Just about five years ago, when I was struggling through what had been diagnosed as chronic fatigue syndrome but was actually–no shit–seasonal allergies, I mustered enough energy to run miles 5ish through 13.1 with JJ on her first half marathon. The race field was small, so she didn’t have the benefit of robust camaraderie at the back of the pack. When you’re starting out as an adult runner, the back of the pack is incredibly important. You know how hard you’ve all worked to get to the starting line, and you know how hard you’re working even though your speed suggests otherwise. Instead, she got to hear the cop on the motorcycle bringing up the rear complain about how sore his hand was getting from holding the throttle. She deserved a better venue for her first half marathon. She hung in there, though. She says she couldn’t have done it without me quoting Monty Python, and I dunno. Miles 10-13 are a nightmare under the best and most well-trained of circumstances, so maybe she’s right. And then maybe under all the tentativeness and self-doubt that she’s felt in the past, she’s always had a hard core of stubbornness that wouldn’t let her quit. In any case, I think it’s safe to say she’s spent the last five years whittling away the fluffy stuff around that hard core.
She ran some more. She got a bike. She learned to swim. She trained for one triathlon, then another, and another. She did a longer one. And a longer one than that. She signed up and trained for an Ironman. And then the Sunday before last, she donned a wetsuit, shuffled in a long line to the start in the Ohio, and went to work.
I saw NBC’s coverage of the Ironman world championships in Kona many years ago when I was in grad school. Either they used to do more features on “everyman” age-groupers than they do now, or those features made an outsized impression on me. Even then, as a smoker who owned no bike and didn’t know how to swim, I wondered quietly and to myself whether I could ever do such a thing. In grad school, I was learning all kinds of stuff about history of medicine and history of Ireland, but I was really learning what it took to achieve a goal of seemingly impossible proportions (like writing a book). The Ironman idea had some appeal as a similar, but more tangible project.
Over the years, with a Ph.D. in hand, I’ve wondered a little less quietly and occasionally even out loud if I might do it one day. Watching JJ’s training has made the road clearer than ever. But looking out at those swimmers in the river, my sister among them, my stomach dropped. I told Ralphie, “There’s just no way. There’s just no way.”
But in no time, the sun was up over the horizon and she appeared from the changing tent at T1. She was headed to the bike with a smile on her face like she’d been hanging out shooting the breeze over coffee rather than swimming amidst almost 3000 other brave souls in the godforsaken Ohio River. My stomach leapt back up into my throat and it was all I could do to squeak out “Go Jessica!” before she retrieved her bike and set out for 112 miles.
While we were waiting, Ralph had said something about supporting her on the run–tagging in and out as needed–and I realized I’d brought my shoes but no running gear. I took advantage of the long-ish bike hiatus to run to Target for clothes I needed anyway (side note: my gear is aging and so, so stinky), swing by and pick up T and the Beeb from my in-laws’, grab sandwiches from Jimmy John’s, and rendezvous in Oldham County for some spectating along the two-lap loop portion of the bike. We missed her the first time around but caught her the second time, cookin’ and bookin’ and still smiling. We got in the car and converged on another spectating site around mile 80 and caught her again. I’ve really gotta get a hold of myself at some point with these races–I flubbed shooting a snippet of video as she rolled past on the second lap and just completely missed getting a photo on my second bike sighting, but those moments were outstanding. She was holding a damned respectable pace on the bike and looked like she was out for a casual group ride every time we saw her. It was clearly turning out to be a good day.
We got back to downtown in just enough time to see her set out on the run course looking more comfortable than anyone in that position really has a right to. After a quick reunion and dinner with Mom, Dad, and kiddos, Spouse took the girls back to his mom’s house and I went in search of a good spot to catch her on the run. Somehow, enough hours had gone by that the sun was beginning to set. Later, JJ would say the day had flown by, and although my hips and ankles begged to differ, my brain said the same. I snapped this scene–most of the below runners on their way back in from the first lap of the run course–and spent the rest of my time cheering runners, texting Ralphie, and doing math, trying to anticipate her arrival around mile 12.
Just when I thought she’d gone missing, she appeared with Ralphie; she was recovering from a much-needed puke. I began to do more math: how much more time could I spend on my feet without injuring myself? I’ve been training for a half marathon and had just done 14 the day before. I thought I could definitely do 6, probably 8, but maybe 10 was pushing it. Ralphie tagged out just after mile 14 and JJ and I headed south to the last turnaround.
My memory of how hard her first half marathon had been seems crystal clear: she had maintained great humor throughout the race, but her body was suffering and severely testing her willpower. Now, after covering well over 100 miles one way or another, she was moving with purpose and energy. She may have enjoyed my and Ralphie’s company a great deal, and I’m sure she appreciated his physical and moral support while puking, but she didn’t need any help. It sounds like a trite and goofy thing to say, but it’s 100% honest: she did me a favor by letting me run with her. To be out on the road with incredible people at the end of a long day, knowing that all of them were on their way to achieving something amazing is a rare experience.
I wish I had a better picture, but this is kind of cool, circa mile 23, and the best I could do in the dark while running alongside.
Ralphie met us for the last few miles, at which point I realized we wouldn’t be able to see her cross the finish line if we didn’t run ahead. So he and I kicked it into high gear for the last mile-plus and waded through the throngs of people waiting on their finishers on 4th Street. It was just a minute or two later that we heard her name and “You! Are! An Ironman!” and my eyes exploded with tears.
Over the past few months during my own workouts, I’ve envisioned her on the race course and coming through the finisher chute. Over the past few weeks running, I’ve had to stop myself from doing that because thinking of her finishing the race literally took my breath away. As soon as I’d conjure her image as inspiration on a particularly hard interval, my throat would close up, my eyes would get teary, and I’d lose precious momentum. I used to bawl my eyes out for the Kona age-groupers on NBC whose training and achievement came in the midst of incredible challenges. It’s not that JJ has endured the sort of unspeakable tragedy that makes for compelling national television, but I know her story so much better. I know what her path has looked like and I know how hard she’s had to work to even dream up this goal in the first place, much less check off workout after workout for months and years. I know it hasn’t always been clear to her how strong she is, and I know how deeply she knows it now. That’s what takes my breath away.
I am so lucky to have her as my big sister.