Miserable and Wonderful! Those were the first two words that come to mind for marathon #2 of 50 Gifts of Freedom in Virginia Beach, VA.
The road to VA started before the 50 Gifts Project was born. I was signed up to participate in the Whale Challenge for Shamrock race weekend which was a combination of an 8k (about 5 mile) race on Saturday and the marathon on Sunday. Once the project had started is seemed very fitting that I would be in Ainsley's hometown for race #2, surrounded by several Ainsley's Angels teammates that I have met through the Ainsley’s Angels organization as well as friends that I ran the Marine Corps Marathon with last October. This race weekend landed on my birthday weekend, and I was just coming back from a very uplifting journey to Oregon where I had learned so much about perseverance and inner strength when it came to marathon running. I was paired up with an amazing Athlete Rider, 19 year old Gage, whom I had met at Marine Corps Marathon. It was set to be a fabulous weekend!
Friday we arrived to Virginia Beach and headed straight to the race expo where we were able to attend a seminar with Bart Yasso from Runner’s World Magazine. Bart is an amazing runner, very humble, and just all around nice guy. After he was finished telling us all about some of his journeys he opened the floor for questions. One of the runners in the crowd asked if he had a “mantra”, a thought or process technique commonly used by distance runners to help keep them focused, especially during difficult parts of a race. Bart answered, “No, I don’t. I let each race speak to me.” He elaborated on that explaining that he has learned through his many races that there is always a different thing which inspires him during a marathon: the thought of an inspirational quote someone shared with him, a song lyric, or a person running alongside and chatting with him during each race. There is always something that comes up which brings him strength during the tough mental times of a race. Little did I know how this answer would impact me during this weekend, but more on that later.
Saturday morning Gage and I lined up for the start of the 8k in the front of the pack. Gage knew it was race day and was ready to roll! The plan was to take it easy Saturday and use it as a warm-up for Sunday's marathon. It was a cool and windy morning but the sun was shining and we had the wind to our backs for most of the race so between the wind and Gage's enthusiasm I blew across the finish line with a personal record for an 8k! We had a short time to celebrate as Gage and his family had to go and I had to warm up and start focusing on the next day. Most races may have pizza or bananas after the race, but Virginia had a nice warm pot of beef stew awaiting us at the finish line.
All morning the chatter had been about the weather system that was coming in. The temperature was predicted to be at least 20 degrees colder with stronger winds and rain. I was not prepared. I scraped together what I could which was still not enough, so I made a trip out to see the Rossiter family who were able to provide me with some new (warm) Ainsley's Angels gear, and I was as ready as I could possibly be.
The rain and wind blew in overnight and I was thinking Gage's family might would want to opt out of race day. I was afraid of being cold but at least I would be moving! Gage would be stuck in the chair in possibly puddles of cold rain water. His mom assured me early race day morning that they would be there, Gage had a rain suit, they were coming in at the very last minute to stay as warm as they could. I headed out to our meet up place early and the ugly weather was everything they said it would be. Sheets of rain mixed with sleet were pouring from the sky, the wind was so strong you had to lean into it to keep from being blown backwards. This was crazy. I was crazy. No one should be out in this, let alone strapped into a wheelchair for who knows how long. I started to text Gage's family several times to tell them to just stay home but I figured they knew him best and if they thought that he could handle these conditions then they could make that decision when they arrived. We got all bundled up, tucked Gage into his chair, and lined up on the starting line, already soaked from head to toe.
The first few miles of the race are a blur. I remember running through crowded streets where few people were talking except the random comment of "I still can't feel my feet". There was the kindness of a stranger on a bike who had an air pump and was able to fill Gage's chariot tires after I hit a pot hole pretty hard. As we headed back over a bridge, towards the boardwalk and the beach the wind was so strong that it was pushing the chair back into me despite the effort I was using to push the chair. I was at a mental low point in my race. I was cold, wet, and felt like I was being blown backwards one step for every two steps I ran forward. That is when the words that Bart Yasso spoke earlier that weekend came to realization as from behind a kind hand and a smile, someone saying, "Here, let me help you" and I turned to see the familiar angel wings on an Ainsley's Angels Marine Corps Marathon team jacket. The smile that went with the helping hand and that team jacket belonged to Mark. Mark was a member of the same Marine Corps Marathon team that I had run in but we had not met during that race. He ran along beside me down the boardwalk where the wind hit us so strong that it took just as much effort to walk as it did to run and our pace was probably the same. He ran along beside me as I passed right by the door to the hotel where I was staying and I was so tempted to veer off course to eat some of the hot breakfast buffet which was still being served. He ran along beside me and we chatted about anything and everything and it took my mind off of the wind and the cold and the self-doubt. Mark was exactly what Bart Yasso had talked about earlier that weekend. He got me through the hardest parts of that race just when I needed some inspiration. There came a point along the run that we had to part ways but by then I had a renewed sense of strength and I knew that Gage and I would make it, Mark told me we would. And we did. Not only did we finish but Gage pulled me to another personal record for pushing in a marathon.
Gage was a rock star the entire day! His smile warmed those around him and he knew to cheer for me just when I needed it! He yelled, "go, go, go!" and kept me laughing the whole way! In Oregon I had to dig deep and learn about my inner strength but in Virginia I learned that strength would come to me, just when I need it, sometimes from unexpected places. My strength that day, it turns out, came from the cheers of a young man in a wheelchair and the kind, helping hand of a teammate that I was meeting for the first time.
Thank you Gage for pulling me through wind, rain, sleet, and for keeping me laughing.
Thank you Mark for being my added strength and for helping me to believe in myself when I was ready to give up.