Wintergrace by Jean Ritchie
This is the time, so well we love,
The time of all the year,
When winter calls with chilling breath,
For fireside and good cheer.
A time for man and beast to stand,
And feel the seasons turn,
To watch the stars for secret signs
And God’s true lessons learn.
I do love this time of year. This week between Christmas and New Year’s when the world seems to pause for a beat. The work of Christmas is over. The work of January is not yet begun. It’s a time of reflection. A chance to catch our breaths. Spend time with friends and family without the pressure of the Big Event. Space to think.
On the surface, my 2018 in running looked like this: Sarah returns to the marathon to run a very hot, slow race in February. Sarah spends the spring running a string of PRs at shorter distances. Sarah finally (!) gets a Boston qualifying time at the Erie marathon in September. But what happened next? First, a little year-in-review.
In January, I ran a lot of miles, many of them in absolutely frigid temperatures. On a rare treadmill run, my word for 2018 came to me: Focus. Focus on what you want, on what you need to do in order to get there. Focus on what matters.
Then I did go run an insanely hot marathon in Florida, 26.2 with Donna. The marathon broke my heart (again) but also reminded me that I want to be able to play more than I want to win. That is, the chance to get to the starting line is more important than the time on the clock at the finish. When you miss your goal time by AN HOUR, however, it’s still pretty rough. After a good deal of reflection, I know that even though I didn’t get the finishing time I wanted in Jacksonville, I got some other things that matter a lot. I got proof that I could still run marathons. I got to meet my coach in person. I got to share a marathon with my parents and a good friend. Remember the big picture.
Then in the spring, I had some real fun. I ran PRs at all the shorter distances: the 5K (with HPRM #1!), the 10K (third woman overall!), the 10 mile (broke 1:20:00!), the half marathon (twice!), and the mile (also twice, plus again on the crazy Spring Street Mile race!). I learned a lot about racing and about myself. I focused on not taking the deal that the devil inevitably presents during a race. I found my running connecting to my spiritual life in ways I had never imagined. I was learning to be braver.
The summer brought hot and humid marathon training and a whole lotta driving with road trips to Geneva-on-the-Lake for a family reunion and Cypress Lake Provincial Park for family vacation. I slogged out the miles on the road and at home.
Some runs inevitably stick out in your mind. I remember pausing on a bridge in Wadsworth State Park when a heron flew overhead. Beauty on the wing. I remember sweltering through a 22 miler with Squirrel when we stopped at the golf course to refill our water bottles. We banged out the last few miles of that run in the shared silence of hard, hot work, preparing our bodies and minds for the challenge of the races to come. I remember a crazy Alice in Wonderland style run with Snarky Girl when the woods was so full of mushrooms that it seemed transformed into an alien planet. I remember a difficult, demoralizing solo 20 miler on the airline trail that temporarily shook my confidence, but ultimately gave me something to draw on come race day. Hot, hot, hot all summer and I welcomed it because I was focused on out-training Mother Nature and whatever she wanted to throw at me.
August brought more summer fun. Coach Cupcake came for a visit and we escaped for a day to NYC for loads of walking and a theater visit.
I spent an incredibly special weekend in Newport, RI on a Run-cation, with friends new and old.
The Erie Marathon on September 9th was the pinnacle of my running year in many of ways. I’ve already written lots about that race. When I look back on it now, I think: Focus. The BQ is what I wanted most out of running this year and I got it. Triumph!
That triumph felt weirdly short-lived, to be honest. The plantar fasciitis that had plagued me in 2017-2018 flared up again in August. We managed it successfully to get through Erie. Coach Mick and I both assumed that a little time off running would fix the foot right up, but it didn’t. Every time I tried to run, it hurt. Finally I pounded out an angry 9 mile run in Pittsburgh that soothed my soul, but blew up my foot. It was time to change gears.
I’ll write separately about the hunt for (yet another) podiatrist, the decision to try EPAT, and details of that treatment. My plan had been to spend the fall running around with my girlfriends watching the leaves change color. Instead I spent a bunch of time driving to the podiatrist’s office and a whole lot of emotional energy being worried. The whole season feels heavy and dark. Sure, there were some bright spots. I cheered friends to incredible PRs at Hartford. The Manchester Road Race was absolutely freezing, but still a lot of fun. I started running with Pokey and Speedy Stork and I revived the Friday Girlfriend Run. But when December arrived, I was keen for the darkness of advent.
Our church’s advent prayer this season contained the phrase “knowing the darkness brings unexpected gifts.” I waited in darkness, sometimes impatiently, possibly obnoxiously, often losing sight of hope. I was in full-on comparison mode and my own achievements felt minor and unworthy. The official kickoff to Boston training made everything worse instead of better. Who the hell was I to think I had earned a right to run that historic and prestigious race? Coach Mick reminded me to look at the postcard on my refrigerator. The one the Boston Athletic Association sends as notification of your official acceptance. I did look. Every day. It helped, a little. We had a good conversation where we went over all my fears, one by one, and tried to deal with them. That helped too. My brain started to come around a little bit.
Then a few days before Christmas, I got sick. Really sick. Lie on the couch all day sick, stomach cramps like you wouldn’t believe sick. It was kind of horrific. I rallied enough to get through Morning of Kindness, to manage the drive to my parents in Michigan, to finish last minute shopping. But I was operating in a haze of cramps and nausea. Really not my best holiday season ever. Luckily I can barely remember a lot of it.
In the middle of the haze, we went to Christmas Eve services at my parents’ church, the church I grew up in. I love this service, especially the “shalom circle” at the end, when they turn off all the lights and everyone stands in a circle holding a candle and the light is passed, one by one, until the circle glows. It is magical and stunning and peaceful. But I felt so awful that when we walked in the door of the church, I sent up a prayer in my head: God, I need a sign that this is going to be ok. That somehow I will get through not just this service and this particular illness, but that my foot will get better. Yes, I’m praying for my little unworthy foot and my poor stomach and my sick heart. Please help me.
We went upstairs and sat in the second row, our standard spot when I was a kid. The minister turned around and said to Rose: One of our readers couldn’t make it tonight. Would you like to do a scripture reading? Well, YES SHE WOULD! She was a little nervous though. Mom, she said, there’s a lot of people here. Will you go up front and stand with me? Of course. When we got to the part in the service where the angel appears to the shepherds, the two of us went to the front and she read beautifully. My beautiful fantastic sensitive strong daughter. I used to have to bribe her with chocolate to convince her to go on stage at dance recitals. She read the scripture on Christmas Eve in the church I grew up in and my heart overflowed. All I could think was, sheesh God, sometimes you sure work fast. I asked for a sign and it took you less than five minutes to deliver. How could I have doubted?
I thought I would be ending the year full of doubt and worry and fear. I am sure I will feel those things again. I am far from perfect and I will forget again. But then I will remember again, that in the deepest darkness, the light returns and heals sick stomachs, damaged feet, and even sad and fearful hearts. Happy New Year everyone. Wishing you peace, joy, and good health.