There are lots of people in my life who motivate and inspire me. There is my amazing cousin Matthew, who has autism and still graduated from high school. There is my gym buddy Mindi who has run every NYC Marathon (that hasn’t been canceled) since 2007 and whose pace is right in line with mine – and she is 20 years older than me. And let’s not forget my best friend Heather in New Hampshire who never wimps out on a run even when it’s like negative 100 degrees outside (trust me, there have been many cold mornings when I thought about staying in bed and thought that if Heather was getting her run in, then I should, too). Today I encountered a new source of motivation: complete strangers.
Today was the More/Fitness Half Marathon in Central Park. It is an all-women’s race (or as my friend Stephanie describes it: “all chicks, no d--ks"). It was definitely a lot different lining up in our corrals today than it is for co-ed races. First, every single person seemed to be wearing some shade of pink or purple (purple sneakers and purple Road ID for me. My daughter Olivia wouldn’t let me be caught dead wearing pink). Second, from the moment I stepped over the starting line pretty much all I could hear was chatter and gossip, reminiscent from my high school days including the fact that I was listening furtively from the sides rather than being popular enough to actually partake.
This race is 2+ loops of Central Park. It starts on West 63rd Street, runs south down the west side and north on the east side. To me, this is the harder way to circumnavigate the park, as we end up with the longer side of the Harlem Hills to climb and pretty much the entire west side of the park is something we need to climb rather than descend. I was nervous as I was lined up for this race; yes, I’m always nervous, but I just didn’t feel ready. Central Park is very hilly, so my training plan of “avoid hills as much as possible” was probably not the best strategy.
I look around, and suddenly I feel less nervous. In fact, I’m kind of excited. I see women of all ages, shapes, sizes and apparent abilities. And some may look nervous, but they all look ready to take on this race.
Before any more dread can build up in me, the race starts and off we go. The first mile of any run is always my least favorite. I’m not warmed up, I’m not breathing right, I don’t have a good pace. Today is no exception. The first mile ends as some hills begin, and I don’t have time to decide if the second mile is going to be better or worse than the first.
Mile 3 brings us to the Harlem Hills for the first time. I think they should be called the “Harlem Hells”, because the only thing missing from them to feel like hell is Lucifer himself. They are pure torture. The hill is long and twisty, so every time you think it’s going to end, you go around a corner and see more of it stretched out in front of you. I’m really not enjoying this. But then I look over to my left and I see a woman who had to be in her 70s. She’s quiet, head down, and is concentrating on what she’s doing. But she’s not gasping in exasperation or swearing (not out loud, anyway). She’s taking care of the task at hand. I quickly hope that I am still doing half marathons when I am in my 70s and I also put my head down and take care of this hill. I stop gasping in exasperation, keep my swear words to myself and somehow get to the top.
The race continues on and the torture continues. We’re now on the west side of the park, which is all uphill. As we hit mile 5 I start having my doubts of if I can do this. I’m not sure. But then something happens shortly after mile 6. Remember, I said that this course is a little over 2 laps of the park. So as I get to mile 6 and am starting my second lap, I start hearing my favorite sound of this half marathon course. Whistles start blaring, and I know exactly what it is. The lead runner is coming through and is about to lap us. People on bikes are ahead of her and they’re clearing the roadway. We all smush over to the left as Deanna Kastor literally flies by. That woman is a gazelle trapped in a human’s body. It is amazing. What’s more amazing, though, is the reception she gets. We all cheer for her as she flies by, and suddenly my spirits are lifted and all I want to do is finish the race just like she’s about to do. Of course, I have to run another entire lap of the park first, but I’m going to do it.
Getting lapped by the lead woman keeps me motivated until about mile 8, but then I lose steam again. My legs are sore and my knee and one toe hurt. I’ve learned the difference between true injury and simple pain. I know that I’m just in pain, so I keep going but I am really having a hard time. This time I look around for some motivation and I find it in no time. Over my left shoulder I spy 3 women. With even a quick glance I can tell that the one in the middle is hurting as much as I am and is possibly more miserable than I am feeling at that moment. As I turn to look ahead again, I hear their conversation. The one who is struggling is saying things like “I can’t do this. I can’t!” Her friends speak calmly and steadily: “Yes, you can. We’re on the second loop. You know you can because you already did it.” I can hear in the first woman’s voice that she’s almost crying: “No, I can’t run anymore.” One of the friends says, “OK, let’s walk to that second lamppost. Then we’ll run again.”
They slow down to a walk and so I get too far ahead to hear their conversation, but I’m about to cry, too. It’s not because I’m hurting (though that may have come out with the same tears). I’m admiring the power of friendship. One woman is struggling, her two friends are getting her through the rough spots. She can’t see her own capability right now, so they’re showing it to her. She wants to quit and it’s the very last thing her partners will let her do. That woman is going to finish the race, and she’s going to forever remember that her friends encouraged her when they were likely pretty tired themselves.
It’s enough for me to make it up that damned hill on the north end of the park again. I usually like to go slow up the hills and then fly down the other side. Now I accomplished the slow ascent, but I just can’t sprint down. Every step is hurting muscles and joints that just aren’t trained well enough for this course. I know that my time is going to be lousy but I am encouraged by the women who were helping their friend so I just move forward as best I can.
At mile 10 I try to convince myself that I only have a 5K left, and 5Ks are easy. But then I admit that they’re not easy when you have to do a 5K after running 10 freaking miles and I get stuck in my own head again. I can’t do this. Now, I know I’m going to finish, but I can’t run anymore. I think about walking for just a minute, but I know that if I stop running that I won’t start up again. So I make a deal with myself that if I run to mile 11 I can walk the last 2.1 miles if I want to.
I make it to mile 11 and I start to think about what I want to do. Run, or walk? Do I want a mediocre time or a completely crappy time? And before I can decide, what ends up being my favorite part of the race happens. Again over my left shoulder I hear something. I take a quick glance and see 3 women again. Different women this time. One has a pink cap, and one has a yellow one. The third woman is in between them. The women in the hats cheer for their friend, saying things like, “That’s it. Pump your arms. You are on fire! You go, girl!” The girl in the middle blows past them and me. I loved the exchange so much that I decide to butt in. I turn back to the two women in the hats and say, “I wish you guys were my friends. That was awesome!” They look a little confused, and then one figures it out and says, “Oh, we don’t know her. She just looked like she needed some help.” I smile and say, “That’s even better.”
I couldn’t believe it. Over 11 miles in of a really hard course, and 2 women are encouraging total strangers. It is amazing. I’m not walking now. No way. I decide that partly because I really want to put in my best effort and mostly because I want to keep up with these women.
The race continues and they keep going. They look for someone who is hurting (at which point they have several of us to choose from) and yell out something that makes everyone smile: “You look great! You’ll finish strong! You’ve done so much already, there’s just a little left!” At one point I slow down a bit and they just look at me and say, “Come on, let’s finish this!” Yes, let’s finish this.
|Finisher Medal! Pretending I'm not in pain.|
We make one last turn and can see the finish line in front of us. I am a few steps ahead of them. About 20 feet before the finish line I slow down just enough to let them pass me; I am honored to let them go and finish a step behind them. It’s the least I can do.
The race is over and we get our medals. I walk over to get some water and I see a pink hat and a yellow hat standing next to each other. Now, I NEVER talk to strangers. Hell, I rarely talk to people that I know. But this time breaking out of my introversion is easy. I go right up to them and say, “Hey, thanks. You two were awesome. I really appreciated your help.” They smile and look a little confused. They didn’t really realize what a difference they made. Finally one of them says, “No problem. That’s what this is all about, right?”
Right. Thanks ladies.