“It does not matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop.”
My alarm went off at 3:30am and I peeled my eyes open one-at-a-time and looked around trying to get my bearings as this lazy bug was in quite a sleepy state. When the fog had cleared it occurred to me that today was race day!!! I took a deep breath and slid out of bed. I made my way to the kitchen and made some coffee in true morning fashion. There would not be much time for reminiscing today, but one thing was certain, I did need a little time just waking my senses with some java. It took just one hot, strong sip of coffee and I sighed with pleasure. I then sat and thought about the course, my strategy, the weather and envisioning myself crossing the finish line. I saw it as clear as day, every foot plant and feeling. A smile emerged and I looked over and saw my Dad’s sweater hanging on the chair across the room. There was no chill today, no reason to have to slip his sweater on to know he would be there at the race… in my mind… I simply closed my eyes and said, “If this is my last race, please just let it be good.” With that thought, I stood up and began to ready myself for the challenge.
It was a 30 minute drive to the race and I realized I was running a little late. The worry and anxiety began to seep into my already busy mind and I could feel my heart rate begin to increase. What if I miss the start? What if I can’t find parking? Why didn’t I leave early? And just then, across the California strawberry fields, with a hint of mist that hovered, I could see on the horizon the start of what I knew was going to be a magnificent sunrise. It was like the first sip of coffee I had experienced as the sight before me awakened my mind to take action and forget about the worries and just focus on the sunrise. I didn’t hesitate to take a couple of pics as I made my way to the event.
As I arrived, my fears came to fruition, as parking was exceptionally limited. After 10 minutes of driving, I had finally found a parking spot many blocks away and I looked at my watch and I had just 10 minutes to get to running corral “D”. I quickly parked and had to figure out how to get to the corral. I hurried along and as I turned the corner to head East there were all the other runners, a little late like me. But it mattered not as my eyes became fixated on the sunrise so brilliant in the morning sky!
It was in that moment that I just had a very specific feeling of trust… in my training, in these legs, in what was meant to happen. As I approached the race area it was announced that the national anthem would be sung and the race would start a couple of minutes after that. I gasped with concern, and I knew I had to hurry! Those that made it to their corral stopped, took off their hats, and with hands on their heart, sang with the crowd. I still had to walk a good distance, so I tore my hat off, put my hand over my chest and hurried as I softly spoke the words of the song. I no sooner took two steps into my corral when the words, “Of the brave…” were sung. I smiled… “Brave, of course!” I looked around and readied myself. Perhaps it was good I didn’t have any time to truly think about the challenge ahead. My music was set and the first 3 corrals were off… and then no sooner did I have time to fire the neurons to contemplate the race adventure I was about to embark on, did the announcer say, “Corral D: Runner’s take your mark… Go!”
A couple of steps were taken and I felt something I hadn’t felt in ALL of my training…. I FELT STRONG!!!! I didn’t know what that felt like… until now. Yes, STRONG!!! I flew past other runners… one after another… after another… It was at the 1.5 mile mark that I passed the pacer for my corral, I was now with Corral C. When I realized this, I was a bit in disbelief… “ME?” “Really?” And as I kept going, I kept passing others. I felt invincible, strong, able, without pain, and just astounded. No, I wasn’t one of the fierce Kenyan runners leading the pack… I wasn’t even close to the beginning… but I was faster than I thought I could be and running in a race I shouldn’t be! I could feel my quad muscles firing; I could feel my calves working ever so hard. It was as if I was in someone else’s body running this race. The hills that I so feared, I traversed. The groups of people I feared I would fall behind, I passed… The views I thought I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on, I took time to relish… I ran with my back straight and my head up keeping my mind relaxed but focused. I had rounded the 7 mile mark and this was my usual spot for stopping to hydrate and take in nutrition for the last part of the run. But for some reason, I decided I was feeling well enough that I didn’t think I needed it. So I kept running.
Then suddenly at the 10 mile mark I felt my left foot and calf begin to cramp and I realized very quickly I had made a critical error. I suddenly found myself thinking, “You are not invincible, Michele! Now what?” I looked around and there was not a water station in sight for at least a ½ mile. I stopped and tried to work the cramp out as I briskly walked. One after another the runners I had passed were now passing me. I thought to myself, “I have come too far to let a cramp take me down!” I took a deep breath and started to run. With just the first foot plant the toes began to curl and the left calf felt like it was caught in a vice that had been ratcheted down, tighter and tighter it became. I stopped again. I shook my head…. “This can’t be happening!” I thought. I whispered in a pleading voice, “Please, just get me to the next water station, that’s all I ask for now.”
And I began again and I felt this time like I could get there, I put the pain in the back of my mind and just fought through the disabled muscle that was unrelenting in its permanent contraction. My pace was significantly slower than it had been, but then there ahead, as if I had waited hours, I saw the outstretched hand with the small white cup that I knew contained the medicinal cure for all things painful. The hand was reaching to me as if I had traveled in the desert for miles and this little sip might be the drink that sustains my life even if for just a couple of miles. The cold liquid made its way quickly to my parched and dry tongue and like a flower returning to life, I could feel the healing powers of just that little bit of that aqueous remedy. I quickly grabbed a second cup as I knew one would not be enough. Within 30 seconds I was back in stride… passing runner after runner… starting to see myself getting closer to the eventual reward, that thin black strip that records my foot as it crosses the threshold of success.
The number of spectators had increased as the path began to narrow. I could feel the energy that was being emitted from their enthusiastic cheers of encouragement and support. The electricity in the air was palpable and fueled my mind to keep the legs making forward progress. At one point, I had past the last part of the Bay that I would see until the end of the race and I veered into the left portion of the path and deliberately slowed down… I looked at a view that I made sure to sear in my mind as if it were a brand I had planned to take with me to my grave. The view of the boats as they bobbed in the water and the waves as they rolled in… the sun shimmering off the aqua surface in the distance and with that site carried the thought that this might be my last seaside view as I entered the last stretch of what most likely would be my last half marathon race. It was a bittersweet moment but never a second of regret or disappointment did I feel. No, deep in my heart I knew this had been a long and unexpected journey, but making my way to this race was a feat and accomplishment that I will relish… that is, once I crossed that line.
I turned to look forward and there ahead, I could see I was getting very close to the end. The runners narrowed again and as if we all had the same thought driven by months of training, our bodies in unison began to pick up the pace… faster the legs would turn over and the arms were pumping to pick up speed… foot over very fast foot, we fought to get to the end. The cheers were roaring and the signs were held higher, there was a thunderous eruption of clapping and as if the 13 miles were simply a blink, my foot crossed the finish line and my eyes closed with raw emotion barely tempered under the surface of my serious and competitive facade. I was handed my finisher’s medal and held it as if I simply did not want that exact moment to end… I had accomplished my goal… My leg began to cramp. My body felt weak and tired. But my mind was stimulated with so many thoughts.
I HAD DONE IT!!!! When others said, “Don’t even try… You shouldn’t even think of it… Your running days are over… Why not take up another sport?” I knew I still had to prove to myself that I could overcome the negative and fight to the end. No, I was not a Kenyan runner given the honor of first place, but I was a winner today. My Dad’s last words to this once shy and sheltered girl, were “Go, Run fast, Win!” I say now to my Dad,
“I did the best I could and there is no doubt that despite what the numbers say, your little girl has made her comeback and feeling no less a winner, indeed.. I have no doubt that when I was flying like the wind you were at my side riding the current, and when I struggled up the hill, you whispered gently, “Just keep running…” And when my calf began to cramp, you lent me the strength to continue just a little ways to the generous hand that gifted me water. And as I looked out at the sea, you knew what was in my heart and my mind and like a hug from afar I had a sense of contentment wrap around my spirit… As I neared the finish line, you sat back and watched as the culmination of years of overcoming injuries, and finding ways to defy the odds and then training hard every day was revealed in one moment of accomplishment. Yes, you watched and knew that the feat that had been accomplished was covered in the veil of a run, but the essence of the challenge was symbolic of the strength needed for the journey to come. I hope that you have been convinced I am ready for the challenge ahead. When they all thought my perception was askew for even contemplating the race ahead, you knew I would persist to persevere…
Thank you, Dad… Please, don’t ever forget that I will always love you!”
The race was over in a matter of 1:51:40… I placed 1037/11221… and aside from numbers, pace and stats, there I stood holding my medal as if it were a prerequisite for more important obstacles to come.
I stood for a moment as I was starting to leave and just absorbed the energy, the moment, the state of accomplishment and the beginning of another journey as this physical one was now complete. I looked around as if I was expecting an arrow to point to the next adventure and there was none. No sign to be seen, no words whispered, not even an intuitive feeling of what lay ahead. “Perhaps”, I thought…. “Perhaps, that is where the magic lies in this journey anyway….. Yes, I will let my body rest now and simply wonder, what tomorrow will bring…”