The Ghost of Laurel Hill

By Laura Edwards

photo (7)Yesterday morning, I woke with the sun to run the Tar Heel 10 Miler in my little sister’s honor for the fourth consecutive year.

I’ve already collected four race medals for Taylor in 2013, but this one is special. The Tar Heel 10 Miler was just the second competitive race I ever entered; I paid the entry fee for the April 2010 edition not long after watching my sister – blind and suffering from a rare, fatal brain disease – jog across the finish line of Charlotte’s Jingle Jog and Girls on the Run 5Ks on one end of a running buddy’s guiding rope and the wings of her own courage.

The Girls on the Run 5K, staged on a sun-drenched, happy day in May 2009, was Taylor’s second race. It was also her last.

Batten disease has stolen so much from Taylor since it crept into her life that the word “unfair” doesn’t begin to do the job. The ability to run is a precious gift that too many of us take for granted, but my sister has lost many more valuable things.

I wish I could make Batten disease go away. I wish I could work magic – go back in time and give Taylor two good copies of the gene that causes Batten disease or even one good copy (which would make her a healthy carrier, like me). But I can’t.

So I share her story in my own words – both spoken and written. I help support the people who have the knowledge to find answers for children like her – people like Steven Gray, PhD of UNC’s Gene Therapy Center, to which¬†Taylor’s Tale awarded a two-year grant earlier this year.

And I run.

On Saturday morning, I followed the brick sidewalks to the football stadium nestled in the trees on the same campus where Dr. Gray works his magic for children like my sister and where I earned my undergraduate degree. I lined up on the track at field level with 3,253 other runners. When the gun sounded at 7:30, I found an opening in the crowd and sprinted through the stadium tunnel and into my 10-mile mind game.

The Tar Heel 10 Miler, set mostly on the gorgeous UNC campus, has some tough sections, but none come close to Laurel Hill, the 200-foot vertical gain over the course of about one mile at the 8.5-mile mark. It’s so difficult that the race organizers place separate timing mats at the bottom and top and hand out special awards just for the hill, and many self-respecting athletes speed-walk it. I’ve never walked, but I’ve come close.

end of tar heel 2013 I went into Saturday’s race riding a streak of four straight personal records (PRs) for the half marathon, 10 miler, 5K and 10K that started at the Thunder Road Half Marathon in Charlotte last November. Even though I’d beaten my previous 10 miler record by two minutes just two months earlier at a race in Charlotte, I was determined to beat it again.

But when I reached the first Laurel Hill timing mat, things didn’t look good. My quadriceps burned, and worse – I felt winded. I never get winded. I was riding a 7:45/mile pace through the first 8.5 miles, and it’d taken a lot out of me.

As I started the climb, a voice in my head told me it wasn’t my day. I shouldn’t have eaten the sweet potato fries at Top of the Hill the previous night. I shouldn’t have stayed up till midnight watching the Boston Marathon bombing coverage. As I wheezed my way up those 200 vertical feet, I told myself that WHEN I cross the finish line isn’t important to Taylor (which is true). As my Garmin watch beeped its “Behind Pace” beep, again and again…I began to write my post-Tar Heel 10 Miler blog post in my head. I called it, “I Lost My PR and Found My Truth on Laurel Hill.” I talked to myself over my wheezing. “You can do this,” I breathed. “Forget the stupid PR. Just RUN.”

But then, something happened. My quads loosened. The tightness in my chest melted away. The houses perched at the top of Laurel Hill came into view.

For most of the race, I used my Garmin as my guide. I ran for Taylor, but I ran more for myself.

The moment I understood that is when I left the Ghost of Laurel Hill behind.

It seemed like just moments later that the stadium reappeared. I sprinted into the tunnel, down the track and across the finish line.

When I did, the clock read 1:20:48.

I beat my PR for 10 miles by almost two full minutes and ran the Tar Heel 10 Miler four minutes faster than ever before. I finished in the top 16 percent of 3,253 runners. And when I crossed that finish line, I felt as if I could fly.

Almost like I had wings.


.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.

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!