Finding GRIT in the NYC Marathon and Beyond

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The marathon is a cruel event. Maybe the cruelest. But that’s why I keep coming back. For the chance. The chance to feel alive. There is nothing more alive than feeling every part of your body working and then struggle to work as the race goes on. The last 400m of the NYC Marathon I was yelling at my body to kick. My mind wanted to go. But the body had no response. It’s like living outside your body where you are watching what’s happening and you can’t do anything about it. As another athlete passed me to what would push me from 10th to 11th place I was in slow motion. I had run to my limit. I barely got to the line, and went down after I crossed. Peter Ciaccia was there to grab me. If I was in a more humorous mood I would have whispered to Peter I just wanted to give you a little drama as your last time as race director. I didn’t have much to say or much energy to take another step.

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What did I do wrong?, That was my initial stream of consciousness. Note to future self and to others who have just finished a marathon. Disregard anything that comes out of your mouth within the 1-8 hours following your race. Emotions are high and doing all the illogical thinking. Regret. Defeat. Embarrassment. Those were my initial reactions. I wanted more, I trained for more. The results stood. 2:30:59, 11th place and 5th American. Reflecting now, there is far more hidden within results if we are willing to look.

Coach Ben and I discussed race plans earlier in the week before we left for NY. He thought I could run 5:35s all day, or at least that effort on the course. We went over scenarios that could happen and how I should handle them. I’ll be honest in saying I was 99% sure the race would not go out tactical and conservative like it did last year. Well, cue me leading on the Verrazano bridge at mile 1. Over the next 5k, I exchanged a laugh with Des about how slow we were running (for us) and then she busted a move. The rest of the race was a mixture of checking in with how I was feeling and wondering when the big move would be made. We’d surge into a fluid station and then the pack of 20 or so women would string out and pack up like an accordion. Through Brooklyn and Queens I heard the crowds on every corner, but pushed their energy into a quiet place until it was time to use it, later in the race. The pack splits around mile 12 and I know this is the move. I cover it, but only half. It is not my race to go with mile splits under 5:20. That’s not my forte. Our pack has 4-5 women in it and we charge up the 59th St. Bridge, in eery silence. I know what’s coming. Thousands of people waiting on 1st Ave. to inject adrenaline into our bodies. We fly off the bridge and one of the women in our pack Allie, starts charging. I forget the watch and commit. 5:28. 5:27. 5:24. 5:31. 5:34. These are my splits from miles 17-21. They are the fastest I’ve ever run in a marathon. I went for it, hard. As I’m now alone battling up 5th Ave. towards mile 23, I’m in a lot of pain. I anticipated this pain, but it’s coming sooner and faster than I envisioned. The fast splits I ran are catching up to me and I’m hanging on. Pushing gravity forward with every stride and looking ahead. People are yelling and willing you to dig deeper, and I’m at the bottom of the well.

My mind wandered back to Flagstaff. Back to Lake Mary Rd, to Camp Verde, to coach Ben’s voice, to Kellyn pushing alongside me, to Wes adding more weight to my squats, to painfully productive massages, to delicious dinners cooked by Ben, to 5:45 am wake ups and to my boys hugs. These are the reasons, the people that I want to make proud. Then I ask myself. You know what proud is? Proud is knowing you gave everything you had, made all the right decisions you believed in the moment, and finished with no regrets. If I do that, and come out the other side, I can live with that result.

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This fall transcended much higher than the actual 26.2 miles that I ran in NYC. I found a change in myself as runner, as a mom, as a human. I had some days I questioned my sanity a little, some days I felt I couldn’t fulfill my role as a decent mom because I was so fatigued from training, but most days I felt alive. Waking up with such purpose to knock out 12 x a mile with 1 minute rest, begging the question of how tough would I be today. What would I tell myself when the little voice started creeping in to slow down or stop. I found inspiration everywhere I looked. I rode on the pain train that Kellyn was the conductor of. I travelled to the UK with the Scotts and learned from their humor and their simplicity. I watched their different style of how they approach training this fall and how success can show up differently on paper. I had friends give birth to their first babies. I had friends desperately trying to have babies. My brother Jamie is alive and voluntarily in a drug rehab facility. I met strangers who had such an impact on me. I witnessed coach Ben and my Ben’s belief in me grow. We made hard decisions together that got me to the starting line healthy. I found GRIT. When I crossed the finish line and made it to the post race tent, Ben brought Riley and Hudson in. Riley’s first question was “did you winned mom?” No Riley I came in 11th, but I ran the hardest I absolutely could and that’s what counts.” As I heard myself explaining this to my 4 year old, my chest clamped up a little because I realized that is what I need to live by. Goals are goals and I’ll keep setting them high, not out of my mind high, but high enough to resist complacency. I’ll remind myself that even if I don’t achieve what I envision I probably loved the shit out of the process. And so I’ll keep lining up, keep doing hard things, and writing my story. For you are the only one that can define what it means to you and that is powerful stuff.

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Dream Big

Steph

Sandstorm

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Sometimes fate is like a sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again but the storm adjusts. Over and over you play this out. Like some omnious dance with death. Just before dawn. Why? Because the storm isn’t something that blew in from far away. Something that has nothing to do with you. This storm is you. Something inside of you. So all you can do is give into it. Step right inside the storm. Closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so the sand doesn’t get in. And walk through it step by step. And once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.

I first was introduced to this quote last year when a few members of my team were training for fall marathons. Sarah Cotton and Stephen Kersh followed us all fall and created a documentary series. At first the passage resonated with me as I thought about the hundreds of miles I would log on Lake Mary. The long and grueling workouts my teammates and I would conquer. We would be walking through our own storm, and when it became painful, we would close our eyes and take it on step by step. And we did. This storm however I chose. I chose to race the NYC Marathon and to devote all my energy, my determination, and my motivation to see how good I could be on Sunday, November 5th. I finished 10th, in 2:31. It was a disappointment but for reasons that led me to discover some things about my blood levels, that in turn has carved out a path of success in 2018. So for that storm I'm grateful.

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Other storms in my life have come at me hard and without choice. My dad passed away when I was 18 from Prostate Cancer. I didn't see him in his final months, but I saw a picture. A picture of my 55 year old father who looked 90, decrepit from chemotherapy, and the cancer taking over his body. My dad's name is James. I look exactly like him. He never met Ben. He never saw me get married, or met Riley and Hudson. Some days I look in the mirror and I see his face in mine and it takes my breath away. I have so many questions for him. I miss having a dad yell at me and threatening my husband to not break my heart.

In 2016 my mom was diagnosed with late stage breast cancer. This fi'ng storm is still chasing me. I can't possibly lose both parents to cancer. But you see you can. That's life. The first few months there were questions, doctor appointments, surgeries, chemotherapy. She lived in Phoenix, I lived in Flagstaff. I was conflicted to drive down there every week, to make every appointment. But my boys were 1 and 2 and I didn't want to miss their moments. I was training hard for CIM Marathon and it's my job, my passion, my savior. I was pulled in every direction emotionally and physically. We moved her up to Flagstaff to look after her permanently. She's cancer free at this moment, but the storm is always shifting direction.

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Then there's my brother Jamie. Jamie was my best friend growing up. His friends used to call me Jamie with a wig on because we looked so much alike. He is the smartest and wittiest person I know. Jamie got lost into drugs about 8 years ago. It happened slowly and gradually. Our conversations were fewer, and our interactions more impersonal. See after our dad died, I think Jamie didn't have anything that fueled him, or that he loved. We almost lost Jamie last year in a drug overdose. There were many nights I went to sleep wondering if I'd wake up and my brother would no longer be with us. I tried to help him for many years but to no avail. He needed to dig himself out of the desperation he was living and find meaning. I'm happy to say Jamie is in a rehab program that he checked himself into and I actually got to visit him last month and essentially reintroduce him to his 2 and 4 year old nephews that really never got to know him. His smile was back, the Jamie I once know was resurfacing. There is hope for him. And I believe there is always hope.

Sometimes I feel unwarranted guilty that I have been blessed with such healthy children, this amazing gift to train and race as my profession, and a voracious love for life. Some of my family have walked through storms much stronger and scarier than I. But we all face our own storms, and we can weather them alone or with help. Running is the path I've chosen to channel my passion, my frustrations, and my own personal struggles. Throwing myself into the challenges I face in training and racing is how I walk through the other storms in life.

And once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.
— Haruki Murakami

In running I feel free, I feel like me

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Running isn’t stressful, life is stressful. Last year during the spring of 2017 I was getting ready to race the Gasparilla Half Marathon in Tampa, FL. I had just run US Cross and qualified for the World Team in Uganda, but wanted a race before Worlds. The week of Gasparilla, my mom was texting me complaining of stomach pain and not feeling great. 3 months prior she was diagnosed with late stage Inflammatory Breast Cancer and was now in the midst of chemotherapy. I thought her pain and discomfort might be attributed to the treatment so I felt bad but nothing else crossed my mind. The next day she said I’m going to the hospital Steph I’m in incredible pain. For the next 20 minutes I paced around my house wondering whether I should drop everything and drive down the mountain to Phoenix and head to the hospital. The boys were at daycare, I had my workout the next morning, and my race was in 5 days. Ben would take care of the kids and home life but ever since I became a mom I suffer from immense guilt every time I have to leave them even if it’s for something that is truly important and necessary. I packed a bag, and drove down to Phoenix that afternoon. Walking into the hospital, with my mom hiding her balding head with a baseball cap, I felt the terror of my past rushing in. You see my father died 15 years ago of prostate cancer and I couldn’t fathom how I would do this again with my other parent. It turned out she had suffered a terrible episode of a few hernias in her stomach finally presenting themselves. After spending an hour visiting with her and knowing there was a treatment plan, I got my shoes out of my trunk and ran along the Greenbelt for my 2nd run. As I jogged out of the hospital parking lot I couldn’t help wonder how strange it must look for someone to be in a sports bra and spandex effortlessly going out for a run. It’s my job and unless I’m sick, hurt, or there’s no option I run when I’m supposed to and when I need to. Running isn’t the stressful part, life is.

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Coach Ben and my husband Ben told me to take all the time I needed in Phoenix with my mom. I stayed with her until we saw the doctor and they scheduled emergency surgery the next morning. All she could do was rest and wait. I got back in my car, drove up to Flagstaff, went to sleep and the next morning ran 8 x 1000 with my teammate Amy, while the guys did the same workout. My legs were heavy from weights but not from sorrow. I feel safe and home during practice, during my workouts. The greatest part about training and competing to me is that you choose the amount of suffering you can endure. In life, that suffering is thrown at you, at any moment, with any pressure and you don’t know if you can handle it. The workout went great, 8 x 1000 @3:20s with 2:30 rest. I went home, showered, ate, repacked my bag and headed back down to the hospital. I missed Riley and Hudson and wished they could go everywhere with me. I stayed at my brother’s the next 2 nights and went back and forth to the hospital while mom was recovering. Her surgery went very well but it was also very labor intensive. As kids we are used to our parents being our role models, strong as hell, rock solid. So when I had to lift my mom from her bed to sit up for the first time since surgery and she grabbed my arm tighter than anything I had ever felt from her I was shaken. It’s a glimpse into what’s to come. When as children, the clock turns backwards and we become responsible for taking care of our parents. I don’t even know if I’m doing it right raising my own 2 sons, how the hell can I now take care of my mom?

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The next day was Thursday and Ben packed the boys up and drove down to Phoenix to visit Grammy and come stay with me. I greatly appreciate his efforts because lord knows single parenting, traveling and training is no easy task. Riley lightened the mood by peeing in the courtyard right outside the hospital, he was just beginning potty training. I debated canceling my race, thinking running is so trivial in a time like this, I shouldn’t leave. It’s not trivial. I’ve seen running help people in the midst of divorces, illnesses, losing loved ones. Running is a constant and an outlet. It’s gives me purpose and direction in a world where there’s so many unknowns. So I got on a plane Friday morning and headed to Tampa, FL. The moment the wheels lifted off a wave of relief brushed over me. I stopped worrying about my mom and focused my energy on what I could control, my effort in my race. I hadn’t raced a half marathon in over 3 years, since both of my boys were born. I knew how to run it and of course could cover the distance but a part of me was nervous. Would I remember how to gauge my effort, when it started hurting would I push through? Could I race where I did before the babies? The race was on a beautiful, warm and windy morning. I embraced all the joyful moments, the crowds, and the painful last 4 miles. I won the race in 72:55, splits: 5:22, 5:26, 5:24, missed a few, 5:24, 5:30, 5:27, 5:25, 5:49, 5:43, 5:33, 5:30. I called my mom first thing and of course she asked “did you win?” “Mom wins don’t come very easily these days”, as my mom always expects that of me. Laughing I said “well yes I did.” She recovered very well over the next few weeks. We then packed her things up and moved her up to Flagstaff to live with us while she would be receiving chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation.

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Life changed a lot for us these past 18 months. The boys got a new dog, with my mom’s moving in with us. Our house got smaller, frequent trips to Phoenix for chemo sessions, doctor appointments, surgery, and all of adjusting to life that took a twist. Cancer is fucking brutal. When I was younger I never experienced the ugly part that is sometimes hidden from kids and well hidden from anyone not in the thick of it. I became a nurse to my mom, changing her drains and dressings after her double mastectomy.  She recently returned last summer from radiation down in the valley and I’ve never seen a body so burnt and destroyed from something that doctors suggest for you. Mom is done with her treatment (hopefully) and she is handling with amazing poise and strength. I lost my dad to cancer, my good friend Lauren Fleshman lost hers to cancer, my running friend and fellow pro runner Gabe Grunewald had her cancer resurface this spring,#bebravelikeGabe and many more stories out there like this. We are given obstacles in life and we are given choices. I have seen those who choose strength and love and fight (even though my mom hates the word fight or battle) conquer.

I like to think of myself as a fighter. Those who know me, know my infatuation with the Rocky movies and their inspiration to me. I choose to fight when I race. It gives me power and makes me feel brave. Brave is what we all could use a lot more of. I’ve seen brave in the running community over and over again. I love the community we exist in. There’s hope and stories and meaning. I used to believe running was trivial and pails in comparison to some of the things we face in life. Don’t let the meaning of running be trivialized to you.  “Human beings are designed to need resistance. We need gravity and friction to do anything. We need work. We need a rock to push that is recognizable as our own.” – Alec Duxbury in an excerpt from Believe I am Journal.  Running is my rock. I wake up most days and regardless of the pressure and pain in life, for the 2 hours I’m at practice, the 2nd runs with Ben, the workouts with the team, solo runs through the trails and the heavy lifting gym sessions I feel joy, I feel free, and I feel like me.

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