I don’t normally run long races back-to-back, and after pouring all of my physical and emotional energy into running Charlotte’s Thunder Road Half Marathon blindfolded for the fight against Batten disease on Nov. 16, I planned on taking some time off before starting my 2014 race calendar with a 10-miler in February. But a couple of months ago, I won a free entry to the Huntersville Half Marathon from Théoden Janes, the Charlotte Observer’s pop culture writer. The race takes place just four weeks after Thunder Road, but when I won the entry, I thought, why not? It’d be a nice cool-down; a no-pressure way to end a great year for running.
I took the no-pressure attitude to the extreme. I dropped my training mileage to the bare minimum (12 miles/week). I never looked at the course map; I didn’t know a thing about the grade/elevation, turns or, well, anything. I ate junk food the week of the race. I stayed out late for a company Christmas party on Thursday night and got less than five hours of sleep on Friday night.
And then there was the tutu.
When I approached the Taylor’s Tale cheer station located at the final turn on the Thunder Road course with my sighted guide and the gene therapy expert from UNC in November, I heard the whoops and screams of about 100 cheerleaders, including 70-plus teenagers from Playing from Others, an incredible organization that is supporting Taylor’s Tale this year. After crossing the finish line a short time later, I learned that those teens, in a spontaneous, joint burst of inspiration, took off after us in their purple tutus, t-shirts, sparkle and glitter to surround us in the finish area, like a scene from a Disney movie.
When I had lunch with some of our friends from Playing for Others a couple of weeks ago, one of them, Madison Lynch, still had her tutu in her car. In a moment of enthusiasm/insanity, I promised them all I’d wear the tutu in the Huntersville Half Marathon for Taylor.
And then there was the rain.
I watched the forecast all this past week, and it only got worse. By Friday, the forecast looked ominous: 40 degrees at the start of the race, with a 100 percent chance of rain. I told one of my friends at the office that I’d probably look – and feel – like a drowned ostrich in that tutu.
But I don’t go back on my word. So at 6:30 yesterday morning, I put on my Coldgear tights and top-of-the-line Feetures socks, a base layer shirt and Team Taylor’s Tale shirt, the 4TAYLOR sleeves given to me by my sighted guide and his wife, and a hat to keep the rain out of my eyes. Last of all, I laced up the Brooks shoes that are overdue to be replaced yet carried me to the greatest sports moment of my life at Thunder Road four weeks earlier, and pushed them through a purple tutu that is most definitely not moisture-wicking, water-repellent or aerodynamic.
That tutu wasn’t designed for running, but it was a rock star at building awareness for Batten disease. During the race, I lost count of all of the water station volunteers and spectators who yelled, “Love the tutu!” or something similar when I ran by them. “Visit taylorstale.org to learn why I’m wearing it!” I yelled back. One mother watching the race with her daughter actually nodded and started typing something into her phone almost instantaneously. It felt good to imagine – to hope – she went to our site.
Most of the course snaked through neighborhoods decorated for Christmas, a change from the Thunder Road course that starts and finishes in center city Charlotte. It drizzled for most of the 13.1 miles, and for a short period, the rain poured from the front brim of my hat. But my legs felt strong, and I powered through the rolling hills. I got an extra burst of energy when I passed the 1:50 pace group and realized I didn’t feel winded at all (my personal record, or PR, for the half was 1:57).
Even with the rain, the end came too quickly. When I approached the 13-mile marker, I kicked it into high gear for my customary sprint to the finish line. I wish someone had a video of me sprinting to the finish in that tutu! And when I ran across the timing mats, the clock read 1:47:30:73. I’d beaten my previous PR by 10 minutes. In the rain. On junk food. On no sleep. On a course I didn’t know anything about. In a tutu.
I didn’t think the tutu would survive the day, but it’s not going anywhere. It will forever be known as the magic tutu. Because I’m one of those people who refuses to throw away the shoes that carried me to a great finish, even if I can stick my fingers through the soles.
I don’t know if it’s really a magic tutu. But I do know this: every time my muscles scream and my lungs burn, every time I want to walk to the top of a hill, I think about my sister; I think about how she ran the Thunder Road 5K from start to finish, and I think about how she faces the world’s worst disease with courage and grace. I think about those things, and the pain in my legs melts away, and my lungs fill with air, and I feel as if I could sprint to the top of the world’s steepest hill.
I know that yesterday, I ran a half marathon 44 minutes faster than I ran my first half marathon in 2009, and that I’ve gotten faster each year. I also know that as I’ve gotten faster on the wings of my sister’s courage, my sister has gotten sicker. I know that I will never, ever stop running for her. I know that I must never stop fighting until we cross the ultimate finish line for kids like Taylor.