Running Against the Wind…For 26.2 Miles, The Worst Amazing Race
I awoke at 4:30am with a smile. I’d slept, a miracle for me always, but especially with something so major looming - my marathon. The windows of my high school bedroom were open - the air felt warm, too warm for the running tights I’d planned to wear, but I knew that was probably going to be the least of my worries. I checked the weather for the millionth time praying, but no, no such miracle here. The wind and rain was on its way, but hadn’t yet arrived delaying the arrival of my anxiety, which I was grateful for. One year ago I had run a half marathon in a winter hurricane in Savannah - the full being canceled the day of due to the hazardous conditions, and it was the worst I’d ever felt in my life, so my PTSD was strong.
Calmly, collectedly, I began applying the diaper rash cream, first all over my feet, in between each toe, then anywhere a seam would live. I learned this trick the hard way and by no means was in the market for a good branding - chafing is every runner’s worst nightmare. A marathon sets fire to your insides, the very last thing you want is for your outsides to do the same. I dressed, packed my bag, brushed my teeth, braided my hair, applied my sunscreen, then got in child’s pose on my yoga mat. Another prayer. Deep, conscious, meditative breaths. Everything is magic. This day will be too, no matter the mountains before you - you love the mountains, let’s go.
Downstairs at my parent’s house I fed my pup and made my marathon breakfast - a blueberry bagel with peanut butter and honey, coffee, and packed it up for the car ride. We lived 40 minutes south of downtown Indianapolis. My mom and my stepdad were calm and collected too - our energies matching. Again - grateful - to be there, with them, just like when I was a kid preparing for a major game, or tournament, or state championship, to which they’d deliver me, their support a constant life jacket of comfort and confidence. I kissed my pup goodbye. He angrily protested my departure.
At 6am we drove in the dark, silently. Slowly I fueled my body trying not to focus on the slight unsettlement seeping in my stomach walls. My stepdad parked the truck in a spot downtown across from a hotel, one block from the start line. I ran into the hotel’s restroom. Runners were trickling into the lobby. I ran back to the truck, where I stood outside the door and pinned my number to my thigh. A female runner passing behind me tripped on some uneven pavement, completely face planting, her coffee flying. I knelt to her, “are you okay?!” Stunned, she replied that she was, got up and hobbled away. My parents in their seats witnessing the already heightened state of collective nerves. I tried to choke down a few more swallows of coffee. I tried to absorb as much of my parent’s comfort as I could. The rain arrived. I hugged my parents, thanked them, told them I loved them as though I was heading out to battle, at the time I had no idea of the fight I was in for, and jumped out of the truck.
Back into the hotel for one last bathroom trip. Runners were everywhere now taking shelter from the rain. With twenty minutes to start I went outside to do some stretching and hopping around protected by the hotel’s overhang. Still dark. Still raining. And now the wind joined the party. With ten minutes to start it seemed that we all headed to the line together, one male runner yelling out “YOU LOVE THE RAIN LET’S GO!” Leading us to battle.
I ducked into my corral. I looked around at all of the runners in tanks and shorts as it was 65 degrees, so thankful I had my goodwill jacket with a hood keeping me warm and dry as I waited, the rain pouring now, the wind whipping, my shoes the only thing soaking - the inevitable weight of wet shoes - the worst. The national anthem played, the tears began to well. Marathons make me emotional. I replayed the four months of my training in my mind. I gathered all of the people that had joined me on this journey - my Blue Ridge family, and sat them front row of my heart, set my watch, started my playlist, and Taylor Swift sent me the way she had so many times before. Out loud to myself, “this is it, you are here, now go and don’t you dare stop.”
I wasn’t alone in this madness. Back in July I had talked my cousin, Cade, into running the Indianapolis Marathon with me, as he lived there along with most of my family. I hadn’t seen Cade or his mom, Shannon (my favorite!), in five years. I loved and missed them so much as life took me away from our epic Christmas Eve reunions. We texted each other at the start, “see you at the finish line, cuz.”
Within minutes I tossed my goodwill jacket. The fact that it wasn’t freezing was the only highlight. The rain was tolerable. The wind though. I knew my mom and dad and his lady, Dawn, would be at mile 11, so I had awhile before that adrenalin aid. In the meantime I was dedicating each mile to someone I loved. I also knew that even though I didn’t know where Shannon was along the route, I’d find her in the crowd so I set that intention and scanned the spectators. I was running strong, maybe a bit too strong, ripping off 8:20s, which is a bit fast for me. Then, on the corner of mile 4, stood my cousin Shannon, raincoat on, hood up, tied tight to her face, staring down at her phone. I ran to her with wide open arms. She couldn’t believe it! “Cortney!” We hugged for a long time while runners passed by. “How did you find me?” We hugged again. I knew I would. We hugged again. And off I went, my heart so full, my tempo too fast.
At Mile 5, Biggie came on my playlist so I dedicated it to my girl Cassondra. Then at mile 6, a sign reading “Let’s Go Maddie!” And so, 6 was for her. I looked down at my watch and my heart rate was 176. “Okay okay take it down a notch, jesus!” I whispered to myself. The miles felt longer than they should. The wind was knocking me off of my feet at times. The rain became intermittent. “Just get to 11.” I was already starting to fatigue. Too early. Mile 10 was Shannon again! This time she found me! We hugged. I couldn’t believe it - again! And then, there it was, the pom pom my mom had tied to a pole to hold up so I’d find her. My mom and my dad and Dawn, I hugged them all. It was the first time seeing my dad since I’d gotten to town. “I’m impressed!” I heard him say as I departed them, “See you at 16!” I yelled back.
The rain returned. The wind persisted. At the halfway mark I did not think another half was possible. Just fighting. Pain started to creep into my hips and my heels. Too early. I tried to focus on the city I’d grown up with. How it had changed. How despite the shit weather it was so beautiful. Even with the leaves and debris flying, one could see the magic of Indy, although it was a struggle of a distraction. Fuck the wind.
My stomach was not good. "Just get to 16..." Then, pom pom. There it was, like a beacon. Sideways rain ushered me into my mama’s arms, I wanted to stay there. “You look good!” She yelled through the wind and rain. “I look terrible!” I slurred back as I high-fived my dad, hugging him too. “See you at the finish!” I slurred to them, waving, faking confidence. Academy award winner. Pictures and video would show me smiling but on the inside I was dead, totally fucking dead. And I would tell that to Shannon the very next mile when I would see her - again! “I’m dying,” I told her. “Keep going,” she replied.
And so I did. Knowing that that was the end of family until the end of the race. It seemed far too far away. "Ten more miles - there is no fucking way." I glanced at my reflection in a building’s window. I was barely moving forward. Wind was almost holding me in place. I laughed. Hysteria. “This is totally fucking nuts impossible!” Things began to catch fire within. Too early. Looking down because shit was blowing into my eyeballs, I’d see sets of bleeding heels fighting to go one in front of the other before me. “Fuck!”
"When your legs get tired, run with your heart," a sign read...
Mile18. People were starting to drop. I tried to take my 3rd Gu, but my stomach wouldn’t allow it. I carried it for a mile trying to sip off of it, until my fingers were sticky from it spilling out and so I tossed it. One female runner and I had been cat and mouse for miles. She’d pass then I would, until mile 20 when she passed me I saw blood between her upper thighs. She was in shorts and had full blown open wounds the size of my palms on each leg. Just raw flesh. Bleeding from the chafing. “Fuuuuuuuck.”
I didn’t feel good. I didn’t think I could finish. “You have to finish. Your whole fucking family is here for you. Cade is somewhere in this unspeakable hell with you. But don’t finish and vomit or pass out or die, because they don’t deserve THAT trauma, so just go slow, keep it together, get there in one piece, but don’t you dare stop!”
At mile 22 something went awry in my back. “What the fuck is that?” Ugh, it hurt to expand my lungs - an obvious problem. “Did I just slip a disc?!” Which was possible as I do have a slippery one. “Nope, that is not going to be the reason I stop, bitch, go!”
I turned a corner, the wind blasted from the left. I had to look down to keep my eyes clear. “Don’t look down,” a woman yelled from the sidewalk, “keep looking up!” I mean, she was right, to stay up, ya had to look up, but fuck - the wind! So I did, I never looked down again.
Mile 23. Runners were dropping like flies now. I will never forget the looks on their faces as I fought my way onward. Broken defeat. They were so close. But their bodies were done and there was nothing they could do. My heart broke for them.
Mile 24. I felt like I had had six strokes. My brain stopped working, I could’t figure out how many more I had, “is the next mile the last one or the one after that?” My hips were ablaze. “Am I going to puke?! Just keep going, you got this, this is fine, you are doing great, this is it, this is your marathon, it is here and it is almost over, you’re doing it, don’t you dare stop!”
Mile 25. I knew at this point I could crawl across that line if I must. I was going to finish. “This one is for you, mom.” She’d been there for all three New York Marathons. She’d been there for everything before them and for everything after them. And she was just up ahead.
Mile 26. The crowd lined the home stretch. Cheering their hearts out for strangers. I looked into their eyes as I passed. “Thank you,” I’d mouth. The tears were coming now. “Look at her!” I heard one spectator say. Searching. “Where are they?” My pace picked up. The pain left my body. The pom pom! My mom and dad were standing ON the finish line. Flying. Pumping my fist. All of the time, the months of effort and discipline and pain and sacrifice. All of the wind and rain and pain and resilience and mind blowing refusals to quit! All of the love and support and beautiful people paying attention to my little life stories filling me with immeasurable gratitude. All of it inside of me as I crossed that finish line, crying like a baby, for it was all too much to contain.
It was my fifth marathon. It was the worst best race of my life. One that I will never forget. One that reminded me of the mountain lioness within. I do love mountains. Mountains give you character. Mountains separate you. Mountains move you to your next level. To higher ground.
The Indianapolis Monumental Marathon lived up to its name. And I am forever grateful for it.