Mile 24 of the Twin Cities Marathon, October 2019: man, my feet hurt. My mind is exhausted, I am not energetic or fresh, and I NEED to POOP! I hear my friend’s voice from the side of the course and I cry, “I need to use the bathroom!” She yells in reply, “THERE ARE BATHROOMS AT THE FINISH LINE!”
When I pass Dale Street, I know it’s mostly downhill from here. There’s no pushing the pace, and there’s no slowing down. All I have to do is just keep moving. This is Saint Paul, my home turf. I have seen college teammates, current teammates, people from my coaching group, people from my lunchtime running crew, even my physical therapist along the course. When I turn just past Ramsey Street, I know it should be cake from here, but it sure doesn’t feel like it. Once I pass the cathedral, I know that this is going to happen. I am going to finish the marathon. The finishing chute is a tunnel-vision, all-I-have-left experience.
And then it’s over. I hear my name on the loudspeaker and slow to a walk, bent over and breathing heavy. I can’t hear anything anymore, and all I feel is awe.
Three hours and thirty eight minutes ago, I’d had a small victory by even making it to the start line. After getting my period the night before and letting out some sour four-letter words, being careful to eat just the right amount to maximize energy while preventing stomach pain, jogging around the start line for five minutes, slowly removing layers, changing from my trainers to my flats, checking my bag, and lining up at the back of corral, I looked up to see the Hennepin County Government Center. My abuser had been released from jail there on Wednesday night, less than four days before I lined up for the marathon. But this was my race, not his.
I started the marathon at a conservative pace, just keeping warm and assessing how I felt. The course brought me back in time, to the long months before. Beginning in downtown Minneapolis by the Government Center, in the crisp October air, to Hennepin Avenue, past the Walker Art Center and sculpture garden, I remembered visiting the sculpture garden with my family two summers ago. They came from Texas for my college graduation, all of us dressed up in our Sunday best on a foggy May afternoon.
But going in the other direction, Hennepin Avenue wove through downtown, flowed up to Northeast and then hit its groove in Southeast above the major university area. The Sexual Violence Center, where my friend had brought me on the first Friday of August to help me find options for safe housing, sat along that straightaway. Miles down the road, heading in the opposite direction, on race day we turned off to head west towards Lake of the Isles. A few days after I’d finally moved into my new place in late August, I’d gone on a run here to try to follow the course of the marathon from the turn-off of Hennepin leaving Lake of the Isles. I’d gotten lost on this road, been afraid of the dark, afraid of the road ahead of me. The summer had spun me around, hit me on the head, and left me dizzy and confused. But on race day in October, hundreds of others led the way, in daylight.
Between Bde Maka Ska (formerly Lake Calhoun), Lake Harriet, and the entrance to Minnehaha Parkway, I was on my bread-and-butter route. I’d run my tune-up race, the City of Lakes Half, around these lakes four weeks before, surprising myself with a four minute PR that was tantalizingly close to sub-1:40. Bde Maka Ska was where I’d done my last month of training for the marathon. Lake Harriet was where I’d sobbed for seven miles the week after my tune-up half; I’d just learned that my coworkers had been overhearing my calls and cries in empty conference rooms, picking up on my apprehension.
Minnehaha Parkway, a long, windy path from Southwest Minneapolis to Fort Snelling, and almost Saint Paul, brought me past memories of my longest training runs, where I’d carefully spaced out my gels and wished I could have more, because they tasted like candy. I’d paused on training runs to check my messages, particularly those from the group chat of the several other women who had come forward about the same abuser.
On the marathon course, Lake Nokomis brought me back to a crucial life point I would have given anything to do over. Memorial Day weekend, I’d run the Brian Kraft 5K around the lake in pouring rain. One week later, I met the man who had now spent a week in jail partly on my account. Fort Snelling brought me to my long-run bathroom spot, and then up to West River Road. I found the 3:40 pacer and tried to stay in the general vicinity, having run the last 8 or so miles in the low 8:xx’s and not wanting to hit the wall. I’d felt good at the half, but had been suspicious of this feeling. When was this going to get hard? When was it going to become the hardest thing that many people ever do?
Climbing up the hill to the Franklin Avenue bridge, I kept my mind on the friends who I knew would be cheering for me on the other side. I’d crossed this bridge on every run for the three weeks in August I’d spent sleeping on a friend’s pull-out couch, hoping for a miracle. Now, this friend ran after me on the side of the course, taking a video of me running while I laughed and nearly cried at how happy I was to see her, to be here on this sunny day, and to have made it to mile 18.
I started feeling the miles in my legs. It wasn’t comfortable any more. I had to shift to a higher gear just to keep my pace. The worst hill in the race, my teammate had told me, was the one leading from East River Road up to St. Thomas University and Summit Avenue. I’d been here before, on the day after that first date in early June. I’d woken up in a panic at 3 a.m., with fire coursing through my veins. I’d tried to go back to sleep, but eventually gave up and went on a Tuesday morning long run, all the way from downtown Saint Paul down Grand until the river, and then back up Summit. I’d kicked myself since, not for the run, but for not realizing what that insomnia and panic had meant. I’d ignored it, but my body had been telling me loud and clear: “This man is dangerous. You are not safe.”
By the time I hit Summit Avenue in St. Paul, anything easy or fun about the marathon had fallen away. I felt weathered. To my left, I heard my name, and I turned to see one of my work running buddies, someone who’d done many tempo workouts with me, cheering for me with his family. If anything could keep me going, that was it. It was no longer early morning, but instead the most beautiful, sunny, crisp race day I could ever have asked for. Thank goodness I’d worn my sunglasses. Every step I took here, I’d taken before: until recently, I had lived in my own apartment in downtown Saint Paul. In August, I’d had to move for my own safety on five days’ notice. This felt like my home turf, but really it was my former home turf. The home turf that had been pulled out from under my feet.
When I saw the cathedral, I remembered the conversation he and I had on our first date. We’d been at a restaurant a few blocks up from Summit. I’d told him that I was training for Twin Cities Marathon and pointed to the dome of the cathedral, which I would pass just before the finish line. He’d poked a joke at me, that of course I would look forward to a downhill finish.
My mind snapped out of the past, and I put in everything I had left. I’d run down and up Summit, from the cathedral to the Capitol, hundreds of times. It had been my bread and butter for over a year. From the summer’s beating sun, to the autumn’s crisp sunsets, to the winter’s dark frigid wind, past spring — a season that Minnesota barely has — to another summer’s sun, this one distorted and surreal. I hadn’t been back many times since I’d moved. During my few weeks of not having a home, I’d thought about this spot that I loved, and how it felt to lose it, and cried. I’d felt so alone.
After the finish line, I struggled to move myself to the medals, to the shirts, to the Gatorade. I sat on the curb outside the Capitol building and I sipped, my mind blank. After getting my bag back, I slowly peeled off my flats and pulled on my trainers. And I walked on.
After the marathon I didn’t run for a week. Over the next two weeks, I did a few short runs. It felt implausible that these sore stubs had just run a marathon. I met with the prosecutor, and left with no better idea of when the trial would be than when I’d arrived. I bleached my hair again. I channeled all my energy into doing my absolute best at work. I considered withdrawing my protection order, and then instead found a pro bono lawyer to represent me. I got a new tattoo – of fern for sincerity and magic, daisies for innocence and hope, bittersweet for truth, and dill for protection from evil. I pressed lotion into it while I got dressed for civil court. I hadn’t run in a few days. It had been hard to get out of bed.
I’d expected him to “accept without findings”, but he requested an evidentiary hearing. His lawyers had printed out text messages I had sent, taken out of context, twisted to mean things that they hadn’t. My lawyer, who had probably only had an hour or so to prepare for my case, to his lawyers’ weeks, told me she honestly believed me but didn’t think I would win. There was another woman there on the same day, to get a protection order from the same man. They’d scheduled our hearings at his convenience, with the same judge, so that as soon as his proceeding with her was done, no time would be wasted in getting along to mine.
The other woman received the news that she’d won, and would come away with a protection order. I watched her sign it while I was whisked away to the courtroom.
During my hearing, I didn’t cry. I didn’t break down. I didn’t wear my emotions on my sleeve. My heart saved them for later.
I thought that because the other woman had gotten her protection order against him, I probably would, too. I didn’t.
Afterwards, the two friends who came for support walked to the car with me, silence thick around us. The sun was bright but setting, and very far away. I drank a whole bottle of wine that night and stayed home from work the next day. I went to the art supply store, on a run, and to an appointment with my new trauma therapist. I went straight from there to the emergency room. I hadn’t even had a shower since my run.
I started over. I felt exhausted, out of shape, so far from the person who’d run her first marathon feeling strong and capable just a month beforehand. I’d become someone who couldn’t get out of bed, couldn’t eat, couldn’t hold a conversation. In the hospital I received a diagnosis of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I learned to experience joy again. I had no access to my phone. I read a book, painted, made a friendship bracelet, played Banana Grams and Apples to Apples and mini bowling and cards, and goofed around with the other patients. After six days of inpatient treatment, I transitioned to a partial hospitalization program for a few weeks. I went to group therapy for six hours every day. I focused on feeding myself and getting myself to therapy. Running felt terrible but I went every few days for fresh air. I dyed my hair back to its natural brown and got it cut short, to look like myself again.
The last three months have felt like climbing a mountain. Sometimes it feels like I am making a lot of progress, and other times it feels like there’s no summit, I’ll have to go on laboring like this forever. But there is a Summit, and I reached it on the first Sunday of October. And all I had to do then, and all I have to do now, is Just. Keep. Moving.