew up back at mile 20, I was forced to let go of my time goal, but seeing the 5 hour pace group run by me simply made it real. And sometimes real hurts.
Shortly after we passed the 25 mile marker, I caught a glimpse of the big ring statue that marked the finish area. I had been visualizing this statue ever since I had completed my last long run on the course, rehearsing the finish two weeks prior to the race. This was not the finish I had rehearsed, but there it was, that statue, peeking out above the trees and marking the finish line that I had longed to see. I won't tell you what words actually exited my mouth at that moment, but let's just say that it made Tom laugh, as he watched me take off. I could taste it, I could taste the finish, and with tears once again streaming down my face, I took my failing body on home to that finish. We entered America the Beautiful Park, the site of the statue and the finish line. A wave of relief crashed over me. I started running toward the finish with all of my might, only to be re-directed by my friend Renee and her husband, who had been done for quite a while. Apparently, I was going the wrong way to the finish and had to turn around to run a lap around the park to the finish line. Seriously, I thought? Seriously. So, there I was limp-running past runners long finished, past kids playing in the fountain, ugly crying my way to the finish line. Finally. I crossed the finish line, dragging my leg behind me, with Tom by my side. It was nothing short of a broken hallelujah. Nothing about that moment was pretty. It wasn't the smiling, triumphant moment that I had rehearsed in my mind. But somehow, I was still smiling and I still felt triumphant in a very different way. Sometimes there is an unexpected challenge. Sometimes it hurts. And sometimes it's really ugly. But that doesn't mean it can't still be beautiful.
I'm never letting go, gotta learn to grow, watch me as I touch the sky, still I fly.