On Saturday, I ran the Tar Heel 10 Miler in Taylor’s honor for the third consecutive year.
I awoke to the sound of my iPhone alarm and my friend’s guest room clock playing a heinous duet – I’ve never been able to bring myself to trust a single alarm to do the job pre-dawn – before 5 a.m. I dressed by the light of a single lamp and inked my sister’s name in block letters on my left arm with a purple marker, packed for the occasion. I ate my traditional pre-race breakfast – a bagel with cream cheese and a fruit smoothie – in the dark, silent kitchen. I swung my Explorer’s headlights out onto Orange County’s rural roads before 6 and drove about 30 minutes from my friend’s home in Hillsborough, NC to a parking lot tucked beneath the watchful gaze of the Dean Smith Center and the Kenan-Flagler Business School on the campus of my alma mater, the University of North Carolina. I checked and re-checked my pack for my license, credit cards, health insurance card (it’s never a stretch to assume I’ll get injured), car keys and sport jelly beans. Satisfied, I began the 10-minute walk to Kenan Stadium to join 2,734 other runners for the 7:30 a.m. start, led by 2012 U.S. Marathon Olympic Trials champion Meb Keflezighi.
When the gun sounded, I inched my way around the stadium track amidst the crush of bodies. As soon as I reached the tunnel leading out of the stadium, I took off.
Around mile three, I got awful cramps (I never get cramps after three miles). The course seemed hillier than usual. I wondered if the other runners nearby could hear my breathing. But I kept going.
Over the first five miles, I recorded a 7:50/mile pace. I knew that if I kept it up, I’d smash my personal record (PR) for 10 miles – 1:25:27, recorded in the 2011 Tar Heel 10 Miler – and my previous 10-mile race time – 1:26:10, recorded in the Charlotte 10 Miler in February of this year. And oddly – though physiologically I’m better suited to sprinting – I tend to finish distance races much more strongly than I start them.
Around mile seven, things got a little uglier. My bum ankle (sprained about six weeks earlier and never fully healed) complained. My hamstrings and quads screamed. My lungs burned. I cursed myself for not getting more sleep (I didn’t turn out the lights till after 1 a.m.). And the notorious Laurel Hill – a 0.8 mile climb near the very end of the course that is so punishing, it gets its own separate timing mats at the bottom and top (because scaling Laurel Hill quickly warrants serious bragging rights) – still loomed.
When the first Laurel Hill timing mat came into my field of view, I think I audibly groaned. I wanted to walk. Normally I can run 10 miles (and farther) non-stop without any issues, but I’d really pushed myself for the first eight-odd miles of the race, and I could feel the effects.
At that very moment, I glanced down at my feet; as my eyes traveled downward, I happened to see the message inked on my arm: “4 TAYLOR.”
I churned my legs and arms up that hill. I ran it a good bit more slowly than last year, but I MADE IT. And soon enough, mile marker nine came into view. The end was near! I experienced a wave of emotion at that moment – relief that my exhausted body would soon have water and a cool metal stadium bench, and disappointment that my favorite race in the whole world – and the high I get from running for a cause in which I so deeply believe and for a little girl I love so much, would soon come to an end.
I ran the final mile in 6:28 – my fastest of the entire race.
When I approached Kenan Stadium, I slowed long enough to stuff my sport beans safely into my pack and remove my hat so I wouldn’t lose either during my customary dash to the finish line. As I burst through the tunnel and into the sunlight that soaked the stadium, I broke into a full-on sprint. All of the pain in my muscles was gone, and I was no longer tired. At that very moment, I felt as though I could run another 100 miles.
One hour, 25 minutes and 34 seconds after crossing the start line, I crossed the finish line. I missed my PR by a mere seven seconds – amazing considering the length of the race. I briefly regretted the precious wasted seconds outside the tunnel just before the end of the race, when I slowed to take off my hat and put my sport beans back in my pack.
And then, just as quickly, I dismissed the thought.
I finished 722nd out of 2,735 overall (men and women), putting me in the top 26 percent of the field. Yes – I came agonizingly close to setting a new PR – but I had a fantastic time missing it, raised awareness of Batten disease and honored my little sister, who once told me she dreamed of walking that campus as a student someday.
God built me like a sprinter, but the fight against Batten disease is a long and difficult race. Outside of my finish line dashes, I’ll never stand out in a distance race field, but if my times show anything at all, they show I’m consistent. And I’ll never, ever stop fighting this fight. I’m in it for the long haul, no matter how many Laurel Hills we face.
To honor Taylor and support the fight against Batten disease, I’ll make a donation to Taylor’s Tale’s Miles to a Miracle campaign. Please consider making a gift, too! Click here to visit my page; scroll to the ‘Support My Cause’ section at the bottom to donate. Thank you for your support!