I’ve been an athlete for 20-plus years and still have blue ribbons won for the 50-yard dash at my elementary school’s field day (my house may look spotless at first glance, but behind the closet doors, I’m really a packrat). But I didn’t enter my first road race until the year I turned 24, a few months after Taylor’s Batten disease diagnosis.
As has been my track record of late, I did (almost) everything wrong leading up to this morning’s Charlotte 10 Miler. I strained my calf on a long run on the first Sunday in March, and the injury put me out of commission for almost two weeks. I eased back into running (the only thing I did right), and my longest run leading up to the race was a whopping three miles at a 10:00/mile pace. I got a nasty head cold this week and popped Mucinex D like candy all weekend. I went to bed after 1 a.m. the night before the race and grabbed a solid four hours of sleep before my alarm sounded this morning.
But when I got to the race parking lot, I felt good. The weather couldn’t have been better. The forecast called for rain by mid-morning, but at that early hour, the sky was streaked with fire as the sun stretched and yawned low in the sky. I followed my friend Andrew’s advice to take a few warmup laps in an attempt to break my string of slow starts.
I shot out of the starting area, and for the first mile, I kept up with the race leaders. I felt bad when Théoden Janes, the Charlotte Observer’s pop culture reporter who also writes about running and has a popular Facebook page called Run with Théoden, passed me, but then I reminded myself that he qualified for Boston and has a personal running coach. I kept a steady pace; after three miles, I realized I’d just broken my PR for the 5K distance – and I still had a lot of gas left in the tank.
Andrew, who guided me to the finish line when I ran Charlotte’s Thunder Road Half Marathon blindfolded for Taylor in November, was waiting with a cup of water and a dose of encouragement at the mile four water stop. I coasted through and kept going, my pace still holding steady.
It wasn’t until mile eight that I lost time. I entered a neighborhood with two consecutive hills that, today at least, made the Tar Heel 10 Miler’s famous Laurel Hill feel like a molehill. My legs and my lungs burned. As I rounded the first corner and came to the second hill, I said aloud, “You. Will. Not. Walk.” I envisioned my sister, at home, fighting with every bone in her body. And I didn’t walk.
Andrew found me on the last mile. He reminded me how close I was to breaking my PR, but I already knew. I smiled at my friend and guide, and I kept running.
That’s when my little sister jogged up beside me on legs that, once upon a time, ran two 5Ks. She turned to me and said, in a voice lost to Batten disease, “You remember how to fly.”
Less than half a mile later, I sprinted into the final stretch and across the finish line for my best-ever 10-miler time by two full minutes: 1:17:49 (7:46/mile pace), good for 60th overall and second in my age group. Robbed of my regular aerobic capacity by all of the junk in my system from the head cold, I gasped for air as I bent to my knees just past the finish line. My husband and my dad, there to watch me finish, asked if I was okay.
“I’m okay,” I said. “I’ve just never run that fast before.”
As I limped out of the finish area with my first race medal of 2014 around my neck, I thought for a second, maybe that’s as fast as I can go.
But I know it’s not. And I know that when I lace up my shoes for the next race in less than a month, I’ll try to beat myself again.
Some days, when our fight against Batten disease gets really tough, I think that maybe we’ll get to a point where we’ve done all we can do.
But deep in my soul, I know that point doesn’t exist.
Because regardless of how our story ends, there will ALWAYS be another Taylor. There will always be another family like ours. So no matter how many hills I have to climb, no matter how much my muscles ache and my lungs burn, and even if I have to finish this race alone, I’ll be damned if I’m going to come this far only to stop short of the finish line.