Relentless. Forward. Motion. Those words carried me through my first 50-mile finish. Ten years earlier, life seemed less complicated. I was younger, married and Mormon. I thought I was strong then, but life had different plans. One thing is certain. Whatever mental or physical threshold I believed to possess, I learned in the coming years that I could always take it a step further.
With each passing year, my relationship with my husband diminished. He began working long hours at the office. We rarely spoke. My days were filled with driving the kids to and from school and taking them to various extracurricular activities. The kids and religion kept us together. We were going to get through this because divorce was not an option. Running became the way to cope with our deteriorating marriage. I took up marathons as if every passing mile could magically heal what was broken between us, but it did not.
He convinced me that a change of scenery might help. We left family and friends and moved from Washington State to Florida. Perhaps we just needed some sunshine. Instead, he retreated into a world of late night computer gaming and slept the day away only to repeat what he had done the previous night. I took care of our children and lived my life of structure within the confines of the Mormon religion. Sunday? I was at church. Monday? Family Home Evening. Tuesday? Leading Youth Activities. Thursday? Visiting other church members.
One evening, he came to me in tears. “I’m going to lose everything. I knew it was wrong, but the money was too good. I know I should have told you.”
I hugged him close and cried with him, not knowing what his confession meant.
As things began to unfold, I learned that his business partner signed hundreds of fraudulent loan modifications. The FBI had been investigating him for some time, but they had trouble finding my husband. He felt that it didn’t concern him since he only covered the marketing side of the business. He did not take into consideration that since they split profits 50/50, he was just as guilty. His lawyer gave him three options: 1) Take your family and go to Canada and never come back to the States. 2) Lie, but know they will uncover the truth and you will be forced to spend 20 years in prison or 3) Tell the truth and face the consequences.
He chose the third option. During my birthday weekend in the middle of October, we flew up to Washington, D.C. I watched as my husband of 15 years and father of our children stood helplessly in front of a judge awaiting his sentence. He wore dark blue dress pants, a bright blue long sleeve buttoned-down shirt, and a blazer. He was clean-shaven, and his rust-colored hair took on an orange hue from the courtroom lighting. His six-foot frame hid the weight he gained through the years, and the bags under his eyes showed the internal battles he faced without me. I felt numb inside, while he read an apologetic letter to the judge, pleading to have a reduced sentence. “The real victims are my wife and my children. I am truly sorry for the pain that I have caused.” He tried his best to fight back the tears. Minutes later, he was formally sentenced to five years in Federal Prison for mortgage fraud.
A couple of months after he went away, I filed for divorce. I spent nights awake thinking about the next five years. I couldn’t handle the thought of living life in a sort of limbo waiting for him to get out. The damage he had done to our family was irreversible. I felt that if I didn’t end it now, I might live my life in regret wishing I had. I began running more. This time I ran to heal myself.
One evening my bishop called me in for a meeting. “I have seen a lot of Facebook posts of you running races, and I’m a little concerned that it’s taking you away from your children. They need their mother, especially during a time like this. You may want to consider not running as much.”
I left the meeting, stunned that he would suggest I run less. A bishop’s “suggestions” are regarded as a command, and the more I thought about his words, the angrier I became. I stopped going to church and eventually had my name taken off church records. He knew very little about me and did not understand that running was the thing that held me together. After 20 years, the religion that governed my life was gone. Church member “friends” quickly disappeared. I was broken, and there wasn’t anyone who could pick up the pieces.
Ultrarunning became my obsession. Participating in races beyond 26.2 miles cleared my head. My mental state became free from long harbored feelings of oppression I felt from my ex-husband and the religion we built our life around. Ultrarunning became my therapy, and the ultra-community were my family. I was no longer alone and broken. The miles shared with friends slowly put me back together. I decided this was the time to tackle something beyond my comfort zone. The goal? To finish The Keys 100-mile ultramarathon under 32 hours. Was I strong enough?
It was around 2 am, no time for a nap. Lani had been awake the same amount of time. Her long brown hair coifed in a tight bun and her clothes smelled of lavender laundry detergent. I took two steps for her one. She had the body of a ballet dancer and made running appear graceful and effortless. Her primary job at this hour was to keep me awake and moving. Kevin was in the van a few miles down the road, waiting for our arrival. They took turns running alongside me, filled my water bottles and provided ice to put around my neck. They fed me when I was hungry and made me eat when I wasn’t, changed my socks, taped up my blisters and kept me moving along. They were like my pit crew, and I was the car.
The race began at 6:30 am the previous day. Awake for nearly 24 hours, my run had turned into a stumbling walk along A1A. Walking lulled me to sleep. My eyes would open for a few seconds, and then I was dreaming. The sound of waves hitting the shore and the pungent smell of salt water jolted me awake, followed by a heart-pounding realization that I was still walking.
I was through the worst of the race. For most of the day, I was held hostage by the sun. No relief came from the heat and humidity. The mangrove trees hovered by the water’s edge, not close enough to create any shade along the sidewalks and asphalt we ran along. I wore a long sleeve white shirt and a white hat with a flap to protect my neck and deflect the permeating heat. The spandex shorts underneath my shorts provided protection against chaffing, at least the brunt of it. A handheld water bottle filled with fluids and ice wrapped around my neck kept me from nausea and cramping.
Lani and I walked along a sidewalk in silence, until an oncoming car stopped a few yards abruptly in front of us. The headlights glared, and we squinted towards the light. Lani jumped in front of me, ready to defend me from a potential attacker.
A middle-aged man hopped out of his car and jogged towards us. He wore a fluorescent orange shirt with the words “Race Marshal” in black written across his chest. Race Marshals are the rule enforcers when the Race Director can’t be everywhere at once. Bob Becker, the Race Director, conducted all the affairs of the race enlisted marshals to ensure the event ran smoothly. “I’m going to have to take your chip.”
“What?! Nope.” I put my hands on my hips and shook my head. Giving up my race chip would mean the end of the race for me. It was a way to track the runners on the course. He scratched his head and looked at Lani with raised eyebrows. She shrugged her shoulders and looked at me.
“You’re not going to make it before the cut-off. I’ve got to pull you out of the race.” Mr. Race Marshall said. He folded his arms and puffed out his chest.
“Can’t you call Bob? CALL BOB!” My shrill voice filled the night air. I did not know Bob on a personal level, but I was not about to quit now.
“He’s sleeping. He gave me the jurisdiction to take timing chips if I know they aren’t going to make it. At this rate, you’re not going to make it to the aid station in time. Your next checkpoint is five miles away.”
“Just tell me how much time I have left and I will be there.” I began walking away but turned my head slightly to hear what he had to say.
“You have an hour and a half to make it to the next aid station. If you don’t make it, I’m going to have to take your chip for sure.”
I nodded back at him in reply. We met up with Kevin a half mile down the road. He took over as pacer. His lean body was ready for the task that lay before him. He fastened on his headlamp over his short blonde hair and started up his Garmin that calculated our current running speed. He told me when I needed to pick up the pace and when to take a break and speed walk.
The miles ticked by and we arrived at the aid station with an hour to spare. We kept pushing along. I had less than 11 miles to go, and the sun was beginning its descent on us. We passed those that had “the lean.” Their minds had taken over, contorted into a hunchback struggle; their bodies had no choice but to follow.
My lady parts were burning up from the salty sweat and continual friction of spandex shorts. I had to adjust and readjust, but nothing I did could alleviate the rash burn now. I just needed to get to the finish line. My feet stung from blisters I popped by stomping my feet hard into the asphalt as I ran and walked.
As I approached mile 96, my eyes welled up with tears. It was at this intersection that I decided to quit the year before. I was tired, hurting and crewless. The DNF (Did Not Finish), brought questions from friends and acquaintances that would ask “Why would you stop at mile 96? You only had four more miles to go!” My mind was running on empty, and when the mind decides it’s over, it is over, besides I had missed the cut-off by two hours. But this year was a different story. Today, I would finish what I had started.
A race marshal leaned against a parked car. His grin was infectious. “You’re almost there! Only three more miles. We’ll see you at the finish.” Three more miles? I felt a blister pop and the liquid oozed between my toes.
The scenic route shaped like a bell led us towards Higgs Beach. The crowds of tourists began to thicken as we approached the path leading to there. I looked up ahead and was in between a string of runners making their way to the finish. The onlookers stared in disbelief at our ragged sunburnt faces. I overheard a few say, “You’re only a few yards away!”
A man yelled out, “Runner up!” He ushered me to the left onto a different surface.
The final steps through the cushy sand took the miles of pressure off my aching body. I was only a few feet from the finish line. My knees felt wobbly in the sand, and the thought of collapsing face first crossed my mind. I trudged through the sand and raised my arms in triumph with a smile that hurt my sunburnt face and chapped lips. People beneath the finisher’s tent turned to cheer me on and clap. It was finally over. A race volunteer handed me the coveted buckle. This piece of metal signified all that I had gone through from the past few years to arrive at this moment. Pain, relief, joy, and accomplishment rushed through me.
For six solid months, I dedicated myself to training. I logged 50 or more miles per week and peaked at 100 miles three weeks before the race. Each Saturday was filled with long runs of 20 miles or more, pounding the pavement to get my body accustomed to time on my feet. I imagined the end of the race during those training runs, but all the dreaming paled in comparison to the real thing.
I felt invincible. I overcame my body when I thought that I could not take another step and forced my mind to think beyond the pain I was experiencing throughout the last 30 hours. I staggered over to an empty camping chair surrounded by other participants in a similar state. Someone handed me a hamburger wrapped in tin foil and a beer; neither one sounded appealing. All I wanted to do was take off my shoes. I unlaced them carefully and slid them off. Then I peeled off my sweat-drenched socks spotted with a tinge of blood. Blisters developed between my toes and on the pads of my feet. A blood blister had formed underneath a toenail. It had burst leaving my toenail tender to the touch. Any small movement I made, spurred on a series of cramps in my buttocks, thighs, and calves. My stomach and shoulders cramped while taking off my shoes. I would have to deal with the blisters later. I slowly leaned back in the chair and propped my feet on a cooler. I closed my eyes and slowly drifted off to sleep to the sound of quiet chatter and waves crashing along the beach. I had finally answered my question. I was strong enough.