On the first day of September in 2012 I woke to a damp, dark morning. I had slept poorly, as I always do the night before a momentous event, and my hands shook as I donned my running clothes, drank my single cup of coffee, and took a few nervous bites of my pre-race bagel with peanut butter. Even though I still had time, I couldn’t write in my journal, a daily ritual, because my hands would not stop shaking.
Finally I left the house, all my essentials packed into my running belt—phone, ID credit card—the morning eerie and still as I pulled away from the curb to make my way downtown. I looked back at the darkened house one last time, mentally saying goodbye to my still-sleeping husband and daughters, wondering if they would wake up in time to meet me after the race.
After arriving downtown and parking on a side street, I realized I didn’t know how to get to the starting gate. Soon enough I saw other women, their spandex and headphones suggesting they were headed to the same place. And so I followed them.
Morning light barely illuminated the grey morning as finally we approached the starting line. It felt as if I’d turned a corner and found myself at a rock concert. Scores of animated women paced, chatted, and jogged in place on the packed street. Within seconds of working my way into the crowd, hands and legs still unsteady, the countdown began, blaring over a loud speaker.
Like a car on a backed-up freeway, I couldn’t run so much as shuffle in the dense crowd. But as my adrenaline picked up, I eagerly wove around other runners, a bolt of energy pushing me forward. I was increasingly irritated when I couldn’t pass someone, suddenly determined to make good time—even though I swore I was only running this race to see if I could.
Somewhere around mile three a few familiar faces jumped out from behind a tree—my two younger daughters and my husband. My adrenaline surged again, and off I went.
As I continued along the route, my stamina didn’t seem to flag; all that nervous energy seemed to channel itself into my feet, and even though I didn’t run fast, I kept at a steady pace, slowing down when I needed to recharge. I’d pass women I’d seen earlier, only to be passed by them a few blocks later.
My husband and daughters made at least two more cameos before the finish. I wasn’t jogging so fast that I missed their delighted smiles, or the girls’ unbrushed hair—but it wasn’t a school day so it didn’t matter. I felt the love, and it gave me energy, especially during the last couple of endless miles.
As I rounded the last curve near White River Park and pushed myself to the finish, pop music blaring across the overcast morning, I realized I was going to make it. Sure, my body ached and I felt like I might never walk again, but by sheer force of will, I pushed myself over the line.
When I look back on this memory now—five years have passed—it seems an apt metaphor for any undertaking that stretches and nudges us beyond what we thought we were capable of. At that time in my life, I ran regularly, but had never challenged myself to run more than six or seven miles, at least until I started training for this, my first half-marathon.
I did it because I wanted to prove something, but only to myself. I knew instinctively that having a concrete goal would help me achieve my aim, which, at the time, was to honor a regular running habit despite the many obstacles I faced at home and professionally. Running was my therapy: my time to be alone, to think and process, to feel my own strength and endurance when so often I felt their lack. Signing up for the women’s half-marathon reminded me this was important: I needed to keep running, even on days when it seemed impossible.
Although I haven’t run a half-marathon since, having done so changed my perspective. I often travel back to that day in moments of self-doubt, remembering the rush of crossing the finish line, and the joy I felt when I hung my finisher’s medal around my neck, my family supporting me all along the way.
While running a race is not exactly an original metaphor, it has carried me the distance over the few years since. I’ve finished many things I might not have even started otherwise, because I learned how to put one foot in front of the other—and I realized that even difficult goals can be reached in that straightforward manner. One step at a time.
As I contemplate my next big goal—completing the final edits of my novel, and then beginning the process of finding it a publishing home—I think back to that race, and remind myself that the only way to cross the finish line is to lace up my shoes and get back on the course.
Time to write like a runner.