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February 21, 2012
I Had to Keep Running
Julie Cassar
My heart was racing and my breathing was fast.  The sound of running footsteps echoed behind me in the dimly lit tunnel.  I kept running.  I had to get out of there!  I felt clammy as the heat began to rise within me.  The slow upward climb was wearing me out.  My breaths quickened as I scanned the view ahead.  Four uniformed Border Patrol agents were lining the walls. "Keep running," I thought to myself.
What kind of trouble had I gotten myself into?  I began to feel the cool breeze waft into the tunnel and sensed some light coming from around the corner.  I kept running, anticipating the end.  I just had to get out of the stagnant heat swarming around me.  Run faster!
Was I in some kind of trouble?
Ha. No. I was participating in my first half-marathon (a Detroit Free Press Marathon event), running through the tunnel from Canada into the United States.  It runs under the Detroit River between Windsor and Detroit and is heavily guarded by Border Patrol on both sides.  At the end of this mile, I completed the eighth mile of my 13.-mile journey.  I was coming into the homestretch, but who knew how this story would end.
Let me take you back to the beginning...
It was dark when I woke up at 4:15 in the morning.  As usual, I was a ball of nerves.  I poured myself a cup of coffee and made toast while I cooked my instant oatmeal in the microwave.  I had just enough time to eat, fill a water bottle and grab a banana before we had to leave.  My husband was shuttling two of my training buddies and me downtown to the race.  While I nervously waited in the backseat, my girlfriend French braided my hair on each side, leaving the ends loose, like ponytails.  To me, it was styled just like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz! Kind of fitting, since I felt like I was definitely entering a strange, unknown world.  We pinned on our bib numbers and grabbed our bags of gear to head over to the start line.  It was still dark, but there were lights illuminating the massive scaffolding that had been erected.  We played around with famous Detroit mascots, including the Tigers' mascot, Paws, the Lions' Roary and the Pistons' Hooper.  There were runners everywhere.  Stretching, eating, walking around and chatting with their families.  They wore looks of determination, looks of joy and looks of anxiousness.  Once we found our designated area, it was time to refuel with the snacks we had packed.  I don't know where they thought we were going...a picnic?  The two girls I traveled with pulled out sandwiches.  Peanut butter sandwiches!  Too bad I'm deathly allergic.  I stayed upwind.  I didn't think to pack my EpiPen, and a trip to the medical tent was not on my agenda for the day.
As the corrals got more and more crowded, I became more and more nervous.  My two friends were discussing race strategy, how fast they wanted to start, what pace group they were going to try to stick with and such.  Meanwhile, I was feeling overwhelmed.  I wanted to start with my friends, but I knew I couldn't run as fast as they could.  For me, this race was the celebration of my one year of running.  A year ago, I couldn't run two blocks.  But with the help of my friends, and by losing almost 50 pounds, I went from non-runner to running one mile in about 13.5 minutes, then running 10 miles in about 120 minutes.  My goal for this half-marathon was simply to run farther than I ever had, to finish it in 2 hours and 35 minutes and to enjoy the course.  All of sudden, I sensed the nervous energy around me.  Combined with my own fears and anxiety and listening to my friends talk of strategy, I felt a year's worth of emotion well up inside me as I stood there in the dark, shoulder to shoulder with thousands of other runners.  I somehow felt I wouldn't live up to my own expectations, or my friends' or family's. Honestly, this was quite silly and irrational because, of course, they didn't have any.  They were proud of me no matter what.  But the expectation I had put on myself and all of the hard work I had done to get to this point was flooding through me, boiling over in my veins and releasing fear.  A lump started in my throat and I was quiet.  I'm sure my face reflected the panic and stress I was feeling.  My friend who had trained with me all year looked at me with concern. "I've never seen you like this before," she said. "You've never been like this before a race." I shook my head and blinked my eyes as the tears started to flow.
"I just don't think I can keep up," I managed to squeak out.  I flipped my
sunglasses down over my eyes as the tears began streaming down my
face.  Sure, it was pitch dark, but I didn't care.  The sunglasses hid the
fear and tears that escaped my eyes.  Both of my running buddies instantly
poured out words of encouragement, gave me hugs and told me to just take
one mile at a time. "Forget about numbers!" they said as I tried to look
away and hide my tears.  Easy for them to say!  That's what everyone was
murmuring as we stood there, anxiously waiting for the start of the race.  I
was glad I had the sunglasses to hide my eyes.  I didn't want all of the
runners thinking I was a sissy.  This was serious business!  PRs to be made,
goals to be achieved...yet it was also supposed to be a celebration.  A
celebration of how far I had come.  It was overwhelming to me that I was
actually here.  Never in a million years would I have thought I could do
this...yet here I was, about to try.  I was scared.  And happy.  And confused.
And nervous.  And anxious... and about a million other things.  I got over my
tears quickly and decided to eat my pre-race energy chews.  It was time to
shake this off.  I would run through the start with my friends and hopefully
not get trampled by the other (most-likely faster) runners behind me.
Footprints up my back were not something I wanted to experience.  I took a
few steadying breaths and pushed my sunglasses back up onto my head so I
could see more clearly as we began to walk toward our starting position.  I
could almost feel the energy in the air, almost as if it were pulsating
through me.
All of a sudden, the horn blared and we were off.  I ran ahead with a fierce look of determination on my face.  The crowd was cheering and we were flying.  And then I began to smile.  I was running!  I ran near my buddies for the first mile and then they slowly pulled ahead.  I grinned in appreciation and gave them the "thumbs up" as they continuously turned around with encouraging smiles.  At mile two, I saw my family and friends cheering wildly and I knew this was it.  THIS was my moment.  This was my time.  I high- fived them as I went by and vowed to suck in all of the positive energy I could.  From that point on, I ran my own race.  I was alone but also in the midst of a massive ball of energy.  Sure, I was running with 20,000 other people, but we were all running our own race, in our own zone.  I finally let the numbers go.  I let the pace go.  I was going to push my limits and run to another country and back; I was going to give it 110%. Whatever my pace was, whether I walked or not, I was going to be thankful that I made it that far.  I was going to use every ounce of strength and every strand of muscle I had earned over the past year.
I began my uphill climb over the Ambassador Bridge and pulled out my video camera.  Yes, even in my foggy, stress-filled state of mind, I was determined to carry my small Sony Webbie camera.  I tried to shoot a few still pictures and took a short video, then laughed out loud at how the camera was shook violently as I ran.  I took time to look around me while I ran over the bridge and remembered that a water station would be coming up soon.  I was running faster at a faster pace than I had ever trained.  I stripped off my gloves and chucked them to the side of the road as I headed down the bridge.  Time for a GU; sweet and packed full of nutrients, I squeezed the caramel-flavored energy gel into my mouth as I kept running.
I came up to the fluid station and took in all the sights.  People were everywhere waving the red and white maple leaf flag.  I was in Canada.  Who'd have thought I'd run to Canada?  I walked through my water break (about 20 seconds) and glanced at my watch.  I had run almost 4 miles.  Whoa.  This can't be right.  Am I really running that fast?  I just ran up and over the Ambassador Bridge for Christ's sake!  I didn't feel too tired.  Yet.
Running along the Detroit River, again, I tried to enjoy it.  I was feeling a bit tired, but I knew my GU would kick into action and help fuel up my jets.  It was a gloomy, drizzly day and there was a chill in the air, but I felt good.
As I headed through the streets of Windsor, I realized I couldn't run alone anymore.  If I was going to run this fast, I needed to pull as much energy as I could from whatever source was available to me.  I remembered how I felt when I passed my family at mile 2, so I cut over to the side of the street by the spectators.  Some cheered, some held signs for loved ones, some stood there silently watching the thousands of feet pounding the pavement.
So what that I didn't know them and they didn't know me!  They were there cheering us on, even in their silence.  I started letting out hoots and hollers when I caught a breath, and I threw up my hand for high-fives.  Many smiled, laughed, yelled and cheered me on.  I thanked them, screamed "Woohoo!" and kept running.  I absorbed every ounce of it.  I sucked in deep breaths and felt a renewed charge surge through my legs.  I pushed onward and felt my electrified nerves, pulsating with anticipation as I approached the tunnel to head back to Detroit.  Everyone had told me it was hot, stinky and not at all fun.  I was preparing for the worst as I trudged down into the dim tunnel.
Once again, I flipped open my video camera.  I didn't want to delay runners behind me so I only filmed for about 20 seconds, but I was glad I did.  You can hear the excitement in my voice and in all of the runners around me as I entered the tunnel.  It just can't be described.  People were randomly shouting, and the sound of the thunderous footsteps and breathing and cheers from pace groups were echoing off the congested space.  It was fun!  I was headed downhill and felt like I was picking up steam.
It was here that I first saw her.  It was a runner who had a photograph and a dedication on her back.  She was running in memory of a Captain who had been killed in action that month.  I kept behind her for a while and stared at the picture of the fallen service member who had died defending our nation.  I was running for my family and for my country.  He would never run again.  There is much I have to be thankful for.  My loved ones, cheering me on.  I felt tears roll down my cheeks, but this time I wasn't ashamed of my watering eyes.  I let them fall.  It made me feel grateful.
Then, all of the runners seemed to be bunching together.  Were we slowing down?  My breathing became heavier and the air was thicker.  Suddenly, I became very hot.  I shoved my arm warmers down to my wrists, and I worked my way over to the wall so I could slow down a bit.  Why couldn't I breathe?  Maybe because it was humid, and we were under water.  I slowed down a bit more and walked a few strides to catch my breath.  After a few seconds of walking, I picked it up again and pushed on.  Now it was a slow, uphill climb.  Will this mile ever end?
We were like sardines crammed in a tiny little can, all squiggling and wiggling to get the hell out.  I tried to look ahead as I listened to the grumbling of the runners around me.  Everyone seemed to be feeling the heat and stress of the uphill climb.  I saw the Border Patrol agents ahead and could hear the wind.
Wind?  Air!  I knew I would be feeling fresh air in a matter of seconds and I couldn't wait to get to it.  I ran and ran and ran.  I burst out of the tunnel and a blast of cold air hit me in the face.  There was a cheering crowd lining the path and a huge banner that read, "Welcome to the U.S.A." Runners reached up and tapped it as they passed under -- I did too.  It felt wonderful to be out of that hot, crowded, thunderous tunnel.  I glanced at my watch as I hit the mat: 10:08. The hardest mile of the race so far, and I ran it in about 10 minutes.  It had been four miles since my last GU packet, so I eagerly reached back for another one.  This one was mint chocolate.  It was like candy to me.  Why hadn't anyone tell me you get to eat candy while you run?  I would have started running much sooner!  I slowed down a bit this time and savored the chocolate.
I was feeling really tired but focused on picking up my pace.  That's when I again saw the girl with the photo on her back.  She seemed to be inching away from me, but I didn't let that stop me.  I kept pushing on.  I knew I would see my family soon near the end of mile 9. They told me they would try to be somewhere around mile 10, so I wanted to look strong.  I looked up ahead and saw the noodles.  Yes, my family was waving around pool noodles.  It was quite ingenious really.  I could spot them from a huge distance.  I crossed over to the other side of the road and flipped out my camera again.  Jumping up and down, waving their arms around, screaming and cheering.  My brother even called out, "You wanna sandwich?!" And I loved every single second of it.  I handed off my camera to my sister-in-law, gave my brother and husband a quick hug and took off running again with a smile.
That's when it happened, mile 10. I began to feel the twinge and ache in my left hip and knee and I tried to push down the pain.  As I closed in on mile 11, the tears began again.  Not from the pain that was now piercing my left side, but from the knowledge that I had never run this far.  Ever.  In my life.
The pain was getting worse with each step and I felt myself growing tired.  I slowed to a walk and decided to take another GU. I told myself I was only walking while I took in the energy gel, but I cringed with each left footfall.  Another fluid station was ahead, so I walked again and tried to convince myself that the pain wasn't really that bad.
Each new mile was a mile I had never before run.  As I slowly trudged on, I willed my body to relax, to be pain-free and to imagine the feeling of energy coming down my arms.  It seemed to work a little.  And then I got a surprise.
I saw my husband again at mile 12; I had no idea he would be there.  He began to run beside me.  He offered words of encouragement, telling me I was doing great and to just keep going.  It was as if a floodgate had opened and, with him there, I could let out all of the emotions from the day. "I'm going to cry," I sputtered. "It's okay," he said. "You're doing great!"
I began sobbing.  I let out gasping breaths as I kept moving and I managed to say, "I hurt!" He just kept telling me to keep going.  I needed his words to block my negative thoughts.  His encouragement seemed to drown out thoughts like, "You're tired!  You're hurting!  You want to stop!  Please!  Stop running!" I shed the tears but pushed faster.  Realizing I couldn't breathe and cry at the same time, I got my emotions under control and listened to my husband's coaching.
And then I almost laughed at his wheezing, gasping breaths next to me. "You can stop if you want," I said. "I'm okay." "I'm fine," he panted.  His thoughtful gesture and the silliness of him running in his fleece jacket, huffing and puffing next to me, refueled my energy stores.  Then the road got narrower and the crowds grew thick; I could sense the end was approaching.  It was here that I remembered something my younger brother had said to me: "Don't forget that somehow we always get one last kick of energy for the last tenth of a mile or so.  It's true-it happens at every race!". My husband peeled off to the side of the road and I took off like a rocket.  In the distance, I heard my other brother cheering.  I couldn't see him, but I heard him shout.  I heard cheers from all of the spectators and I could see the finish line.  For those last two minutes or so, I didn't feel any pain.  I made my legs go faster.  I don't know how I did it, I just did.  I said I was going to give this race 110%. It was time for that extra 10%.
I crossed the finish line smiling with my arms in the air.  I did it!  I just ran a half marathon!  As I slowed to a walk and got my medal and silvery plastic space blanket, the day's emotions finally took over.  I was drained.  I meandered along, shuffling down the chute thinking, "I have no idea where I'm going.  My family will find me." I shuffled along past the gear check point.  I was shivering and clutching my space blanket for dear life.  My left knee began to lock up and I realized I wasn't bending that leg anymore.  I hobbled along, hitching my hip and dragging my foot.  I was afraid to stop walking.  If I stopped, I wouldn't be able to start again.
Finally, my husband found me and guided me into the family gathering area.  I instantly spotted a massage tent. "I have to get one," I told him.  The girls who worked on me were like angels!  And that's when my husband leaned down and told me the news.
"What was the time you wanted to hit?" he asked. "2:35," I mumbled face down on the table.  I had stopped looking at my watch after mile 9. Through those last 3.1 miles, I had no idea what my finish time was.
"You blew it away," he smiled. "2:16:54!" I smiled and felt a swell of pride.  Oh geesh.  I couldn't cry again!  But this time, I didn't. I was out of tears.  Only happy smiles appeared across my face.  When my angels finished, I was able to move again and I slid off the table.  I wrapped myself in my silver blanket and we headed to the car.
What a day!  It was filled with more emotions than I ever thought a person could experience in so few hours.  My parents were hosting a post-marathon party later that day, so I knew there would be more joy ahead.  I later found out that I ran that last mile in about 7 minutes and 40 seconds.  I'll never know how I pulled that out of my hat!
I was sad to take out my Dorothy braids as I got ready to take a hot shower.  I really did have an adventure to Oz today.  I followed the road, and it led me to a playful lion and tiger and horse-oh my!  Visions of wonderful city skylines, the sounds of joyful cheers and songs, energizing feelings of strength, power and love and magical moments of gratefulness were all a part of my half marathon adventure.
It took me one year, two pairs of running shoes, and 16 weeks of concentrated training totaling 229 miles to get to 13.1. There were no rainbows, no flying monkeys and no ruby slippers, but I'd gladly go back to that Land of Oz any day.
Next Article: February 17, 2012
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