But I’m Sure Glad They Did…….
Not to be dramatic, but earlier this year I conquered some personal demons, and boy did it feel good. On Sunday, September 15, 2013, in my hometown, I ran the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. It was my very first 5K race. Standing at the starting line before that race, running down streets that I grew up bombing around on while riding my Pink Panther bike (banana seat of course), and running toward a crowded finish line filled with familiar faces, are three of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done.
And I do mean EVER.
One might be tempted to ask, “So….what’s the big whoop?” Agreed. It does seem ridiculous that I’d be frightened to run a 5K race in a place so familiar. And true, I’d successfully completed both a half-marathon and a 15K (by successfully I mean that I’d crossed those finish lines upright and conscious, but that’s about as impressive as it got). And yes, I’d been teaching locally for two decades. As a result, I knew every other person in the crowd. The big whoop, however, is that for the last two years, since my journey back to better health began, I’ve been terrified of three very specific things:
1. Running in public.
2. Being recognized when I do run in public.
3. Having to run fast.
When I ran the half-marathon, it was in a city two hours from my home, and I was literally 1 of over 4,000 participants. When I ran the 15K, I was also two hours from my home, but in another direction, and again, just a face in the crowd of hundreds of runners. Both of those races were longer distances, and though the elite runners started out fast and furious, the beginning of the race for most people was slow and steady. I didn’t have to worry about being embarrassed by my pace. Ask me to run 13.1 or 9.3 miles in a group of hundreds or thousands, in a place far away from my home, and I’m all for it, but ask me to run 3.1 miles in front of a group of people that might recognize me, and you’ll find me rocking back and forth in the fetal position for hours on end.
Let me back up for a minute. The previous spring, when I completed the 15K, I’d promised myself that it was time to overcome my fears and spend the summer running 5K races and building my confidence. However, when the first opportunity came along to register for a race, I had company coming, so it didn’t work out. The next time, it was way too hot and humid. The time after that I wasn’t feeling well. Another time it came to my attention that in the middle of the race I was thinking about entering, runners had to stop and eat a piece of blueberry pie. Naturally I couldn’t do that because everyone knows friends don’t let friends run and eat pie.
Needless to say, the dreaded day arrived when I was out of excuses and I had to own up to the fact that I was just absolutely terrified to run a 5K of any kind, for any reason. Mentally and emotionally I simply couldn’t do it. When people I’d spoken to about wanting to run 5Ks started asking me if I had participated in any, I answered them the only way I knew how to, by relying on humor and shutting down the conversation by saying, “No, I decided I’m just going to specialize in the 15K….”
How terribly sad.
Fast forward to the end of summer and the first day of school with my eigth graders. Along with all of my fine colleagues, I stood in front of a school filled with amazing teenagers and participated in a day focused on the theme I am a champion! We watched videos and participated in activities centered around the basic idea that everyone is fighting a personal battle, and what makes us human, is facing challenges head on and conquering them, not running away or making excuses. I spoke to the students about my desire for them to be willing to step outside their comfort zones to try things they never thought possible.
And the whole time I felt like one gigantic hypocrite.
I went home and made the decision to sign up for the Race for the Cure that was only about two weeks away. I planned out my runs for the next few weeks and decided to try for a bunch of shorter, faster runs to get my mind focused on the shorter but faster 5K. I woke up the next day feeling great. I made a mental note to go to the Komen office to register after school so I wouldn’t chicken out. That very same evening I went for a run and it didn’t go well. On my way home in the car, I decided that I’d been a fool the night before and breathed a huge sigh of relief that I hadn’t ended up going to register for the race.
For the next week I rode that wave of relief, but it was difficult because one of my coworkers made a sign for a wall at school that said I AM A CHAMPION in big block letters. Every single day I walked by the wall and silently faced the reality that I was acting like anything but a champion. This was the first of many “signs” that I needed to suck it up, get over myself, and run that race.
My coworker didn’t have to make that sign for the hallway, but I’m sure glad she did.
I’ve always believed the old saying Everything happens for a reason. During my second week of school, a chain of events was set off that led to my final decision to participate in the upcoming race. It gives me goosebumps to think about it now. On the Tuesday night before the race, as I was about to go to bed feeling sorry for myself because I’d had another particularly ugly run that day, I opened my email and saw that another coworker had sent me an article about running that she’d seen in an online Maine magazine. The title of the article was Running Into Yourself by Chelsea Holden Baker. The article was just absolutely beautiful in every single way. The author mentioned Joan Benoit Samuelson, the woman from Maine who won the first Olympic gold medal for the women’s marathon in 1984. In one particularly powerful paragraph, she quoted Joanie who once said, “When I first started running, I was so embarrassed, I’d walk when cars passed me. I’d pretend I was looking at the flowers.” It was then that the tears started to flow. Seriously? Joan Benoit Samuelson once felt self conscious about running in public? The Joan Benoit Samuelson? And so self conscious that she would pretend to be looking at flowers? Now, please, for crying out loud, don’t think that for one second I’m attempting to compare myself to an Olympic gold medalist, but the comfort I received from the knowledge that she once struggled with confidence issues about running in public was beyond measure.
As I finished reading the article, tears still rolling down my face, I came to the final passage which read, “There’s a joke about how runners make lousy Communists. Running requires you to fully embrace your individuality and confront who you are. You run on the strength of your character—not your team, not your gym, not your gear, not your wallet, not your looks, not your resume, not your past nor your future. Some days are good, some days are bad, but what remains the same is that you can run away from everything but yourself. You are the only thing that you run toward. And sometimes you find that your true self is already out there, running.” When I finished reading the article I was sobbing. Not the dainty, heroic kind of crying like you see in the movies with the triumphant music playing in the background as a character finally experiences a moment of truth, but the ugly kind of sobbing when your nose is running and you’re too distraught to look for a tissue so you wipe it with your hand. The kind when you can taste the salt from the tears as well as the gunk that’s not coming out of your nose because it’s running down the back of your throat. The kind of cry you have when you are just absolutely overcome with the knowledge that you are not alone in a battle that you’ve been fighting for a very very long time.
There’s no way my coworker could have possibly known the gift that she’d given me or the part that she played in my final journey. She didn’t have to take the time out of her busy evening to send me that article, but I’m sure glad she did.
The next morning I woke up with a renewed sense of courage and dedication. The race was only a few days away, and I was going to be at the starting line. It wasn’t until two days before the race that I finally got the chance to go and officially register. Although it had only been three days since my moment of truth, I had already begun to second guess my decision…the thoughts of self doubt that always haunted me started to rear their ugly heads.
1. If people see me running, they’re going to laugh until they cry.
2. What if I start out too fast and have to…GOD FORBID…walk?
3. What will people think of me when they see me out there? Here I am, obnoxiously posting on Facebook every day about my passion for running and THIS is what I look like when I run…..
Every party has a pooper that’s why we invited Karyn.
Writing those thoughts down now, they seem ridiculous, even to me. But there they are. I guess it’s not surprising that when I showed up to register, only to discover that the office would not be open for another hour, I immediately took it as a sign that it just wasn’t meant to be. I’d made up my mind to head home and maybe look forward to a local Thanksgiving Day race for my first 5K. It was at that same moment I saw a familiar car pulling into the spot beside me. The very same coworker who had hung the I AM A CHAMPION sign in the hallway at school was there to register, too. When I told her I had to get home and couldn’t wait around (excuse #998,545,747), she volunteered to register for me. I was stuck. What could I say? I was standin,g there holding the cash in my hands. She was going to sign me up, and that was that.
About an hour later, my friend showed up at my house with my race t-shirt and number bib. As she walked out the door she asked, “Oh, and by the way, you did want the timed bib, right?” My response was, “Oh yes, of course.” At the time that she said it I wasn’t really processing what she was asking. It took until a few minutes to realize that there was an option to participate in the race, but not be timed. I’m absolutely certain that if I had gone to register myself for the race, I would most definitely have chosen not to be timed, and in the end, it would have been just another run. As absoluteIy ridiculous and irrational as that is, because I would not have been timed, I still would not have considered it a real 5K and the pattern of resistance would have remained unbroken. It was meant to be that she just happened to be there that day.
My friend and coworker didn’t have to offer to sign me up, but I’m sure glad she did.
The morning of the race, my husband and son dropped me off near the starting line. I immediately ran into an acquaintance whose first words to me were, “I see you running all the time.” Ugh. If you can picture the scene from The Wizard of Oz when the cowardly lion gets frightened by the wizard, runs down the long hallway whimpering, and dives headfirst out the window, you’ll pretty much know what I would’ve done if I’d had a car to run back to. Instead, I smiled and went with my old standby, “Just remember, it’s not as easy as I make it look!” It’s always good for a laugh.
As I made my way toward the starting line, I was a mess. Once I got there, I ran into another friend who I hadn’t seen in months. I shared how nervous I was because I’d never run a 5K before. She looked right at me and said, “Yes you have, you run a 5K every single time you run.” The words don’t exist to describe the sense of calm that came over me when she made that statement. It was simple. It was profound. And it was just exactly what I needed. Because we were in the middle of literally hundreds of people, that was pretty much the extent of our conversation. My friend will never know what an effect her words had on me at that moment and how much her kindness and understanding of my fear made a difference.
She didn’t have to stop and take the time to talk me off the cliff, but I’m sure glad she did.
Once I arrived at the starting line, I ran into yet another friend and her awesome group of running buddies; a group I had committed to running the race with that day but had backed out on at the last minute. A group I’d backed out on running 5Ks with more than once that summer. Because I knew it couldn’t be avoided, I said hello, and then planned to separate from her group. It was at that moment that she pulled me into a bear hug and said, “You’ve got this, girl. And when it’s all over, I want you to come with us for our group photo.” I was dumbfounded by her kindness . Though I knew I had briefly talked with her about my running anxieties, I was overwhelmed by the support she gave me at that moment. It meant the whole world to me and I stood at the starting line feeling more confident and secure than ever.
She didn’t have to take the time to wish me luck and make me feel so good about myself, especially after I had broken my commitment to run with her group, but I’m sure glad she did.
The actual race was pretty anti-climatic if I’m being honest. Just as I had hoped, I ran it by myself, but surrounded by other people. It was an amazing feeling. The first half of the race was basically one long incline…..so that was fun. But, once we hit the 2 mile mark, it was all down hill. As the run drew to an end and I made my way around one last corner toward the pink balloon arch that symbolized more than just the completion of a race for me, the first two faces that I saw were those of my husband and son. I saw them waving with big smiles on their faces. I’m pretty sure I don’t have to explain the joy I felt at that moment.
Crossing that finish line felt better than I ever could have imagined. As I predicted, I saw dozens of familiar faces. Many of whom had finished ahead of me, and still others that I recognized as they crossed behind me. Since nothing with me can ever EVER be without some moment of sheer awkwardness, many of those people witnessed me taking one of the pink carnations out of the buckets that were meant only for breast cancer survivors (as well they should have been). Needless to say, when the very kind volunteer who was handing out the carnations gently whispered that they were for survivors only, I appreciated her laugh when I told her that of course I knew that, I just thought this would be a good time to stop and smell the flowers.
It was after I tried to casually walk away from the flower buckets that I experienced another profound moment of thoughtfulness from another freind, who I had seen briefly before the start of the race. After stopping, and while I was catching my breath, I looked up to see her approaching me with a bottle of water. Her first words were, “I didn’t see you out there, but I knew you’d be right there with me.” How cool was that? It was incredibly thoughtful and it meant more than she could know.
She didn’t have to finish the race, grab an extra bottle of water, and look for me at the finish line, but I’m sure glad she did.
Shortly after, I ran into yet another dear friend who’d only been running a few months at that point, but who’d participated in several 5K races and already successfully completed two half marathons. Yes, two. It’s like she just gets up in the morning and says, “Ahh…what the heck, I think I’ll run that half after all.”As you can see in the photo on the left, one of us is built like a runner and…well…one isn’t. Let’s just say we’ll never stand hip to hip…I have to settle for hip to kneecap. She’s a person who has been very supportive of me and has never failed to let me know that my newfound passion for running was one of the things that inspired her to get back into it. It makes all 5’2″ of me really proud when she tells me that.
Each year, on the last day of school, I talk with my students about the fact that of course I care about them going on to be great readers and writers. But, I remind them also, that I’m really hoping that they will go on to make good choices for themselves in high school and beyond. I talk about the importance of surrounding oneself with good people. With people who want what’s best for you, even when you’re not sure exactly what that means. As my experience that day at the race proves, I’ve been lucky enough to have done just that. How lucky I am in life to have surrounded myself with people who are supportive, kind, consistent, understanding, and so very patient.
Please know that in no way, shape, or form, am I trying to make the Race for the Cure all about me. I’m not and it wasn’t. It was about the survivors, their families, and the people who were not able to win their battles with breast cancer. My personal battle of not particularly wanting to run a 3.1 mile race in public is absolutely ridiculous compared to what so many of the participants had gone through or were currently facing. Having said that, it was nice to have shared the day with so many positive and inspiring people.
I didn’t have to run in this year’s Race for the Cure, but I’m sure glad I did.