The Search for the Invisible Finish Line

By Laura Edwards

My Charlotte elementary school held an annual field day competition – for me, the highlight of the year. Back then, I spent many recess periods reading novels in the shade of the old campus’ stately oaks, too introverted to insert myself in the hopscotch and foursquare games and friendship bracelet-making parties of the other girls. But when field day rolled around, I showed up in Umbros and a t-shirt, handed my thick glasses to my teacher and smoked all of my classmates in the fifty-yard dash.

Charlotte Soccer Club gameThroughout my soccer career, I wasn’t always the most talented player on the field, but I was almost always the fastest. As a right midfielder, I loved to sprint down the sideline with the ball at my feet, beat the defense to the corner flag, wait for my teammates to catch up and curl a cross back to the top of the box for a shot on goal. I never led my team in goals scored, but I often led it in assists. During the spring of my senior year, my high school coach moved me to defense; prior to each game, he instructed me to mark the opposing team’s fastest player.

My best friend on my high school and club soccer teams could juggle the ball till the sun went down; I couldn’t juggle the ball for more than five seconds. But I had a killer cross, could throw the ball farther than most of the men’s team, and could outrun the whole conference. If I’d run track, I’d have specialized in the 400. And on the soccer field, I made my living as an athlete.

Nearly 20 years after I took home my first blue ribbon for the 50-yard dash and 14 years after I first stepped onto a sweet-smelling, freshly mowed soccer field, I learned that my little sister likely wouldn’t have the opportunity to chase her own dreams. After her Batten disease diagnosis, Taylor ran two 5Ks. But she last crossed a finish line in May 2009. And today, that singular moment feels as if it happened in another lifetime, to another family.

When doctors discovered the fatal flaw in Taylor’s genetic makeup, I ran to escape it. When adrenaline coursed through my veins, I felt unbeatable. Rather than turn to alcohol or drugs in an attempt to blur the sharp edges of my family’s tragic turn, I became addicted to running.

But Batten disease didn’t tire easily, and it became clear that we had a long fight on our hands. One morning, in a moment of perfect clarity, I realized that I wouldn’t find salvation at the end of a 50-yard sprint. So I did the only things I knew to do. I gathered all of my stamina. And I reinvented myself as a distance runner.

After passing the 13th mile marker during my first half marathon, I wanted to quit. My lungs burned. A fire raged in the soles of my shoes. A soccer player accustomed to sharing a field with 21 others, I discovered at that moment that running can be a very lonely sport – if you let it. But then, I rounded a corner and came upon a gray-haired lady sitting in a lawn chair on the side of the road. As I approached her, her eyes met mine. A look of understanding crossed her face; at that moment, I believe she understood me better than I understood myself. She smiled, put her hands together, and yelled, to me and only to me, “You can do it!”

finish line

I probably overtook 100 people in that final .1 mile, sprinting at full speed through a tunnel of spectators under a clear winter palette dotted with the skyscrapers of uptown Charlotte.

About five months later, I entered a spring race held among the blooming dogwoods and azaleas on the campus of my alma mater; in just under 90 minutes, I jogged through the tunnel and onto the oval circling the field at Kenan Stadium, where my legs found new life and carried me past almost everyone and across the finish line of the Tar Heel 10 Miler.

The races have gotten a lot easier since I christened my long-distance career. Despite a sore Achilles, I finished in the top one-fifth of the field in the Tar Heel 10 Miler this past April. A couple of weeks ago, I went out and ran 13.1 on a beautiful Saturday afternoon – just because I felt like it. But our battle with Batten disease – our search for the invisible finish line – has gotten more difficult with each passing year. Sitting here now, writing these words on New Year’s Day, I know that 2012 will be, without question, the toughest test yet.

I also know, from experience, that it is indeed possible to accelerate when, moments before, you thought you had nothing left to give. And I know that no matter how painful or exhausting it may be, I must be faster in 2012 than I have ever been before.

Yesterday, I ran 10 miles in my last personal physical challenge of 2011. My time for the first mile? 10:01. For the tenth mile? 7:24.


.1 to Go

By Laura Edwards

In July 2007, one year after T’s diagnosis, I began training for my first marathon, which I planned to run in her honor. That September, I set a new personal record for distance with a 17-mile training run. Two weeks later, I pulled out of December’s Thunder Road Marathon with a foot injury.

One year later, I took it down a notch and registered for the half marathon. A series of family crises that fall affected my training; a month before the race, another injury led me to pull out of the half. On the morning of the Thunder Road events, I instead started the Jingle Jog 5K with my sister and her Girls on the Run team. Twenty-odd minutes later, I arrived at the finish line; 30 minutes after that, a triumphant Taylor crossed the finish line carrying the Fletcher School team sign with her coach, a few teammates and her running buddy, Mary-Kate.
This year, I again registered for the half marathon, but nagging pain in both feet, chronically weak ankles and a hectic autumn prevented me from training the way I would have liked. This time, though, I was determined to stay the course, even when a podiatrist plainly told me the morning prior to the race that my feet and ankles were a train wreck, and he didn’t want to tell me not to run, but…
And so it was that I found myself giddy in the crowd of 9,000 runners at 7:50 a.m. this past Saturday.
I started out at a moderate pace, as I always do. God didn’t build me like a long-distance runner – I’m a more natural sprinter – and I have to constantly remind myself to conserve energy. After the first few miles, though, my happy little endorphins took over, and I coasted for awhile. Then, at around mile five, the pain set in – throbbing pain and a fire burning in the balls of my feet (which take constant punishment, as I run on my toes) and tightness in my arches. By mile eight, I was the runner the onlookers lining the streets of Charlotte had to encourage to grind it out.
At mile 12, I split off from the marathoners to run the last 1.1 miles of the half course. It helped me to think about that last mile in terms of laps around a track. I told myself I only had four laps to go – easy. After what felt like two laps, my eyes began searching in vain for Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd., where I knew the race ended.
The mile 13 marker was within sight when I first considered walking. Then, I remember, a woman – no, an angel – standing on the sidewalk told me, “Once you turn the corner, you’ll be able to see the finish line.” And at that very moment, I remembered what Mary-Kate, Taylor’s running buddy, had said to me one year prior at the Jingle Jog finish line. When my blind sister fell and scraped her knees on the city streets, Mary-Kate told me, she asked her if she wanted to walk for a bit. Taylor, though, just shook her head, pulled herself up off the ground and started to run again. She didn’t set any records that day, but when my sister crossed the finish line, she was running – just as she was at the completion of the Girls on the Run 5K this past May.

As those visions of Taylor running flickered through my mind, I turned that corner and, just as the woman had said I would, I saw the white banner stretched out above the finish line.
Even as my body begged me to stop, I shook off its pleas and, feeling Taylor’s courageous spirit coursing through me, I sprinted the last .1 mile to the finish.
Like T that day at the Jingle Jog, I didn’t set any records in the running of my first half marathon – my fourth road race ever and, by eight miles, the longest. But that feeling I got over the past .1 mile was something I’ll have for the rest of my life.

Taylor King, Sixth Grader

By Laura Edwards

I’ve been officially mired in my longest stretch between posts since I started my new blog in February; the Charlotte summer has arrived – along with its trademark, near-unbearable humidity – and I think it has fried my brain.

I haven’t written about T in awhile, so a quick update: she “graduated” from elementary school the first week of June and officially became a middle school student. At the moving up ceremony, her teachers recognized her for her “inspirational attitude” and her “amazing accomplishment of learning Braille.” Well said.
Every time I see T lately, I’m shocked all over again at how quickly she’s growing up. She’s getting tall. She has a crush on a boy who’s not on the cover of a Disney album, but rather a real-live classmate, and she’s already talking about this fall’s sixth grade dance. I see her thinking often, the way she does – she gets real quiet and still and tilts her head as if to train her gaze on something off to the side, though her gaze is unseeing. Sometimes I want so badly to know what’s going through her mind, to understand what it’s like to have the things happen that have happened to her. But then I would have to have Batten disease.

I don’t know what is going through T’s mind day in and day out, but I think I have an idea of what’s in her heart.
Tears sprang to my eyes as T’s friend guided her up the steps to receive her fifth grade certificate on moving up day. Really – how many parents cry at these things? And I’m only the sister – the sister who sat with the dad in place of the mom who was on another continent trying to save her daughter’s life.
I’ll never step back, evaluate my sister’s life and decide that she has had her fill; I can’t say, “well, she made it to sixth grade and learned Braille and ran two 5Ks, and that’s already beating the odds;” it will never be enough, and I’ll never stop fighting for more. By that, I don’t mean to detract from the blessings that have graced the first eleven years of her life. I am so thankful for those. And, since I’m on the subject of moving up day and achievements and growing up, my heart goes out to those angels who have been a compass for T, who have encouraged her and loved her and carried her – and her family – when we could not walk. T is our angel; you are hers. Stick with us awhile longer – we have more miles yet to walk for this girl.

The T Zone

By Laura Edwards

This Saturday, Taylor will run in her second 5K when she joins her Girls on the Run teammates at Charlotte’s Latta Park for the culmination of their spring program.

The expression on T’s face as she crossed the finish line of the Jingle Jog 5K this past December with her running buddy, Mary-Kate, is still fresh in my memory. The bungee cord that connected them was T’s lifeline that day. For me, it symbolized hope: proof that nothing – even a disability like T’s – is cause enough for giving up on a dream.
T has a lot of fans, and while I know you’ll all be there in spirit on Saturday, she needs some of you there in person. The Packers have the Cheeseheads. Duke has the Cameron Crazies. Michigan State has the Izzone. If you’re in Charlotte this weekend, please consider coming out to Latta Park and forming a cheering section for T – call it the T-Zone. Then, watch her finish the race. When she crosses that line, you’ll understand the magic that is her story. And it’s not just her story, not really. Rather, it’s the story of any girl who’s ever overcome an obstacle, discovered her own gifts and embraced them.
The race starts at 9 a.m. on Saturday at Latta Park in the Dilworth neighborhood. Click here for details.
Go, T, go!