Every other morning, I woke up at about 6 a.m. and slipped on socks and shoes — the only time I’d cover my feet in the Saharan Desert. I picked a direction, east or west, and ran for 15 or 20 minutes, then turned around.
During those sunrise runs on an African dirt road, I thought about home and envisioned the first time I’d see the people I missed. I thought about how much my life had changed in six months and what it would be like in two years. I planned my activities for the day as I gained motivation to bust through any obstacle.
I fell back in love with running on those days. It was my cup of coffee in the morning, my energizer to start the day. It was my conversation with my body and the treat I gave my self. It was a piece of home in an unfamiliar setting. And, as I pounced on the orange-like dirt leaving my shoe print, I vowed to never let it go, to keep running always a part of my life. I would run marathons and half marathons. I would run early and late. I would run to celebrate and forget life.
When my life turned upside down this January and I was evacuated, I needed something to hold on to, something that would help me get out of bed. Running, as it often has been in my life, was that thing. Thanks to a coughing fit developed in Africa, I bruised a rib and had to start light, running a few miles here and there. But running alone wasn’t enough to actually get dressed for the day; I needed a goal.
While in Niger, a friend sent me a mini notebook that I converted into a buck list. I wrote down all the things I wanted to some day accomplish, including things that are momentous and that I already did. On that list are a marathon and half marathon. With no job and no plan, I threw myself into achieving something off the list, and it was time those two items be crossed off.
It seemed reasonable to start with the half so I found a training plan online and purchased a bib number. I was committed, but more importantly, I had an avenue to focus my energy.
In the beginning months, March and April, some days the only thing I did was run, but it was one thing that I could successfully accomplish and when you don’t have a lot that means something. When someone asked “What did you do today?” replying that I ran was much more impressive than saying I watched six episodes of “How I Met Your Mother” (which I also usually did).
I worked up to that 13.1 miles by running a mile longer each work, watching myself go to distances I’ve never been and my body aching in a very satisfying way. When my shins burned and my heels bled, I felt authentic as if for the first time I was a real runner. I wasn’t faking it this time.
In that time, I struggled a lot with my weight. Like most do, I gained a chunk of weight when returning to the States and, although I was running five times a week, I wasn’t and still am not able, to shake it off. It was discouraging and sometimes a reason to quit, but I had a race to do and each pound in my body would cross that finish line.
On Saturday, I arrived at the Fargodome in Fargo, N.D., just a bit after 6:30 dressed in my most running-like attire. I had consumed my standard peanut butter on whole-wheat toast and banana breakfast, my shoes were double knotted and my hair was in a braid. Eighteen thousand-some runners swarmed the area, some looking like pros and others clearly as nervous as I was. I did all the pre-race rituals that seemed appropriate, even standing in-line for twenty minutes to use the restroom.
Around 8, I headed to the start line, which was packed with the half marathon’s more than 6,100 registrants. I picked a spot not thinking it mattered, but later found out that I was in a way too fast pace group. I eyed each person around me, deciding if they could beat me or not. I looked at their gear and their expressions, wondering what made them decide to do this. The announcer called for our attention and the governor of North Dakota gave a message and then guitar screeched out each note of the “Star Spangled Banner.” A large American flag hung from a crane and I couldn’t help be remember that this journey started eight months earlier while I was serving that flag in the way that I best could.
The “go” was given, but it took a while for me to actually reach the start. I jogged a bit till I got there and, with a pump of the fist, I crossed it and was racing.
The Fargo Marathon is one of the top marathons in the country and is known for its music and spectators. Along each mile was a band and there were very few patches that didn’t have cheerleaders screaming for perfect strangers. I smiled for the nearly the first mile. This environment was fresh and exhilarating. I felt like I belonged.
As I made my way through the streets of Fargo and Moorehead, I thought about my time in Niger and how, during those runs on dirt roads, I imagined many scenarios but running a half marathon in Fargo seven months later was not one of them. I thought about the children who used to run along side me, without shoes but smiling. I thought about Fassima, my host sister, who had the most genuine laugh. I thought about my Peace Corps friends who also enjoyed running and found the activity calming in Niger as I did.
Each mile seemed to stretch more than ever before and pain began to set in my shoulders around mile three. I tried to keep that smile, knowing it would be a waste of 13.1 miles if I couldn’t enjoy it. I pounded each foot, tried to concentrate on the music floating through my ears, grabbed water at the stations and ticked each mile.
I scanned faces of runner passing me – remember, I started at too fast of a pace group – wondering if I recognized any of them. I didn’t. I was surrounded, but felt alone. Around mile 6, I felt a tap. There was someone I knew, running next to me. We said a quick hello, but, as a more seasoned runner, she moved past me as I drifted further back.
I kept moving, wondering if I could actually make it to the finish. I needed encouragement and scanned the crowds, as I had from the beginning, looking for it. Just before mile 8, there they were – the two faces I had searched for. My very loving and patient mother and youngest brother had found spots along the route and were screaming for me as I scooted past. They even had a sign, “Run, Heather Run.” They had been with me before the race and, eventually, after. My mother had been part of my training, helping me stretch, bringing me ice packs and rubbing my shoulders. And my brother offered me a place to stay and made sure my breakfast needs were met. They were my team and seeing them along the route was a one big “keep going” sign. They were my energy bar and I knew I could make it.
Miles 9, 10 and 11 wanted to prove otherwise. Runners in front of me jumped off the course or started walking and something nagged at me to do the same. A voice told me that I should stop or that I couldn’t make it. It reminded me how far back I was and the others passing by. “You really can’t do this,” something said inside.
But I refused to listen. I just couldn’t. I told myself that I needed to go at least one more mile, then one more mile, then one more. It didn’t matter who was behind me or who was in front of me. It only mattered that I was I doing it.
And then I passed the 12-mile mark. The crowds were deep on both sides of the road and the finish, for the first time during the race, seemed like a possibility. We ran into the parking lot, made a few turns and were on the final stretch. Running down a hill, I could see the “FINISH” sign inside the Fargodome and decided it was time. I found some extra energy and used it all, sprinting to the line and passing six or seven people to get there. At 2 hours, 25 minutes and 7 seconds, I passed the finish line with my arms in the air.
My vision immediately was blurred and it was all I could do to stay on my feet and not throw up. Hundreds of people were bottlenecked between the finish line and the food table. I shuffled through them to find water to keep from passing out and then another tap. This time it was an old high school friend who I had hoped to run into. She became my recovery partner and I was able to compose myself back to normal.
It was over. I had made it and earned a medal with “I can do all things” inscribed on the back. I had something to cross off the buck list.
I began this journey alone, to forget life. At the end, there were familiar faces and it was a celebration of life.
It hurt and it was insane, but after the race I bought shoes for marathon training. Running and I are not done. We will never be.