I’ve been at a loss for words to write about my experience with the Chicago Marathon. I’ve written, re-written, and spewed incoherent sentences onto many pages. Nothing felt right. I felt like a failure for not reaching the finish line and I couldn’t find an honest way to write this. I wanted to be okay with the experience and inspire many with a profound piece. I wanted to talk about all the awesome that happened during the race, but forget about the pain and struggles. I wanted my story to be different.
In the midst of this, I turned to my favorite book and inspiration for my blog, Rising Strong, by Brene Brown. In this I was reminded,
“Our job is not to deny the story, but to defy the ending – to rise strong, recognize our story, and rumble with the truth until we get to a place where we think, Yes. This is what happened. This is my truth. And I will choose how the story ends.” – Brene Brown
So friends, I’ve rumbled with the truth of my story and here it is. Stick with me, it’s a long one.
There is something special about race mornings. As we walked to the start, the streets of Chicago were flooded with runners – yet it was quiet. Everyone flowed together in the pre-dawn darkness, each thinking about the adventure that was about to unfold. Start lines buzz with the quiet energy of untold stories.
As I waited in the Athletes with Disabilities (AWD) start corral, the excitement of the moment began to hit. The streets were huge, but for that first mile there were only 50 or so AWDs on the course. I’ll never forget the feeling of running over the first bridges almost alone, to random strangers cheering us on.
I can’t explain how, but every cheer I heard felt genuine and true. I smiled and thanked the spectators and in those brief moments of eye contact, I felt a connection. I believed their messages of motivation and belief in my abilities. My cheeks were sore from smiling before I even hit mile 3. The spectators in Chicago were incredible sources of distraction for me, especially as things got tough.
Approaching mile 5, my Achilles started cramping, causing my foot and toes to curl under. The one thing I hadn’t accounted for in Chicago were the uneven streets. I stuck to the outer edges of the roads for my safety, which was where the pavement was most uneven. My Achilles was so overworked from trying to stabilize my foot that it was seizing up. Not a super great sign for only 5 miles in, but a quick stop into an aid station helped ease the pain enough to keep my foot straight.
I saw my friends just after this, and my energy was renewed briefly from the endorphin rush of their cheers. After this though, things got rough. Fast. My spine was feeling compressed and radiated pain to the surrounding muscles. My right shoulder muscles I had been struggling with hurt on an entirely new level. The slightest tilt of my head sent a shock of pain down my neck and shoulder. It felt like my entire body was buzzing and on fire simultaneously.
I dug deep and gritted it out along Lake Shore Drive, simultaneously fighting back tears and smiling to thank the supporters and fellow runners that continued to call my name and cheer me on. This distracted from the agony that was slowly consuming my thoughts.
My coach met me at the aid station at mile 8 and walked with me for the next two miles. Throughout these miles I kept thinking of my honored heroes, the reasons I was out there. I was ready to fight, just like they do, to get as far as I could. I’m really not sure how I got through those miles, but I do know my coach’s positive energy and comforting talks made me believe I could do it. It could not have been easy for her to walk alongside me and watch as I struggled, helpless against the pain. Yet, she kept my mind clear, told me to dig deeper than I’ve ever gone before and reminded me it was okay to cry as I fought back tears. Together, we made it to mile 10.
I spent the next 30 minutes at the aid station, laying on a cot while icing my spine. My team manager arranged with one of my friends to get my second crutch to me, since it was clear I was not going to make it to mile 14 to pick it up like we had planned. I got the all clear from the medical staff, who trusted I knew my body, but also reminded me that I needed to put myself first if things got bad again.
By the time my second SmartCrutch arrived I was feeling fairly rejuvenated. We gathered my things and finally ventured back onto the course. A bittersweet moment of victory for me. My team manager stayed on the course with me and walked alongside me until we reached mile 12, where we picked up more MDA staff members, volunteers and an honored hero to join us on the course. It was a special moment to have so many people walking with me, supporting me every step of the way.
I stayed comfortable enough to grind out the next 4 miles at a moderate snails pace, with my “village” of supporters helping me with water stops and taking in fuel. My family also joined us on the sparsely populated course for a few miles and my village grew. Around mile 15, the familiar pain had started to creep its way back in. My legs were painfully tingling and my back was radiating constant pain. Many breaks on the curbs of the now empty streets of Chicago were needed to give my body a break from the war gravity was waging with my joints.
I headed separate ways from my MDA team around mile 16, and continued on with just two of my friends at my side. From here on out every step was a battle. The pain was consuming and constant, but lessened when I sat down – which indicated to me I had not reached my “danger zone”. However, the breaks I took were starting to help less and less. The moment I would stand again, the tingling and radiating pain would come back. My crutches helped relieve some of this pressure, but nothing I could do completely alleviated it.
I took my coaches advice and started to dig deeper and deeper than I ever have before. Before that day I had never gone further than 15 miles in training, and the furthest I had continued pressing on with this type of pain was 3 miles. By mile 20, I was now 5 miles further than I ever had gone and had been gritting it out through the pain for 14 miles and almost 8 hours. Relentless forward progress. I still had visions of finishing.
Until mile 21. I’m not sure how it started, but the pain intensified and I felt trapped. I walked that last mile fighting back tears every single step. I was irritable and had a rumbling of what I knew might be on my horizon. Knowing I was struggling, my friend suggested we stop to sit on the next curb for a break.
The tears I had been fighting back the last mile flowed freely as I broke down on that final curb. I was tired of fighting the pain for so many hours. My body felt electrified with constant waves of pain and my spine felt crumpled. My friends sat on either side me while I cried, and we talked about what needed to happen next. My head and heart wanted so badly to reach that finish line. Yet, the thought of getting up off that curb to take another step terrified me. I couldn’t make up my mind. Press on, or call it a day.
Still crying, I called my coach. We talked about the situation and she gave advice out of a place of love and belief in my strength. I think I knew what I had to do after that phone call, but I wasn’t ready to admit it yet. Still crying, I realized the only voice I wanted to hear next was of my best friend, who lives in Boston. I called her and she answered right away. She could not have been expecting me to call in the state that I was in, but she went all in, listened compassionately and gave me solutions to both sides of the decision.
About this same time a Chicago Marathon staff had stopped on the road in front of us. My friends explained my situation and they offered to call medical transport. All of a sudden my decision needed to be made. I cried harder, and my best friend gently told me the words I needed to hear. Finally, I had made the toughest decision of my life. To stop my marathon at mile 22, after over 8 hours of effort.
After hanging up the phone, I sat on this random curb on a bridge in Chicago, surrounded close by my friends and cried for the loss of my goal to finish the race. My dream had ended. I felt weak and uncourageous. My supporters had helped me raise over $5,700 for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, and I wanted to show them that they put their belief in the right person. But I was tired. Tired of fighting the pain, tired of a body that never cooperates, tired of my mind being stronger than my body, just plain tired of it all. My heart was raw with a vulnerability I had never shown so many people.
“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.” – Brene Brown
I felt like I had let everyone down. I wanted to be the person that overcomes obstacles AND finishes the race. I didn’t want to just be that girl that tries really hard. I wanted my goals achieved. However, I know I let no one down. No one is disappointed in me. I would move mountains for my honored heroes and that day I went as far as physically possible for them. These emotions are still raw, but I know with time they will soften into a gentle pride of my strength to enter the arena and dare greatly.
“The credit belongs to the man in the arena […] who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt
My coaches, family, friends and teammates all rallied around me with words of support and pride in what I accomplished. I was met back at our team gym by my coaches and team managers, long after everyone else had gone home. They made my journey feel complete. They congratulated me, shared some tears and gave comforting words of closure on my race. One of my coaches reminded me that it took more courage to decide to stop the race, than to decide to continue – and that was really the closure that I needed. Yes, I was sad, but I was also brave.
“We will all struggle and fall; we will know what it means to be both brave and brokenhearted.” – Brene Brown
So that’s my marathon story. It’s not perfect. It’s full of pain, vulnerability, tears and struggle. But it’s also full of hope, strength, love and the humbling power of many people believing in my dream. I can’t deny the hard parts. This is my truth. But this is not my ending.