The Finish Line November 07 2014

The Finish Line

Run a one-mile loop - yes, the same one-mile loop – 26 times.

That was how I chose to spend my Saturday, November 9, 2013 at my first NJ Trail Series “One Day” event – literally running… in circles.  To the uninitiated, it may sound a little nutty.  But, like any endurance athlete, I justified what I deemed true “loopy-ness” - I planned to only orbit 26 times, some signed for a 12 or 24-hour spin cycle.

I entered “One Day” as a woman on a mission to break through a mental barrier that I felt had been holding me back for months; one I feared would paralyze me in the future.  And, I’m proud to say, barrier broken and mission accomplished!

But, before I can truly talk of that triumph, I have to tell of the tragedy that brought me to that moment:

April 15, 2013 - I had the chance to live my lifelong dream of running the Boston Marathon.  As a born and bred Bostonian, I was 5 years old when I first saw the historic finish line.  Our through-the-woods neighbor, Pete Gill, a sub-four hour racing member of our Air Force, was running.  My parents and I, along with our next door neighbors, Bob, Carole and their sons, went to cheer him on.  

We went to the finish line for years, long after Pete and his family moved away.  We didn’t go just to see the Elites, but stayed for the “Unexpected Finishers” – the marathoners who were making it across on sheer will alone.  You know, those people for whom a well-timed “You can do this!” could make the difference between stopping and soaring.  And, in 2013, nearly 35 years since I’d first watched, I wasn’t going to be spectating at the finish line, but finally crossing it – and there were not enough words to express how just that sheer fact made me feel.

As added excitement – I was running Boston as a proud member of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training, a cancer charity to which I have given my effort and energy for years.  I was marking this milestone in memory of my “beloved Bobs”, who had bravely battled, but lost the war, against leukemia.  One of my “beloved Bobs” had cheered alongside me at that very first finish line – my “second dad” and my parents’ best friend.  Sadly, he wouldn’t be there to see me cross.

The last time I spoke with Bob was October 14, 2012.  My mother said he'd had a rough go and wasn't in the mood for talking, but when I rang his hospital room, he answered.  He genuinely sounded as pleased to hear from me as I was talking to him.  After joking about the food he used to force on me as a kid, and still did as a visiting adult, I told him I was going to run the Boston Marathon to find and fund a cure for the cancer that was killing him - and would he mind if I did it for him.

Bob got very quiet.  Choking back tears, he said he was honored.  Crying myself but hoping to lighten the mood, I said I expected him to be out at mile 16 with mid-race fuel of salad sandwiches which were easier to eat while running than pigs’ feet.  He laughed and said if he could, he would… but he passed two weeks later.

As I walked to the start line, on April 15, 2013, all I could envision was crossing the finish.  And then – 25.02 miles later – I learned I wouldn’t… because the finish line was no longer there.

I can still hear the garbled, yet startlingly coherent, words “explosion at the finish line” coming from a police officer’s radio as I ran past him at mile 24.3.  The statement stopped me dead in my tracks.  “Huh?” I asked.  And the cop, now running past me, said, “You’re not getting to the finish line.”

Hearing, but not fully understanding, I looked at my Garmin and said, “No, I’m right on pace!  I’m nowhere near being swept.” and I kept running…  Then, .2 miles later, the gravity of the words hit me like a ton of bricks.

Now, I ran because I feared my family was harmed or worse and, if God forbid that was the case, I needed to know and know now.  I last saw them back at mile 17 – they said they may not make it to the finish line because my not-yet-two-year-old niece was near done with the day.  Starting back into my run, I joked, “I may not make it to the finish line either.”  I got an eye-roll as a response.  I was kidding then; now, it was not at all funny.

I kept going until mile 25.02 when a soft-spoken, kindly-faced police officer held up his hands and calmly repeated, “Stop.”  So I did as he said – I stopped.  For over an hour, two of my teammates and I cramped up, cooled down and contemplated our futures on the curb that was now our finish line.  

For months, no matter what I was asked about the Boston Marathon, I immediately answered, “25.02”.  That number was branded in my brain and, no matter the circumstances that stopped me short of the finish line, I felt I had failed – and I feared I’d lack the faith to try any mileage past 25.02 again, because I seriously worried about what might happen if I did. 

The NJ Trail Series “One Day” was the chance to redeem my faith.  It was a way to prove to myself that finish lines can still stand and to start to heal so I could focus on finishing Boston 2014, not 2013. 

New to one-mile looped racing, I didn’t know what to expect.  Would I feel like a hamster running in a constant circle to nowhere?  Would I be bored by the never-changing sights?  Would I even break out of my own Boston-mired-mind to appreciate the people and places along the way?

However, what I truly didn’t expect was what would be was exactly that I needed to move on.  After getting the pesky .2 miles of the regulation marathon out of the way, we started on the one-mile loop.  And each time – and I’m embarrassed to admit that it took me four times through to realize this – we ran through the finish line to start the next.  Each time I made the turn towards the 4H building, right past the guys with the entertaining signs, there the finish line stood.  Its message: “I’m still here and I’ll be here when you get back.”  And each time, without fail, it was.

Just knowing that relaxed me, and I began to enjoy the journey, as I had the first 24.3 miles of the Boston Marathon.  My heart and mood lightened, and my pace slowed, as I talked to friends I made along the miles – a woman named Carole for whom that marathon was her 252nd; another named Ada who, in her first four months of running, had completed a marathon, a 50K and was now on her way to 83 miles in 24-hours; and Clifford, a math genius who gained speed and stride from the four-syllable mantras he shared.

When we approached our 26th loop, and mile 25.02, I braced myself – and my pace partner Maria – for what may happen.  The finish line could breakdown, I said, or maybe I would.  Joined now by our friend Ann, I shared my story and my fears, but kept running.  We got halfway through my final loop when I could finally admit what had been weighing so heavily on my mind for months – the guilt that my family had been put in harm’s way because of me.  I stopped and covered my face with my hands, reliving the terror I’d felt not knowing their fate.

Right then, we were passed by our faster friend Dave who yelled out, “This is your marathon.  Run it in and finish it.”

So, like the Boston cop who told me, “Stop”, I again did what I was told – I ran it in and finished it.  And, like the previous 25 times, there the finish line stood strong, welcoming me like an old friend back from a hard fought battle. 

Bring it on, Boston 2014 – I’m now ready to run.