Lately, it seems, all I hear is Psalm 23.
I raced a half-marathon on March 4. It went amazingly well. One would think I would have written and posted a race report almost immediately. But I haven’t. The truth is, I’m having a hard time finding words. Finding purpose. Finding a point in writing about a race in the usual amount of detail. You see, in the time since that race, I have attended two funerals, spaced apart from each other by about two weeks. This isn’t the first time I have run a race that was followed by loss. In fact, one of those losses came a couple days prior to this latest race, and it weighed on my mind and heart.
The Thursday before the Albany Half, my husband’s maternal grandfather – his last living grandparent – passed away. He was in his nineties; he had long outlived his wife, as well as one of his children, and he was ready to go. But even when you know that the leaving has let that person have the peace they have long been seeking, the current of loss remains for those left behind. I did not know this man well – though the handful of brief interactions I had with him cemented my belief that this was a lovely human – but I felt the loss deeply, given how much I love my husband, his family, his sweet mother who just lost her father. Given how recently I lost my paternal grandmother, who was similarly in her nineties and long ready to go. Given how, at the end of one visit, when he could not get out of bed to see us off, I was reminded of embracing my own maternal grandfather similarly near the end, feeling his ribs through his thin flesh and clothing.
My sweet mother-in-law asked what was convenient for us for traveling up to Chicago for the funeral given the race, even as I insisted that this did not matter. The race was of little consequence. The funeral was scheduled for the following Tuesday, and thus we continued with our plans to run with whatever we had that day.
In the days leading up to the race, I had no plans to truly taper – I was going to race it, but my training plan did not back off much, so I would still have somewhat tired legs. But on Monday night’s run, I was feeling my right IT band a bit more than I’d like. Tuesday morning, a mile or so into the run, it wasn’t loosening up well enough for my taste. I have battled on-and-off ITBS long enough to know the early signs and how cautious I need to be when it begins to flare. I bagged the run, and scheduled a visit with my massage therapist for the next morning. I booked her for thirty minutes to focus on my legs, and she gave me at least 45 minutes, finding my IT band to be all stuck with my vastus medialis and lateralis. I kept stretching and rolling the rest of the week and was cautious and under coach’s instructions: a few easy miles Thursday, and 3 mile shakeout on Friday. I felt okay. I suppose I ended up tapering in the end.
Shannon and I left work Friday after a half-day of work, and hit the road for Albany, leaving the pets alone for 36 hours with extra food and water. We weren’t going to be gone for very long, though we had never left the rabbit alone for more than 24 hours before (she did fine). Partway through the drive, an Athens runner friend and his wife called to say they were having car trouble and asked if we could help them out. They had a couple check lights come on and wanted to leave their car at a dealership in Albany, and thus needed help getting to and from dinner (we had planned on eating together at IHOP, with some others) and getting to their hotel. We had time to check into our own hotel first (a few miles from the race site) and bumped into Chrissy and James just after their shakeout miles. It worked out fine in the end, meeting up at packet pickup (which was quick and painless) and then taking the car to the dealership, which was literally next door to IHOP. We gorged ourselves on pancakes with friends, and got back to the hotel to get to bed at a semi-reasonable hour. I did plenty of stretches, especially for my hips, before bed. I felt fairly confident I had gotten the issues under control, and had a massage scheduled for fairly early the morning after the race.
The 4:30 alarm jarred me awake, and I recalled a dream similar to the one I had had before Chickamauga (in which I didn’t recall the race at all but dreamt I had run a 3:36. Not quite prescient, but only a couple minutes off). In this dream, I was running a workout back in Athens with 13.1 in the middle at HMP and nailed it, though I remembered none of it. I took this as a good sign.
I got to work with my usual morning routine of making oatmeal with nut butter in the room, texting Chrissy at 4:45 when I went downstairs for coffee. We were out the door before 6:00 am, piling into Chrissy and James’ car, with Dustin and Catherine following behind us. James and Shannon were being huge goofballs, and Shannon got James to peel out at a light, briefly forgetting that Catherine was trying to caravan behind us. Oops.
We got parked and situated, though after we were half a mile from the car I realized I had left my water there – it was fine since they had some at the start. It was freezing. The starting temperature was about 38*, and I was shivering in my throwaway long sleeve, which covered my ARR/Fleet Feet racing team singlet, arm warmers, gloves, as well as throwaway earband, Oiselle bum wrap skirt, and calf sleeves. I’d gone mentally back and forth on my outfit the night before, not wanting to overdress for the hard effort, especially when I knew it would be sunny. I had wanted to get throwaway gloves but never managed to, and figured it was so cold I might want to keep them on. I also knew we’d have support from Athens friends on the course and I could probably toss them my gloves, since this was a good pair I wanted to keep.
We hit the portos immediately and I emptied my bladder one last time. I knew I was well hydrated and with it being so brisk, I wasn’t worried about drying out so I restricted my drinking the last hour so I didn’t have to pee again right before the start (or during the race). With about 20 minutes to go, I headed out on my warmup mile, balling my hands into fists, trying to get them warm.I heard the anthem playing as I rounded a street a quarter mile away. Once I got to the start corral, getting warm was no longer an issue with all those bodies around me.
Shannon and I exchanged good luck kisses, and I wished my running pals luck and ass-kicking powers. I was particularly psyched for Chrissy, who I knew was ready to totally fuck shit up. She had told me she had thrown the explicit sub-1:30 goal out the window, but I also knew she was 100% capable of going for it. She reminded me not to get sucked in with the pack early on as we lined up pretty close to the front (though I tried not to line up TOO close).
The race announcer counted down, and I tried to take deep, relaxing breaths. With little warning, right at 7:00 on the nose, a start cannon boomed, and we were off.
I told myself to relax early on, knowing the first mile or so was slightly uphill, and tried to ignore the urge to get right on pace (or too fast) early. I knew I had a sub-1:40 in me, a goal I had been trying to reach since getting so close in spring 2014, and my workout paces of late had spelled the possibility of something even faster. Whether it was this pressure on myself, or the mental state I had been in that week from my IT band and the loss just two days earlier, the idea of running hard was quickly putting me in a panic. I breathed. I shook my hands out. I focused on my surroundings, the lovely morning, seeing friends out cheering and taking photos. I forced away the memories of my crash-and-burn marathon here just a year ago. My first mile clicked off fast at 7:32 (goal pace to break 1:40 is 7:37). I swallowed fear.
The two courses – half and full – split from the start, so for the first few miles it was nice and quiet. I found myself with a small amount of company, and noticeably more men than women. The women I did see, I tried to pace off of and motivate myself with. One man in a neon green shirt proved a steady pacer for the first few miles, though a few times I would glance at my watch and see I was going too fast.
7:32, 7:38, 7:35
I started to recognize sights from the previous year doing the full, and tried not to let this intimidate me. My inner critic was loud and boisterous that morning, and I tried to talk over her. I’m a different runner than I was a year ago. I’m much faster, much stronger, much smarter. I have run a BQ since last year. I have proved myself far, far tougher than I was last year. I’m super fit, more fit than I have ever been. My breathing is completely relaxed. Listen to it. Even through this positive self-talk, I felt my heart palpitate and I swallowed little balls of fear. I would be on the heels of the guy in green, and see my pace dipping below 7:30, and despite my effort feeling relaxed, I pulled back on the reins and my stress level rose. What was going on? My mind was also deep inside my right leg, worrying my IT band would blow up on me any moment. For a few miles, my right leg felt like it was filled with lead. It was dead weight, and I wished I could stop and shake it out. What if I can’t do this today? What if I have to quit? What if I fail?
I got a mental boost around mile 4 when, at a water stop, I saw James and Catherine cheering their hearts out. I smiled big, and peeled off my gloves (the earband had come off during mile 2) and tossed them in their direction.
It was during mile 5 that my race could have gone one of two ways. I found myself in a mental hole that felt familiar – one that I felt in the midst of the Albany full just a year before. I doubted my ability to hold this pace. I doubted my right to be on the course, to be going for my goal. I doubted my legs. I doubted my heart and lungs, even as they stayed steady for me.
Then something happened I have never before experienced. At the bottom of the hole, I found a way out. Somehow, I made it so my slowish mile 5 would be the slowest of the day. Somehow, I picked myself up. I kept fighting. I dug inside my mind and body and heart, and recalled how far I had come. The workouts I had crushed, the doubting voices I had beaten into submission, the fight I knew was in me now and growing every second. I focused on my relaxed breathing, trying to mind my tangents (though more on that later), finding runners to pick off as the front-ish pack I was in was growing thinner and more spread out. By mile 8, I had fully turned my race around. I visualized my inner doubter as a physical being, and I told her to leave. I let her shout her doubting words – you can’t do this; you aren’t strong enough; you aren’t fast enough; you don’t have it in you; your IT band is going to start hurting; this is too hard – to the wind, swept away behind me. I imagined her standing on the curb and watching her words fall to the sidewalk – impotent, ineffectual. Her words couldn’t touch me. I imagined enormous wings spreading out behind me and I took flight. No one could stop me but that voice, and I left her in the dust.
7:39, 7:38, 7:30
As the course wound through neighborhoods on the back half, I took this time, this second chance at these miles to enjoy their beauty. A year before, in these miles, I was in immense pain. But now I could soak in the beauty. The turns were many, and I honestly wasn’t sure at times how to work the tangents. The course was coned off to provide directions. At places, this was because only half the main road we traversed was closed to traffic. But on these side streets, I was unsure if these were merely guiding the direction and turns or if I was meant to stay on a particular side of the cone. This probably contributed to the fact that my Garmin reading was well over the distance. Chrissy expressed confusion with the tangents as well, and since she had a lead bike with her (badass), she didn’t want to accidentally cut a cone and be DQ’d as a result.
At one point, rounding a large turn around a lake, I looked up at the trees that arced over the street and tried to memorize how the light looked as it filtered through, Spanish moss ornamenting the branches. I wished in that moment I could have taken a picture.
I kept racing hard. Everything was clicking, and I kept one foot tapping the break. I didn’t want to kick too soon, but running hard felt absolutely delicious. The dead leg feeling in my right leg had gone, though I had creeping numbness up and down it for most of the race. At one point in the last 5K I touched my right leg to see whether my shorts had crept up at all – they hadn’t, it was just that my leg was that numb (an issue I have had for years that sometimes goes away and sometimes reappears, possibly exacerbated or caused by mild scoliosis that crunches my right side and sometimes sets my hips out of place – my massage therapist always checks their alignment). I ignored it and kept running.
7:29, 7:33, 7:29
The course curved onto a familiar turn where, last year, I recalled the 3:40 pacer coming up beside me and passing me, and my despair that day exploded into devastation. But today, I was still racing hard. I still had so much to give. I was trying to hold back for the final mile, but keeping myself in check was getting harder. I picked off a few runners who were beginning to struggle, and the enthusiastic volunteers and course cheerers garnered huge grins from me. I brushed my hand across the shoulder where I had attached the memorial pin for Ashley, the local runner who just last fall was taken too soon by a careless, criminally negligent driver. I dedicated that mile to her. In the next mile, I thought of my grandmother who left this earth last July, the day I raced a half-marathon. I thought of my favorite Hebrew School teacher, who passed in December. I thought of my stepfather’s twin brother, who passed a couple weeks before my grandmother. And I thought of my husband’s grandfather, Tom.
I felt the strength of all these loved ones in my feet and body and heart. I let them drift in and out of my consciousness as I returned focus to the race at hand. I could no longer keep myself reined in. I was letting loose now.
I passed the last water stop with just a very quick sip and for the first time, dabbed a bit of the water on myself. I had kept extremely cool during the race, and know in retrospect I could have done without armwarmers, but I was reasonably comfortable. The course curved again, and I had a long rolling straightaway that I recalled cursing the year before. I was relishing it now. I crossed over the railroad tracks (carefully marked with bright spray paint) and struggled to navigate the sharp turn onto sidewalk, under a covered pathway for another sharp turn, and finally onto the last pathway. I knew it was going to be fairly close: my watch had been on the mile markers at the start, but the last 10K I was beeping at the marathon markers for a while (so .1 ahead of the real distance) and in the end, I was beeping even ahead of the marathon markers). I gutted it out.
I saw the finish banner up ahead and heard friends yelling for me. I sprinted with all I had, a big, stupid grin on my face when I saw that I would not be letting that clock tick past 1:40, and my chip time would be at least a few seconds better. I had it. I cruised across the line with pure joy and elation and pride. When I knew I had it, looking at the clock, crossing the line, I yelled out in victory. Yes!!!
final sprint (Garmin read .3): 6:14 pace
Chip time: 1:39:29 (PR)
My friends found me quickly as I wobbled, struggling with medal and water and heat blanket. I cried. I cried like I always do, whether from disappointment or pride, this time from the latter. I knew I had given a great effort and ran a great race. I also knew, deep down, I had even more to give: had this been my A-race, a 1:38 or even 1:37 may have been in the cards. Rather than feeling disappointment in this, I felt confidence, knowing I had that much more to give for my upcoming marathon.
Once Shannon finished (1:48 and change – very proud of him), I checked on him before letting him recoup in quiet while I struggled through a sore, tired cooldown mile on the nearby greenway with friends. Chrissy had done what I knew she could: an amazing PR and just over 1:30 (given the difficulty of running the tangents, uncertainty as to what they actually were, if it had been clearer, I know she would have run sub-1:30). She also nailed 3rd woman overall. When we came back, results for top 40 were posted, and I saw my name at the very bottom of this list. At first it seemed I was 4th in my age group, but later on it turned out I had managed 3rd! I won a half-zip pullover and a beer cup. The guy in the green shirt also snagged an AG award, and we thanked each other for the pacing push and congratulated one another on the race. We also all grabbed several more Snickers bars from a nearby tent.
We waited for several other friends to finish, including Justin, who came within seconds of breaking 3 hours (though again with the course tangents question, we mentally gave him credit for breaking 3 hours). He ran an extraordinary race and watching him finish and seeing the emotion overtake him was fantastic to witness.
When we started to get too chilled, we hobbled back to the car and headed to the hotel, parting ways to get cleaned up and celebrate with the various food we were craving (Shannon and I wanted pizza from Mellow Mushroom next door; Chrissy wanted fries from Chick-fil-A).
The next 48 hours were filled with driving. We drove back to Athens. We unpacked, repacked. I got a long, much needed post-race massage with my usual person Sunday morning. We got the pets set up for the sitter (I had texted her when I knew this was about to happen, and fortunately she was available even though it was spring break). We hit the road with Shannon’s parents around 4:30 PM and got nearly to the Kentucky border before calling it a night. I ran a sore and slow but decent feeling 5 mile recovery run on a hotel treadmill (it was raining and I didn’t have spare shoes) Monday morning. We drove on into Chicago. Tuesday morning, I ran 8 sweaty miles on that hotel treadmill. And that morning we said goodbye, not for the first time lately, nor the last. During the service, we recited Psalm 23. Just as we had for my grandmother in July. I cracked.
The entire week was about recovery–listening to my body, listening to my heart. I pushed myself through a stressful, short work week (some shit had hit the fan during my absence). When I knew an early Thursday morning 10 miler was impossible that week (we had gotten back to Athens after 11 pm Wednesday night), I leaned on my amazing running girlfriends for 10 great miles in the evening. I managed to survive 20 miles in fairly decent form that Saturday, in no small part thanks to friends like Chrissy.
I was starting to feel okay again. That’s when it always gets you, isn’t it? Monday morning, I had 8 recovery miles to run. And I felt like hot garbage. There is no other way to describe it. Dead, shitty feeling legs. I felt a little pull in the bottom of my left foot, but didn’t think much of it in the wake of the way my whole body and mind felt. I quit at 3 miles, since it felt worthless. I was overdue for a bad run, I figured, especially given how – though I had felt sore and tired, sure – the recovery week post-race had gone amazingly okay. It had been an intense couple of weeks. But it wasn’t over yet.
That evening, Shannon and I spent a quiet evening at home; we had planned to skip the Monday night run, hence running in the morning, to celebrate his birthday peacefully and by ourselves. A text message from my dad shattered the peace. My uncle, one of his elder brothers, was entering hospice. He had been diagnosed with stage 3b gastric cancer just last summer, and his name had been in my prayers constantly, shared at synagogue during the prayer for healing. At my grandmother’s funeral, I was shaken by his noticeably gaunt appearance, but he seemed at peace with this likely fate: he was living life as he always had –with joy, with family, to the fullest.
Tuesday morning I had 10 miles with 10 x quarter mile hill repeats on tap. I made it a couple miles before the tightness in my left foot – in a classic plantar fasciitis position, between ball of foot and heel (though heel itself felt fine, including upon waking) reared up enough to give me pause, I turned back, and walked in the last tenth, feeling the pulling inch towards pain that made me wince. I quickly scheduled an appointment with my massage therapist for the next morning. An hour before, she cancelled; she had fallen and hurt her hand.
That night, my dad called to say his brother would likely pass in the next ten days. The sound of his voice broke my heart.
My foot was in no pain in daily activities, even when first waking up, or standing from being still for a long time, and in contact with my coach, I tried to run on Thursday, opting for treadmill in case I needed to bail out, with a goal of 3-4 easy miles to test things out. A mile and a half in, the tightness returned and pulled towards pain. I tried the elliptical, then the bike. Mark told me to get off the bike and rest. I called the local orthopedic clinic, where I couldn’t get in that week, and they recommended their urgent care clinic for faster service instead. I decided to try that Friday morning, booking a backup appointment at another PT clinic in Athens for the following Monday afternoon. I also found an alternate massage therapist, and booked an appointment for Saturday afternoon.
But plans being what they are – life being what it is, this month being what it was – I cancelled most of this. We had a friend over for dinner Thursday evening – he’s been struggling lately, too, and I wanted to feed him a nice meal and hang out and chat, because there is nothing more healing than being fed (and, honestly, feeding others is healing for me too), or at least so I have always found to be the case (perhaps my Jewish background). While he was over that night, my father texted my brother and me again. My uncle had passed.
I called my dad. His broken heart crackled over the distance of the phone. I would have given anything to be with him in that moment. To bring him to Athens, to feed him, too. His breathing ragged, he told me the plans he knew of – that the funeral would be either Sunday or Monday. Right before I had called him I had received an email from my cousin, the daughter of this uncle, saying it would be Sunday, and I passed along this information. Within minutes, I had booked a hotel, called my brother and his wife to make plans. He would drive up from where he is in training right now in Oklahoma, and his wife would stay there with the boys (it would be too much to cart the little ones all that way). We both were facing about nine hour drives, drives we knew we could do so that we could all be together. “I don’t have anything to wear. I don’t have a suit with me,” my brother lamented. My father-in-law would lend us a tie to bring to him. It would be okay. Our presence was more important. Our family being together – as many of us as could be there – was what mattered.
You give what you can, when you can, as often as you can.
The next morning, Friday, I went to the urgent care clinic and received a diagnosis of plantar fasciitis – caught early. They gave me a script for PT, which I gladly took. I was told not to run through Sunday, and try to run on Monday if doing well. I was given additional stretches and exercises to do. I was told to ice and take ibuprofen twice a day (if I could tolerate it, which fortunately I can), even if my foot didn’t hurt.
Shannon and I traversed familiar interstates – the drive to St. Louis was two-thirds the same as our recent drive to and from Chicago – and arrived at my aunt’s home Saturday evening. So much of our family was there, and the extra strands of our extended support systems buttressed everything leading up to the funeral service, and when shiva began. In-laws of my cousins (the children of my uncle) lifted them up, gave of themselves, helped keep watch of my uncle’s grandchildren.
I felt the loss of running acutely. My ritual, my healing salve, my outlet was unavailable to me. I diligently performed my stretches and exercises. I pushed away the loss of running, and felt the other loss – the real loss – wash over me. I hoped that my foot would heal enough, would be okay enough to allow me to run the marathon in April. If for no other reason, then to run those miles for my uncle. With his spirit in my heart and his strength in my feet. When words fail me, I know running is there – and I honor those whose strength sustains me through it.
As we stood in the chilly wind at the burial service, I could hardly eke out the words. Psalm 23. The wind billowed at points when his wife, his children shared their words. Every time they had to stop, when the words stuck in their throats, I wanted to run to them. But I knew they were not alone as they stood there, struggling to say those words.
I’m climbing back into my mileage. I ran two hours this past Saturday with minimal issue. I ran pain-free on Monday, and had an amazing workout on Tuesday, including 4x mile at 10K pace with minimal foot tightness. I’m cautiously optimistic. I’ll see my PT and a massage therapist once a week through the marathon. I will run with what I have. I will remember where I’ve been and how far I’ve come.
I will run for all those I have lost. For the peace they now have. For the loves ones they left behind, whose grace and strength astounds me, exemplifying the souls who left those bodies, now touching each of us.
I run what I can, when I can, with everything I have to offer then. And sometimes, a little more than I thought.
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside still waters.
He restoreth my soul; He leadeth me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley through the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff – they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; Thou has anointed my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and kindness shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.