All Marathons Have a Backstory

My grandpa certainly got it right when it came to living.

There’s something about marathons and the training that comes with it when you toe the line. I’ve only done one in my life and it was a long time ago. Back then, the story that came with that marathon was that I was a senior in college, looking to do a marathon because it was the thing to do. When I finished, I cried because I didn’t think I could do it, especially since I never gave the race the training it deserved.

Last September, I signed up again for the Akron Marathon because the course had my heart and I wanted to finally give this race the training it deserved. I had a good, early afternoon run on Saturday, June 1st. Afterward, I felt so energized and excited about the Akron Marathon that I sat down and wrote up a tentative 17 week training plan. A couple of hours later, I got the call from my mom that grandpa was unexpectedly on his deathbed.

Next time, I’ll write in pencil.

This training plan has seen all kinds of twists and turns. A 17 week plan instantly turned into a 15 week plan for I couldn’t even remember the days I ran during the first two weeks after his death. And when things started to get back to somewhat normal, by week 3, I was considering throwing in the towel.

The other day, I finished a 30 minute tempo run and had to hold back tears. During much of the time spent on my feet this summer, I’ve often wondered why training for this race has been so emotional, why some 26.2 mile footrace means so much to me. And only then, 9 weeks in, is when it hit me. I made a plan. And instantly, life happened.

On the night of June 1st, I went to the nursing home for the last time to visit with my grandpa. Our family had been making weekly trips throughout the last four years to this place. It had become our norm to have birthdays, Christmases, and Easters with him there. As the years passed, his words slowly slipped away. But he always had that smile with him, even on his grumpy days. We knew that the time would come, but we thought we’d have a warning (as if some 20 years without a death in the family wasn’t a long enough warning).

I have feared death for much of my life. Not only did I fear the death of a loved one and all the emotions that come with it, but also my own death. Much of my anxiety centered around protecting my body from the inevitable. I was often in flight or fight mode and at my worst, I could have very well scared myself to death! Heart racing? Oh, I’m dying! Heartburn? This is the end! To this day, I don’t know how I got the courage to walk into his room that night.

All of my family had since left, it was around 9pm. My boyfriend, James was on his way to offer support. I still get angry when I think about the grandpa I knew before James and how we both were robbed of them not getting to meet each other. Grandpa was there for all of my prom dates and boyfriends. Now here was the best one and all James got to see was a voiceless man withering away. They weren’t lying when they said Alzheimer’s is one the most saddening and frustrating illnesses.

The later pictures are hard to look at. This what not the grandpa we used to know.
The later pictures are hard to look at. This was not the grandpa we used to know.

But I had to put that anger aside. I had to be with him that night, even though I didn’t want to face it. I was his first grandchild, one of eighteen. He picked me up from school nearly everyday for 12 years. He even allowed my mom, sister, and me to live in his house. I owed it to him. It was hard to look at his face but when I sat down next to him and grabbed his hand, I had to laugh, for from the side, he looked 40 years younger. How could a man go so long and through so much and only have about two wrinkles and on top of that, all of his hair left? I took a deep breath.

As my nerves started to settle, I just let us both share that moment together. I knew that eventually I would understand the magnitude of this experience but in the moment, I let all the different emotions run wild in my heart. It was ok to not have any words for what was happening. When James showed up, he stood in the corner and just watched.

We stayed with him for about an hour. When I went to bed that night, I knew that I would wake up in the morning to hear of the news.

Grandpa died at two in the morning, a mere four hours after we left. You can never prepare for how grief will feel and what it will do to you. After the many tears, prayers, laughter, memories, photos, and the funeral itself, that last night with him started to make more sense.

Life meets death.

I had sat with death. Looked it straight in the eye and felt calm. No longer was I as scared as years past. I had a hand to hold while seeing it, too. And while I didn’t know what to feel at the time, I look back and long to be in the moment again, for it was so peaceful.

I never would’ve expected my life to change so much within hours of writing that training plan.

On July 28th, I ran a three-hour long run, my longest one to date. My plan was to start from my house and run out to the cemetery where he is buried. Due to trail closures, the route ended up being a bit longer than I thought. I didn’t get to his grave until a little under two hours. Grandpa was going to want me to work my way back!

I sat down at his new resting place, sipping on some Gatorade and a gel. Yeah, I was crying, though something about those tears felt so good. He was gone in the physical sense. But I could feel him sitting next to me. In fact, it feels like he has been watching me train this entire cycle.

I imagined this look when visiting his new home, just sitting there listening.

But it’s just running, right? My heart yearns to understand why running can be such a powerful force. Some run to compete. Others run for health. I think I run to feel. After all, running is one of the few things in this life we can control, forward motion with our legs. And even when life has other plans, seeming to spin out of control, it is running that gives us the space to gather ourselves.

As time nears close to race day, I continue to wonder why marathon training can evoke such emotions. As a result, my excitement grows. Is it because the marathon is an adventure, a microcosm for this life? 3 plus hours on one’s feet is a lot longer than 25 minutes. You spend weeks on end training for one day and you’re lucky if you get there healthy. For me, I feel like I’ve been training my whole life for this experience. And I don’t even have the words yet for what exactly that experience will be. While we’re here on earth though, it is quite an amazing opportunity to be given, to be able to push our physical bodies through such a journey, day in and day out.

Do you find that marathons bring out a flood of emotions? What is it about marathons that create such rich experiences?

I write about mindfulness, mental health, and the professional sport of running with the occasional poking fun at the sport. When I am not running, I'm either helping people as a counselor or trying to make them laugh as an amateur open mic comedian.

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  1. Wow. This had me at “There’s something about marathon’s….”. First, I am deeply sorry for your loss. From your writing, it is easy to see how precious the bond with your Grandfather is. I know you will continue to “feel” him around you in many ways in your life. I lost my father 9 years ago now. Although, I cannot relate his loss to my running, I feel him and sense him everywhere, especially at the times I need him the most.

    I love, love, love how you said that you think you run to feel. That is so spot on for me. Yes, I am a competitive runner, driven by the next race. I have caught the marathon bug and have a passionate love for this distance. However, not every run is rooted in my training, BUT, every run allows me to feel. Running is to me is like the oxygen that we need to live. Without it, I would be dying. It helps me get through so much in my life and all the stresses that come with it. I have developed some very special friendships through running, where our runs are all about feelings. The girls I train with, we always joke that we leave it all out on the paths and roads. We get all of our feelings off of our shoulders, through tears, through laughter, through anger.

    I wish you the best of luck at Akron this year. Another relative note from your writing…I loved the Akron marathon so much last year that I, too, signed up for it this year- the day after I ran it. Circumstances have changed my plans as I will be running the Columbus full this year, and part of the relay of the Akron marathon.

    And, I am not sure what is is about the mystique of the marathon that draws such strong emotions from myself. I ran one marathon in 2001 and said I am done, Eleven years later I ran my second (in May of 2012) and here I am, training for my fourth marathon in a row. I think it is just time spent on the road, allowing me to feel, giving me a strong sense of accomplishment, achieving something that, in the eyes of most, is unattainable. All I know is that it has an undeniable power over me….that keeps calling me back;).

    1. Hi Michelle. Thank YOU for your kind words and thoughts. Glad I’m not the only one getting all emotional from running! Good luck at Akron! Hope to see you there!

  2. What a wonderful, beautiful testament to your grandfather. Your words were eloquent and captivating. While most might see this as a story about running, i see it as a story about a life of wonderful memories and how in those fading moments when we are facing one of the worse moments in our life you still found the beauty in death itself.

  3. This was beautifully written, and really hit home for me this week, as I literally ran though all of the emotions of having my own father battling for his life inside the trauma unit in the ICU. He came through, thankfully.

    There’s something about running during the emotional turmoil that keeps us grounded, and sane, and brings us back to a place so primal that it’s OKAY to just feel. In today’s world, especially as women, I think we all try to be so strong all the time. But running doesn’t care. Running strips you naked for the world, and at the same time while it’s infusing you with strength and drawing from your determination, it’s exposing all of your vulnerabilities. There’s some ironic comfort in that.

    I’m so sorry that you lost your grandfather, but I’m so glad that you’ve got a forever-running partner in his spirit.