by Angie McDermott
July, 2009 – Austin, TX
It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. The jack hammering continued on the left side of my forehead, as I long for my lovely salad days that have long sense wilted into rotting, smelly leftovers shoved to the back of the refrigerator.
So there I was 49, recently divorced with two adolescent children and I’m in bed contemplating my life as I dealt with my first shingles attack on the upper left side of my swollen, disfigured face. Heartbroken. Defeated. My body had all it could take and simply served up a disease that would stop me in my tracks. The last three years had been a nightmare as I watched Jeff, my “forever guy”, slip into the abyss of addiction and surrender to its edges. A painful divorce followed and seven months later he was in the hospital fighting for his life. The crushing stress led to my outbreak. Jeff died ten months later.
It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. “Gratitude….I must focus on gratitude,” I told myself. So, I started making a list of the things for which I was grateful – my almost daily practice during my soul-searching days leading up to the divorce. Max and Mackenzie, my children, were always at the top of the list, followed by my large supportive extended family, loving friends, and dear colleagues. Even this well-worn list could not comfort me now. I needed new. I needed happy. So, I started to make a list of things that I loved to do – things I jettisoned out of my life when just making it through the day seemed like a miracle. Running. I had always loved to run. On Sundays, I would sneak away to jog a three-mile loop around the lake, which became my sanctuary – my place to recharge and regroup. I had always wanted to run a marathon, but had never quite gotten around to it. I grabbed my computer. To my amazement, the Austin Marathon was scheduled for February 14th – my 50th birthday seven months away. It felt like a sign…a big blinking neon sign…”THIS IS YOUR MARATHON!”
I immediately signed up for a training program with Rogue that would start in early September. I liked the name…it fit my newly found attitude. One night a week I would gather with my small running group at a nearby high school for a “quality” workout. Saturdays we would run with all the other small groups for a long run. I hung back with some of the ladies around my age. We were chatty, slow and steady. The 30-something men were always ahead. The more I ran the stronger and more confident I became. I started keeping up with the guys. Warming up one day, someone suggested I should try to quality for the Boston Marathon – every woman/man’s Olympics. I shrugged it off as crazy talk, but then checked it out. At that time, I needed to finish before 4 hours and 10 minutes. I would have to average a 9:32 pace. It started to feel possible. What if? Ten-mile long runs turned into 14, then 16, then 18, and then 20. What had seemed impossible started feeling doable….not easy, but doable. My initial goal of “just finishing healthy” slowly shifted to qualifying for the Boston Marathon my first race.
February 14, 2010 – My 1st Marathon in Austin, TX
I was a nervous wreck that morning. The kids and I stayed at a downtown hotel so that they could watch me finish. It was cold…low 40’s – perfect marathon weather. What was I thinking when I put on a singlet, two long sleeve shirts, AND a jacket? I started out with the four hour pace group. Feeling crowded behind the pacers, I went out in front for some space. When I looked over my shoulder a mile or so later, they were no longer in sight. I had made two classic rookie mistakes – going out too fast and over dressing. My temperature continued to rise as I struggled up the hills. At the halfway mark, my pace group passed me up as I threw down one of my long sleeve shirts….sweat soaked it slapped to the ground. Another layer of my life peeled away. I saw my coach at mile 18. He had that “Oh my, she looks awful” look. My brother met me at mile 20 to run me in. I burst into tears as I saw him. For the next 6 miles we played “what doesn’t hurt.” “My ear lobe doesn’t hurt.” “Does your nose hurt?” Max met us at mile 25. He pleaded with me to speed up. “You only have one more mile, Mama.” It felt like 20 miles. I missed qualifying for Boston by 4 minutes and 13 seconds.
Mad, defeated, and in need of the medical tent, I finished. Lying on the cot with my loving family (mother, siblings, children), around me, I was hooked. While my marathon goal was not reached, I had achieved something far greater. Running had helped heal me. I reclaimed my life, my power, and my strength.
January 30, 2011 – Houston, TX
I qualified for Boston a year later in Houston. Seconds after crossing the finished line I was escorted to the medical tent (again!) by two adorable young men. I had made my qualifying time with seven minutes to spare.
April 16, 2012 – Boston, MA
The day before the race, organizers were sending emails warning us of the heat. It was to be the second hottest Boston marathon on record. (The record was set in 1905 when the temperature reached 100 degrees.) Our wave started at 10:40 am. The temperature was 87 degrees. I dedicated the race to my father who died 40 years earlier on this day. I’m not sure if it was the heat combined with my amped up emotions or if it was real, but almost every dead person I knew visited me during the race. My father showed up first within the first six miles. “Not now, Daddy. Wait until I need you later on. “ Jeff, my ex-husband who died two years earlier showed up next. We had a long closure discussion. I pleaded with him let me go. “Please let me go.” It was then that I realized it was ME that needed to let go. I struggled to breath through my weeping, grateful for the sunglasses that concealed my tears.
We kept running. I hit the wall before the base of Heartbreak Hill at mile 20. My heart broke again as I climbed the one mile hill. So much had happened, so much grief to carry. So, I let it go. I just put it down. It was all I could do to move forward. As I made it to the top of the hill, I spotted a group of adorable young men cheering everyone on with enthusiasm. I needed a little of that energy so I jogged closer to them to receive my high fives.
My death march with my dead relatives continued for the next five miles. In my mind’s eye, they (my ex, both grandmothers, my grandfather, stepfather, and uncles) were on their feet in the grandstand cheering me on with much enthusiasm. Relieved to be finished, I stumbled forward. A kind volunteer wheeled me into the medical tent. Reeling from the emotion of the day, the tears continued to flow. As always, my biggest fans – Max and Mackenzie waited outside the tent. I missed re-qualifying by three minutes, but the Boston Marathon became my new symbol of strength and healing.
Fast forward to today. Max, Mackenzie and I are thriving. We’ve come a long way since the dark days of 2009. We are strong, persistent, and powerful. Life has opened up for us in new and magical ways. I re-qualified for Boston twice in 2013 with a personal record in Austin and again in New York (and finally no longer in need of the medical tent).
My first Boston marathon played a pivotal role in my healing. It feels so right I’ll be running the 2014 Boston marathon to be part of the healing from the tragic events of last years race. I’ll be proudly and fearlessly wearing bib number 23242.
As I top Heartbreak Hill this year, my heart will be healed (well mostly). It turns out that the adorable young men on the top of Heartbreak Hill were Boston College boys. Max, a freshman at BC, will be among them as he and his new buddies cheer me on. As I see his sweet face at the top of the hill, we will celebrate for just a moment before I race off to finish what we started. Perhaps it was supposed to turn out like this all along.