The Gift

Anna Bradford
25 November 2007

Five years ago I endured JFK with an ankle injury- experienced the suffering, the perseverance, the drive, and the incredible inspiration of my teenaged sons? support. This year my Stephen offered a repeat crewing and support performance, but in 5 years, I think I've come a little ways. Back in 2002 I was, I figured, an experienced JFK-er with 7 consecutive finishes to my name (along with husband Jim). I'd had some great years and some disappointments, but I'd always sort of thought that if I could start, I could finish. That year I was taught a few things - not the least of which was how sometimes it's your teenagers who push through your resistance to open your eyes to new possibilities.

Flash forward to 2007 when Stephen is 20, has spent the last 7 Novembers cruising the back roads of Western Maryland crewing for JFK, and has once again been assigned to cover his mother. This year I am uninjured, 5 years more experienced, and ready to roll. But I remember my lesson: no mile is guaranteed- every mile is a gift.

This is a perspective every runner eventually internalizes. In the early years of running our bodies are acclimating and discovering where our talents lie. We learn how to build our distance, how to run a little faster, how to nurse little injuries, and how we fit into the community of athletes. Our bodies recover quickly from most hurties, and we respond well to ice and a few days off. At some point we become greedy and begin to ignore those telltale signs of over training until we have developed a full-scale injury requiring a season or two of rest. Seems to me that the real runner within can only emerge once we've begun the rebuilding process- one infused with a deep gratitude for every day we are allowed to train, no matter what the speed or distance.

My ankle injury in 2002 was not something that had come out of the blue: it was one in a series of unattended injuries that could not be acknowledged for fear of who I would be without my athlete persona. The next 5 years would finally offer me the opportunity to face some of those fears, develop new strengths, and become much more respectful of those internal messages.

So when I found myself at the starting line last week with a few dozen of my very good friends, I was not the same runner of yesteryear. Though I'd run this same race for the last 12 Novembers, it was an entirely new day, offering an entirely new experience. This fall my life had taken a sharp turn, relegating my training to an unfamiliar back seat to my professional life. While I was in shape to finish, I was willing to concede I was not in a position to set too many personal records. Today was the day to run for the pleasure of running, paying no attention to pace charts, time predictions or team members? running pace. And so it went.

The AT was a beautiful start to a full day hike- happy runners sharing stories of past years or marveling about the perfect weather conditions. Stephen met me at Gathland (9), then Weverton (16) with a fully stocked water belt, a cup of soup, and fruit to go. In no time at all we were all on the C&O canal and in that familiar phase of the run in which you reveal hidden secrets to complete strangers as if they were your best friend or therapist or long lost cousin. Stephen managed to find me every couple of miles to fill me with fruit and potatoes, and give me a run-down on key Reston Runners? positions.

Antietam (27) came and went, and the next phase began: runners talked of the growing distance between aid stations and fantasized about real food. We all began to notice the same runners passing us during our walk breaks, and walking during our run breaks. New running partners emerged and new bonds were formed.  With my goal of running for pleasure I allowed myself to walk as I saw fit, without consideration of pace or standing- Stephen assured me that I was in no danger of pushing the time cut off, so I could relax and absorb the day. He did, however, mention on more than one occasion that he thought I wasn't fully into the spirit of the race since I was clearly not suffering or attempting to catch runners ahead of me. "Diane's just passed the Jims," he reported, in hopes I might discover another gear and attempt to catch some Reston Runners.

But I was content to socialize and observe, rather than join, the hard work being done all around me. I chatted with runners from MCRRC and learned more about how they prepare and support their runners. I ran with Andre who was limping through his 6th or 7th hour, quite baffled at his apparently rash decision to enter this race. I teased Jerold from St. Paul who was worried about encountering snakes on the trail (I assured him them they were asleep in the trees and rarely fell out), and slapped every gloved hand presented me at the aid stations.

At mile 38 I indulged in a double foot massage by my energetic crew, languishing in the deep soft chair- one that seemed to afford even more joy and comfort than my happy day-long jog had given me. Although this marathon was clearly not an expression of the killer instinct within, I eventually allowed my shoes to be re-applied and relinquished my seat. Happy and refreshed, I kissed my crew and jogged off down the final section of the C&O.

By the time I reached the last 8 miles of road I was ready to start working- saving yourself for 42 miles is a wonderful strategy if you want to enjoy the final victory lap. Stephen had graciously offered up his crew partner, Liz, to accompany me for a few miles to listen to my random thoughts and reflections of the day. I thought I had had a loose tongue at mile 20, but it was nothing compared to the drunken babble Liz was subjected to for the next hour or so (the poor girl had never even heard of the JFK before she was "invited" to accompany Stephen two days before the race).

And then the final 4 miles were the best of them all: my good friend Todd, along with my sweet Stephen, donned their running shoes and a reflective vest and ran me in. If you've ever run 50 miles before you know something of the magic of those final four: every emotion you feel is magnified 50 times. The lows may turn into despair, but those highs are infused with a rarely-felt lighthearted bliss. Inspired by the combined energies of my men beside me, I cruised past 20-30 runners in those final miles, allowing Stephen to enjoy some of what he'd felt had been sorely lacking in my race strategy for the first 9 or10 hours. Our finish line came up fast and suddenly there were hugs all around: hugs of relief and joy for a day shared and fully lived.

Which is just what experiencing, rather than enduring or racing, JFK is about. It's about being a part of 1000 people's hopes and dreams, surrounded by those who love you enough (or, at least are generous enough) to give you their day of support and encouragement. And when you're a part of this community that causes you to go the distance, it's hard to ignore what a blessing it is to be fortunate and healthy enough to have this life and this body.

So while it's nice to have the JFK streak, I think it's more about having an annual reminder that there are no guarantees in this world, and that every mile run is a gift to be received with gratitude. Let's all take care of ourselves well in the coming year, so we can come back and do it again next fall!

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