In the summer of 1984, I watched as Joan Benoit Samuelson won the first-ever Olympic women’s marathon in Los Angeles. Even through the television screen, I sensed the excitement and the history being made. What a gutsy race she ran! My own childhood Olympic dream hadn’t come to fruition, but I was still running road races and enjoying the opportunities to push myself further and faster. A 10K was my limit, and I had rarely run farther than that. No double digit mileage for me.
After watching Joan Benoit win that race, I dreamed of someday running a marathon myself. It seemed a distant and lofty goal, but part of me believed I could do it. Although I kept running, the marathon dream went dormant. Life was busy and unfolding in some challenging ways, but also some wonderful ways. I was part of a growing family, with my siblings marrying and having children. Many nieces and nephews came along. Eventually, I had my own family: my husband, two step-children and our son.
In August of 2003, we were attending a family gathering. My husband and I had been running some, more for fitness and weight management. We had even discussed training for a half-marathon, but with a young son, even that seemed like it would have to wait. But that day, the dormant dream was awakened by my niece Katie. She was engaged to Danny, with their wedding coming up that October. Young and fit and willing to try new things, they had landed on a first anniversary goal of running the Chicago Marathon the next October. She threw out a comment along the lines of “You should do it” or “Consider joining us.” Dream awakened.
Sometimes an internal flame needs external ignition. Katie’s comment, the discussion that ensued among us and other family members, and the beginning thoughts of “let’s do this!” were the sparks. A latent dream began to reveal itself, step by step, mile by mile.
At first I was just going to run, but by early 2004, both my husband Darcy and I were committed. Along with Katie and Danny, my sisters Zita and Ruth also were seriously considering it. Before training could go too far, Zita was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her diagnosis and ongoing treatment—which her doctor compared to running a marathon—gave me motivation to run for health, for her, for opportunities we may not get again. Ruth and I lived too far apart to train together, but we shared conversations about this adventure we were undertaking.
Darcy and I took turns with long runs on Saturday mornings and I became pretty adept at pushing our toddler Sam in our jog stroller for shorter runs. We each turned 39 during our training that year. There was much to learn about running distances we had never run before. The importance of good shoes and putting on Glide, an anti-chafing product, became clear early on. Trial and error helped us figure out what to eat pre-run and how to best provide ourselves calories during our runs. We reveled in new distances reached and a healthy appetite gained by pushing our bodies as never before. Exhaustion and exhilaration were experienced simultaneously.
The Chicago Marathon has a great history and a reputation for being a well-organized event. It was a great first marathon. We headed to Chicago for the October 10, 2004 event, along with 40,000 other runners. Katie and Danny, Katie’s friend Kate, Ruth, Darcy and I shared the starting line excitement and anticipation. It took us nearly 11 minutes to make it to the start line. Katie, Kate, and I ran a similar pace for 18 miles, losing sight of the others in the masses. None of us lost sight of our goal though, and we each finished on our own terms and in our own time. We shared this finishers’ photo in front of Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park in downtown Chicago:
What a wonderful experience to share and a memory to cherish. Zita was able to be there after finishing up radiation treatments. Her and her husband Randy helped watch Sam while we ran. The next year, her dream of completing a marathon happened a little further north, in Ashland, Wisconsin at the WhistleStop Marathon.
I will never forget our first marathon and the joyful emotion that flooded me when I turned the corner at mile 26 to see the finish line. There aren’t words to fully capture how it feels to cross the finish line of a marathon, especially for the first time.
I will be forever grateful for Katie and Danny and the spark they ignited in this runner’s heart. The fire started, the dream was realized, and now we keep fueling the fire with more goals, some of which have to do with running and some which don’t. My running dreams are simple now: finishing our next marathon and staying healthy to keep running. They are the kind of dreams that keep me working hard, churning out miles and gratitude.