So we went to Jacksonville and now you know our reasons, but perhaps you are left wondering why a back or middle of the pack runner would care about Jacksonville. About elite runners. How are these fast women connected to you? Why should you care?
To dispel any myths here: my first race had a mile pace of 15 minutes and my last race had a pace of 7:45. I’ve been the slowest woman on my team many times, and it’s pretty rare that I can hang with the fast crowd. I’m happy with my progress, but really over four years of writing for SR I’ve gone from solidly average to just a hair above average. As for Jacksonville, a week ago I was essentially in the same boat as most other mid-packers. I’ll likely never compete with these elite women or at their level, so before this weekend I didn’t think that I fit into any discussion about them.
I knew Jacksonville would be fun, and was excited to spend time with my sister there, but throughout the experience I wasn’t quite certain what our role was. Salty tried to explain her ideas to me, but it didn’t really amount to much out of context. Obviously we had taken on a job, providing media coverage of women at the biggest elite field a small scale half marathon had ever seen, but … why? Salty Running isn’t the Gawker of running, or even the New York Times, but something was nonetheless compelling me to do this exhausting work. Something bigger.
Something that affects you.
“Obviously I’m not running,” I said to four-time Olympic Trials qualifier Alvina Begay as I sat down next to her on the bus. In the back of my mind I wondered about that. Was it obvious to her? Maybe. I have a good 35 pounds on the heaviest elite woman in Jacksonville. I’m wearing size 10 jeans these days. That’s what I meant. I meant it must be obvious because I’m so big. It would be impossible for someone like me to ever run at their level. Wouldn’t it?
Or would it? An overarching theme as we spoke to these women – and the men agreed – was that possibility is infinite if we approach limitation as a setback. So I’m heavier than them. So what? If I start training like an elite, I bet my body would change to reflect that. A couple times it came up that I’m on a mission to shave off 19 minutes from my marathon PR for a BQ. “You’ll get there,” Brooke Kish said, the day before her OTQ attempt. “Keep working. It takes a couple years.” Teal Burrell echoed the statement; she qualified at CIM in spite of her first marathon being just 3 minutes faster than my first marathon.
I took it to heart, because they know. They’ve been working at this running stuff very hard for a long time. And it’s a relatively small payoff: sure, they are elite runners and that means getting extra respect and special treatment at some races and, in this case, even a bit of celebrity, but that’s about it. Even for Shalane and Desi and Kara, though they are likely household names to you, there still isn’t much payoff or celebrity in being a female professional athlete in an economically minor sport. And up against the top, most of the women in Jacksonville know they don’t have a shot at Team USA for the marathon. So why do they keep competing?
Zoila had passed me by and I knew. I knew it was over, but I kept my lens trained on the track. I wanted to see Ruth, who I’d had so much fun with at interviews on Saturday, and the Cleveland Elite Development women who had yet to finish, Becki and Jessica and Ellie, and even those after them. I wanted to stay and see the women like me, who give everything they have to barrel down a chute for a mid-pack PR that defies the gravity of their heavy bodies. But I turned and dashed toward the finish line to cover women who run at a level beyond my wildest dreams, at a half pace that is faster than I may ever run.
So why do I keep competing?
What makes us the same?
We’re all different people running at different levels, but I surmise that, when boiled down, we all have one thing in common: we are searchers. And as a monk might seek nirvana by meditating, we run because it is when we feel closest to finding that which we seek.
Ruth Perkins might call it God. She has a rule: if she sees a penny while running, she picks it up and touches it to her heart to remind her to trust in God, even if the circumstances are discouraging. She has crossed heavy traffic for a penny. She considers this ritual an essential reminder that it is difficult to have faith in something greater than herself.
Is that what we’re seeking? Higher power? Or is it inner power?
“Aus Liebe,” reads Esther Atkins’ tattoo. Out of love. I think that’s closer. Running is certainly a competition, but if you read her writeup about the race, it’s clear that Esther won in spite of coming in second. So did Keely and Karen, who were bubbling over in the back of our van on the way back to the hotel. So did Zoila Gomez, even though she missed the OTQ by 27 seconds … hell, not long ago she thought she might never run again and here she was running a 1:15:27 half. It was bittersweet, sure, but she won.
In a life touched with depression, somehow I managed to turn to running. At thirteen my sadness was much deeper than adolescent angst and I needed something to hold onto. With no prior athletic inclination, I spent the next summer running every day. The rewards were great and I healed without knowing why or how. At seventeen I found myself down again and experienced my first round of suicidal thoughts. Out the door I went, running until it didn’t hurt anymore. It was even worse between nineteen and twenty and I tried twice, thankfully unsuccessful, but running soon helped me close the wound. At twenty-three, twenty-five, twenty-seven, I knew the moment the thoughts crossed my mind that I needed to start running again to get better. And at 28 finally I saw the pattern. I knew that running was my life preserver, and that I couldn’t stop this time. I started racing. I started winning.
Running is about getting closer. Closer to your inner power: to God perhaps, or to the science of the brain and body. Your own indomitable soul. Closer to a truth you know deep down but can’t quite put into words. It’s the truth that you have the power to exceed your own expectations, whether that means defying the gravity of your body, running your first continuous mile or getting an OTQ. This truth is what I believe in, and those who know this truth are family to me.
When you link a chain together, the links at the front will pull the links at the back. I care about these women because they are part of my tribe, the front of my chain. I care about you because you are in my chain. We are alike, searchers all, braving rainy cold and humid heat and boring treadmill daily in our quest for the truth about the power inside us. If we stick together, when the elites get closer to the truth, I get closer too. As they exceed the expectations of the human body to run marathon paces that put my 400m time to shame, their success pulls me farther ahead, inspires me to work harder, reminds me to recover well, helps me build my body as a temple of my faith and trust in the truth.
I care about them because I want to succeed. I brought you their story to link you to our chain so you can succeed too. If we all work together and use the Power of the Pack the way the elites used it in Jacksonville, we all get closer to realizing our full potential.