It would have been our second race together. Last year, Donna asked me to run/walk the 2013 Army Ten Miler (ATM) with her. When she proposed the idea, she was still undergoing treatment for a recurrence of ovarian cancer, which included major abdominal surgery and life-threatening complications. Shocked that she could even imagine such a goal (I couldn’t imagine it for myself, and I was healthy), I said yes.
We trained using the Galloway run/walk method, wore “Slow is the New Fast” headbands, and met our speed goal, which was to not get picked up by the sweeper bus. We crossed the finish line strong and happy. The first words out of Donna’s mouth were, “Next year we’ve got to do a half marathon!”
Ugh, I thought to myself, even while Donna was jumping up and down in excitement.
I am not wired for distance. But I told Donna I would do any race with her that she wanted to do. Her grace and determination in beating cancer twice made me want to do anything I could to see this joyful exuberance on her face. And I had to admit, the ATM had been fun, as much as that surprised me. (Click here to read that blog post.)
Donna suggested we try a women’s half marathon in New York in April this year. I was soooo relieved that my husband had already purchased our plane tickets for a spring break trip to Hawaii.
“Darn,” I wrote in my email, “we have a conflict. Can’t do the half marathon.” Thank god! was what I was really thinking.
In the end we settled on the Army 10 Miler again, an exhilarating, inspiring event with a course spanning Washington, D.C.’s most beautiful sites and monuments. Donna stayed up late when the ATM site opened on May 20th to register us for the October 12th race. With 35,000 racers given spots and many more trying, the system invariably crashes with the heavy demand. Donna’s determination got us in for the second year in a row.
Just when we should have started to get serious about training, Donna’s email arrived.
She’d found a lump in her neck over the summer that turned out to be a local recurrence of cancer in a lymph node. By the time she wrote to me, she had already had one course of chemo, with more rounds scheduled before radiation treatment started.
“I was hoping to still run the race despite chemo since I am not recovering from major abdominal surgery and I plan to continue to be active during chemo, but the timing of the race and chemo sucks.” She goes on to apologize to me for having to pull out.
Lots of thoughts sped through my head simultaneously, all of them variations on:
Are you kidding? You’re apologizing to me? Are you CRAZY?
How could you even think about training for a race if the chemo sessions had just been timed differently?
Now I don’t need to do this race. I really don’t have time to train. If Donna’s out, what’s the point?
I didn’t express any of this to Donna, other than that if she apologized once more to me I was going to come over there and knock her upside the head.
Running Moms To the Rescue
I decided to pull out of the race, even letting my running group know that I might have an available bib. This was when I learned that there are rules about transferring bibs, and the deadline for ATM transfers had passed.
Although I was, indeed, a member of a running group, I was an inactive participant. I signed up with Vienna/Oakton, VA Moms Runs This Town (MRTT) well over a year ago, but continued to do most of my 3-4 mile runs alone and on my own schedule. It just felt like too much of a hassle to coordinate with other people.
Vienna resident Sarah Talley founded the group–one of over 700 MRTT chapters in the United States and internationally–in 2012. Just to clarify, being a woman is required for membership, but being a mom is not. When I signed up (which simply entails requesting to join the free Facebook group), I was something like the 198th member. It was a big deal when they reached 200. Now, thanks to Sarah’s indomitable leadership, there are over a thousand women in our chapter.
Although I posted running-related questions from time to time on the group’s Facebook page, I had avoided in-person interaction out of sheer intimidation.
A typical post on the group’s Facebook page might read something like:
“Anybody want to do 16 with me today?” (That would be miles. Miles!)
“I’m doing 20 starting at 5:30 tomorrow morning. Anybody want to do all or part of that with me?” Um…NO.
“That was fun!” accompanied by a post-run photo of winter runners with frozen eyelashes, blue lips and red-tipped, snotty noses. That did not look like fun to me.
I passed women in MRTT logo t-shirts all over town, in particular on the Washington & Old Dominion (W&OD) trail, a former railroad transformed into a 45-mile stretch of paved pathway for runners, walkers, and cyclists. I did my best to avoid eye contact. Once or twice I hid in my car until they had taken off.
But I was finding it harder and harder to motivate myself to get out to run. Summer vacation had also wreaked havoc on my fitness regime, and I found myself carrying a few extra pounds. I decided to check out the MRTT Saturday morning meet-up, posting on the Facebook page, “Is anybody going three or four miles at 10-10:30 pace, leaving at 7:30 a.m.?”
“We’re going six,” a woman named Kadie wrote back, “but you can come as far as you want — we’ll turn around, drop you off, and continue on.” MRTT women do what they can to never leave a runner alone on the trail.
So I started out with Kadie and Elizabeth, both of them young mothers probably 15 years younger than I (Kadie has three kids under the age of four, the youngest just 6 months old). We’re chatting, chatting, chatting. I felt fine at 3 miles, so continued on.
Suddenly we were finished. I had run 6 miles, pretty much by accident. I had never run six miles without stopping before. What the heck?
A Sense of Purpose Tugging at My Sleeve
Chewing on this unexpected development just a few days after getting Donna’s email, a nagging feeling arose, starting in the pit of my stomach and working its way up to my heart. It was sort of a cosmic sleeve-tugging…
Maybe you could actually run that race — really RUN it. Maybe that would lift Donna’s disappointment about having to pull out of the race if you carried her along in spirit. It’s not much to lighten her burden, but it still might be worth it.
I tried to push the idea out of my mind. I had so many other things on my plate. It was one thing to train to run/walk ten miles, but another thing entirely to work my way up to running the entire distance.
Let me just say, when it comes to running, I am the least ambitious person out there. It’s all about the health benefits (both physical and emotional) for me, not about goal-setting or increasing my distance or shortening my times. Five years ago doctors told me to run 30-40 minutes a day to reduce my risk of getting breast cancer again. I saw no need to go beyond my usual 3-4 miles. Ever.
My only goal on the running trail–and in life, for that matter–is to avoid suffering.
A Supportive Sisterhood
My next MRTT post was, “Theoretically, if someone accidentally ran six miles without planning on it, and it wasn’t too terrible, how hard would it be to work up to running the ATM with six weeks to go?”
Within minutes a dozen women had chimed in with “Absolutely!” “Go for it!” “Totally doable!” “You’ve got this!” As proof, someone sent me a training program that would get me there. The good news was that it didn’t require running every single day.
It was sort of like following a recipe. I recorded the program on my calendar — two shorter runs on weekdays with cross-training (via my existing Grass Roots Fitness classes and once-a-week cardio dance) sprinkled in between.
The big run on Saturday or Sunday got a little longer each week, but this was where running with friends (MRTT members, even if they’ve never met before, are only strangers for the first few seconds) made all the difference. Listening to other women’s stories somehow erased my conceptual framework of distance. I just pretended that I was having coffee with a nice group of women, except that we were running and sweating instead of sitting and drinking expensive, calorie-filled coffee drinks.
If I was focused on someone else, it silenced the crazy-making voice in my own head that liked to whisper things like:
You hate running.
Why are you doing this?
You have so far left to go!
Those stumpy legs of yours aren’t built for running long distances.
You’re sooooo tired.
Oh my god, a hill is coming. You can’t do hills.
Are you sure this is even good for you?
I am quite sure this isn’t good for you.
Donna would totally understand if you changed your mind.
Once I found better company than myself to run with, my fear of the ten-mile goal dissolved. It was just a matter of showing up for the training sessions.
Slow is the New Fast
Drawing on what I learned training for last year’s ATM, I knew that, in my case at least, there was no moral high ground in speed. The longest race I had ever run completely was an 8K, just a hair shy of five miles. I ran that with Joann, my Grass Roots Fitness instructor (once again, it was her idea, not mine), and we averaged 9:26 minutes per mile (click here for that blog post). There was no way I could sustain that speed for ten miles. I settled on a 10:30 pace as a rough, doable objective during training runs.
I turned 50 this year. That meant I wasn’t afraid to say, “let’s slow down” when running with the young MRTT whipper snappers (who had, after all, also signed up for the 10:30 pace group but just couldn’t help themselves from speeding up while chatting). Invariably, if I started to suffer, it was because we were going faster than our set pace.
If I was going to finish this race without walking, my biggest challenge would be forcing myself to stay slow, not fast.
Fueled by Friends and High Fives
Though I would be running in spirit with Donna, I had found a new running partner for race day. Chrissie was another MRTT member whose original race buddy had decided to do run/walk intervals. With another ten-miler already under her belt, Chrissie was ready to run this thing from start to finish. The combination of her bright smile, delightful British accent, overflowing enthusiasm, and being in need of a new race partner herself (once again enhancing my sense of purpose) made me claim Chrissie on the spot as my new ATM buddy.
Chrissie was also running to honor a friend currently battling breast cancer in the UK. With Denise’s name emblazoned on Chrissie’s shirt and Donna’s photo pinned to mine, we were energized and ready for the challenge at the starting line.
What makes the ATM such an amazing experience is the combination of wounded warriors who start the race in wheelchairs, the service men and women in uniform who volunteer at water stations, and the thousands of cheering spectators along most of the course.
On top of that, there’s something about being a tiny drop of water in an ocean of 35,000 runners that is indescribably empowering. I wish I understood the science behind that. If we could find a way to bottle that positive energy, we could change the world.
Chrissie was a joy to run with, her British manners eliciting “Thank you!” after “Thank you!” along the way to supportive spectators. Married to an officer in the Royal Navy, she’s got a thing for men in uniform. Whenever we saw a line of soldiers, we ran over to them for high fives.
We were quite greedy for high fives, in fact, slapping hands not only with volunteers, but with any spectator offering up their palm. (Ebola be damned.) For the record, based on my informal study, children under the age of 10 have the highest energy-producing high fives. Special shout out to the little boy in the Spider Man costume, wherever you are.
One stretch of the course along Independence Avenue has racers going in two directions. We absorbed the energy of those ahead of us by high fiving them as they passed. When we looped around and headed back in the other direction, we returned the favor and offered our own high five energy to those behind us. I must admit, that was pretty draining.
A woman ran by us and yelled, “High fives! Must be Moms Run This Town!” She was wearing her own MRTT logo from another state’s chapter.
Somewhere between mile 7 and 8, Chrissie said, “I’m getting tired. Maybe hitting a bit of a wall.” I was feeling the same thing, but didn’t want to exert the energy to say it out loud. Before we could discuss it further, we came up on a wounded warrior running (well, walking) on two prosthetic legs — the blade runners made famous by Olympic runner Oscar Pistorius. With an arm around the shoulders of two uniformed buddies on either side of him and encircled by several more, the solider was moving slowly forward.
The sight put us in our place. How could we even think of being tired? And I’m focused on my socks chafing my sweaty feet? Really?
Another energy boost was provided by our chapter’s MRTT volunteers manning the water station somewhere around mile 8, all of them wearing crazy wigs and shouting encouragement. Our fearless leader Sarah Talley was donning light pink locks and MRTT tattoos on her face, a great look for her.
Powering on towards the end, we made our way to the edge in search of more high fives from the crowd, kind of like dolphins looking for snacks from their trainers.
Up ahead, someone was sitting on a concrete highway divider, looking toward the finish line. I couldn’t see her face, but for some reason I was pulled in her direction. She turned to offer up high fives to any racer within arm’s reach.
“DONNA!” I screamed, sprinting over and bear hugging her so hard that I almost knocked her off her perch. She met Chrissie, who was also squealing with excitement. Donna encouraged us to keep on going, the finish line was close.
The funny thing was, we both thought we had about a mile further to go. We didn’t believe it when we crossed the finish line. Who knows how much further we could have gone?
Donna’s chemo treatment (hopefully the final session) was the day after the race. She texted me while hooked up to the tubes delivering the cancer-killing cocktail into her body:
Any time, my friend. But next year we’re doing it together.
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