In the latest Happy Pace Diaries post by Heather Quinlan, we travel to The Windy City. Frequent MRG contributor Heather Q. shares her most recent half-marathon experience as well as introduces us to a few of her BRFs (best running friends).
Well, this Michigan runner girl took half-marathon #2 of 2014 (half #6 overall) on the road… to Chicago! I know what you’re thinking…who travels to Chicago just to RUN? No worries, we had some fun too. Yes, “we,” four amazing ladies, (Kelly, Jenny, Mary, and Crystal) and me! We were “vacationing” (this trip was my summer “vay-kay”) and running the streets of downtown Chicago. Oh fun! A girls’ trip with some of your closest running friends, you say? Well, yes! But here’s the kicker! When we all arrived in Chicago from our home cities, it was actually the first time we all physically met! You read that right. It was like a runner’s version of a blind date, each of us probably secretly hoping that we weren’t about to be “cat-fished.” Thanks to the social media world that we live in, we were all able to connect beforehand via Facebook. I’ll save you the family tree breakdown on how we each met virtually, but I will share with you the stories of these amazing, inspiring women, including two ladies that fortune provided for our running paths to cross before and during the race — once again highlighting how running is more than a pace and gives WAY more than a finisher’s medal.
Kelly is a local Michigander living in Saline. Her enthusiasm for almost anything she’s a part of is undeniable, especially when it comes to running. I know that this fall, she will finish The Detroit Free Press Half Marathon in less than two hours, which is a huge goal of hers. She most definitely has the guts and determination to do it! At the end of 2010, Kelly wanted to get back in to running. Her goal was to lose a few pounds and get back into the swing of things with an activity (running) that she enjoyed as a child, in high school, and in college. How hard could it be to pick up where she left off? Try very! “Yeah right! I couldn’t even run a block after taking close to a 20-year break. So, I tried the Couch to 5K program and I was going to run the 2011 Dexter-Ann Arbor 5K. I had six months to prepare. Running gave me back the confidence I was missing. It wasn’t as easy as it used to be but every week I was able to do what the program asked. It really built me up again. I was really nervous for the 5K because I was 50 pounds overweight and (thought) people would be looking at me. I felt they would think… ‘look at that fatty,’ but no one did! No one judged me. It took me 18 minutes longer to run the race than what it would have in my younger years, but I did it! It actually felt like an accomplishment.” What makes Kelly a runner? “I think what makes me a runner is seeing what is in front of me, whether it be a race, a normal run, or a goal, and actually finishing it makes me a runner. I am always up for a challenge, and to be able to finish it is what makes me a runner.”
On Friday, Kelly and I departed from Ann Arbor and arrived in Chicago by train (definitely a great way to travel to Chicago, in my opinion!). We met up with Mary and Jenny at our downtown hotel and even though it was the first time that the four of us met, it honestly felt like I was meeting friends I’d known all my life. After checking in, we caught a cab and headed over to the expo where we spent a couple hours checking everything out, getting our bibs, laughing, buying fun things that runners buy (like a first time SPIbelt for me…. love it!), mingling with some of the people at the expo (we talked with Dan, a previous contestant on the Biggest Loser, and asked him why Michigan never gets to host a Biggest Loser race… and then I proceeded to tell him how I was going to make that happen. What can I say, I dream loud and clear sometimes!), laughing some more, planning a future trip to run a Disney race, all the while finding my Happy Pace. We even scored Rock ‘n Roll VIP wrist bands/access for the day of the half! All because we “looked like we were having a blast!”…. Yep! See, it pays to be happy. Later that evening, Crystal finally joined us. She came in from Missouri via train and she might not have had as pleasant of an experience as Kelly and I did. At long last… the “Sisterhood of the Traveling Soles,”as we like to call ourselves, was united.
Crystal resides in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. She is definitely all business when it comes to her journey with running. Her determination and independence are admirable! She spoke of achieving a PR in Chicago, which we all know achieving a PR during a summer run is TOUGH… but she did it! She’s one determined cookie… “I initially started running because several other coworkers were runners and I thought ‘Hey, I could try that.’ I needed to lose weight, running is an independent sport (I ENJOY solitude), and I thought it would bring me a sense of accomplishment that I crave. I entered my first race, the Polar Bear Strut 5K, as a part of a fundraiser for the Special Olympics. I was SLOW in that race which motivated me to try another to see if I could improve and then another… and then someone suggested a half marathon. I figured ‘well, these 5Ks aren’t really filling that sense of accomplishment like I hoped but OF COURSE running a half marathon would be a big accomplishment, right?! So now I’m still running 5 & 10Ks as well as half marathons.” But even with all of these accomplishments, seeing herself as a runner is sometimes a struggle… “I struggle with calling myself a runner. I have always done a run/walk interval during races and I am slow. When I think of a distance runner, I think of the lean bodies and fast paced folks you see in the Olympic marathon. But I know that there are TONS of people out there RUNNING these races that don’t fit that description at all.” She’s right, runners come in all shapes, sizes, and abilities. You, my friend, ARE a runner.
Bright and early Saturday morning, we set off for the 5K starting line area to tackle our first race of the weekend. Since Crystal got in extremely late, she didn’t participate but she was there to cheer us on at the end. Kelly and Jenny ran a nice pace, whereas Mary and I decided to save our gazelle-like legs for Sunday’s race. We finished at an easy comfortable pace. It was a nice little 3.1 miles along the lakefront and it was a great start to our day.
Mary resides in St. Louis, Missouri and is truly full of life! Her preparation for the Rock ‘n Roll half, her FIRST half-marathon, was unfortunately stymied a bit because of a personal struggle with hip complications. But did that stop her? Not a chance. She’s a very determined lady. Why did she start running? “It was the fall of 2012 and I was cheering on my friend Steven at the Rock ‘n Roll St. Louis half marathon. I had just moved to the city, was obese, and saw all of these people having so much fun with running. Well, they may have been a bit miserable but the atmosphere was awesome! I wanted to be one of those people! I decided right there, while cheering on my friend and thousands of people I didn’t even know, that I would run a half marathon. I wasn’t sure how I was going to make it happen, but I was inspired. If I wouldn’t have gone to cheer Steven on that day, I don’t think I would have ever gotten off the couch, laced up my running shoes, and dropped 80 pounds and counting!” It clicked for Mary that yes, she too IS a runner when she participated in a Runner’s World run streak at the end of 2013, “I had to run at least a mile every day or I felt weird. I continued the streak for almost 40 days.” Bottom line, “I can achieve a goal I think is totally crazy when I set it.” Indeed, she most definitely can!
Post-race, we made our way to the incredible Wildberry Pancakes and Café for breakfast (if you’re in Chicago, this place is a MUST). In the afternoon, Jenny, Crystal, and I ventured off to tour Chicago via Segway (kinda tricky at first, but definitely a fun way to tour the city). Mary and Kelly decided to do an architectural boat tour of the city. We reunited for our pre-half dinner and I think it was then, at least for me, that the moment started to sink in a bit…. we’re not just here to enjoy ourselves, we’re here to run 13.1 miles. Yep, the nerves slowly started to make themselves at home. But I continued to remind myself… just have fun, you’re alive and you’re here and you’ll finish. We returned to our room and the race day gear set-up for all five of us began. It’s getting real. Set the alarms, we had a busy morning ahead of us.
After some half-hearted sleep (what can anyone really expect the night before a big race?), we all awoke Sunday with no need to hit the snooze… it was game time. Race gear on and nerves intact, we made our way to the starting area. En route, we met another Michigan runner, Kristen (whom you’ll meet shortly), who we briefly got to chat with and learn more about. As it so happens, she’s practically my neighbor and she’s running for some truly remarkable reasons.
Kristin is from Roseville, Michigan. In the brief time we shared walking towards the starting area, she shared that a huge part of why she runs is for her mother…. “Running the Chicago half was kind of emotional for me. My mom passed away in February and when I saw a few people running with someone in a wheelchair during the race, I kind of started crying. Pretty sure a spectator thought I was crying because of being in pain! I also saw a man with mechanical legs running past me, and it just kind of made me realize that anyone is capable of doing anything. Seize the day! When people tell me that they could never run races like I do, I say yes you can! Because I never thought I would be doing this. The Chicago race taught me that anything is possible.” What’s next for Kristin? “My goal since January 1st of this year is to run the full Free Press marathon this October. I saw that multiple sclerosis was a charity and that is what my mom had. I actually told my mom I was running this race for her. Unfortunately, since she’s passed away, I feel that now I must finish no matter what. I do not care if I am crawling across that finish line. I will finish.” Talk about powerful inspiration…. I am grateful for the chance to meet such an inspiring person. I’d never have had the opportunity to meet her if it weren’t for running. I can’t wait to see her finish that full this fall….. she’s going to rock it, I just know it.
We had some time before the race so we made use of our VIP access to use the “fancy” port-a-potties and pre-race treats (if we chose). Kelly utilized her VIP status to meet and get a picture with Shalane Flanagan (no big deal, right Kelly?). Shortly, it was time to make our way to our corrals and wish each other luck with a “see you at the finish line!” I continued to remind myself that the second I cross the starting line, I’m one step closer to finishing. Once you’re running, the nerves just kind of disappear because at that point, you’re doing it. All the guesswork and predicting is over… it’s IN progress. All that is left is to finish. And that’s just what we did.
Super tired, super proud, and super sore in the most unimaginable places, we took pride in all that we accomplished that morning. We all finished at different times, but the key words are… we all finished. For me, it was by far my hardest half marathon ever. Between legs that felt out of sync, feet that felt heavy, sweat that accumulated mile after mile, fingers that swelled up way too soon, and aches and pains in places I’d not felt before… it was rough. Coming around the turn nearing mile 10, I felt like divine intervention took over because my journey joined strides with another awesome runner…
Gretchen is from Carol Stream, Illinois but attends the University of Iowa. Although our time together was roughly 3 miles long, I quickly got a glimpse that she, too, is a very determined runner as this was her first half marathon and she’ll be running in the Chicago full marathon this fall! “I wanted to start running because my friend and I decided we were going to do the Chicago marathon for a charter called Dance Marathon. This is an organization that supports kids with cancer.” Running truly does give back in so many ways, doesn’t it? I love her outlook on what makes a runner, “someone who tries her best no matter what the battle is and they try their hardest no matter how slow they go. I would say I am a runner because I go out and try my hardest and push my body as hard as I can so I can accomplish any goal.” I’d say she’s off to a phenomenal start!
Just when I needed a buddy and a pick-me-up the most, she asked me a quick question and from there we tackled those final 3 miles together. That was a miracle as I seriously was feeling like I had very little left. With about a quarter of a mile left, Gretchen went on ahead and I found whatever happy pace I had left in me to run the remaining distance. My legs and feet felt like heavy sand bags and with the summer sun and heat, my hands/fingers were puffier than P Diddy was circa the late 1990s. Why in the world did the finish line STILL seem so far away? As I got closer and closer, which seemed like it took forever, and was within a few yards of the finish line, I heard Jenny from the sidelines cheering me on. Someone I know!
Jenny, our “token Canadian”, joined us all the way from Calgary, Alberta! Ever since I started to get to know Jenny, I realized two things about her – she has a heart of gold and genuinely wants to see people succeed, and she’s a fighter, determined to see her goals come to fruition no matter how many ups and downs life throws at her. OK, maybe that was more than two things… but I just know she’s awesome and has quickly become my “international sister,” so much so that her initial outlook on running feels similar to my own… “Let me start by saying that I have NEVER been a runner. I grew up very overweight and could not run when I was asked to in gym class. I actually started running in 2009 when I came back from a year away in Australia and back to work for Lululemon Athletica. The company had decided to expand their focus from yoga wear to include technical running clothes. I practiced yoga but figured I couldn’t be authentic to the brand if I didn’t run too. I set a goal to run the big local 10K race in April of 2010 and started running in October 2009, taking a break for the winter because it was slippery (little did I know then that I’d be running in snow two years later and running half marathons in -30 Celsius four and a half years later). I chose the 10K because I had done it years before with a friend (mostly walking) and knew it was achievable.” Jenny has since gone on to run in 25 half marathons and a few marathons, including one in Honolulu in 2012. What has running taught her? “All runners go through phases where they are better or worse than they have been. As my 25th half marathon (Chicago 2014), my time was similar to my first. I have been slower and I have been faster. My finish times depend on training, injuries, and mind set. I knew I wasn’t as trained as I could have been but I went out to have fun and not race it.” I’m so proud of her and all that she does to make this world a better place.
Being able to see her within minutes of finishing meant the world to me. As much of a struggle as this race was for me, for most of those 13.1 miles, it was truly a gift that I got to even participate at all. The day before I was set to leave for Chicago, I was in a car accident. Headed in to teach summer school on a busy local Metro Detroit expressway and out of nowhere….. BAM. I was forcefully hit from behind, spun around, and suddenly I faced oncoming traffic, completely helpless and at the mercy of a greater power. I’ve never had my life flash before my eyes until that moment. For some reason I’ll never know, I walked away unscathed. My car, not so much. Later that day as I tried to wrap my mind around why that happened and how I wasn’t injured more seriously or worse, the only thing that made sense was that God isn’t done with me yet. I have more to give, to impact, to experience. I took that feeling with me each step of this race and when I felt like death, I checked myself….. I’m alive. I’m here. I’m blessed. I meant what I said earlier when I shared that running, especially this race, is much more than a pace and a medal. Sure, those things are important… don’t get me wrong. But for me, this entire race experience was about celebrating life and having the pleasure of doing so with like-minded people with very different, yet special, running abilities and life stories. THIS is what running does – it unites. It unites you with not only your own potential but with people whom you’d never have the pleasure of meeting, but now can’t imagine life without. THIS is what makes running a life changing experience.
If you look deeply enough, you’ll find a common bond among runners. There is a uniqueness that links runners of all stripes and colors, shapes and sizes. Our stories may be different but running is our link; it’s our bond. Why do we run? Ask a thousand people and you’ll get a thousand answers but if you look closely, you will see the thread that unites runners wherever they are found. For Kelly, running gave her back the confidence in herself. Running gave Mary a sense of belonging to a special community and a chance to better herself. For Crystal, it gave her the sense of accomplishment she craved. Running allowed Jenny to be authentic in her daily life. It gave Kristen the motivation she needed to better her health. What unites them all? Faith. It’s a faith that says that I can do more than I am doing and be better than I am. It is the essence of why I, why they, why we all run. Running yields a belief that the next step will move us one step closer to whom we were meant to be. What’s next for us? Being better than we were the day before. Running…we believe.