Last Monday, I watched Meb Keflezighi’s last three miles of the 2014 Boston Marathon on the edge of an ottoman in front of the television in my St. Louis home while my kids ate breakfast in the next room.
As Wilson Chebet fought to close the gap between himself and Meb, I absolutely refused to imagine any alternative to Meb’s victory. I cheered as loudly as if I was there in person, shouting encouragements with tears (where did they come from?) spilling over at the same time.
Before that morning, I hadn’t really thought about the elites running the race. I thought about the memorial events and gestures, the crowd, the average Joe runners like me crossing the finish line after being stopped short last year, and the victims from the April 15, 2013 bombings finding hope and strength in running or cheering on the runners this year.
We may have been thousands of miles away, but our running community, running family, had been attacked, and all we could do was watch.
Ten days later my husband and I would be travelling to California for the 2013 Big Sur International Marathon. It was a dream race for us, but now took on significantly more meaning. Big Sur is the second half of a popular Runners World challenge, Boston to Big Sur. In 2013, over 500 runners committed to running Boston and then flying across the country to run Big Sur less than two weeks after.
Mid-way through my training for Big Sur, I had an injury that kept me side-lined for weeks and completely disrupted my training. With much heartache, I decided to switch from the full marathon to the 21-miler. It wasn’t the dream race I had imagined, but my mind won over my heart and I accepted this alternative.
As we tapered our training, followed all the stories coming out of Boston, and prepared for our trip to Big Sur, my thoughts about completing the marathon began to shift. Mile 21 of Boston is where many runners were stopped because of the bombing. Could I really only run 21 miles when that was where the dream of Boston was halted for so many?
Walking through the Big Sur expo was surreal. I picked up my packet for the 21-miler and wandered the booths like at other expos, but the mood was somber and whispered. Interspersed throughout the crowd were runners wearing 2013 BAA gear. They graciously stopped as strangers thanked them for being there, wished them well, and listened to their stories.
Dotted among the retail offerings were multiple Boston charity options and signs and banners to add thoughts and prayers that would be sent back to Boston. With tears in my eyes and my body shaking, I added messages to these, and bought a “Boston Strong” Sweaty Band for race day.
I still couldn’t shake the idea that I needed to run the full marathon, for myself, for Boston, and for the running community. As my husband curled up sick in our hotel bed, his body manifesting his emotions, I went out for my day-before-the-race run along the coast. My body and my mind felt amazing, united to my heart somehow, and I came back from that run determined to finish 26.2, not just 21.
My husband nodded and said I should give it a try. I headed back to the expo, race materials in hand, and sought out a race official. Explaining my story about originally signing up for the marathon, injury, doubt, switching to the 21-miler, a healed body and renewed purpose, I was passed up the chain until eventually finding myself sitting across from the race director.
She listened to my babbling, took my old bib, made a note in her computer, and asked only once “Are you sure?” before sliding a new bib for the full marathon across the table. I was prepared to argue my case again, and had mentally created a list of reasons why they had to let me back in the marathon. Shocked, all I could say was, “Really? Thank you,” before she was out the door.
That night my husband recovered from his illness. The next morning we rode the bus in the dark along the coast, following the race route to Big Sur Station. We huddled in the pre-dawn cold with other runners, where I discovered I had brought two “right” socks (oh well), and eventually lined up in the foggy haze of a beginning sunrise for the start.
We were on a slight incline looking down on the course, checking gear, shaking out the nerves, and getting in some final stretching. The announcer’s normal tone shifted as he mentioned the Boston to Big Sur Challenge, and introduced the president of the BAA. I don’t remember what words of encouragement he said, but I remember the minute of silence for all those affected by the bombings. It was the first time I cried about what happened. Runners all around me were quietly sobbing. It was a collective swell of emotion, a dormant fountain released as the race started, mixing with the beauty of the scenery and waving out from each runner.
When I passed the beginning of the 21-miler race, I knew I had made the right decision to run the full. My heart leapt and tears spilled over briefly, again. I’m pretty sure this race was where I became a full-fledged crier.
The coastline was so inspiring that I stopped to take it all in a few times along the way, prying my phone from the sweaty armband case to take pictures.
Closer to the end, a woman in front of me broke down crying. It was her first marathon and she didn’t think she could finish. Another runner stopped to talk to her and walk with her. She promised to get her across the finish line. More tears. Inspired again, I promised myself to do that for someone some day.
The last few miles were a physical struggle, probably because my longest training run was only 18 miles and that the winding roads constantly tilted from side to side. I crisscrossed over and over as the road curved searching for an even surface to run on. Mentally and emotionally I was strong though. I repeated “this is for Boston” and “be strong for Boston” until I could see the finish. Then I found all the remaining energy I had, ignored the jello numbness of my legs, and ran. It wasn’t a finish sprint like you see at many races. It was slow, but it felt light and euphoric. Of course I cried again. A race official in a very official race blazer put the medal around my neck, gave me a hug, and said “Thank you.” Unable to speak, I looked him in the eyes and nodded.
I really just wanted to find my husband. I wandered through the chute and crowd of celebrating runners clutching the medal to my chest as if it was a precious amulet. When I saw him walking toward me with a smile on his face, I found my smile again too.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
He nodded. “How did you do?” he asked. Oh wow, I hadn’t even looked. The Nike Plus phone app was new to me, so I didn’t realize then that I could take pictures without pausing my run. My official time was 4:24:16. A nine minute PR!! But more significant to me was that my time actually running (and walking) the course, minus when I stopped to take pictures and breath in the beauty, was 4:15:47. My eyes got wide and my faith in the plans of the universe was renewed.
So many seemingly small things connected to make me believe I was meant to run Big Sur as part of my healing journey from the events of 4-15-2013. My 4:15:47 time, the significance of the 21 miles, the beginning of my practice to pause on runs to see beauty and find joy, the way my mind and heart led my body.
Honestly, my running has been a roller coaster all year. I can partially blame the changing climate and stress from our move from Portland to St. Louis, but really, that’s just an easy excuse for something deeper.
On race weekend, I followed the amazing journey of a friend returning to Boston to support the running community. She has run Boston multiple times, but returned this year for her own healing journey. We messaged back and forth, our hearts connecting across the miles. It was healing.
The morning of the 2014 Boston Marathon seemed surreal. I wasn’t a spectator in the crowd or even in Boston at all. I was a mom, like every other day, getting my kids breakfast and starting our day at home in St. Louis. I turned the race on the television in the background.
It wasn’t until Rita Jeptoo, a 34-year-old mother, won for the women that I was able to just sit and watch. The rising tide of her win fed into Meb’s last few miles and eventual win, and I couldn’t contain my joy. It was healing.
My mom called and offered to watch the kids while I went for a run. Yes, please!
I ran four miles and stopped to pick four flowers, one each for Martin, Krystle, Lingzi, and Sean. It was healing.
Earlier this week, a package arrived from my friend who was in Boston. I knew it was coming, but didn’t expect all that came with it. I’ve tried to write about it several times, but a part of the letter I sent back to her does it best…
“When you mentioned sending us something from Boston, my first reaction was ‘that’s so sweet, but she doesn't have to do that.’ Then I thought about the times I felt as if I had to do something for someone else, almost as if it was also really for me. I then started to think, ‘maybe doing this for us is a part of her journey.’
But when I saw that package, and knew it was from you, something transformed in me. I had to find an activity to occupy the kids and take a few deep breaths before opening it.
As I read your note and discovered the scarf and medal and shirts (I LOVE the ‘Love wins’ as well), not only did my heart fill but my mind seemed to replace the anxiety of Boston with the joy of running again. I could see you asking for the scarf (such a great story) and placing the Uberthon medals, and interacting with all those at the marathon wearing shirts that claimed back the positivity and love of our sport.
You, again, seemed to know what I needed, just like all the encouragement you've given me over the years as a runner and a mother.
I went for a run as the sun was setting. My legs still felt like lead for the first 2 miles and my right knee protested a little, but my heart felt somewhat taller (is that possible?) and my mind had let go. Sure, it was still clamoring with ideas and mantras, never ever quiet, but it didn't have the underlying tension that has been present all too often on my runs since last April.”
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