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The power of pushing

I’ve had a sleepless, anxious week. After three months of working late and waking late, I’ve lost blind faith in my alarm clock. The nights before both interviews and the race I awoke at least every hour fearing I’d overslept. On Friday night I kept assuring myself by Saturday afternoon I could finally relax and feel accomplished after completing a half marathon and feeling good about both interviews. The problem was getting there.

Josh and I stressed for two hours Saturday morning. We promised each other we wouldn’t quit, we prepared to encourage each other when either one struggled, and we aimed to break two-and-a-half hours. From the outside we looked like two carefree dancers spinning and jumping around in anticipation, but our pep talk was pure anxiety and the pre-race dancing was all we could do to contain it. We recognized that the park was beautiful, the weather was pleasant, and a giant globe was quite inspiring particularly with Africa facing us. We strategized, prayed, peed, and prepared our iPods accordingly.

We were scared, because we knew our training was inadequate, and 13 continually became a bigger number…of miles. In all my training I tried to imagine how painful and drawn out the race would be. I tried to mentally prepare myself to persevere, press on, push. During my month of preparation, a Grey’s Anatomy episode titled “Push” stated, “We push ourselves, not because we want to, because we have to.” I kept repeating this as I ran each day determined that when the pain and impatience came, I would keep going. I promised myself I’d just keep moving my legs, mind over matter. But when the race finally arrived, the thoughts that played on repeat went more like, “I’m never running a marathon,” “How has anyone ever done a triathlon,” and “Why hasn’t anyone started walking yet?” I have no shame in admitting the whole day hurt, and the aftermath hurts worse, but the part when I had to push, the race itself, was quite an experience that I won’t soon forget.

Josh and I ran together for the first mile-and-a-half. We took three to five minutes just to cross the start line then weaved through the crowd of thousands shuffling to gain ample running space. When we reached the first mile mark the time clock read 10:55, and I panicked. We predetermined our average mile time needed to be under 11 minutes to reach our goal. We were well aware this was a slow pace, but wanted to prepare to be exhausted toward the end. This was too soon to be so close to that time. I told Josh we’d have to make up for it on the second mile and picked up the pace significantly. He strayed a few feet behind me, but gave me a huge grin every time I turned around. I assumed this acknowledged we were fine, but in a few moments Josh was nowhere to be seen. I hoped he had stopped to pee, or tie a shoelace, and not to quit, and pressed on. I was not ready to run solo so soon, but I was determined to conquer this for the sake of the cause.

My body was feeling great. I ran strong and confidently for the first five miles careful not to spend all of my energy, but hoping to take advantage of it while I could. My original plan was to mentally view the course as a seven mile run followed by two three mile runs. This seemed simple, do-able, welcoming, but by mile six I was tired. I realized I was almost halfway and couldn’t fathom doubling the effort I’d already put in. In training the comparison to children surviving genocide and fighting to survive without their families made running seem effortless, but this was painful. My body hurt. After that first goal of seven miles I slowed way down, or so I thought. I was encouraged that exactly an hour had gone by and no more at mile six, but I knew this pace wouldn’t last. Mile seven displayed 1:07 and I realized I was still moving too fast thrown off by the flow of traffic.

In one more never-ending mile I wanted to lay down in the mud…permanently. The eight-mile marker seemed impossible to reach. Just as I felt hopelessly panicked a guy in all black showed up beside me. Our strides fell into perfect synchronization and he unknowingly paced me brilliantly. I was so grateful for this relief when he abruptly let go and broke our rhythm to walk. My subconscious unexpectedly yet audibly yelled, “Nooo!” then I picked up my pace hoping he hadn’t heard. Moments later he reappeared beside me although neither of us had acknowledged each other’s existence. After the “Mile 8” sign, my momentum gave. I stopped to walk a few steps and he turned and said, “Nooo!” mocking me. I laughed, embarrassed, and he said, “Come on, you’re pacing me.” So I picked myself up and jogged alongside my newfound running mate for the next few miles. We felt each other struggling and occasionally exchanged reassuring glances. We were each depending on the other to carry us on.

After ten miles my body rebelled against my will and refused to move more than a fumbling walk. I told the guy in black to go on and gave in to my pleading legs until a man passing by said, “You’ve got way too far to slow down now. Come on!” I couldn’t believe the audacity of these strangers, but allowed their pressure to fuel my hasty jog. I passed the favor on to a few reluctant walkers and found a survivable stride for the remaining miles.

At Mile 11 I rejoined my pacing partner as a girl from the crowd cheered, “Go Ashley and Robby!” reading the names printed on our bibs. I was completely thrilled to find my new friend’s name was the same as my brother’s. Running has always been therapeutic for me–a release, a positive way to start my days, and an effective way to end the rough ones. In the past year my brother faced a heap of personal obstacles that he had to endure, push through, and eventually overcome. My entire family struggled with the reality that these trials were his to defeat on his own, and although we all supported him emotionally we longed to relieve him of any of the weight. When I ran last year, I pushed myself for him. I compared the challenge of moving faster and further for longer to his exhausting journey and I pressed on because there was nothing else I could do. This parallel motivated me through those final two miles; figuratively Robby and I could endure together, simultaneously to accomplish quite a feat.

The last half mile bent through a tunnel of supportive fans and around a picturesque reservoir into a finish line decked out with a DJ and disco ball. Robby and I mustered all of our strength to power around the water and sprint through the finish. We crossed the line together and embraced in the kind of bear hug that would lead any onlookers to believe we’d run together for years. After scrounging up bagels, bananas, and giant medals we took the photo above together and exchanged overdue pleasantries. Spoiler alert: only when I looked back at the shot as I walked away did I realize his name was Ravi…not Robby. But the misunderstanding led me to break two hours: 13.1 miles in 1:51:20.

I collapsed on a curb alongside the course to work on lifting my shaking, sweaty hands to my mouth in an attempt at re-hydration and nourishment. I kept my fingers crossed that Josh hadn’t given up and waited anxiously for him to appear for the last leg of the course. I finally spotted his headband, jumped to my feet and ran up beside him determined to finish together as we’d planned. We circled the water holding hands and gingerly skipped over the final “point one” as fans let out amused sounds, the DJ called us “cute,” and photographers snapped dozens of frames. Once Josh had walked off the pain and nabbed four donuts for later we strutted into a clearing where costumed dancers jived to the sequined disco band in front of an exhausted, non-participative audience of thousands. Delighted we both beat our goals (Josh finished in 2:26) we joined right in shamelessly. The video footage says it all.

I’d truly like to thank everyone who supported this run financially and prayerfully. My team raised over $35,000 to fund a vocational school in Rwanda and aid Haiti earthquake victims. I am so blessed to be surrounded by giving, caring people especially from my church homes. I have to admit I continually reminded myself “never again” when that race seemed never-ending, but there is so much more to do to help nations in need, and I’ll continue to push myself if and when it helps others. God bless.

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