SALT LAKE CITY — My first concern should have been my sister’s health.
But six miles from finishing my first marathon, the issue that weighed most heavily on my mind was whether or not people would think I was a terrible person for abandoning my sister at a medical tent in the middle of a city she barely knew how to navigate.
Frankly, I’d made peace with the question of whether or not I should continue running the 2005 Salt Lake Marathon after my sister, suffering from altitude sickness, was in the hands of trained medical professionals. I knew she’d want me to finish. It was, after all, my younger sister, Mikie, who talked me into signing up for my first marathon.
But then I had to call my brother-in-law and let him know his wife was in a make-shift medical tent at a Salt Lake high school.
“You left her?” he said (obviously not a runner). “Well, was she OK?” “I’m not sure,” I answered. “You should probably try to call her in a few minutes. I found her vomiting on the side of the road.”
“And you decided to leave her?” he asked again.
“Uh, yeah, she said to leave,” I felt with just a hint of shame. “She wanted me to finish.”
I gave him directions to the high school, hung up and banished thoughts of running back to the tent where I’d left Mikie, who was my security blanket when we were kids. I was 16 months older, but she was always much more brave and adventurous. When we were small, I wouldn’t even go outside without her.
I would report injustices in the neighborhood to Mikie, and she would march out to make them right, with her happy-to-take-the-credit sidekick standing at her shoulder ready to shout out a, “Yeah!” to whatever lecture she was throwing down.
But being the second child — sandwiched in between the oldest and the only boy — Mikie eventually struggled to make her way out of our shadows. Running was the stage that offered her the spotlight. She was fast, really fast, from the time she started. As a freshman, she finished fifth in the Alaska state cross country championships, and might I add that her training regimen wasn’t nearly what it should have been for a fifth-place finish.
I never attempted much more than jogging until a friend decided a good Saturday morning activity would be to run 5Ks together. We enjoyed the exercise, the conversations and participating in events that usually benefited charities. One of the 5Ks we ran was the Salt Lake Marathon’s 5K. After crossing the finish line in the Gateway, we decided to stay and watch the finish of that first Salt Lake Marathon.
As I saw these strangers speed down the brick walkways of the outdoor mall, I was moved to tears. I had no idea what it took to finish a marathon (especially in under two and a half hours), but there is something about the energy that emanates from endurance athletes that is awe-inspiring.
I wiped away tears and muttered something about it “being cool” to watch people finish a 26.2 mile race.
It wasn’t until I ran the first Ragnar Relay in June of 2004 — which was originally called the Wasatch Back Relay — that I ever even contemplated running more than a 5K. During that race I’d run the course’s longest leg at the time — a seven-mile stretch through Morgan City — in addition to my other two legs. A number of times during that race, I didn’t think I would be able to take another step, and not only did I surprise myself, I shattered any and all notion I had about my physical limitations.
When I mentioned this to Mikie, she pounced.
“We should run a marathon together,” she said. “If you could finish the Wasatch Back Relay, you could do a marathon.”
I remembered watching that first finish, and I wondered if I possessed even a little of whatever it was those runners had. I did what reporters always do these days and jumped online to read anything and everything about what training for a marathon might entail. That’s where I found Hal Higdon, and his plan made it sound like even a couch potato could transform herself into an athlete by following a simple 16-week plan.
“Let’s do it,” I said. And we signed up. She arrived with her then-9-month-old daughter a few days before our April race, and we managed a couple of training runs on my favorite routes before the big event.
I wasn’t nervous until that morning.
I woke up feeling slightly nauseated, and for some reason, my legs felt tired from the very start. I couldn’t seem to go to the bathroom enough, and after six miles of trying to keep pace with my little sister, I begged her to leave me to my pitiful I-hope-I-can-simply-finish pace.
Near Sugarhouse Park we parted ways, and at mile 13 I was so surprised I’d actually made it halfway, I called home and left a message announcing this accomplishment. (Unlike Mikie, I didn’t wait for the spotlight, I made it happen.) At mile 14, my grandfather called and, yes, I answered my cellphone to proudly tell him I was running a marathon. Then, at mile 16, I saw a familiar figure on the side of the road. She was bent over, relieving herself of breakfast, but I’d know that skinny little form anywhere.
I stopped and we talked. She was disoriented, and I was worried. I made her stop at a restroom inside a retirement community, and when she couldn’t redress herself, I knew she was in trouble.
It was the paramedic that suggested altitude sickness, which made sense since she came from just above sea level. She’d gone too fast, gotten dehydrated and that resulted in nausea, vomiting and the inability to pull her running shorts up to her waist.
They insisted that she stay, and they immediately began treating her with fluids. I looked at the security blanket of my youth, as she waved me on.
“You need to finish,’ she said. “I’ll catch up after a little rest.”
I thought that talk of finishing was just to appease my guilt, but I knew she meant it about me continuing. I have four sisters, and the one thing I know about sisters is that even when they envy you, they want to see you soar. Any success you have also belongs to them simply because you’re sisters.
So I left. I ran that last six miles thinking about a lot of things. I questioned every limitation I’d ever imposed on myself. I wondered why I waited until I was 34 to even attempt to do something this spectacular. And I thought about all the ways that pain and fear keep us from becoming our best selves.
I finished with just a little lump in my throat in just over five hours. I found my brother-in-law right outside the finish area and wondered why he wasn’t with Mikie.
“Oh, she’s finishing,” he said. “She called me. She should be coming in any minute.”
I couldn’t believe it. She crossed, still feeling slightly sick, 16 minutes after I did. I beamed with pride as I told those attending to her how sick she’d been just a few miles ago.
I didn’t know the many ways that first marathon would change me. That, however, is the beauty of running. You don’t feel the metamorphosis until it’s already begun. You just wake up one day and the decision to do something other people fear has turned you into something you never thought you could be.
And while I long ago recognized the many ways distance running has enriched my life, it wasn’t until two years ago that I understood the many ways these races have enriched my relationship with my sisters.
A week before the Salt Lake Marathon celebrates it’s 10th anniversary, I drove 15 hours with my baby sister to meet Mikie for another race — this one in Washington. The actual race is the only time we’re apart from each other on these little trips that I treasure as some of my life’s most prized experiences.
I live a blessed life, but on a rainy weekend just outside Seattle, I’m most grateful for a feisty little sister who has always made me feel more brave, more capable and more amazing than I actually am.
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