I was in high school when I decided I wasn't much of a runner.
It was sometime between the third and fourth hurdles of a track meet when I tripped and fell in front of the stands and finished last — again — that the idea occurred to me. I got shin splints every season. I was never fast. Somehow, I chose the 100-meter high and 300-meter low hurdles as my events, even though I wasn’t a sprinter or a long-distance runner.
I probably wasn’t a runner, even though I was on the track team for three years.
In college, when I ran for fun in the hills above my school, my knees creaked and ached afterward. I told myself I wasn’t a runner and I had bad knees. That was that.
I had friends who ran races — 5Ks and 10Ks and relays and marathons, half and full — and each time I thought, I could never do that. Until one day I asked myself, why not? That was the day I decided to prove myself wrong.
I signed up to run a half-marathon — the AF Canyon Run Against Cancer.
My grandmother Fleeta died from cancer before I was born. She fought the disease for years before taking her rest, just like the hundreds of other people who inspired someone to sign up to run 13 miles through a canyon at 6 a.m. on a Saturday.
I trained. I got up early. I ran late. I wondered what it would be like to run this race in Fleeta’s memory. I high-fived my kids on my way out the door and laughed at their gibes when I returned covered in sweat.
Somewhere along the way, I decided I wanted my kids to see me run this race. I wanted them to see me do something I never thought I could do. One day I would tell them how I fell running the 300-meter low hurdles, in front of the stands no less, and I got up and crossed the finish line, and how I decided I wasn’t a runner but then finished a race I thought could beat me.
I want them to run their own races some day.
“Do you get a medal if you win the race?” my daughter asked me as the event grew closer. “Are you going to win?”
I told her there was no way I would be the first to finish, but I’d get a medal. She couldn’t understand why I wanted to run a race I knew I wouldn’t win — but we have different ideas about what winning is. For me, if running 10 miles was a triumph, shaving seconds off my pace was pure victory.
The morning of the race, I stood on the starting line as the sun came over the peaks of the mountains behind me. All around me, people wore the names of loved ones in whose memory they were running. There were survivors, too, and their faces were all the more inspiring as a recording of Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” blasted through a tower of speakers before the starting gun.
“Like a small boat on the ocean, sending big waves into motion ... I might only have one match, but I can make an explosion,” Platten sang.
I thought about Fleeta.
Fleeta — whom so few adjectives can describe — saw her life in terms of the waves she wanted to send across the universe. She saw her disease as an opportunity to give doctors a testing ground to save her grandchildren from the same pain. Her “match” was the power she showed in her ambition, humor and groundbreaking accomplishments.
My eyes watered as I saw memorial names pinned to the backs of the runners in front of me and I thought how, during her battle years ago, Fleeta could have sung another lyric in Platten’s song: “My power’s turned on. Starting right now I’ll be strong and I don’t really care if nobody else believes ’cause I’ve still got a lot of fight left in me.”
The verse echoed through my mind as my feet pounded down the mountain. Contrary to previous experience, I realized I was running ahead of time.
For the last two miles, I thought of my three kids standing at the finish line, searching for me, watching me fight my fatigue, hoping I would win. Thinking of them pushed me on. I am sure the same image of me pushed Fleeta on, too.
In the end, I beat my family to the finish line. Even though no one was there to cheer me on, I know I wasn’t alone.
Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother Fleeta.