“Keep showing up.” – Des Linden, has become the mantra that repeats in my head over and over and over again, especially as of late.
I have been keeping myself very busy with my new career path and the start of a new marathon training cycle in preparation for Philly Marathon this fall. There sometimes seems to just not be enough hours in the day to get everything done. I do my best and have, so far, been finding my way; except in preparing for this one little race.
The Pittsburgh Liberty Mile.
I had every intention to prepare for it and attempt my fastest one mile PR (6:56 or better) but I simply let LIFE get in my way. I’ve kept running. Daily, in fact, in accordance with my run streak pact with a friend, but I did not incorporate any kind of organized speed training at all. As race day fast approached, I began to experience that fear and doubt. I told myself that “It’s just one mile, it really doesn’t matter if I don’t show up.”, and in reality, it’s not like anyone would have missed me at this event. I didn’t even tell many people that I was even going. But as the day arrived, I knew that I could not NOT show up. It’s simply not in my nature to back out of anything that I have committed myself to. So my Honey and I made the drive to the city and I did my best to look on the bright side. It IS only ONE MILE. I am fully capable of running a fast ONE MILE split despite the fact that it would not be a PR for me. (I honestly believed 7:20 might be my current fitness level for the mile.) But then, the most incredible part: I came to realize that this particular race is set up completely in reverse of any other race that I have run. The kids mile, pup walk, and recreational runner waves go off FIRST. Then the qualified heats: MASTERS – ages 40+ that have qualified with a sub-8 min mile, UNSTOPPABLES – ages 14-39 that have qualified with a sub-8 min mile, PRO Men – capable of running a sub-4 min mile, and PRO Women – capable of running 4:40/mi or better. This would mean that I would be able to run my race and then actually be standing there at the Finish Line to watch the Pro runners finish their race. I have never had this opportunity before as all of the Pro runners I have raced with have always been assigned to the corral ahead of me, started the race before me, and then finished well before me. So I was actually pretty excited about this part.
Once I arrived, however, the nerves really started to take over. I reached out to a friend of mine and he replied with an incredible “pep talk” that he had written previously but which most definitely applied to me this night:
“1. You begin with little more than hopes and fears. How you finish, depends on which you choose as your fuel.
2. When you realize you cannot outrun your fear, you stop inviting it to the race.
3. It can be a competition or celebration. With one, you stand a good chance of not winning. With the other, you never stand a chance of losing. Choose to celebrate it.
4. Be ready for the storm, but always expect the sunshine.
5. Physical preparation brings you to the start. Mental preparation brings you home. Both are necessary.
6. Strength is required for the climb, but first, you must believe youself capable of reaching the summit.
7. If you run carrying doubt, you will find signs which give you reason to further doubt. If you run carrying faith, you will find signs which give you reason to further believe.
8. Weakness only finds a foothold when you forget how strong you are.
9. If you dare open yourself completely to the challenge, you will find the pieces buried within you made for but one purpose: to overcome.
10. The greatest respect you can demonstrate is to offer no excuses.
11. Being grateful is not a singular act, it is a way of being.
12. You once did this for the sheer joy of it. If that now is your only reason, it is enough.”
– Tony Garcia
I stepped into my corral with his words echoing in my mind. I still felt very out of place. I have never been in a qualified heat before. There were not many of us there. There was so much room to move; almost too much. I had to take some deep breaths and calm my pounding heart.
I then realized: I just might be the absolute last person to cross the finish line from this wave. My husband lovingly said,”So what? You were still good enough to be in it.”, and he was so right. Despite feeling wildly out of my league, I was simply happy to be there; and yes, – I had earned my space in this place.
I caught sight of someone I knew and performed some strides alongside him to warmup. As we stood near the Start Line waiting for the gun to go off, I came upon another friend that I knew. It was comforting to see a familiar face. An older man, who had to be in his mid to late 70’s, walked up beside me and confessed “I am so nervous right now. If I don’t run under 8, I’ll not only be disqualified, but I’ll have to prequalify at another race to get back in here next year. I’m not sure I can do it.”. I smiled at him and said, “Then let’s do it here tonight. And don’t worry, they can’t sweep us if they can’t catch us, so…”, 🤷🏻♀️and we laughed. We wished each other luck and took off with the gun, running down the middle of Penn Avenue.
I ran as fast as I could while trying my best to stay in control. “Breathe easy”, I kept saying in my mind but it was hard not to get caught up in the rush of the runners beside me. At the quarter mile split I saw the clock: 1 min. 30 seconds. (A 6 minute mile pace.) We made the turn onto 11th Street and at the half mile split my watch told me I was running 5:35/mi.. I made the final turn onto Liberty Avenue and realized that there were not many people around me anymore. The majority of the pack had pulled away and moved ahead. There was a female ahead of me that I gained upon quickly. I noticed that she picked up her pace as I moved up alongside her and a part of me wanted to back off, just let her go, but I couldn’t allow myself to do that. I focused my eyes forward, found the next female runner ahead, and pushed my pace to try and catch up. My legs felt like lead, however, and I started to slow. My lungs were on fire, my throat was burning, and I was experiencing the worst “dry, cotton mouth” that I have ever known. It would have been so easy to allow myself to back off, to let my pace drop further, knowing that I was already certain for a sub-8 finish time, but the words of my friend echoed in my mind:
“The greatest respect you can demonstrate is to offer no excuses.”
Just then a woman’s voice cried out from the sidewalk : “Keep going, you’re going to break 7!”.
WHAT??? I might actually be able to PR this race! I dug deep and pushed my pace.
I could see the Finish Line and hear the announcer. As I got closer, my vision focused on the clock that read 6:59. I crossed the line just 3 seconds later at 7:02.
“THE GREATEST RESPECT YOU CAN DEMONSTRATE IS TO OFFER NO EXCUSES!”
This lesson applies to everything; in running and in life.
As the week went on, I felt the weight of the world heavy upon my shoulders again; being subpoenaed to testify in court regarding a case that I was the lead Paramedic on this past winter. All the bad emotions that I have been doing so well at leaving behind came flooding back with tremendous force. I couldn’t wait to be finished with this, to get back to my new job with my positive, supportive team, and leave all of the negativity of the “EMS Life” behind me again. When I got back in the office, it was like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders and I could breathe again. This is how I know I am right where I need to be and definitely on the right path towards a better future.
As the workweek ended, I came upon a FaceBook post about a local race being run this weekend. “Will Of The Warrior” 5K Run, Walk, or Ruck. My mind drifted back to a woman I had met in March of this year. She had approached me as I was sitting in the Ambulance outside of a Subway restaurant where my partner was buying himself dinner. She told me about this nonprofit organization that she had helped to established that seeks to encourage and support military veterans as well as local police, fire, ems, and first responders through physical activities such as boxing in their gym or relaxing on their pontoon boat with no monetary price tag attached. I was skeptical at first as, in my experience, nothing in life is ever “free” and very few people actually do things “out of the goodness of their hearts”, but she assured me she was neither looking to benefit from nor profit off of this endeavor in any way. She explained that she has seen and felt the effects of stressful situations herself and we realized that our lives had both been impacted recently by a mutual friend’s very serious suicide attempt. There were tears and hugs and a heartfelt exchange of encouragement between us before we went our seperate ways. Now, just hours after I read about this local event, I received a private message from her asking if I would run her race…”Will Of The Warrior”?
Of course I will.
I arrived at this event not knowing much of anything about it. Also, not knowing for certain if anyone I knew would be running. I rarely have difficulty finding SOMEONE I know at a local race though; and wouldn’t you know it, as I stepped out of my Jeep, the man parked in the space next to me was one of my favorite running friends. As we were hugging our hellos, two other friends we knew came walking up, and then another, and yet another. It had been entirely too long since any of us had seen each other or ran together. This was shaping up to be a really good day already!
We picked up our bibs and made our way to the opening ceremony. This was a spine tingling display for me, as they explained the meaning behind this organization and event.
The “Will of the Warrior” Program is associated with a local boxing club and is “dedicated to assist disabled veterans and first responders to recover both mentally and physically from their missions. “…guiding each Warrior to gain the 3 most important elements of all champion boxers: a healthy body, mind and spirit.”
More than just the physical, though, they spoke of the “invisible wounds” such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD. They went even further to address the similarities between Military Veterans and local Police, Fire, and EMS Responders; connecting us all by way of our drive, our focus, our characteristics, as well as, the hardships that we all face as a result of the work that we do and the things we have seen/done. I felt my heartbeat quicken, my throat tighten, and my hands began to shake. My mind flashed back to that day in April of this year when my counselor finally addressed “the elephant in the room” because neither one of us could deny it anymore.
This has always been something that I have associated with Military Veterans and heroes returning home from wars and large scale catastrophic events, but never with myself. However, the symptoms I was experiencing could no longer be denied and had escalated to a level so far outside the normal pattern and progression of “grief” over the loss of my parents. That did not make this diagnosis any easier to accept though. It was (& still is, at times) hard not to feel “weak”. To me “PTSD” is a label; and I hate labels. I refuse to let any one thing define me. PTSD is not who I am; it is simply something that I am going through. PTSD is not what I want you to think of when you hear my name or see my face; it is simply a speedbump along this journey of my life, something that I have experienced but am overcoming each and every day. It is not who I am at the very core of my being. Therefore I have been, and will continue to do, everything in my power to change my course and overcome this very real, very “human”, issue. I say it this way because that is exactly what it is. If you have ever experienced these things it does not mean that you are “sick” and you certainly are not crazy; you are simply HUMAN. The kind of human who feels things, deeply; most likely an empath who not only feels and fights your own emotions, but who absorbs the emotions and heartaches of those around you. The people with whom you come in contact with, encounter in an emergent situation, or do your best to help physically, mentally, or emotionally. All of these things take their toll. All of these things bring with them a heavy burden of emotional weight. “Crumbling” beneath the weight of such things does not make you “weak”. Finding your way to stand back up beneath this weight, however, most certainly makes you “strong”. THIS is what “Warrior’s Call Boxing” strives to do and what this “Will Of The Warrior” event was created for – to connect the community and encourage all of us to keep moving forward, despite the challenges that we face in our day to day lives.
It was a challenge to hold back the tears as the organizers spoke, the National Anthem was played, the bagpiper played “Amazing Grace”, and the pastor prayed for us all.
My friend standing beside me, whispering words of strength and encouragement is something I will not soon forget. Running this event as a representative “Team RWB”, he explained that this is their mission, as well:
“…to enrich the lives of America’s veterans by connecting them to their community through physical and social activity.”
I have several friends that run/race for this organization but I had always believed you had to be military to be one of them, as most of my friends are. I discovered that this is not the case; civilians are also welcome to join; afterall, CONNECTING people through physical and social activity is the mission. If members of our society are excluded because they had not served our great nation on a military level, a division/separation could be the result which would, obviously, defeat their purpose. For those of us who were unable to serve, perhaps this is our way of giving back? Of giving thanks? Of helping and serving those who dedicated the best years of their lives to protect us, our homes, and our freedoms? As I often say, “I can not LOVE this enough!”.
We made our way to the Start Line and, in true runner friend fashion, wished each other luck and lined up to each run our own race, whatever that may be for this day.
Again, I have not been doing any organized speed training or hill workouts for strength. My marathon training for this fall has only just begun. I know this course well, having run here in training but never have I raced here. It is notoriously Beaver County’s most difficult 5K. I decided to simply run my best, pacing myself through the hills and aiming to remain steady so as not to tire out.
The gun went off and so did we.
Running the first hill, the masses passed me by. “Be patient”, I told myself and, as the course changed from pavement to grass, I picked up my pace accelerating towards the trail through the woods. I passed the majority of people who had taken off too fast by the 1/2 mile mark. I played “leap frog” with a pair of teenage boys who looked like they could crush the majority of the field if we were running a quarter mile on a track right now. I listened to them talk to each other as they tried to figure out how to face the ginormous hill ahead of us. They slowed to a walk and I patted their backs as I passed them by, “Pace yourself through the hills then push the pace at the end.”, I told them.
I did the same; slowing my pace on the biggest and longest, seemingly unending hill of this course. I reached the top and thanked the volunteers who were stationed there, handing out cups of cold water. I chose to take a small sip before dumping the rest of the cup on my body. The sun was high and it was already hot and humid.
I crested the hill, made the turn, and started up the next hill, knowing that a long, steady downhill “break” awaited me just ahead. It was a glorious moment, too, allowing my body and heartrate to recover as I “coasted” down that hill and allowed myself to catch my breath. At the next turn around, I caught sight of the first female ahead of me, ponytail swinging. I had seen her take off at the gun and it occurred to me now that she is quite possibly the only female left ahead of me, as all the others had fallen off pace before the first trail in that very first mile. I kept this woman in my sight but continued to run my own race. The two teenage boys that I spoke of earlier now passed me as my watch beeped in at “Mile 2”. The boys called out to me this time, “Keep going, you’re doing great!”. I thanked them and said “I’ll meet you at the Finish Line!”.
The course began to climb again as that previously “long and steady downhill” is now being run on the “long and steady” UPHILL. I felt my heartrate begin to rise and, in order to forget about my own pain, I started to look ahead at every runner coming down the hill towards me. I smiled, I waved, I made eye contact and brought many in for the classic high-five “power up”. There’s no better feeling than watching the pain of a runner’s “race face” transform into the smile of relief when they realize that they are not alone in this moment. We are all hurting here, but that is never a reason to ever give up.
As I approached the crest of this hill, I shifted my focus forward and realized that the female I had seen ahead of me was now DIRECTLY in front of me and her pace had slowed tremendously. I called out to her as I passed, “Don’t stop now, you’re almost there. .30 mi left to go!”. As I said these words, a seemingly weightless runner flew past the both of us on our right; another female, running with a beautiful stride. “Get it, girl, you got this!”, I called out, impressed that I had never even heard her approach. I opened up my own stride on the downhill, catching up to the woman, and she matched my pace. We encouraged each other on the uphill by the Old Economy Park barn as Station 47’s ladder truck was extended, the American flag on proud display.
“We’re almost there!” she cried out, reaching for my hand. “.20 mi and one more hill.”, I replied, as she groaned and immediately backed off our pace. I made the final turn and started pumping my arms. “Open it up.”, I told myself, “Always finish strong.”.
As I climbed the final hill and the orange cones marking the Finish Line came into sight, I heard the cheers and the voice of the announcer saying “Let’s hear it for the first female finisher!”, and they clocked my time as I tried to stop without stumbling. I looked around and then looked back, no one else had crossed the line beside me. Event staff retrieved my bib tag and I realized they were talking about ME! For the first time in my entire running life, I was the first female finisher! I checked my watch and realized, with total satisfaction, that I had run this course several minutes faster today than I had ever been able to run it in training. I put it all out there and could not be more proud of my performance on this course. I ran “smart” instead of just “fast”; something I have rarely been able to accomplish in a 5K race.
I saw the teenage boys I had run with earlier and we congratulated each other on the race. I watched the 2nd and 3rd females cross the line and congratulated them, as well. My friend (Team RWB) powered up that final hill and finished his race and the celebrations continued.
He and I jogged back down the course, encouraging and high-fiving the tired, sweating runners as they made their way to the end of their race.
We took turns running alongside a few, helping them find their second wind in order to power up that hill and cross the Finish Line. This is quite possibly my favorite part of the race. To fall in step beside someone and make certain they know that they are not alone. It never fails; you see them dig deep, pick up their pace, and finish the race with a strength they did not even realize they had. It’s an incredible moment and bearing witness to this transformation is an experience that is second to none!
The sense of camaraderie and celebration grew as we all stood in attention and cheered for the final ruckers to bring the race to its conclusion.
As if all of that was not fun enough, the after party and cookout immediately followed!
As we ate, drank, and played, the “heaviness” of the opening ceremony was notably relieved from my soul…yet, I couldn’t help but think of how incredibly symbolic this race course was to this particular event. As a runner, you really have to dig deep, pace yourself, find your “why”, find your peace, and summon up your innermost strength in order to finish or this course will beat you down. The same is true in life when you consider the ups, the downs, the peaks, and the valleys that each and every one of us face in our own lifetime and journey. It is then that I realized the quote that had been placed upon our bibs for today:
“Our ability to handle life’s challenges is a measure of our strength of character.” – Les Brown
And I couldn’t agree more.
I have been coming to realize, more and more, in recent weeks that where I am now is exactly where I am meant to be. This moment, right here, right now, is all that matters; and so long as I remain present in this moment, I will always be in position to give or receive exactly what I need or that which is needed by someone else.
So, again, in the words of my favorite female runner, Des Linden: “Somedays it just flows and I feel like I am born to do this; other days it feels like I’m trudging through hell. Every day I make the choice to show up and see what I’ve got, and to try and be better. My advice: KEEP SHOWING UP.”.
#WillOfTheWarrior5K2019 #OutRunTheDark #ChasingBoston #ForTheLoveOfTheRun