This race was never supposed to be about Jennifer. That’s not how it started. It was supposed to be about me.
I started running over a year ago, not knowing I’d be able to. I had been attempting to rehab back from plantar fasciitis that sprung up from a bad phase of life I call “Old Moms Wearing Vans.” But I had to start running because I wanted to get back down to my middle age fighting weight. And who even knows what that is? Because I hadn’t ever been healthy and also middle aged. To achieve this nebulous goal, I had to outrun my milkshake habit.
I don’t diet.
So I had to run.
I ran a 5k last February. But because running was going well and I was still drinking milkshakes pretty regularly, I decided to keep running. And I kept pushing the distance a little as I went. Right after Thanksgiving, I tried a 4-mile route and it didn’t seem like as big a deal as I guessed it would be.
So I kept going.
On December 2, I signed up for a 10k race to be run February 12. I believed that would give me plenty of time to train.
On December 11, I ran 5.08. It went pretty well, and I figured I might as well keep going.
It felt very Forrest Gump at times.
But then there were the holidays.
And three days after Christmas, Jennifer got sick and I threw my running energies into worrying. And praying. And pacing around on my back patio.
Between December 11 and the race, which was Saturday morning, I ran 4 miles, two times. And I ran between 2-3 miles a handful of other times. Most of those runs didn’t go very well. Some of them started as runs and ended as calls for help.
I never once ran 6 miles.
I wasn’t ready.
I considered quitting.
The internet came in with some unsolicited advice. I saw a meme that said, “When you get tired, don’t quit. Learn to rest.”
And then I thought about Jennifer. She didn’t quit. She didn’t wave her white flag. She did what doctors told her to do and dug in. She was committed to making diamonds out of coal.
And I had told her I was running the 10K. She had encouraged me to go for it. It didn’t feel right to bail. She never bailed on anything. So I decided I’d go in cold and bold. And I’d run it for her.
After all the sadness and travel of the last 4 weeks, running took a back seat. Time was up. There were no good days to get one more long run in, but I felt like I needed to do something. On Thursday, I took off on my regular 3 mile route. Half would be good enough to stay warm but not so hard that I’d be sore the day of the race. At the two mile mark, I ran past my friend’s house. Melissa, (Failing At Life Club Co-President) was sitting in the front window, waving. At least I thought she was waving. I thought it was a “You GO GIRL!” kinda wave. I waved back and kept running. Apparently she was wildly waving for me to cross the street and come inside. I ignored all of that and was almost past the house when the front door flew open and her daughter called out.
“Miss Missy! Can you come in and look at my hamster? I think it’s dying!” Oh dear. We all know I have a Master’s Degree in Dead Hamsters. And now that I understood there was an emergency, I stopped running and crossed the street.
“Ok, but get me water,” I panted. When I crossed the threshold of the front door, I walked out of reality and straight into the twilight zone. I can’t overstate the freakshow I waddled into. Nor can I completely judge it. I have been reminded more than once that I took our hamster, Peter, to the vet three separate times before then paying $80 to put the hamster down. And I cried all the way to the car, carrying his little cardboard casket. All in all, that hamster cost us well over $300. It was only $16 to begin with.
So, you know. It takes one to know one, I suppose.
But I’m getting my freakshows confused. Back to the current one. I’ll return to the running in a moment.
With an ice cold water bottle in my hands, I rounded the corner from the living room into the front room and found Melissa wearing latex gloves and watching over a lethargic hamster like a priest performing last rites. I paused to take the scene in. The hamster’s eyes were mostly closed, but slowly blinked as the room cheered. And then, Melissa took a gloved hand, scooped little Nelly up, and tenderly flipped her over. ON A HEATING PAD.
“Look! It just took a breath! It’s breathing!” She announced, as she tenderly flipped Nelly again. It occurred to me as I stood there gratefully sipping on my water that I was witnessing a Hamster Rotisserie. They were slow roasting a dying rodent on a heating pad.
There was a lot of back and forth about the hamster and her habits over the last few days. I was certain Nelly was on her way out. But I was careful about who I said that to. I stood there with them for 10 minutes. But when I knew for sure there was nothing I could do except proclaim bad news, I tossed my empty water bottle in the trash and commenced the last mile on my route. That hamster died overnight.
And that was my dress rehearsal for a 6.2 mile race.
That was Thursday.
On Friday, I didn’t run at all. But I ate carefully and went to bed at 10 o’clock. My alarm was set for 5 a.m. but I was up at 4:24 before it went off. I arrived and was standing in the registration tent in the pre-dawn darkness. Of course they had no record of me and no packet for me. But I had proof I had paid, so they assigned a race bib and t-shirt to me and happily sent me away. I still had 45 minutes to kill, so I returned to my car to hydrate and stretch. That’s when I noticed I was in the system as Bib 4229, Missy Snapped. Sigh. Such an easy last name. And never right. I mean, NEVER.
It wasn’t even daylight and my registration had been lost and I was labeled to have already snapped. I shrugged it off as just another weird rung in the ladder. This race had already been anything but typical. And I continued to tell myself how I intended it to go. Training and registration had delivered some blows. But the race itself was going to be a strong finish.
At 7:25, they lined us up. I had eaten one banana and had lots of water. I lined up for the portapotty and used one. Then I immediately got back in line and used it again. When your race packet says you “Snapped,” you don’t start an hour-long run with a full bladder. I paced nervously at the Start line while a man with spanx and a microphone prayed for us all. That felt like a nice, and very Plant City, touch. And then a huge mass of people took off with the sun rising on our backs.
So many people. People with double strollers. People with barking German Shepherds.
It was at least a mile before the starting clump of runners thinned out enough for all of us to find our own pace. When I did, I fell into a rhythm that seemed sustainable. As I approached the second mile marker, I noticed younger female running and staying about 5 yards ahead. She had a 10K bib on. I decided to keep pace slightly behind her. For the whole race. She didn’t stop at water stations or change her pace. She kept running. I did the same. I kept the same 4 people in my sights for the next 4 miles. None of them ever stopped. Not for water. Not for anything.
At about the 5.5 mile mark, my main girl slowed down to being a few yards behind me instead of slightly ahead. But the other 3 were in view and all of us stayed together. The further into the 6th mile I ran, the harder it became. For the first time, I wondered if I could go all the way without stopping. But my people were still running. So I continued to run. And at the 6 mile sign, with only 2/10 to go, I saw the inflatable Finish Line. To this point, I had continued because I knew the Finish Line existed and because the people around me continued. But now, I kept going because the end was actually in sight.
And maybe it was the weird Colin Raye country song that was oddly placed in a playlist of Fall Out Boy and Imagine Dragons, but it hit me how much like life this race really was. Life gets hard sometimes. It gets REALLY hard sometimes. And if you are Jennifer, or someone like her, the race can look impossibly hard. Jennifer kept going for her people and with her people. Until she saw the Finish Line.
She never once stopped running.
She finished strong.
Two months ago, when I pushed myself a tiny bit and registered on a whim, the race was about me. On Saturday, pushing to do something that was bigger than I was, it became about my friend, Jennifer. We both completed races. She won hers. I finished mine. I was grateful for her strength as I collapsed in the grass holding a finisher’s medal.
I was feeling pretty good about myself, until I locked eyes with the medal I was holding. This would have to be where I drew the line at eternal analogies. Her prize is glorious. My prize had a goofy little cartoon strawberry on it.
But for now, that would have to do.