Running Streak — Day 17

In the Michigan Women’s Lacrosse State Championship finals in 1998 my coach called me off the bench and into the game with only a few minutes left. I immediately scored a goal, helping us win the game and the title. At least, this is how my father loves to tell the story.

In reality, my team was already ahead, and my coach was looking at her clipboard checking who hadn’t played in the game yet. She called me in to replace the star player who was lining up at the net for a penalty shot. I cautiously asked if that was what she meant to do, and she called time and sent me in anyway, giving me a clear path to the net and an easy goal.

It was a great feeling being part of the winning team, but I can’t say that my playing made a difference to our performance. Being a mediocre athlete in high school, I set the bar low when it came to expectations of athletic accomplishments as an adult. When I first started running, I didn’t worry much about time, and I worried even less about pace. I was happy to only be in competition with myself.

I ran a couple marathons and a slew of half-marathons with this attitude, excited to finish, even to see how much easier running became the longer I did it. I owned one pair of running shoes, a few pairs of shorts, a few t-shirts, and a water bottle.

I moved from New York City to Seattle in 2006 and quickly found a running store and a group of running buddies that became my main social circle. I decided to sign up for the 2007 Vancouver Marathon and I decided for the first time actually try to run faster on purpose. I set a goal to beat my fastest (and first) marathon time by a little more than ten minutes, just under four hours.

It was a bit of an arbitrary goal, since I didn’t really knowing what pace I was ready to run, but I was willing to give it a shot. Math is not my strong suit (along with field sports like Lacrosse) and somehow my arbitrary goal for under four hours turned into a firm three hours, forty-five minutes, perhaps for easier accounting in my head.

Then a friend from my running club mentioned that I should try to qualify for the Boston Marathon. That seemed like a pursuit for a serious runner, and I wasn’t a serious runner. I’m not sure what he was thinking. How fast did I have to run?

I didn’t know it in the moment, but that casual challenge turned running from something I did into something I owned — a sport of my own. It left me holding the clipboard, choosing when to play, a feeling I never had as a young athlete, if I ever even considered myself one.

I had to run a qualifying marathon in less than three hours, forty-minutes, and fifty-nine seconds.

I have learned since that if you dangle the carrot, runners will chase the carrot. Move the carrot a little faster, we will just continue chase it. When my friend mentioned the qualifying time, I thought to myself, “What’s an extra five minutes?”

In that moment, with the challenge accepted, my running went from something I did to unplug to something that plugged me in to strength I didn’t expect to have.

On race day a few months later, my parents were there, having made a special trip out to see me. I felt like a kid again, my parents on the sideline cheering me along. I chugged through the course, checking my watch for my pace, calculating in my head where I was and what I had left.

The course that year included two summits of the Burred Bridge, first from Downtown Vancouver into the Kitsilano neighborhood around mile 20, then back into Downtown Vancouver to finish at BC Place arena. The race day weather was cool and rainy. I summited the bridge a second time and from the top saw the slope down toward the finish line. I calculated my time and realized that I was going to do it. There is a race picture my parents captured of me at the top of the bridge, wearing a tank top, shorts, and a pair of gloves, shouting to them, “I’m going to Boston!”

I rolled in with nearly two minutes to spare. I had run the marathon thirty minutes faster than my first. That extra five minutes on the line back then has come to define who I am as an athlete now. It has also cost me more in training gear, driving and airline travel, lodging, race souvenirs, pre-race fuel, post-race brunch, and coffee than I would care to calculate or admit. It helped me achieve my biggest athletic victories, build relationships with runners I now consider my closest friends, and brought me from bench warming to performing toward the top of runners my age.

A few years later the qualifying time for Boston dropped another six minutes for each age group, keeping that carrot dangling in the air. I once again reached for it, and kept dropping my time. Now with small kids, I have missed the race in recent years and have to qualify once again.

I hope to create another victory story, not like the fortified tale my father has told about the Lacrosse championships, but perhaps a truer story about my passion for running that I will now tell my own kids.

Editor’s Note: The goal of the Running Streak series was to write one essay from start to finish each day for an entire month. These essays are mostly unpolished because of the daily production schedule and I hope to edit and expand the series into a full book some miles on down the road. You can find Day 16 of the streak here and Day 18 of the streak here.

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