I started running in elementary school. I was a severe asthmatic who spent much of my early life in emergency rooms or eating that horrible green Jell-O they serve you when you’re hospitalized. This was the seventies, early eighties. Each time I was released, doctors told my parents that I should just sit still and avoid playing outside if I wanted to stay healthy.
Fortunately my parents were not good listeners.
When I was nine or ten, they started signing the whole family up for fun runs. My father and brother would race up front. My mother and I would go a bit slower. I always carried an inhaler. We earned the t-shirts we’d wear the rest of the day after we crossed each finish line.
It is hard to verbalize exactly what these runs meant for that child version of me, but for the first time in my life, I understood I wasn’t weak.
Never a speed demon, I ended up on my cross-country team in high school. When I went to Georgia Southern University as an undergraduate, I regularly pounded out an almost ritualized route that started every other day in Sweetheart Circle.
No matter what was happening at any point in my life—like so many millions of others who have discovered the empowering nature of this sport—running has given me a sense of direction.
My brother, a much more gifted athlete than I am, was the first to run a marathon. He wore a hospital bracelet around for months so people would ask him about his health. It was the opening he needed to explain that he was fine, but the kids for whom he was raising money weren’t. He raised thousands of dollars for leukemia research and set an example for his little sister.
Even so, I was married with a son before I started training for that kind of distance. It takes an incredible amount of time, dedication and energy to get one’s body into the condition it needs to be to keep moving for twenty-six-point-two miles.
On the big day, my whole family had traveled there to support me. They moved to different places along the route in Virginia Beach to wave and yell and clap.
When I was in the home stretch—when my legs felt like concrete and all I really wanted to do was lie down on the street and go to sleep—my brother was magically running beside me, encouraging me, telling me to find what I needed to finish my race, to prove to me that I could do whatever I wanted.
It is hard to verbalize exactly what that first marathon meant for that young woman version of me, but for the first time in my life, I understood I was strong.
So when terrorists—men who appear to have been radicalized Islamic fundamentalists engaged in sick and malicious jihad—attacked the Boston Marathon on Monday, I felt personally connected to the resulting misery. I understood exactly what those runners were doing, how those people on the sidelines were lifting them up, how murderers were trying to rent the fabric of a loving, healthy community by instilling fear.
Before the damage was even understood—while the crowd was still in chaos—I cried for the strangers I knew without knowing a single one of their names.
And I got angry.
On April 16th, when a good friend who felt helpless in the face of such hate suggested we as a group do what we know how to do best—lace up our shoes and pound the pavement—go outside and log some miles to help “finish” the race for those whose marathons were cut short—for those who won’t be able to race again—the enthusiasm was instant.
Neighbors posted their miles on Facebook. My son went running on that same university campus in Statesboro where I ran so many years ago. I had friends as far away as England who participated. Perhaps it was only a symbolic gesture, but running itself is symbolic for runners: this sport that is so much about life endurance.
So I ran as fast as I could for those who had to stop running, and I prayed.
However, the story has not ended. Nor will it ever end for those whose bodies were needlessly mangled by evil intent: those who were lost forever, and those who are left behind in pain.
Sadly, I even discovered another kind of personal connection to this tragedy.
You see, that brother I told you about is now an owner of the Charlotte Athletic Club. As a result, he knows Michael and Nicole Gross well. Michael is that club’s general manager, and Nicole—one of the country’s top tri-athletes—has worked at that club to help others meet their fitness goals.
Unfortunately, having traveled from North Carolina, they were standing with Nicole’s sister, Erika Brannock, a preschool teacher, waiting for Nicole and Erika’s mother to cross the finish line when they were caught in the first bomb blast. Nicole and Erika were seriously injured, have already endured multiple surgeries, and will face a long recovery more challenging than any race they’ve ever run.
Helping them in that recovery is more than symbolic.
If you can, please join the Charlotte Athletic Club team in support of the Gross and Brannock families. One hundred percent of all money raised will go to their medical, physical and emotional support. You can send checks made out to “Be Strong Stay Strong” to:
Be Strong Stay Strong
101 S Tryon St. #200
Charlotte, NC 28280
Then keep running because one thing is for certain.
We as a community—runners, Americans—are not weak. We are strong. And we will always endure.