I used to be a runner.
Three to four days a week, I’d throw on a sports bra, tee shirt, shorts and running shoes, and hit the pavement.
I’d run rain or shine. I’d run when it was 90 degrees. I’d run when it was well below zero. I’d run at home. I’d run on vacations. I always got my run in. It was the only time in the day that belonged completely to me.
In the beginning, I’d listen to music as I ran. But as time went on, the music became a distraction. There was serenity in the quietness of the morning. My thoughts were uncomplicated and cathartic.
I depended on those three miles for balance and relaxation.
But I’m a type A personality. It’s never enough to simply enjoy an activity. You always have to up the ante. So, I decided to run a marathon – the next logical step.
I had no idea how to train for a marathon but had read in Runner’s World that the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Team in Training trained people to how to do it. I went to the informational meeting and sat in the seat that had a free registration ticket for the Chicago Marathon taped underneath it.
Needless to say, I signed up. For the next four months, I ran at least 15 miles during the week and 10 to 20 miles on the weekend. I wasn’t the fastest runner, but I was committed.
About a month before the marathon, my knee began to hurt pretty badly. To be honest, I was relieved. I was tired of training. I wanted an excuse to stop. I explained this all to my doctor, fully expecting him to insist that I give up running. But he wouldn’t tell me to stop. He explained that the pain in my knee was from the stress of long runs and posed no long-term risk. He wrote me a prescription for an anti-inflammatory and suggested that I wear a supportive knee wrap and apply Tiger’s Balm on the spot that ached.
I left the office disappointed, because I couldn’t quit without a bona fide reason. If I did, I’d spend the rest of my life beating myself up for being a quitter. And so I continued to train.
By the time I made it to the starting line of the marathon, I felt confident that I would be able to finish in about five hours. The first several miles felt like a big street party – people cheering, upbeat music and lots of energy. I was proud of my conviction to not to quit, especially when this one mother met us several times through the course cheering that her daughter wouldn’t be here if weren’t for people like us. I still get choked up thinking about what she and her daughter must have endured. It made my discomfort seem insignificant. Every time I saw her I resolved to finish the race.
But just as I reached the twenty-three mile marker, my determination began to falter. That’s also about the time the Chicago Marathon course passes by Cabrini-Green Housing Project. I remember thinking I should be fearful, but I didn’t care about safety. I just wanted to stop. I could no longer see myself making it to the end.
Fortunately, the woman I had trained with encouraged me to keep pushing. We were about 1½ miles away from the finish line, when the strain on my IT band wouldn’t allow me to run another step. I was devastated. So close, but yet so far.
I sat on the curb sobbing. To this day I’m not sure if the tears were for the physical pain or the overwhelming sense of failure. One of the coaches from Team-in-training found me on the side of the road. He tried to convince me to walk the rest of the course. He said I’d have to walk to the medical station any way. I told him I’d just go to the medical station, because I wouldn’t be able to finish in the five hours like I had planned. I had failed.
“How many of your friends have ever finished a marathon,” he asked. “It isn’t important how long it takes you to finish.”
It took me forty-five minutes to walk 1½ miles, but I will never forget seeing my five-year-old daughter’s smiling face as I hobble-ran to the finish line.
It has taken me twelve years to be able to write about that experience, and I’ve barely skimmed the surface of the emotions I felt during the process. It still feels raw. But as I face what seems like that twenty-third mile in my writing, I’m reminded that it takes courage to keep going when all you want to do is give up.