My unlikely personal best
My lungs tightened and I couldn’t catch my breath. Breathe…1…2…3…breathe. The sun radiated on my face and the sweat trickled down the nape of my neck. My shins ached and my fingers swelled. I didn’t even notice the hair pin I had slipped onto the hem of my shirt (just in case) had rubbed my skin raw. I pushed forward.
Slowly. Too slowly. I told my sisters and dad to go on ahead, leave me. I didn’t want to hold them back. After all, they had completed the Army 10 Miler before and would not struggle to do it again. But they wouldn’t go. They took turns running/walking with me. My dad would run up ahead to scout out where we were and he would run back with water and a plan. “Ok, you got this! It’s about half a mile to the next marker.”
I was so relieved when I passed the five mile mark, that I didn’t get scooped up by the “sag wagon” they had threatened me with in registration. Plus I had mostly been doing 3-4 mile training sessions so the halfway point was a big deal. I was really, really happy.
I had memorized the course since I had done most of my training runs with a laminated map of the ten miles. I knew if I saw the Lincoln Memorial twice, all would be ok. But as we got to mile 6, a soldier working the race told us they were going to reopen the other side of Independence Avenue for traffic so we were directed to the bridge, which meant we missed one whole mile. I was stunned and confused. People behind us complained to the soldiers about how the waves of runners started late and it’s not fair and the official rules say we have until 10:45, blah blah, fade out.
I started to lose it. I could feel the tears coming and the lump in my throat growing. I felt like I let my family down. If I had been faster, even just minutes faster, we’d be fine. I apologized in between gulps for air. My sisters put their arms around me and my dad said, “We’re finishing this. It doesn’t matter. You will do nine miles and you will finish. One foot in front of the other.”
The last three miles were more difficult than I can say, trying to breathe and choke down tears. We ran them by counting lamp posts and road signs, and we ran them together. A soldier passed me and must have seen me on the verge of tears, being consoled by my sisters. He ran back to me and said, “You are doing great! Don’t worry! What’s your name?” Then he ran off into the distance and stopped about 20 meters from us. He started jumping up and down, cheering my name and clapping. A few people around him started cheering for me too.
We hadn’t seen Scott (who had surprised me by flying out to DC to be moral support at the race) or my mom yet. They were holding signs and cheering somewhere near the finish line. I imagined what it would be like to see a familiar face in the crowd and I had visions of collapsing at their feet and begging them to put me out of my misery.
So imagine my surprise when we saw them–their arms holding the signs and their smiles wide–and my legs seemed to pick up the pace. We ran uphill in the last stretch of the race. Mile ten for many others and mile nine for us.
“Where is it?” I panted. My eyes searched for the finish line banner.
“I’m not sure,” Lisa replied. “I don’t want to get your hopes up, but I think I remember it being up there.”
As we followed the bend of road around the Pentagon, the girls started rallying with shouts of joy.
My dad circled around me and grabbed my hand. “See it? That’s the finish line. Let’s do this!”
With my dad calling out, “One two, one two, one two” all the way there in military cadence, we finished. We collected our commemorative finisher’s coins and made our way to the water stations. There was lots of hugging and praising, but I couldn’t remember ever feeling more disheartened.
A man approached us. I recognized him from the race. We had been taking turns passing each other throughout the course. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Hey, I gotta tell you. I was watching you and I kept going because you kept going.”
Before I could properly respond, the man disappeared into the crowd as quickly as he had appeared. In the distance, I saw Scott making his way towards us. I finally let go of the tears I had been holding on to for miles and miles.
Words cannot express how disappointed I was not to complete all ten miles. I felt like a cheat. I wished I had never told anyone I was doing this as my first race. I cursed myself for not trying a 5k fun run before taking on something like this.
And then I got angry.
I had just run more than I ever had. A year ago, even months ago, I would have never imagined I’d actually go through with something like this.
I may be slow right now, too slow for the Army 10 Miler, but if I let that affect me any more than it already has, I’ll never try anything again. And if I don’t share my story, if I am embarrassed of this, what does that say about me? And more importantly, what does it say to people who, like me, want to go after an ambitious goal but are afraid of what happens if they fall short?
The Army 10 Miler brings people together to run in support of soldiers and their families through the Army Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) programs. Having grown up using these MWR programs as an army brat, this is a cause near and dear to me. While the race is open to the general public, there is a huge military presence with more than 600 soldiers working the race and many, many more running. People run in honor of loved ones serving overseas and thousands run in memory of fallen soldiers. Soldiers stationed overseas hold shadow runs and it’s especially heartwarming when you see someone wearing a shirt that says they are running “with” their brother, sister, dad, mom, or spouse in Afghanistan and the like. Wounded Warriors also take part in the race and when you see them running faster than you…well…how can I ever complain about shin splints?
Which brings me to the most important point I’m trying to keep in the forefront of my mind. Running is a privilege. Seven or nine or eleven miles…those are just numbers. The good stuff of life is knowing you have friends who are happy to support you, who are not keeping count or score. It’s being surrounded by people who love you, who are rooting for you by holding up posters for hours so you can see a glimpse of it as you pass. It’s knowing you are more important to others than a personal best. The good stuff of life is having someone who will hold up their hand to give you a high five when the going’s good and someone who will reach out that same hand to hold you, to pull you, when you feel you cannot go on anymore.
The best bit, even if it hurts or doesn’t exactly go your way, is putting your heart totally and completely into something. And then giving it all you’ve got, no matter if it’s not enough.
Just a few feet away from the finish line–with the balloon arch blowing in the autumnal wind, the music blaring, the applause surrounding us–my dad fell back behind me to cheer me on, to encourage me, and to let me beat him by crossing the finish line first.
We said we were running this for my dad. But the truth is, they did the race for me.
I did the race for me too.