Why does it seem like I've been starting all these blog posts with, "Yeah, so it's been a while...?"
Oh - I guess it's because when I finally dust off my little corner of the blogoshpere, it usually HAS been a while.
In my last post, there were all sorts of little goodies - a new niece, cute nephews, good things happening all around.
And then, just a few days following that post, life dealt a blow that threw my family back into the reality of "Nothing is ever a given."
Most of you who read this are also on Facebook, so certainly I don't have to delve too much into the events. Suffice it to say that my husband's nephew "K" - his sister's son - was killed on a Thursday afternoon leaving school. He was hit by a car. He was 7.
As with most traumatic events, I remember every second of the initial news as it traveled from Kansas back to Chicago via a phone call from the hospital chaplain: the immediate uncertainty (at first all we were told was that there was an accident and "it's really bad"), the news of death moments later, and scramble to pack, the rush to get in the car, the swiftness in which we drove straight out of town.
In hindsight, it all took about 25 minutes, though the following 9 hours drive was likely the longest of my husband's life. We arrived at his sister's house at 330am, and didn't leave until the following Wednesday.
What happened in between those days were by far the most emotionally excruciating days of my life. I've experienced death - most notably when my dad died - but never like this, never so senselessly, and never so deep. The grief I saw and felt is still something I have not been able to put into words.
In the midst of all of this, I was still trying to train for a marathon. Even writing that right now - that I was even thinking of anything else during that timee- seems ridiculous. And honestly, I really wasn't thinking about the marathon.
But what did happen was that, while in Kansas during those days, I turned to running to get some relief - to take time away from the house, to zone out, to escape from the otherwise inability to stop crying every five minutes. I had a 19-miler on the schedule that weekend, and I knew that wasn't going to happen on roads I have often visited but never ran on. But I managed two 9-milers on the treadmill. Those were miles that I was able to literally stare at the wall, empty my mind and just sweat. I wasn't completely separated from the event though - I did have a moment when I just stopped and started crying unprovoked, and then there was the moment when I looked up at the t.v. and the news story of the accident and K's picture was staring back at me.
Almost immediately after we returned to Chicago, we returned to Kansas - this time for a wedding that was planned in far advance of the accident, but structured as a long weekend for family visiting.
Eventually, I managed to get in my long runs - two 18-milers and a 20-miler. And despite my sporadic training in the final few weeks, these long runs post-accident felt almost effortless. Well, as effortless as possible when you're running 20 miles.
Weird, right? Yeah, that's what I thought. What was the key ingredient? What was I doing right? What was my secret weapon?
In those final weeks, I started to believe that I had a little something "extra" now on my side.
So with that long-ass intro, let's fast-forward to my final race of an otherwise-successful season - the Chicago Marathon.
Let me save you the suspense.
I PR'd but a handful of minutes, but didn't hit my goal time. I trained for a 4:20, but put in a 4:31. Yikes.
Beyond that, I LOVED LOVED LOVED this experience - the city as seen through the eyes of a marathoner is like no other. I spent 34 years of my life on these streets, but yet with a number strapped to my waist, I fell in love with it all over again.
In the days leading up, people were freaking out over the weather. In the end, it was definitely warm, but I liked it. It didn't contribute to me not hitting my time.
However, for the last few months, I have had an increasingly problematic pain in my abdomen – it could be a cyst, my husband thinks it’s a hernia. Who knows – but the longer the runs lately, the worse the pain (and yes, I do have a doctor's appointment, but it's not until November - spectacular).
I knew it would impact Sunday, but I didn’t know how. It seems to flare up after four miles, and hangs on for the duration.
For the first 13 miles, I struggled with some stiffness in my legs and hips, but by mile 13, my focus was on the exploding pain in my abdomen. About every 20 steps, it felt like a firework went off and radiated down my leg.
I was working hard to focus on the 1.5 million spectators that make this race what it is, and it did help for the first half, but by 14, I was in full blown distress. Although I was refusing to walk under any circumstance, I was fairly certain “it” would eventually burst, and wondered how they would get ahold of Cheese if I was found on the side of the road.
By the turn at 15, I started crying.
I knew I would never outright quit, but I just struggled to keep moving forward with the pain. Something, I felt, had to give.
But then I had my first “sign.”
I ran past the police academy, over which hung a banner with the pictures of fallen police officers, and a statement that read, “These officers and over 500 other have died in the line of duty. They will be watching over you today to ensure your safe journey to the finish.”
And one of the men was a picture of my father’s close friend.
I ran right under the picture, and filled my head with images of him, my dad, and with my nephew K, who I had taken to “talking” with over the last few months and longer runs.
As I approached 16, I was having an outright conversation with K.
Pain started to dissipate.
And then – it happened.
In the split second my family came off the train at 17, I was running past them. One second later and they would have missed me. But in that miracle second, I heard Ellen scream my name and saw her wave that green noodle.
How did that happen? Literally one second later and we wouldn't have met up.
I took a second to pity myself from the pain, but then everyone started telling me how great I looked (lie) and how awesome I was doing (lie) and even though I knew it probably wasn’t true, I made myself believe it. And I loved them for every second they traveled on those trains to find me in the midst of a sea of runners and spectators. I loved them for standing in the heat, for screaming like mad, and for being so proud of me in the moments when I was so very not proud of myself.
I said my goodbyes, took a step, and took note immediately.
The pain was gone.
Steps later I saw my best friend Anne-Marie – she too grabbed her 1-year-old and traveled across the city on the crazy trains and in the heat to see me – even though it was only for a few seconds. I stopped hugged her, kissed her son, high fived her husband and her say, “I am so proud of you.” And that was all I needed.
I was off. Pain still minimized.
And let me pause here to say how awesome my support crew is - my husband puts up with this lunacy (even though I know he must cringe everytime I say, "I really want to sign up for..."), my sister who lugged around a 7-week old child on her chest for six hours on a Sunday morning just to cheer me on, and my other sister who gave me a massive bag of candy (gone two days later) and trekked around in the heat waving a big green noodle for me to see from blocks away. I also received a number of awesome notes, emails and texts from friends and family in the day leading up to the race that really were awesome.
Getting back to the race - I don’t know really what happened, but from 17 through 26, I was a new person. I ran steady, and with purpose. I knew I was never going to actually quit, but I just didn’t know how I was going to do it through the pain. But I did.
Miles 18-20, I again spent time talking to K, thanking him for watching over me, for keeping me safe and for keeping me moving towards the finish. I kept hearing his voice in my head, “You crazy girl.” I eventually started to repeat it over and over, like a mantra.
By Chinatown, I actually felt pretty okay. I knew my legs were a little tired, but I also knew my family was around the corner at 23. And they were – again, we found each other within seconds of them getting to the spot. Just a few steps sooner or later and we would have missed each other.
Someone was watching out for me.
I stopped again to talk with them(I don’t know why I did this twice – I never do this in races so I guess I must have just needed it this time), and then took off – and I felt like I was flying. I am sure my times don’t reflect that, but I felt it, and that’s what matter.
I rounded the corner to head up Michigan – that last 2 mile straightaway – and I felt like I had wings. I sung out loud, waved to people calling my name, and just kept running. I knew where the mile signs were, and just keep pushing forward.
The further north I got, the more crazy the spectators got – I don’t ever remember them being so numerous and loud! I slapped high-fives, and continued to sing. And once I hit the “1 Mile Left” sign, I said what I’ve been saying at the 1-mile marker for every long run for the last two months-
“Okay K – time to take me home.”
And home we went.
Now, I've finished a lot of races in the years I've been doing these sports. I've finished ugly, I've finished destroyed, I've finished balls out, literally covered in my own blood, sweat and tears.
But in all these years, I've never finished as strong as I finished those 26.2 miles - especially after feeling like my insides were exploding halfway through.
What happened? Good nutrition? Good weather? Increased squats?
I don't go to church, I don't follow a specific religion, and I've even lost a little faith since K's death because honestly, it feels like a punishment from a Power I can't control and I can't rationalize.
But I do believe that we are watched over, I do believe that K was with me Sunday, and I do believe that he is with his family all the time. I don't have science to explain this belief, but that's what makes it a belief - I just, quite simply, believe it.
And yes, K probably has a fuller agenda of things to do in Heaven other than watch his lunatic aunt run a race. But maybe he needed to be amused that day, and maybe he thought I might need help. Maybe he knows that his uncle silently grieves for him with every breath he takes, and he thought he could use some celebration.
I don't know the answer. Maybe you all think I am a lunatic at this point, and want to just chalk up my good race to strong training -whatever.
But when someone leaves your life suddenly and violently, you want to hold onto them. With K, my grip on him has been strongest when I often feel strongest - when I run.
I chose to remember him in this way.
I chose to take him with me.
And I chose to have faith.