Receiving many texts and emails and Facebook messages from friends, families and other runners, encouraging me to get after it, congratulating me on what a year and one friend in particular said it’s one thing to say you’re going to do something this big an undertaking, it’s quite another to follow through. And that stuck with me, as it has since Miami finished. I really put my mind to this and I did it. All of it.
It wasn’t pretty, a lot of it wasn’t, but it was mine, all mine, I finished it, and nothing or no one could take it from me. Not doctors telling me I’d never run again, not current immune system issues threatening my well being, not financial stress of a professional roller coaster, not debilitating and distracting grief over a failed 10 year relationship, not on-my-knees confusion about next steps in life – none of the swirling whirling dervishes of the current incarnation of my life would throw me off the path I was now on, the goals I was bound and determined to accomplish and succeed at.
So, bring it on Miami, whatever you got, bring it on.
Be careful what you wish for. That race, the one I thought I was going to own, owned me and then some from nearly the beginning. From the humidity I have no experience running in that had me sweating profusely within the first mile, to the runners-upchuck at mile four, to the lightheadedness to what I now know is diminished lung capacity so I have less oxygen getting to my brain when pushing myself physically like this, to the weather fluctuations: the humidity, then the sun and the heat to the stillness and stuffiness to the sudden breeze that turns into swirling 20 mile and hour winds to the sudden but welcome downpour that ushers in instant mini flooding on the course for a mile or so (oh the joy of running through puddles during a half marathon – brought back running as a kid!), to the incredible voices in my head.
I can’t be the only runner who feels just slightly crazy at time during a race, all the competing thoughts coming at you, the conversations you allow yourself to have with…yourself. It was a beautiful course and runners were joyfully friendly and it was not enough. It was brutal – sometimes it felt like we were all running in slow motion, everyone seemed to be struggling. So in a sense, there was some comfort in that I suppose, but as a runner, not only do I want to do well, I want everyone around me to do well, to enjoy their race, to inspire and be inspired. And everyone looked rough.
I thought of my friends telling me to “go for it” and “kick that course’s ass!” and all the other pre-race encouragements and I threw a little more pressure on myself – I have to finish strong, I have to impress my friends and supporters, I have to impress me, show us all what I am capable of. I so dearly want that excited grin coming across the finish line, the “I freakin did IT!” I think of all I’ve overcome just this year – food poisoning, a cold, a 30 degree race start, the jet lag, the infections, the hip issue, the shoulder pain, finding out my ex was engaged 36 hours before heading to Maui for race #9 and trying desperately to keep those emotions at bay, starting a race with no music unexpectedly but then rapidly adapting to thoroughly enjoy the course in a new heightened way, changing nutritionally to being gluten free more than halfway through the year and general body exhaustion – I’ve come through all of that and always pushed through, always kept going, always took another step. I will do that in this race too.
But, I have to constantly adjust my expectations throughout the course for my time (is that a metaphor for life?), and that’s not always easy to do, but I think about some of the running quotes I read that inspire me, about grit, about determination, about perseverance. I think about those that try something once and never again and am grateful I’ve found a muse for my being. I recall all the other times during a training run or a race when I’ve had to dig down deeper than ever to bring up the grit and determination to take another step, eek another mile out. I think about how far I have come and no matter this one race, I’ve done something incredible and I’m not one to shy from a challenge or from the truth – I will own whatever the outcome of this race is and I will admire it and understand it and celebrate it for what it is.
So I go from hoping to beat my 1:44 PR to coming in second to it a 1:45, to hoping it’s a personal top five finish, to wanting to break 1:50 to hoping to break 1:55 to just desperately wishing to break 2:00 to wanting to run more than two miles at a time to praying to run the last full mile in proudly, to just wanting to finish, no matter what it looks like. I’ve always tried to leave everything I have in that day, that morning, that race on that course – do the best I can in the moment with the tools I have – and I’m not sure there’s a race I haven’t fully done that, but this one feels like I’m literally leaving everything I got for this race, and everything I had for all the other races on this Miami course.
I can’t even think about the post race experiences that have become near-ritual, it really is just one damn step at a time. And the in-the-moment expectation adjustments throughout this race have been dizzying but somehow, despite the see saw of emotions and mental games and the physical beat down, the wheels truly falling off this race nearly from the beginning, I have not only kept going, I somehow managed to still have moments of strength and pride along the course, feeling that familiar “I so got this!” sense throughout my body.
And in this race, on this course, instead of lasting the whole race or long enough to get me though a couple tough steps or hills, it might last a mile, or a song, but I had it, and I kept running to feel it again. That’s what we do – most people who don’t run think we’re crazy to keep doing this, and I’ve had a lot of people think I just feel great throughout a race as well as before and after. Not true – most runners have crappy runs, tired runs, forced runs, or moments of that even in a good run. And that’s what I strive for, that’s what I think a lot of runners are addicted to – those moments, those miles, those races that feel like you can do anything, your strong and your body is strong and you could run 100 miles if you wanted to, it just feels so good and spills out into the rest of your day, and life really.
And oh, the feeling when you’re finished is exquisite. Nothing like it. Again, it’s addicting. Even, yes even for me, even when you have a race that feels like this, the sense of accomplishment for when you’re finished, especially when you’ve had to gut it out like this, is remarkable.
So, I kept going, and I did it. It was not pretty, and that last mile felt like three, especially with the headwind, but as I got closer, and my legs were miraculously still moving and I was still running, it all, this race and all the others, came rushing to me – what I’d done this year, and what I’d accomplished. I set this goal not to prove anything to anyone else or impress anyone else or even start with a particular expectation in mind – I did this to inspire me. To set some goals and accomplish them, but more than that, to set a goal that a few years ago I never thought I could’ve thought about, let along attempted, let alone accomplished. And get after it I did.
It gave me structure and guidance throughout the year, and also gave me a system to navigate through the tougher times of the year, and it gave me so very much to look forward to and be proud of, no matter the finish times or whether I had a solo race weekend or was met by friends or family at the finish line. And crossing the Miami finish line on the sand and nearly fainting, wobbling to the side and dropping to my knees, I took a moment to take it all in. It washed over me, the whole year, the courses, the scenery, the new friends, the expos, each finish line, the plane rides, the unique moments to each race, the personal strength and pride – it had come to this, and this, this Miami race wasn’t pretty and sure as hell was the complete opposite of how I wanted to finish.
But I did it.
And there was my mom and sister waiting on the side for me, and here was this weighted medal in my hand and a cold water bottle in my other. I walked over and got tearful hugs from both and my sister took one look at my face and knew I not only didn’t come close to my goal for this race, but that it had been a rough one and then some, that I was somehow disappointed and whispered in my ear “it’s not about this one race, it’s about the whole year, look at what you did – be proud, be very proud of that.”
And while in the moment I still held the bittersweet disappointment of this particular race, I knew she was right and I knew anyone who genuinely supported me would be disappointed for me, because I was, but would be thrilled for me that I did it – that I set my goal and achieved it. And as it’s processed throughout my brain these past few weeks, it’s done something interesting – it’s relit the fire in my belly to get after that elusive new PR.
I’ve come to terms with the Miami finish time and think perhaps, just perhaps, that if I had gotten a new PR, maybe I would’ve closed the chapter on these races, and, gasp, on running, that I wouldn’t have felt I personally had more to get after, that I’d done all that I wanted, and it would feel finished. And that is so not how I feel, I don’t feel finished, or settled or satisfied with my time or how the year, just race time wise, went.
And so I’ve set new goals for myself, and I have a strong desire to make adjustments, find where I need to tweak, get some help in making some changes, and calm my overall life down a bit so I can accomplish the physical goals. I don’t need to fly all over the country to achieve them, if anything I will set myself up better for good race times if I’m not battling exhaustion and jet lag half the time – while it would be nice to be a Goucher and have a team of trainers and supporters and a lifestyle geared towards races and the inevitable, most of us are “just” runners, getting out there because we can and because we love it and that sometimes means changing how you get after it.
Getting after it is what it’s all about for me – there’s a reason I do this, well there’s several, and there’s a reason it was 11 in ’11. I get after this because I need and want these goals to achieve and maintain that sense of accomplishment and pride. In addition to that, I’ve had to overcome some pretty decent challenges in order to get here.
In 2006 I had doctors, after a battle with Lofgren’s Syndrome of Sarcoidosis that nearly destroyed my joints and lungs, tell me I wouldn’t run again, that I could find many other activities to substitute, like slow walking. I was 34 years old and I’d gone from one of the more active people in the community to feeling like my physical body had just sped up and I was 34 living in an 84 year olds body. I’d already battled autoimmune disorders for most of my life and here was one that was going to take a little more than I was comfortable giving. So I battled back, starting with some recumbent biking a few months after being out of the hospital to becoming very good friends with the treadmill at the gym to signing up for a half marathon in Fall of 2008 and proving those damn doctors wrong.
That felt great.
Flash forward to the end of 2009 and my partner of 10 years decides to leave me, and our life, on New Year’s Eve. Well, really it’s turned out I had to leave our life, and he has just replaced the partner but his life looks nearly identical – and having that rug pulled out from under me, right when I had decided to leave, with his support, my job of seven years to break out on my own, was devastating, and I’m still feeling the effects. Not one part of my life looked the same – if I was still at that job I’d have that anchor while rebuilding my life or if he hadn’t bolted, I’d have his support as I rebuilt professionally. But I was anchor-less, rug-less, and rudderless. Except for running.
Waking up in January of 2010, I was in a fog, and to be honest, many times barely made it out of the apartment. Everything had changed in the blink of an eye and I was numb. Really numb. And so confused. So very confused about it all. But on the days that I ran, the days I got myself out of the house, and went to the gym for even a tougher-than-it-looked 20 minute run (really, felt like a shuffle), for those 20 minutes, I felt empowered, I felt alive, I felt like I might have a chance to be ok.
Even if that feeling didn’t last much past the walk home from the gym, I needed those minutes to feel that way, that the numbness and despair and shock wouldn’t always be the primary feeling. And so I signed up for a half marathon, and then another, and then I decided to travel for a few, enjoy the overall experience of them and next thing I knew, I’d signed up for five in 2010. And I learned so much in those races. And I did them all on my own, save for one in Philadelphia with a friend from DC, and I felt something growing, a real passion for this, and as I shaved time off each one, and I got further into the real sport, I pulled myself a little further out of the abyss of sadness I was living in, it became less of a need to distract and more something very real to focus on.
I had never really thought of myself as a runner, it was something I did sometimes but others were so much better at it, and always seemed to come easy to them – I learned it could come easier to me if I focused and I learned anyone can be a runner. And so in Fall of 2010 I formulated a plan to do more races in 2011. At first, with a few friends, they said, why not double the number from 2010, since they were “easy” for you? And then it hit me – next year was 2011, why not do 11 in ’11? Make it a whole thing, a theme, a project and really sink my teeth into it? Train for it, throw everything I got at it and really go for it. So I trolled for races around the country and began to build the schedule to make it work for places, time of year and none too bunched up in one couple month period. And it came together beautifully.
And then my friends convinced me I had to write about it, and so I started my blog www.iwonderwoman.com and wrote all year about it. And as I began to send notes to friends about what I was doing, the support I got back was overwhelmingly positive. While some might’ve thought I was crazy, they believed in me, they believed I could and they thought it was a fantastic if ambitious goal.
It was not lost on me that my ex’s response was a simple “11 half marathons? Perhaps too many?” and of course, at the time, that just fired me up more. So I was planning to prove a few people wrong, and I was going to prove a lot of people, including myself, right. And I couldn’t wait. The only fear I had was how hard I am on myself (I’ve been told by many my whole life I’m far too hard on myself) and how that would play out. But I have, to an extent, learned better when to be gentle, ease up on me, and when to push myself past whatever hurdle, proverbial or not, is in front of me.
And the number 11? Why so special? It’s my dad. It was his jersey number when he played basketball at Santa Clara, so it’s always been my lucky number and he was and is my inspiration for taking life by the horns and for being the physical go getter that I am, and he’s been with me on every single race. I remember being a kid and hearing my dad up at 5am, doing his situps and stretches before he went to work. He kept after it until brain cancer cruelly took him out far too young, just when he should be retiring. And at 24, watching a man of strength, the gentle giant we knew as my dad, weaken so rapidly as he did, was terrifying. He was diagnosed just weeks after retiring and died seven months later – he worked his whole life and gave everything he had to work and to his family, eager to enjoy the fruits of his labor only to have is whisked from him. And part of him knew it, was aware of it all. He told a neighbor friend, as he was retired but before we knew he had lymphoma, that if he could, he would do some things differently, he would’ve played more, traveled more, spent more time with his family. Sure, those might sound like typical things for someone retiring and/or someone facing their mortality to say. But when it’s your own father and they’re saying in relation to the life you were involved in and a part of, it hits home in a very different way. They aren’t just words.
And so, for me, the special lesson I’ve taken from my dad is to live life now, don’t wait for the later to set any goals, crazy or not, to have the experiences you want today. Be smart, be responsible, but live in the moment and go after what you want, take those risks and be truly alive, regardless of opinions or judgements from others. I’ve been blessed to have had an already incredible life and I’m forever grateful for that, and having the chance to race in 11 half marathons in 2011, in honor of my dad, to overcome physical and emotional challenges of the last number of years, to empower myself to greater heights in this life both indirectly and directly from this whole journey and to perhaps and hopefully inspire others to run and to set healthy crazy goals for themselves and be their own greatest cheerleader as they move forward to achieving them, whatever they may be.
It’s not where I thought the year would end, and the expectations I may have had at the formulation of all this may have shifted not just once or twice but a dozen at least but what I’ve received from all this, and what I’ve gotten out of it, and hopefully what I’ve given out, is more than I couldn’t imagined, more than I could’ve hoped for. And for that, I’m eternally grateful. I’ll carry this very special year with me for the rest of my life, whether I get 10 more or 50 more.
So what’s next? I did 5 in ’10, 11 in ’11 so I think in keeping with this theme, we’re doing 6 in ’12 – a more reasonable number of races, and perhaps more on the West Coast, and also a chance to get that PR I’m so determined to get.
So thank you, running, for all you’ve given me and millions of others. It’s a number of twists of fate that’s brought me here, and it’s taught me I’m thousand time more capable and stronger than I’ve maybe given myself credit for in the past, and that alone is worth every ache, every sore muscle, every blister, every ice bath, every dollar spent on shoes and race entries, every early morning sleep sacrificed for training. Thank you, running, and incredible running community, for all of it.