Today, I joined 6,200 other runners for the seventh annual Tar Heel 10 Miler in Chapel Hill.
John and I jogged from the Carolina Inn to the bell tower on the campus of my alma mater, the University of North Carolina (UNC); we met Steve Gray, our friend and a UNC gene therapy expert whose work makes me believe, just as the morning light touched the towering pines and the dew-kissed pink and white azaleas.
I’ve battled various injuries since early March, including a mysterious ankle problem for the past week, that have limited my training; I ran just 25 miles in April prior to today’s race, less than an average week for me in 2013. I didn’t know what to expect from this race, my fifth consecutive entry in the Tar Heel 10 Miler. Butterflies wrecked my insides as we waited to begin. But no matter what, I start every race with the intent to run faster than I’ve ever run before. One month ago, I ran the Charlotte 10 Miler in 1:17:49, a 7:46/mile pace. So after Steve and I saw John off for the four-mile run, I wished Steve good luck and found my way to the 7:30/mile pace group.
I got off to a quick start and stayed with my pace group for most of the race. But around mile six, I began to feel winded. I wondered whether I’d started too quickly.
As I hit a long downhill stretch close to mile seven and eased up to save my quads, I thought about my family at home in Charlotte. My parents and Taylor started the 150-mile trek to Chapel Hill on Friday evening, because they wanted to be there for me today. But when you’re fighting Batten disease, a lot can happen in 150 miles.
My family never made it to Chapel Hill last night; Taylor got sick around Greensboro, and they had to turn around and go home.
I hate Batten disease.
I know the Tar Heel 10 Miler course almost as well as my own neighborhood, but Laurel Hill always sneaks up on me. Laurel Hill, the 200-foot vertical gain that spans just under one mile near the end of the race, is a personal record (PR) killer. A lot of people walk it. Though I’ve come close to speed-walking the tough stretch, I always find a way to power through the hill (actually a series of consecutive hills). Last year, I ran Laurel Hill in 7:18.
But as I began the first steep climb, I felt a deep burn in my legs and my chest. I fought through the urge to slow to a crawl.
When I crested the first hill, I came upon a small crowd of supporters clustered at the top. Keep going, they said; keep pushing; you’re almost done. In the middle stood a woman clutching a poster that read, “Don’t stop believing.”
At that moment, it hit me: I’m going to lose my little sister, no matter how fast I run.
I’ll never know what quit on me – my legs or my heart. But there, under a canopy of trees and the bright, blue sky beyond, I walked for the first time ever in a race. And as I took long, deliberate strides toward the finish line, I cried behind my sunglasses.
I didn’t run my best race today, but I finished. The ghost of Laurel Hill behind me, I recovered to run the last mile in 7:18 with wet eyes. I floated through the stadium tunnel before sprinting onto the track for the final stretch, pummeling Batten disease every time my shoes pounded the rubber.
Though she proved too ill to travel to Chapel Hill, I felt my sister’s presence when I crossed that finish line at 1:24:11.
And I still believed.