On a cool morning in Chapel Hill, North Carolina last April, I arrived on the UNC campus for my fifth straight Tar Heel 10 Miler. I was the healthiest and fittest I’d ever been, and I was coming off a 1:17 PR for the 10-mile distance. I didn’t match my PR that day, but Team Taylor’s Tale ran well for the fight against Batten disease.
Sometimes it seems as if I’m always hurt, but I’ve never missed a race due to injury. Until today.
I’d registered to run the Tar Heel 10 Miler again. It would have been my eighth race since November. But I hurt my foot early in the Charlottesville Half Marathon two weeks ago (I kept running, finishing fourth), and I’ve been slow to heal. I made the trip to Chapel Hill this weekend, but not to run. My husband John promised me he’d carry the torch for my little sister. And for the first time today, I saw a race from the other side.
I saw the pre-race jitters of my friend, Chris, who runs for fitness but had only completed one or two 5Ks before today. Chris put an incredible amount of effort into preparing for the Tar Heel 10 Miler and had lots of questions for me about things like race prep, nutrition and what to wear.
I stood on the spectator side of the fence to talk to John as he got in a few final stretches for the start of his four-mile race, rather than the other way around. Instead of a race belt holding gels, I wore a black leather handbag. It felt weird.
After the gun for the four-mile race, I waited for the 10-mile runners to come through, then yelled to Chris as he crossed the start line. Then I walked around the central campus of my alma mater for 30 minutes, looking for a cup of coffee and wondering why so many things were closed. It dawned on me later that college campuses aren’t exactly crawling with customers at 7:30 on a Saturday morning. Those businesses had it right.
Coffee-less, I headed toward the finish line to wait for John. It felt strange to be on the outside of the fence lining the finish chute. As the four-mile runners started appearing and I looked for John’s purple Taylor’s Tale t-shirt, I thought about how many times he has done this for me–for much longer races and in far-flung places. When I ran the 13-mile Crater Lake Rim Run in August, kicking off my 50-state quest for Taylor, he ran the 6.7-mile race, caught a shuttle back to our lodge and drove our rental car back up the rim of the lake to the base of Mt. Scott, where the 13-mile run ended, so I wouldn’t have to wait for a shuttle.
When he appeared, my husband who doesn’t like running gave me the “thumbs up” sign as he ran toward the finish line. When I found him minutes later inside the stadium, he told me he’d wanted to walk part of the famous Laurel Hill, a mountain that almost claims my legs in the 10-miler every year. “It hurt, but I kept running for Taylor,” he told me. Then, he hung his heavy medal around my neck, even though I hadn’t run one bit of the course. “This is your race,” he said.
After John finished, we walked to downtown Chapel Hill for coffee (campus stores were STILL closed!) and headed back toward the finish line to wait for Chris, who’d told us he expected to finish in about 2:10. On the way, I stopped to take a photo of the azaleas bursting around the Old Well like pink flames, and I remembered a day 11 years ago when my little sister stood in that spot and tried to balance my too-big graduation cap on her head.
Back at the finish line, I saw runners walk the last few lengths and sprint for the end like their lives depended on it. I saw a husband and wife pair I’d known in college before they started dating. I saw a couple finish the race together, hands clasped. It occurred to me that I’ve never run a race with John, maybe because I’ve always been so focused on my times. How much have I missed because of that?
I saw a blind runner and his guide finish the 10-mile race in about two hours. My eyes watered in the sun as I thought about my sister, who can no longer walk but whose courage as a blind runner still inspires me in all that I do.
Then came our friend Chris, almost exactly when he’d said he would. Chris finished just one minute off his predicted time, even though he had no Garmin or running app to track his pace. Watching him cross the finish line was an awesome thing, because I knew how hard he’d worked to get there.
This was a tough one to miss, and when I had to cut our time on the town of Hillsborough’s Riverwalk short this afternoon because of foot pain, my frustration with this injury grew. But at the same time, I’m glad I got the chance to see things I would’ve missed had I run the 10-miler this morning. I liked playing the role of cheerleader for once. And I know that while my foot will heal, my sister isn’t getting any better. Batten disease continues to rob little pieces of her every day. While I couldn’t run my favorite race, I should be grateful that I was able to walk around the UNC campus and see the beauty of spring today. Taylor doesn’t have those things.
Like our fight to build a better future for people like Taylor, this quest to run a race in all 50 states is a marathon, not a sprint, and I have to think about the journey ahead, not just today. I don’t know how well my body will cooperate, but I’m determined to get better. North Dakota is next!
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