Yesterday morning, I awoke to the sound of my alarm at 4:45, swung my legs to the side of the bed and braced for a shot of late February as my bare feet hit the hardwood floor in the silent, dark room. Ordinarily, I can’t bear the thought of rising before dawn. But I stood and walked to the kitchen without hitting the snooze button even once. I had a race to run for Taylor.
My husband, God love him, doesn’t understand this crazy race stuff but still dragged himself out of bed early enough to head to the race site with me and play on his iPhone in the relative warmth of his car for 70-some minutes while he waited for texted-in-stride instructions at mile marker nine to get to the finish line.
A few minutes after 7:30, I lined up with 333 other brave souls for the start of the first-ever Charlotte 10 Miler. I run the Tar Heel 10 Miler in Chapel Hill, NC on the campus of my alma mater every April, love it and couldn’t believe my luck when I learned that my hometown had gotten its own version of the wonderful but rare distance and – better yet – had chosen to put it almost in my own backyard.
At 7:55, the horn sounded.
Last year, I set a personal record (PR) for the 10-mile distance when I ran the Tar Heel 10 Miler in 1:24:00, finishing in the top 20 percent of the field.
Five days later, I injured my left Achilles tendon in a soccer game. I spent the next three months in a boot. Since then, I’ve run a grand total of one race – a 10K in the rural NC mountains last weekend. I missed last November’s Thunder Road Half Marathon for the first time in several years. Needless to say, I had no clue how I’d do in the Charlotte 10 Miler. And though the field was small, it was strong. My non-runner husband’s first words when we arrived were, “These people look serious.” So when I took off at the sound of the horn and let the cold air fill my lungs, I told myself I just wanted to run a respectable race in my little sister’s honor.
When I passed the first mile marker, the app on my phone announced my current pace – 8:35 per mile. I knew that put me close to my 2011 Tar Heel 10 Miler time (when I averaged 8:24 per mile) but didn’t think I could keep it up.
But even after I reached the halfway point, my pace held steady.
Around mile marker eight, the course cut through a neighborhood, rounded a bend and presented my fellow runners and me with the second-steepest hill I’ve ever encountered in a race (the steepest being Laurel Hill – a monster near the end of the Tar Heel race so notorious that it gets its own separate timing mats). And right then, my legs voted unanimously – without consulting me – to quit. Every muscle from my feet to my waist burned right down to my bones.
I thought about walking to the top of the hill. What harm could it do? With such a small field, I didn’t have to worry about the psychological tear-down effect of watching scads of runners pass me while I caught my second wind.
And then, just as quickly as the thought had entered my mind, it dissolved. In its place I saw a timeless image of my sister in her first 5K; falling, scraping her knees and palms; being given a chance to walk; gracefully turning it down; getting to her feet and finishing the race; running – not walking – across the finish line.
I ran up that hill, using my arms to propel my body when my legs refused. When I got to the top, I found my second wind. As I caught my breath, I sent my husband the promised text – “Get to the finish line!” – stowed my phone and picked up speed.
Taylor can’t run 5Ks anymore. But she is with me for every race I run. Never is that more apparent than when my body begins to fail me. I maintained a steady pace the entire race – except for the final mile. I ran mile 10 a full minute faster than any of the previous nine miles. I crossed the finish line at 1:26:10; I averaged an 8:37/mile pace, fell just two minutes short of my 2011 PR and beat half the field.
After the race, other runners talked about the hill that almost claimed me. Many thought it warranted a name, like the famed Laurel Hill. One runner suggested “Dead-endhaven Hill” (after a nearby street, Endhaven Lane).
My next race is seven weeks away, but my race to save children like Taylor from Batten disease never stops. The latter makes the Charlotte 10 Miler – even with a field chock-full of “serious runners” (in the words of my husband) – look like a walk in the park. But I know that I have to keep going – even on the days when the hills seem like insurmountable mountains.
Batten disease comes with a lot of pain. Our fight with this monster is far from easy. There will be many difficult days. But there are no dead ends.