The beginning of this year found me very frustrated. After six and a half years in graduate school I still wasn’t finished, and the end only seemed to be slipping further away as my time was eaten up by being a teaching assistant and many failed experiments in lab. The massive amounts of time on task not yielding results had me feeling very down. I needed a win—something where my time would give the results I was looking for. At the end of March, my younger sister Emily called me to tell me she had won a spot in the Marine Corps Marathon for this year. Emily is a middle/high school math teacher in Texas and had taken up running to deal with the stress from work. Within the past two years she had developed a love for running and had run several half marathons The MCM 2018 would be her 2nd full marathon. Emily knew I had been adding running into my exercise routine (I use that word loosely) to prepare for the coming summer hiking and climbing season. I’m not sure what made her do it, but she invited me to join her for the marathon.
I was on the fence. My dad was an avid runner when he was in the military, and I could remember when he ran the MCM when I was very little. I remember riding in the car with my mom to meet him on early morning training runs. Despite my dad’s influence, running was not something I took to naturally growing up. I was a chubby kid who preferred to read. I like playing softball and basketball but hated the running parts. I was in college before running really attracted my attention. Thinking about my dad’s accomplishments made me want to be a runner, and I tried many times to make running a regular habit. Injury and other commitments always got in the way. At best I was an on-again-off-again jogger with a marathon on her bucket list but no time on her hands.
My dad found out about my sister’s invitation, and then he made me an offer I couldn’t refuse: “If you do it, I’ll do it too”. After my dad retired from the US Army in 2011, physical conditioning became less of a priority and the comfy retirement pudge had set in. He had celebrated his 50th by running a half marathon with Emily, but nobody suspected he would want to do a marathon again. To run this race with my dad would be a once in a lifetime opportunity so I took it. On April 5, I told Emily and Dad that I was in.
The Marine Corps Marathon is also known as “The People’s Marathon”. It is the largest race in the world that doesn’t offer cash prizes to top finishers and is a very popular race for non-professional runners. Participation is capped at 30,000 people each year and most of those spots are given away by lottery. Dad and I had missed the lottery but could gain entry as charity runners. This is a common thing for a lot of bigger races. Charities are given or may purchase so many bibs and then attach a fundraising amount to them. You coordinate to raise money for a charity, and once your goal is reached, you are allowed to race. Dad and I spent a few weeks evaluating our options and settled on Team Red White & Blue, an organization whose mission is “To enrich the lives of America’s veterans by connecting them to their community through physical and social activity”. After my dad retired, my family moved from Fort Bragg, where we had lived since 1999, to Lexington, KY. I no longer lived at home but still witnessed how tough the transition from military to civilian life and to a new community was for my dad, my mom, and my younger siblings. My dad appreciated the impact of Team RWB’s mission, and their emphasis on making meaningful connections between people reminded me of the Corvias Foundation. Choosing to fundraise for Team RWB was an easy decision.
We dove into training with the primary goal being to develop a habit of running 3 or 4 times per week and a secondary goal of building mileage without injury. I took to my books. As I learned watching School House Rock as a kid, “Knowledge is power!”. I read everything I could get my hands on to make sure I was going into training the right way to avoid injury, and I went to free seminars at my local running store to learn more about efficient running form. Slowly as the information built in my brain so did my confidence and my new habit.
The second week of June my official 20-week training program and my summer of firsts began. I had never in my life ran more than 5 miles so each new distance felt like an accomplishment. I had only entered in 5K races before so each longer race I did while training was a new experience. The pains in my hips and knees were new and different. The hunger for post-run snacks and the post- long run naps were glorious! Even getting up early to beat the California summer heat was new and enthralling. Running and the lifestyle that goes with it had me feeling great both physically and mentally. I was proud of what I was pushing myself to do, and I was proud that I was rising to the challenge.
My dad and I fundraised together as Team Neutron. By mid-summer the initial excitement on our fundraising page had died down and I was growing concerned that we wouldn’t be able to meet our combined $1600 goal. Inspired by a friend who was also fundraising as a charity runner, I decided to offer incentives for donors. For a donation of:
- $10, you could add a song to my race-day playlist
- $25, I would dedicate a mile of the race to a service member of your choosing
- $50, I would send you an autographed post-race photo
- $100, I would send you batch of homemade cookies
- $200, I would send you a personalized surprise
These incentives worked in surprising ways. A cousin donated $50 just because she wanted the photo. A close friend gave $200 because she knew “a personalized surprise” was code for “I actually don’t know what I’ll do but I’ll come up with something if I need to” and she wanted me to have to come up with something. People were excited about being able to dedicate a mile and with each donation that came in, it was clear how much thought and care people were putting into their choices. With each new name to run for, the race became more significant. No longer was I running for myself but I was running to honor these people too.
By October 28, race day, we had met our fundraising goal, and my mom had embroidered the name of each servicemember on a ribbon for me to carry with me on the course. There were 25 ribbons, nearly one for every mile. I had the ribbons pinned in stacks of 5 on my camelback, and with each mile marker my dad and sister alternated reading the name from a new ribbon. We then took a moment to share whatever we knew about the person and their service. When the miles were getting tougher and we were getting more tired, reading each new name became a moment of reprieve from the race as we thought about someone else’s experience. With each new name was one mile less to go.
Around mile 20 serious muscle cramps set in and we slowed way down. We walked a mile and surrendered our goal time of 5 hours 30 minutes in order to cross the finish line together. I hadn’t done any step of this process alone, and I certainly wasn’t going to start at mile 20 of the race! We crossed the finish line in just over 6 hours and received our medals. We met our spectating team in the Team RWB charity tent and spent the rest of the day eating and celebrating. Dad, Emily, and I demolished a tub of Neapolitan ice cream after dinner and strategized on where it was and was not appropriate to wear our medals in the coming days.
Post-race and post-fundraising my life is not very different from how it was back in April when this whole adventure started. I’m still in graduate school, uncertain when I will finish. I am teaching a course this quarter, and things in the lab still don’t cooperate the way I’d like them too. Thank you notes and photos and cookies will probably sit on the back burner until after Thanksgiving, and tomorrow will actually be my first post-race run. How I feel about all of this is different now though. I feel more accepting of the challenges in school and lab and feel less like these challenges are the result of some personal inadequacy. Challenges are just part of a long road, and with a steady pace I can make it to the end.