Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Heart of America Marathon Memories

After running the Heart of America Marathon, I’ve decided running marathons is similar to raising children; each one is complete with its own unique challenges.

This was my third marathon. The first one I ran in Columbus, Ohio in 2007 with complete euphoria. Every mile was this surreal, amazing experience. I remember the sight of the finish line taking my breath away. It was unlike any other experience of my life. I was a marathoner and was completely amazed that God helped me accomplish something I thought was impossible.

A year later, I went back to Columbus to run the same marathon – only this time I went with a goal in mind. Funny how only a year before I was more than content just to finish the race. But this time I was going to break the four-hour mark. Months and months of training, which included countless speed workouts and long runs, had all been geared for breaking four hours. When I crossed the finish line at 3:57, it was a different kind of satisfaction. I had come to do business and I had done it well. While I had run the same marathon course, these marathons were completely different.

With these marathons under my belt, I began considering a marathon for 2009. A part of me thought I might just take a pass this year. The year had been filled with uncertainty. I was learning to live without my mom’s love and encouragement while Tom hurt his knee and running our fall marathon schedule looked doubtful. So when my “friend” and training partner, Jaira Grathwohl, announced we were going to run the Heart of America Marathon on Labor Day, I laughed quietly. I was ready to use the pass card, but deep inside found myself intrigued with the idea. Me, run Heart of America?

My first and probably most enjoyable marathon memories have been made at this marathon. For those of you who don’t know, it’s the fourth oldest marathon in the country and is considered the most difficult non-mountainous course in the country. Yes, in the country! Watching it year after year, I have learned to deeply respect the course and anyone who conquers it.

My first memory of Heart was in 1995. It was the first year Tom and I were married and it seemed like he spent most of that year running. He had run his first marathon in 1994, just before we got married. With only one long run – of 16 miles – he and his buddy Darrin Young set off to see the streets of Chicago. I was so ignorantly proud at mile 8 when they were way ahead of their planned pace. By the time they crossed the finish line some 25 minutes behind their goal, I was worried sick. But the lessons were learned. Tom trained hard and was ready for his first Heart of America marathon.

Tom finished second that year – his highest and fastest (3:02) finish to date. What a day that was! Darrin, our buddy Max Lewis, and I chased Tom over every mile of that course and we couldn’t have had a better time watching it all unfold. From that moment, it was clear to me that running a marathon is like writing a wonderful story – some with triumphant victorious endings, others with tragic defeat, each with a fair amount of pain and suffering.

Since that first HOA experience, Tom has run it three more times and chasing runners along the course has become an annual experience. As I too have become more and more interested in running and know more and more people running it, this race became all the more exciting.

Two years ago I ran 13 miles of this course for a training run. Last year I ran 20 of it. This year, I decided I would conquer my fear and run it all.

But this race was difficult for reasons other than the three H’s: hills, heat and humidity. I dedicated the run to my mom and wanted to run this in honor of her. I also wanted to honor her in the way I ran it. Like I’ve done the past two years, I asked 26 people to take a mile of the race and pray over it. I also asked them to pray for someone battling cancer. In my mind, this was a way for my mom’s legacy of love to live on – and I was keeping it alive.

Race Day

By race morning, I was already overwhelmingly appreciative of the well wishes I’d received in the mail and via email and was bursting at the seams with the Monster Cookies that had been left on my porch to help with carb loading.

We got to the start of the race at 5:25 – already 10 minutes late to meet our massage therapist who had graciously agreed to give us a pre-race muscle rub. He was there waiting for us and we took care of business. Then like clockwork, Jordan Alexander and John (and Sarah) Yonker surprised us. Jordan and John ran the Columbus marathon with us last year and it only seemed fitting that they be a part of this experience too. Before we head to the starting line, Tom led a bunch of us in prayer, including Kathy Lee and Phil Schaefer. He thanked God for healthy bodies and asked Him to keep our feet moving swiftly. I was really proud of his bold display of faith and his eloquent prayer – especially with a minister on each side of him!

I lined up with Jaira and Kathy for the 26 mile jaunt. I’ve ran so many miles with these two that I found some comfort just being beside them. There in the dark and the 100% humidity, we all took off. The first few miles were faster than I thought I should be running, but I was feeling fine and wanted to experience it with them – at least for a while. My goal for this race was clear – to find the joy in the journey. Running with them for the first 12 miles gave me that joy. Leslie Bayer, Maria McMahon and Darrin, his wife Melanie and Khristina Adams also met me at mile 6 – gel and Propel from my people! I was beginning to feel like a rock star.

As the miles clicked off, so did my prayers. I had my list of the 26 people or groups of people I was praying for and praying for them helped me keep my focus off of myself. I had written the names on the back of a picture of my mother. I wanted to be able to see her smiling face and I wanted something tangible to represent her presence with me.

At the bottom of Easley Hill (a 200-foot, ¾-mile climb), I told Kathy and Jaira to go on. There, just as planned, was the second of my sag crews – Michele and Alberto Diaz-Arias. They had my gel and special electrolyte drink ready and Alberto headed up the hill with me. I took my gel and tried to drink and relax my breathing. Alberto was encouraging and told me there was no shame in walking up the hill. His words made me feel better as I watched Kathy and Jaira quickly fade out of my sight.

Madison was about two-thirds the way up the hill and I was thrilled to see her. She walked with me for a bit and then she and Melanie ran with me for a bit. I saw Matthew through there too and he always makes me smile.

Content to run by myself for a while, I pulled out my iPod and hit random play. The first song was “Beautiful Day” and I thought that was appropriate. Then Mariah Carey’s, Bye Bye started to play. This was one of two “sad” songs on the entire playlist. Instead of digging in my race belt pack to change the song, I decided to suck it up and try not to get emotional. About that time, the car load of my supporters pulls up beside me with more encouragement. As they drive away, Madison yells out the window, “That’s my mom.” The combination of emotions overwhelmed me and I began to weep. Crying and running isn’t a good combination. It was only mile 14. I knew I needed to preserve my energy so I was able to suck it up. Ironically, the next song was “Whip It” and it helped me charge up the hill.

When I got to the top, I was surprised to find Karen Sutterer, Maria and Leslie. Armed with everything I might need, Karen and Maria jumped in beside me. Leslie, getting very pregnant, was the official “mother” of the race. Judging by her performance, she’s going to be a great mom.

It’s hard to express how I felt at that moment, knowing that those two were there to “carry” me home. Home was a long way off yet – 10.2 miles to go. They came completely selflessly; not for personal glory or gain, just to help me accomplish my goal. Whatever I needed, they supplied it. Water, propel, an opened gel, or the invaluable words of encouragement – they had it all. They were amazing.

Before I knew it we were at Pierpont, and 18 miles were in the books. We walked up a portion of the hill by Rock Bridge State Park, which must have helped for the long incline to Rock Bridge Elementary. I was so excited when we rounded the corner and to my surprise, there was the school. And there in the parking lot to cheer me on were our friends Gary and Holly Wipfler. Seeing them and getting onto Providence gave me a renewed confidence that I was going to finish.

Despite some cramping in my left foot, I really felt pretty good going down Providence. I was praying for Judi – thanking God for the monster cookies she left on my porch – and then for Michelle Cuervo, one of my very first running partners. Then at mile 23 there were four spectators near the new Hy-Vee – and they were all there for me! John and Sarah Yonker (whose prayer mile was 23) and Sherry Southworth and Debbie Schluckebier (who had Mile 1) met me with cold water and towels and lots of smiles and love.

Just before heading up Providence to Stadium, Madison jumped in to get me to the finish line. We had planned for her to do so and I knew there was nothing that was going to keep me from finishing now. She, like Maria and Karen, was so encouraging and positive and I got strength from having her alongside. Someday, we’ll do the full 26 miles together. Until then, this was incredible. This is part of our legacy and it fills me with joy.

Once we turned onto College Boulevard, I felt a huge relief. “You made it to mile 25 for Bobby,” Madison said. Bobby Hall was my inspiration for this race. He is a runner, who would have given anything to be out there running. Instead he is battling cancer. I asked him to pray for me on Mile 25. He agreed to do so and I agreed to run mile 25 for him. I kept thinking that if he can make it through surgeries and treatments, then I can make it to the end.

About that time I saw Joe Greaves and my friends from Missouri Cancer (Denise Swenson, Gaye and Mark Vellek) and I couldn’t help but high-five them all. It seems like they have been there every step of the way this past year and there they were again- holding me up and making me strong.

“You can’t help but feel the love,” Karen said as we left them to head for the finish. She was right, it was undeniable.

A few blocks ahead I saw Max Lewis – the embodiment of love. Then we turned on Broadway and climbed the last incline to finally see the finish line in the distance. “It still seems so far away,” I told my girls. Maria encouraged me to run faster and get there quicker and so I tried. As we got closer, Karen kept getting more and more excited. She told me she had goose bumps. Her enthusiasm was contagious.

As the three of them pulled off to the side and I continued to the finish line, it seemed like the crowd started roaring my name and willing me to the finish. I remember thinking that I wanted to somehow capture the picture in my brain so I could come back to it later and see who was there. I saw Matthew’s smiling face and gave him a high-five on the way to the finish line.

From there, I was surrounded with other runners, spectators and friends all sharing in the moment. About that time, a nurse from Boone Hospital who had helped take care of my mother during the day of the biopsy – the last day Mom was able to speak to me – passed by. Seeing her made me weep, mostly tears of joy. The “coincidence” in the midst of all the excitement was simply Mom’s reminder to me that she too was right there celebrating.

Upon reflecting on the experience, I’ve realized Mom wasn’t just celebrating the physical accomplishment of the marathon. I’m convinced she was celebrating the love that was shown all because of this marathon. From those who prayed, sent cards or messages, called and encouraged to those who showed up on the course with whatever I needed, I was covered in love.

It turns out running this marathon wasn’t as much about pushing my body as it was opening up my mind. And when I did, what I realized is just how lucky I really am. Sure, life without Mom is difficult. But life without each of you would be unbearable.

On September 7, 2009, the joy was in the journey. Thanks for sharing it.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A Marathon for Mom

“I believe God made me for a purpose. …And when I run I feel His pleasure.”

I remember the evening well. It was the Monday after Christmas, Dec. 27th. Mom had been in the hospital since her stroke on the morning of December 19. We knew she had cancer and we knew we had to be aggressive in trying to find the best way to treat it. Together, as a family, we had decided five days earlier to discontinue the blood thinners that she was taking in order to stabilize her for a biopsy. Although Mom steadily declined and became more and more uncomfortable during the passing five days, she was able to get the biopsy on this morning. What a relief.

When my step-father, Wayne, arrived at the hospital late in the afternoon, without hesitation I put on shorts and a long-sleeve T-shirt and went to take advantage of the unusually warm winter day. I needed the fresh air. I needed to just go – to get out of those walls that seem to be closing in on me. And I (and she) needed him to care for her, just for a few minutes.

I remember the sunset. I remember the overwhelming sense of worry. Why was she in so much pain? What would the biopsy show? Would the doctor be right… would she probably only survive 4-9 months? What was happening at the hospital while I was running? Was she OK? Did she need me? I need to get back, NOW.

When I got back to her hospital room, she and Wayne were having difficulty communicating. She was in so much pain that talking loud enough for him to hear her was nearly impossible. They were frustrated – at each other and the reality that was sinking in. Mom was sick, really sick and none of us could deny it. Wayne left shortly after and she and I were left in the quiet. She asked me about my run and I told her about the beautiful weather and how thankful I was to get to take advantage of it. She smiled and took pleasure with me.

I began running in 2000 and lost 45 pounds that year. During 2008, Mom had been faithful in her exercise and careful with her diet. She had learned to appreciate a whole new lifestyle of fitness and wellness and daily we would encourage one another. I’m not sure how much weight she lost all together, probably around 35 pounds. The day her hand started going numb, she had gone five miles on her elliptical machine. She understood my passion for running – she was experiencing the passion for herself.

My runner’s log (journal) for the day simply said, “Ran from the hospital.... things are not good. This was by far the best part of the day.”

This was the best part of many, many days to come. She told me to go home about 8 p.m. or so and by 8:30 I left. My heart was heavy. I was beginning to wonder when she was going to turn the corner and start feeling better. I was beginning to worry that she might not.

By the next morning, she had lost her ability to speak. She was writhing in pain and had a tortured look in her eyes. The first sight of her that morning took my breath away. As it turns out, my sweet, dear mother left me somewhere in the middle of the night. The cancer had ravaged her body and caused clots to form all over. All we could do was make her comfortable, say our goodbyes and wait. She died two days later.

Learning to live without her has been a struggle – one that is made easier by lacing up my shoes and hitting the streets. Running has helped breath life into me again. It is on my runs that I talk to God, search for answers, and look for any visible sign that Mom is near. It’s also where I find the comfort of many of my closest friends, who – thankfully - have traveled the dark path with me.

So it will come to no surprise to you that I am running my third marathon on Labor Day, Sept. 7. Some days I still run with little purpose, knowing that it won’t matter if I run two miles or 26 miles. It won’t bring her back. But most days, I run with a new thankfulness for the health to do it and I do so remembering how my running brought so much pride to my mother.

The marathon is going to be here in Columbia and starts at 6 a.m. This is the 50th anniversary of the race, which reminds me fondly of mom’s 50th birthday when she announced to everyone that I was going to give her a grandchild as a gift (I was newly pregnant with Madison). Ironically, the race is called the Heart of America Marathon. And I will run it in memory of my heart, my love, my mom. And I will do it proudly and victoriously in her honor.

Just as I have done in my two previous marathons, I am asking for prayer for a successful marathon. During this week, please remember me in your prayers and ask for God’s divine strength to blanket me on every one of the 26 miles. Pray that God will keep me healthy and strong and that He will be glorified through the effort.

And as a final request, this year I am also asking that in addition to praying for me, that you pray for someone who is currently battling cancer. Each one of us knows someone whose life is being touched by this disease. This week, please be committed to praying for this person, his/her family and for God to work in their lives. Great things can happen when we come together in prayer. To do so this week honors my mother’s deep faith in the God she served with great conviction.

Thank you for taking this 26.2-mile journey with me and for bringing someone along with you.

"I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race." (2 Timothy 4.7)