As I was walking to the starting line of the 16 mile Boston Prep Race on a Sunday in January, I overheard a couple of veteran runners talking about their strategy for the course. “I think I’ll start out at 7:20 and see if I have enough to kick it in at the end.” My eyes widened. I looked over at them, with a worried smile and said, “I just hope to finish the damn thing.” They both laughed and one of them, a man of medium build, about my age, maybe a bit older said, “I hear you. You finish this race, you’ve definitely accomplished something.” As they walked ahead, I had this tiny whispering fear surface in the base of my brain. It didn’t have words attached to it, just a floating cloud of nervousness as I thought about the 16 miles ahead of me. This course was a test. It wasn’t called the Boston Prep race for nothing. There were many hills, some really steep ones. And I knew, it would challenge me, both mentally, and physically. I stood at the starting line amidst a sea of runners, wiggling my legs to keep them loose in the 20 degree weather, snow flakes catching my eyelashes. As the wall of black running tights started moving ahead of me, I took a deep breath, hit the start button on my watch, and felt my feet start to shuffle.
My goal for every race is to be present, to feel good, and to finish. Within a quarter mile of the start, I was already encountering my first hill. Here we go. As my body warmed up, and I fell into a good rhythm, I took in the beautiful windy roadside views. I felt the excitement of running amongst a community of dedicated athletes. I felt the pavement under my feet. I felt good.
About half way through the race, at 8 miles or so, there was a moment as I was pushing my legs up a steep hill when I felt that sharp tug inside of me, “Do I have what it takes to get through this?”
That pull triggered a memory, a day when I was in the middle of my cancer treatment. The chemo was making me feel all kinds of not me. I could barely move, I couldn’t get out of bed, couldn’t even think about eating, even drinking a sip of water would make me puke, and I asked myself, “Do I have what it takes to get through this?” What is the alternative if I say no more. If I stop. Just stop. I knew I couldn’t. But the thought was there, like a ghostly ache.
I kept pushing myself up that hill. Knowing there was going to be the top, when my feet would shift, and my body would feel the release of passing over the crest. Running this race pushed me hard. It tested my inner strength. My resolve. I knew I had to keep running, keep my feet moving. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but if I had stopped running, if I had not finished the race, I would have felt like I had cheated. That I didn’t just let myself down, that surviving cancer treatment was just a fluke. That I have not earned this life. I’m not doing it right. There are others who should still be here, people I loved, who died way too young and not finishing the race is a slap in the face. I needed to honor their lives, their humanity, by not giving up. Pushing through the pain was the call I needed to answer. By feeling my breath rush in and out of my lungs, feeling the strain of my calf muscles as I leaned into the hill, the cool sting of sweat stretching across my back. All of those sensations whispered, keep going, keep pushing, because you can, because you get to, you are still here.
Running for me is an immediate surge of that reality. Each moment my foot strikes the ground, I am trying to heal from intense feelings of loss. The loss of my friends who should still be here. The steely isolation from spending months in the alternate reality of chemo land.
For me, running, is the answer. For now. I will keep on running. For me. For those who live inside me, who I miss, who keep reminding me to be alive. In all the ways possible.