It was a brisk, sun filled morning on the Jersey shore. We were fortunate to have intimate knowledge of the back roads in the local towns, and made it to the start in record time. We advanced through the parking lot to the entrance of Monmouth Park, as if we had backstage passes to a rock concert. Shortly after we arrived, we spotted Eric, with his distinct mohawk hair cut, new to the team this year, he added his own flash of excitement. This was going to be fun!
Huddled in the van to stay warm, waiting for the rest of our teammates to get through the long line of vehicles pouring into the lot, you could feel the nervous energy. Chris called out to Nancy and Dani, two of our half marathoners, racing to the starting line as it was beginning. We exchanged quick hugs, and they were off!
Soon after, Laura, Meredith, and Kyle came trotting over, and it was time to open the door, and roll down the ramp. The controls had recently been changed on my power wheelchair, and admittedly, I was still trying to get the hang of it. Chris eased me down carefully, and in a snap they transferred me from the chair into the jogger. Harnessed in, we headed for the last corral at the start. We were not looking to set any records that day; it was about the journey, not the finish time.
This was the third year we were returning to the New Jersey Marathon. Although Chris ran it in 2011, he ran it alone, while my sister Angie, and cousin MJ, pushed me in a wheelchair to catch a glimpse of him at as many check points as possible. It was a sight to behold, two middle aged women pushing a third, as fast as possible, uphill then downhill, laughing hysterically! I cannot imagine what the people we passed were thinking, but we had a blast cheering Chris on at every opportunity. Having been diagnosed five months earlier Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), I could still walk short distances, but my running days were over.
In 2012, Chris ran while pushing me in the jogger, Meredith and Kyle joined us for the full marathon, while a group of nine other friends and family members ran the half. Kyle, also taught Physical Education, like my husband Chris, and Meredith, a former third grade student of his, was all grown up and teaching too. I love to tease him about it, because it makes Chris feel old. They had plenty to talk about during the race, and well... I was as snug as a bug in a rug, and managed to fall asleep for a bit after mile ten. Something Chris will never let me forget!
This year, 2013, was very different, Super Storm Sandy had ravaged the coastline at the end of 2012, and my disease had progressed leaving it's crippling affect on my body. Neither of us would ever be the same physically, but our spirits were not broken!
We started out slowly, at the back of the crowd of runners lining the start. A place, I'm certain, my veteran, marathon husband, has never before seen, and I promised myself, to stay awake the entire 26.2 miles. It was the first chance I had to see the shore since the storm, and I didn't want to miss a mile. As we traversed the course, vivid images of my childhood ran through my mind, followed by my first car, first apartment, and many memories of my adult life. I found myself once again, questioning why I had ever left.
I enjoyed listening to the banter flying back and forth between the runners. Meredith and Kyle were weeks away from their wedding, Laura was running her first full marathon, and Eric had a witty sense of humor. Given that they were all good friends, there was plenty of material with which to do a stand up routine as they razzed each other, and kept me entertained through the whole event.
Having been awake for every mile this year, I learned that marathon runners go through phases as the miles tick away. They start out pumped up, filled with adrenaline, calling out the mile markers as they approach. "That's three!", "That's six!", "That's ten...", "Looking good!", they cheered, while passing Shot Blocks and Goo for energy, and stopping briefly for port-a-pottys, Gatorade, water, or to thank a random citizen with a shout-out as we passed.
Another big difference this year was that Chris allowed the team to participate in the hardest part of the race, pushing me! I know that was a tough decision for him, but I'm glad he relented; I think it gave each runner a deeper sense of sharing the experience, than running along side us could provide.
By mile eighteen, I think it's safe to say we were all hitting the wall. This was close to the course turn around point, and it could not come soon enough, as all of us had reached some level of physical discomfort. This is when, for a brief stretch, we jokingly verbalized our discontent. We hated the sun, we hated the wind charging toward us, we even hated Eric, who pushed us faster, keeping up the pace!
Luckily, this is also nearing the point in the course where we turn toward the ocean on the last leg of the journey. The grandeur and vast majesty of that view, at least for me, seemed to quell the pain to a tolerable level.
The runners say, a marathon is really two races, a twenty miler and a 10k, and I can see why. At mile twenty, the game changes, and it really becomes a mental challenge; the only way through it, is to break it down, into bite size pieces.
The 10k melts into a 5k, and eventually all that stands between you and the finish line, is the final two tenths of a mile. Although I was not running, it seemed that every muscle in my body ached from the inability to move, as badly as it did when I could run, and on some level, I shared the pain of my teammates.
At mile twenty-six, all of them yelled out, "Let's bring this home!", and we lined up across the promenade from side to side, as we crossed the finish line together! This year I intended to earn my medal, and by the end of the race, I felt that I had!
I dedicate this blog to my husband Chris, our friends: Meredith, Kyle, Laura and Eric, Nancy, Dani, and Frank, who signed up and smiled through the pain, to help those of us who struggle with ALS every day!
We thank you for your friendship, commitment and generous support; we could not do this without you!
Thank you my friend Loni, it was an honor to have you and Nathan at the finish line to place my medal around my neck.
Special thanks to Joe Gigas, the Executive Race Director of the New Jersey Marathon, who welcomed us back another year, our friends and family members who's behind the scenes help made this trip possible, and Rob Spahr of the Star-Ledger for picking up our story during ALS awareness month!