Not “just another half marathon”

The week of the Crites Tybee Race Fest, a 2-day, 5-race festival with a cumulative distance of 26.2 miles, I came down with a cold. Because, well, of course I did.

No one else was faring much better. Lindsay had been fighting all sorts of sickness and Robin wisely decided to give her knee a rest after our Charleston Marathon. So I’d have to run by my lonesome. And if you know me at all, you know I don’t like to be alone. Like, ever.

So I decided to race “just” the half-marathon, which compared to the marathon a couple weeks ago, should be no problem.

At the 11th hour, my friend Jodie decided to join me for the race.  Jodie claims she’s “not a runner” but she’s pretty much whatever she wants to be. A salsa dancer? Sure! A Gladiator? No problem! A human fork-lift? I mean, have you seen her arms?!

And she can decide at a moment’s that she’s going to run 13.1 miles.

But Jodie won’t run with me. See, Jodie doesn’t like to talk and run. And I pretty much run to talk.

Jodie also doesn’t like the cold, and by cold I mean anything sub-78. In the middle of summer, when it’s 100 degrees and 100% humidity, you’ll see her running at 2 p.m. By choice.

This morning, it’s barely 40 with wind gusts up to 20 mph. And Jodie is not happy.

“I can’t believe you talked me into this,” she grumbles, pulling her jacket tight around her body in spite of the fact that we’re inside a heated car.

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Not happy.

We both know I didn’t talk her into this. A few months ago, Jodie decided to run the Key West Marathon in support of her dad, who’s fighting cancer. A few days before the race she came down with the flu and decided to run the half, fueled by fever, chills and a promise she made to her dad.

She finished the half, but the fact that she was still 13.1 miles short of her promise haunted her. Which brings us to the Tybee Half.

“This is just God’s way of punishing me for not running the marathon,” Jodie continues to lament at the race start line, her entire body trembling with the cold.

Neither of us have any expectations for this race; we’re going for the finish where we have VIP passes to the Savannah magazine tent and the promise of bottomless mimosas.

At the gun, we disappear into our individual playlists and race. It takes about two miles for my feet to thaw and I’m holding a pretty steady 8:15 pace. If I can keep it up, I’ll have a good finish.

Of course, I can’t. Not only because the wind pushes me backwards, but also because I’m mentally weak.

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Running (fake) happy.

Why do I do this? I ask myself, the beginning of a series of self-defeating rhetorical questions.

Why am I so slow?

Why am I so old?

Burp.

Why did I eat Mexican last night?

Then I turn the corner and run with the wind and all is right again.

Why does this feel so easy?

Another switchback.

Why does this suck so much?

Like all things, the race eventually ends. I somehow muster what I think is a sprint to the finish, but probably looks more like an angry orangutan scaring off a would-be predator.  I know this because spectators avert their eyes as I bear my teeth and emit very un-humanlike sounds.

I finish in 1:48, a respectable time but not a PR, gather myself and cheer Jodie in, who bounds along like she could run another 10 miles. Because she could.

Crites Tybee Run Fest

Jodie immediately wraps herself in “Grandma’s coat”—her affectionate name for the warmest, if not the most hideous, jacket—and we bee-line to the mimosas.

“Go easy on the orange juice,” I instruct the bartender. He pours maybe a half-teaspoon into my complimentary travel cup before I stop him. “Whoa—leave a little room for the champagne, buddy.”

We want to hang around to test the bottomless-ness of our cups, but the wind and cold is unbearable, so unbearable that even the free drinks aren’t worth the discomfort (a sentence I never thought I’d write).

Crites Tybee Run Fest

Actually happy.

As we flee to our cars, we congratulate one another on our accomplishment: finishing. Only it was a little sweeter for Jodie because finishing also meant honoring her dad by engaging in an activity they use to enjoy together.

For me it was “just another half marathon,” but at the same time there’s no such thing as “just another half marathon.” It’s always a struggle, always an accomplishment, and never should it be something we take for granted. To be healthy, to be active, to be able to run, to have friends to cheer us on, these are gifts we work for, but they are not forever.

I’m grateful I had them today.

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Sometimes, Just Finishing is Enough (File this under things I never thought I’d say)

 

 

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Two weeks leading up to my fourth marathon, I started to believe I was cursed. My running partner, Robin, got suddenly sidelined and the doctor said she may never run again. Lindsay’s father-in-law went into the hospital—then her mother-in-law—and so she pulled out of the girls’ weekend she was going to share with us. My foot ached, my car broke down, my retainer fell out, I smashed my nose on the door (my husband says I need whiskers), my throat was starting to feel scratchy and the grocery was out of beets.

During my last 8-miler before the race I nearly face-planted while crossing the highway. Like, arms windmilling frantically, feet flailing behind me in big loping strides so as not to crash into the pavement with my recently un-retained teeth.

“I can’t catch a break,” I complained to my husband when I got home. “I’m having the worst luck.”

“Or,” my husband began, “maybe you have good luck.”

“How’s that?”

“Well, you didn’t fall, did you?”

Usually I’m totally a glass is half-full kind of girl, but when you’re about to do something as crazy as run 26.2 miles, you look for anything as a sign not to do it.

The day before the marathon—on Friday the 13th nonetheless—the stars aligned a bit.

Robin was treated and cleared by a super-awesome sports PT to run. I didn’t come down with the flu, didn’t break my leg, my foot miraculously healed, and I settled for a jar of pickled beets.

Robin and I checked into our hotel and it was surprisingly nice for the price. The expo was a breeze, we had a great dinner, got to bed early and I actually managed to sleep a few hours.

The next morning, I felt good. Like, really good. Like, Boston-qualifying good.

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Race morning!

I got to the start in plenty of time with my satellite secured and my intestines emptied. I pushed my way to the front so as to avoid getting caught in a crowd of runners. And then I was off.

By mile 8, I had already built a three-minute buffer into my qualifying time. It felt easy. Like I could hold an 8:20 pace forever.

Or at least until mile 11.

The drop was sudden. Without any warning, my body announced, “I think this is as far as we’re going to go today.”

I know all too well that mile 11 is much too early to encounter “the wall.” And yet, there it was, an impenetrable concrete metaphor standing firmly between me and my Boston qualifying time. Maybe even between me and completing the race altogether.

I wanted to cry. I wanted to stop running. I did both.

Then I thought about Robin, running her first marathon. And Lindsay, watching my pace from home, cheering me on. And the $100 I spent to run 26.2 miles, which really stung.

I pulled myself together best I could, gave myself permission to let go of the goal I’d work 5 months to reach, and just tried to put one foot in the front of the other for 15 miserably long, hot and humid miles.

Because when there’s nothing else to do, you might as well just finish.

Finishing that race as a biped was absolutely the hardest thing I’ve ever done. After crossing the finish at 4:19, I flopped down on the ground in complete exhaustion. The sun beat onto my worn body until I caught a glimpse of Robin heading toward the finish. I rose as awkward as a newborn colt, trying to gain my balance on cramping legs. And then I forgot everything—about my curse, my missed goal, and my crappy race. In short, I forgot about me and cheered Robin in to her very first marathon finish. She was beat. Broken. Humbled. Exhausted. She was absolutely amazing.

That, after all, was the real reason I had to finish.

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So proud of her!

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And…that’s a wrap.

I lost my running partner today

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No, she didn’t die, thank God. But the loss and the grief is real nonetheless.

Robin first joined Lindsay and me less than two years ago when I coerced her into a run.

“I’m not really a runner,” she replied.

“But, you’re going for a run,” I said, looking down at her fully laced shoes.

“I’m more of a jogger.”

First, sorry Jim Fixx, but I don’t believe in jogging. If you’re going faster than a walk, you’re running. You’ll recognize it by the ache in your joints, the panting in your chest and the jostling of your breasts. In short, you’ll know it when you feel it.

Robin and I were already friends so it was only a matter of the time that my pestering would cause her to cave. And here’s the thing non-runners or self-proclaimed joggers should know: runners live to recruit other runners. It’s not because we want to watch you suffer or mock you for your inexperience—that would make me a bad runner (as well as a terrible person). It’s because we want you to love (and hate) it as much as we do, and we want to do this together. Misery likes company, or something like that…

Fast-forward 18 months and Robin, whom I discovered is mentally and physically pretty damn tough (a perfect running recipe!), went from running 3 miles at a 10-minute-plus pace to double-digit miles, speed work, running and placing in races, donning KT Tape and falling into a puddle of murky sadness if she missed a run.

Robin became a “real runner.”

As we trained for the Savannah Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon this past November, I started to scheme how I would convince Robin to run a marathon with me. I’d already failed with Lindsay, who, true to her stubborn Southern roots, can’t be convinced to do anything she doesn’t want to, but Robin—a congenial Midwesterner—was an easy target. Also, I totally knew she could do it.

 

I didn’t even have to get her drunk to get her to sign up for the January 14th Charleston Marathon while at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Expo. And after earning her half-marathon PR the next day, we began our 20-week training program.

Watching Robin hit milestone after milestone during our training runs (Her fastest mile! Longest run! First GU shot!) was oddly exciting for me. I’m hardly a seasoned veteran, but with three marathons under my belt, I totally get the exhilaration…and the struggle. And I not-so secretly congratulated myself for sucking her into the adventure.

Two weeks before the marathon and 9 miles into on our 20-mile run, Robin suddenly stopped.

“Ow.”

“What is it?”

“My knee.”

And for the next three miles we ran-walked while her knee locked up every quarter mile. She told me to go on without her and that she’d rest—probably just an overworked IT Band. So, I finished out the miles and later learned that she did too, because that’s what real runners do, as stupid as it may be.

For the next week, she tried unsuccessfully to resume running, her knee incapacitating her each time after just a few miles. She tried tape, massage, ice, rest—and then called in the ortho guns.

After her appointment, she called me with the news.

She said something about x-rays indicating that her body alignment was off and that she had to take 8 weeks off or risk a fracture.

“He said I can’t run the marathon and it’s likely I’ll never be able to run one,” she explained, her voice wavering. “And after 8 weeks, if it still hurts, I might just have to do something else.”

“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” I replied, a friend unwilling to lose her running partner. Unwilling to accept that this next weekend’s marathon wasn’t going to happen for both of us.

Robin was taking in the diagnosis. I was refuting it.

“I don’t accept that. You need a second opinion. Is this ‘doctor’ even a runner?”

I’m sure the orthopedic doc is more than qualified, but in my anger, I doubted all of his credentials—plus, I’m 100% sure a runner would never tell another runner that she may have to “do something else.” Like what? Water aerobics? Step? Nothing wrong with that—unless you’re a runner. Then everything is wrong with it.

I remember years ago a doctor telling me that “women weren’t physiologically designed for running.” I get that we may be predisposed for certain injuries, but not designed for running?  There are a lot of things I’m not “designed” for: science, cooking, remembering to put out the garbage. Only cheetahs are designed for running, and even then, they can’t go very far.

Robin put on a brave face while I swiftly sunk into the 5 stages of grief—or at least the first three. Denial and anger came fast enough, followed quickly by bargaining, or what I would call “suggestion.” I polled my “experts”—Lindsay, and then her husband and my husband (neither run, but whatever) and concluded that the diagnosis was not only ridiculous, but also unacceptable.

Lindsay—always the friend—gave me permission to grieve even though Robin’s injury certainly isn’t “about me.” But it kind of is. What excited me most about the marathon was the thought of the shared pre-race nerves, the deliberating over what to eat and drink, the lack of sleep the night before and, most important, seeing Robin cross that line with all the emotions pouring over her. Seeing that look of complete exhaustion and accomplishment. And then later re-hashing each mile of the race together for the next 24-hours like only two people who experienced it together could.

Now it’s just me and 26.2 long miles. Which begs the existential question: if you run alone and no one does it with you, does it really even happen?

Pardon the drama, but I’m in a dark place.

Thankfully, Robin isn’t blindly accepting her fate. She’s made an appointment with a guy I consider to be our city’s running guru. He’s an Ironman competitor. A sports therapist. A real runner. Basically, a god to the injured runner.

I pray to the running gods—and really anyone else who will listen—that Robin will run another day, and preferably on January 14th.

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