Oh Kentucky, beautiful Kentucky! Marathon #3 brought not only me, but my family to Louisville for the Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon! I was able to be joined for this race by a big family support crew which was fun. My three children had not been able to join me for a 50 Gifts of Freedom race yet and they were eager to see mom in action, meet our gift recipient, and be my little helpers. I was lucky to have had a lot of help orchestrating the events of the weekend from the Ainsley’s Angels in Kentucky ambassador Kay. We had put in countless hours of planning before race weekend rolled around and were looking forward to seeing the product of all that planning come together.
The Ainsley’s Angels team in Kentucky is a fairly new and growing team, eager to make a difference and spread the message of inclusion. Kay is so enthusiastic and has a heart of gold. She is so perfectly matched with this mission of Ainsley’s Angels. She quickly came up with a rider for me, her own daughter, Sarah, who would roll along with me in the race. The gift of the Freedom Rider would be going to another Angel Rider, 5 year old Levi, was participating in the half-marathon but has not yet worked his way up to riding for a full marathon.
The actual logistics of this race were a little more complicated compared to the previous two. In Oregon, I asked the Race Director if I could bring an assisted athlete and we were welcomed with open arms. In Virginia we entered into a race with a long standing relationship with Team Hoyt, another assisted athlete team. This particular race specifically stated that there would be “no wheels allowed on the course”, however there was a hand cycle division so I sent the race director an email explaining what PROJECT 50 is all about and requesting permission to be included in the race. I got an email back stating that normally this would not be allowed but she was interested in what we were doing and that she would let us participate, but rather than being allowed to start up front as we are accustomed to doing, she requested that we start in the very back. We also were able to secure a spot for Levi in the "mini Marathon" and we considered this a couple of major victories to be the first assisted athlete teams being allowed on the race course.
All of our hard planning was coming together perfectly! Levi’s family has no idea that he would be receiving the gift on race day morning, all of the Angel support team involved in running and the chair presentation knew where to be race day morning, and the race crew was ready to cheer the first teams of Athlete riders in the Kentucky Derby Festival marathon race course. The day before the race was beautiful, cool temps, sunshine. I was ready to run.
Race day came and there was a familiar sound dancing on the window pane. Rain. Cold, wet rain. Mother Nature are you kidding me? 3 for 3 on the cold, rainy marathons. Maybe instead of selling t-shirts for fundraising we should start offering rain jackets and umbrellas. We made our way to the team's meeting spot. Luckily we had planned on a large indoor area so we were able to stay dry for a bit and celebrate Levi’s gift! I was able to meet the ambassador Kay and Sarah, my teammate for the day Melanie, and Levi’s runner, P.K. It was like meeting old friends. We all share a common bond and passion through our Ainsley’s Angels family so we quickly found much to talk about. It came time to give Levi his gift and the look of joy on that sweet boy’s face and the look of surprise on his mom’s face made every rain drop falling outside worth it. Levi told us that he was going to roll fast and tell the people “beep, beep!” as he raced in his chair!
After the presentation we all filed out to the starting line of the race. The weather gave us a brief respite so it was not raining, but it felt like we were swimming upstream to get to the back of the pack where the race director wanted us. On the way I was surprised to be stopped by another set of angels who happened to be in town all the way from Florida! Carol and Richard are also working on completing races in all 50 states. It was so good to chat with them! They said they had been following my progress and were eager to help in any way that they could. They are going to be such a great source of support and wisdom for me and hopefully we will be able coordinate to run together in other states!
Our race team finally made it to the back and awaited our turn to start. We had a battle in front of us, not only catching up to our pace group which had gotten several minutes of a head start on us but also weaving a large race chariot through a large group of walkers, all in the soaking rain that was beginning to fall. It took about 5 miles to get through the walkers alone but the energy that it took was already starting to wear on our team. We had a nice break when we got to run through the infield of Churchill Downs, seeing many of the gorgeous horses out practicing for the weeks racing during Derby Week. We were moving along at what we thought was a nice pace but as soon as we exited the horse track and back onto the street we came to the split of the half and the full marathons. We veered off to the right for the full marathon and it became clear that we were the only ones left running the full 26.2 race. Defeat began to overcome us as we saw all the other marathoners on the other side of the divide, headed back toward the finish. Once we got to mile 13 we were advised that the course was closing. We were following the race course through a state park and were told that once we exited the park we could continue but to stay on the sidewalk. We made it out of the park and to see the streets that we were to run on, streets that it seemed only moments ago were filled with cheering supporters, race crew, and runners empty and being cleared of street barriers and water tables was the final blow. We luckily ran into first aid volunteers who graciously called a van to come and to pick up my running partner and rider. They had given it all they had but the struggle of battling our way through tough crowds, fighting our way through the pouring rain, and now being in last place was just too much. I sent the two of them on to dry off and made the decision that I needed to go ahead and run on regardless of the conditions.
I felt terrible. I felt like I had failed the mission. Up to that point it had never entered my mind the thought of what would happen if my rider could not physically make the entire trip of the marathon along with me. I felt like I let down my rider, my running partner, my family and friends who are my support. I had planned out every part of this race. I had gone over every detail. I began to call Rooster to fill him in on what was happening but between my water logged fingers and the constant rain my phone wouldn’t work. I looked around and wondered what on earth I was doing. I was by myself without a phone that would work, in the middle of an unfamiliar city and not quite sure where to go. I remembered from looking at the course map the day before that I would follow the road I was on for some time but after that, unless I somehow caught up to the back of the pack, I had no idea how to get to the finish line. So I ran. I ran the last 11 miles of that race faster than I ever have run the last part of a marathon before. Fueled by my feelings of anger and failure I let my legs and lungs burn and didn’t care. I finally made it to the city work crew who were cleaning up race barriers and they told me to keep on following the piles of stuff that they had to pick up and to keep them behind me. Soon, I made it to the point where there were still course markers and police officers still out stopping traffic. I had not had any water since mile 11 when we were still running on an open race course and my water bottle was left in the race chariot that had been taken back to the finish line but at mile 22, a very nice officer saw that I didn’t have a water bottle with me and asked if I was thirsty. She gave me a bottle of water from her lunch box and told me to keep up the good work. I did not catch up to the back of the pack but did pass a few other marathoners along the way. I caught up to a distressed runner who was running they're first marathon and was relieved to see me as she thought she was the only runner left. She was not even sure that she was still on the course and it felt good to give her some encouragement and some assurance that she was going in the right direction and would finish. As I got closer to the finish I began to get cheers and hi-fives from other runners who had already finished. They directed me turn by turn until I got to the end. I was able to keep the work crew behind me and cross the finish line, earning a medal and finishing time before the time clock was shut down.
This finish line held many different emotions than any finish of any of my prior races. There was no celebration, just the normal aches and pains that come from running a marathon. The race crew that was still there taking down the finish line was glad that I was not hurt and was able to finish as I shared my story about what had happened. I was cold and wet and it was still raining.
It wasn’t until the next day that I had the chance to begin to process this race. On the long ride home back to NC, Mike and I were able to discuss the details of what happened the day before and I was able to express my feelings of failure. “But what if this race wasn’t a failure at all?” asked Mike.
"What if the 'mission' of this race was just to be able to get 'wheels on the ground' and break down the obstacles of including assisted athletes in races?" Maybe the mission of this race was not what I had thought, but a different end goal was accomplished in other ways. I had successfully campaigned for and received permission to get wheels onto a course that had previously had written rules forbidding it. We were able to get rider athletes in both the marathon and half marathon which had turned down previous requests for inclusion. We were able to introduce Ainsley's Angels to tens of thousands of runners and spectators who may be inspired to become an Angel Runner or who probably knows someone who would like to compete as an Athlete Rider. And most importantly, we put a huge smile on the face of a little boy who loves to race and is now able to "roll with the wind" whenever he wants to, with his own set of wheels!
I was able to complete the 26.2 miles even though it didn’t fall into my carefully laid out plans, and what I once thought to be a failure I now consider a complete success as Kentucky is completed as the 3rd state out of 50.
Inclusion won in Louisville at the Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon. It is truly a beautiful race course in a beautiful state. I truly hope that the Kentucky Ambassadorship continues to attend this race in the future. I hope that the race director gets some positive feedback from the many people who we met on the race course that day, the many people who got big smiles on their face when they met Levi and Sarah. And I really, really hope that Mother Nature is done playing games with me for the next few races at least. I could use a break to run without the rain for awhile. Next up - Race #4- VERMONT!!