Saved by the Marathon

jamie papaw 14
Bergamot and her grandfather

My watch beeped. Glancing down, I realized I had passed mile 23, that this was the farthest I’d ever run. Tears streamed down my face as I realized, “Oh my God. I’m doing this. It’s happening. I’m actually doing this thing!” My path to this place, my first marathon, had been a rocky one.

Two weeks earlier I had been sitting in the office a rehab facility, listening to a counselor say I was showing “severe levels of clinical depression and an eating disorder,” that I “probably needed to complete intensive outpatient treatment,” and finally, that maybe I “should not run the marathon.”

At home my grandfather, my father figure, was fighting a battle for his life, his second round with pancreatic cancer. He was only 66 years old. When the doctors predicted he had only three or four months left to live, he and my grandmother agreed to hospice care, during which I watched my hero deteriorating before my very eyes. Each time I went home he looked worse and worse. Each hug became more fragile, but more meaningful. His body became tiny, but his spirit remained as strong as ever. I became paranoid any time my cell phone rang that it would be someone breaking the news of his death. Every text message, phone call, and voicemail made my heart stop.

I couldn’t lose him. It would break me.

I couldn’t sleep much, and when I did, my head was filled with nightmares of bones, cancer and death. Marathon training had been a welcome outlet for the pain I felt as I watched his slow decline. At that point, I had been training for three months. My two 20-mile training runs were complete, and I was feeling ready physically. But mentally, I was in complete misery. I couldn’t eat. I had previously fought and overcome anorexia, but this was different. My relapse was due to the extreme depression I was experiencing, not body image issues like I had before. I wanted to eat, and I really tried, but eating, like many other things, became physically impossible. I cried over food. I just couldn’t force one more bite. Part of me wanted to die.

Only one thing in my life remained easy … training.

While training I often ran in my hometown since I visited my grandparents so often. I would finish my long runs and then nap next to my grandpa, who was both impressed and disturbed by my love of long distance (mostly impressed). He even used his own unique way of encouragement, teasing me about training to provoke me into sticking with it. For my first half marathon, years before, he said, “I don’t know, Jame. Thirteen miles is a loooong way.” And after my first 18-mile training run when I was complaining about being sore, “Maybe you should stop training then and quit.” He knew those were fighting words, and he loved to hear my passionate objections. I soaked up every moment I could with him.

I didn’t miss a single workout unless it was a prescribed rest day. In the clinic, the counselor asked me many questions about my future, my own outlook being very grim and hopeless. But the promise of the marathon made me feel alive, which is why I decided to continue preparing and to run the marathon. The race had been my only hope for months and I was losing so much already that I didn’t want anyone to take this away from me too. The marathon gave me a choice. I could either give up or get stronger.

I chose to get stronger.

I was determined to work through my diagnosis with health care professionals, take care of myself, and finish preparing for the race. I remember heading out for a training run that night, just hours after I sat in that counselor’s office. With the support of my friends and family, I showed up on race day, more prepared for anything than I’ve ever been in my life. I joked that if the apocalypse occurred during the race I would still finish because I was prepared for everything one could imagine. My body was ready, and so was my soul. Determined was an understatement.

I ran for my grandfather.  I ran for me.

Finishing this marathon was huge for me. And for my grandfather.

Throughout the race I thought of him and of my grandma. I thought of how tough they were when the odds were stacked against them. I thought of how my grandfather went to the number one hospital in the country for pancreatic cancer care when he was first diagnosed in 2012, and how determined and positive he had remained throughout the struggle. He wasn’t screwing around, and neither was I. I reminded myself whose blood ran through my veins.

At mile 16, before I encountered my very dark miles, I passed someone with a shirt that said, “Cancer sucks.” As I passed him, I shouted with all that was in me, “I F***ING HATE CANCER!” It was a great release. I was facing my demons, and I made it through the dark miles without even slowing to walk one step.

Then I was there, at mile 23. It was the homestretch. I knew I was going to make it. When I crossed the finish line, I broke down into elated tears, a new breathing pattern that my lungs could not accept.

Celebrating my marathon finish together.

I could hear both the pain and the pride in his voice when he broke down over the phone. “I’m just- I’m so proud of ya, and I wish I could have been there.” He started crying, and so did I. In his two year battle with cancer I never saw him fumble once, but he was so upset that he couldn’t be at the finish line for me that day. I felt like my heart was ripped to shreds, and I decided I would leave work the next day and drive the two hours to my hometown to surprise him with my medal and tell him about the experience. When I showed up the next day, proudly wearing my medal, he asked in his usual bunt and endearing way, “What are you doing here?”

That night I curled up on the bed next to him and he asked a simple question: “So. What’s next, Jame?” Having known all along what I was capable of, he had just seen me prove my own strength and dedication so I could finally see it for myself. That moment, as simple as it was, is impressed as unforgettable in my brain. I said sheepishly, “Well, I figured that since I trained so hard for this marathon, I can do just about anything.” He grinned his signature grin and agreed, “I would think so.”

We were right. In a sad, hopeless time, I needed the marathon because it allowed me to realize my potential in all things: how great I could be, how much pain I could physically bear. Unfortunately, Papaw only lived ten more days after the 3-4 month prognosis. But I finished the marathon while he was still alive and did it for both of us. I needed that finish as proof to myself that I could go on living. Proof that even when times are tough, I will not break.

Has running or racing ever saved you?

I'm a student of law and life. A Jill of all trades, master of none. But I'm hoping to master something, sometime. ;) Preferably a sub-23 5k and a sub-4 marathon!

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  1. Thanks J. for sharing. I think my issue stems from not being able to run anymore. Running was also a distraction from my depression for me. Now, I don’t have that distraction, and my depression got the best of me.

    1. I’m so sorry that running is no longer an outlet for you. Definitely keep up the wildlife photography because your eye is brilliant. It’s a blessing to see your photos! Thanks for being a good friend.

  2. You’ve always been an inspiration to me! Always admired you. I was actually jealous of you? I love you old friend!!

  3. Running helps me through … well, almost everything. Life is hard, but running is something we can control that gives back to us in a positive way. Thank goodness we have it! Your story is so touching and so sweet. Your grandfather was right, you ARE a strong, capable woman who can take on anything!

  4. Thank you so much for this powerful and beautiful story! When I ran my first marathon I kept thinking about my friend who was undergoing cancer treatment and it inspired me to keep pushing through the pain.

  5. Beautifully written. I remember when we talked about this in BP – it is so powerful and I believe your grandfather and this race helped you to see how strong and amazing you are.