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day 11: keep going

February 12, 2011

When I was twenty five, I got married and moved to San Antonio, Texas.  Even though San Antonio is my hometown, the only people I knew who still lived there were my parents and my husband.  I didn’t yet have a job, my husband worked full time and went to school at night, and there was only so much housekeeping and decorating I could do in our one bedroom apartment.

I needed a hobby.

I called my friend Courtney.  “You need to make some friends,” she said.  I realized that it had been — let’s see — eight years since I’d had to start all over with a new social group.  “You should join Team in Training.”

At this, I laughed.

Team in Training is an organization that raises money for leukemia and lymphoma research.  Have you heard of it?  The basic gist is that, in exchange for raising funds for cancer research, average humans are provided the training and support they need to become marathoners.

Courtney had participated in Team in Training.  Courtney had run several marathons by this point.  Courtney was a marathoner.

I was not.

I was not remotely athletic.  I had never played any kind of competitive sport at all.  Growing up, I had been a dancer.  I kept in decent cardiovascular shape by using the Stairmaster at the gym now and then.  The most I had ever run was half of a 5K (you do the math… it embarrasses me), and yet…

Something compelled me to not only attend the TNT informational session but also show up for the first long run.  It was cold by San Antonio standards, and we were to run seven miles around the base of Fort Sam Houston.  I remember being concerned about what I should wear, as I didn’t own any appropriate running clothes, but not being terribly worried about the distance I was to run.  Did I mention that I had never run longer than half of a 5K?

At any rate, I began the run confidently, at an unsustainable pace.  Halfway through, my sweatpants were falling down because they were too loose, my hands were blocks of ice, and I was gasping for breath.  I thought I was the very last runner in our group, and wondered if anyone would notice if I casually strolled back to the parking lot, slunk into my car, and escaped.  Just as I was formulating my plan, I heard a voice.

“I can’t believe I let my friend talk me into this.”  As it turned out, I was not the very last runner in our group — Susan was.  She introduced herself to me and, blessedly, took charge of our conversation for the next 45 minutes (by this point, every molecule in my being was devoted to not dropping dead from exhaustion).  When we finished that seven mile slog, Susan and I were friends.

In some ways, we were an unlikely pair.  She was ten years older than me, was divorced, and had never been to college.  In all the ways that mattered?  We were great friends.  We met a couple of times a week at 6 a.m. to run together, and finished all of our weekend long runs as a team.  On so many occasions, when I wanted to stop running and walk, Susan would look at me and say, “Keep going.  If you walk, I walk.”  The thought of holding her back kept me running.

You can imagine that all of that time spent together resulted in authentic conversations.  Susan was a gifted storyteller with a great sense of humor, but she’d also endured pain I could only imagine.  She was, unlike me, tough.  Spending time with her made me tougher.

After months of training together, Susan and I completed the San Diego Rock and Roll Marathon together.  It was an indescribable moment — doing something I never thought I could do.

Looking back, I know that if Susan hadn’t approached me on that first run, hadn’t offered to keep running with me, I would not have finished that race or the five other marathons that followed.  Moreover, I never would have discovered in running a sustaining life force — a gift that has carried me through loss, through uncertainty, through joy, through adulthood.  While I still finish near the back of the pack, running has become a spiritual practice for me; a state of noiseless calm.

Since I moved away from Texas, Susan and I barely keep in touch.  She’s happily married now and has a little girl who smiles out of Christmas cards, bright blond like her mother.  Knowing Susan, I know this little girl is her mother’s greatest dream.

My gift on Day 11 is a letter to Susan, thanking her for running with me, for being so tough, for being my friend.  That’s all.

Keep going, y’all.  Thanks for showing up.

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