My alarm screams, ripping through the darkness and my eyes flutter open immediately. Scrambling quickly, I throw the heavy covers off myself in the dark hotel room and reach to silence my phone before I wake my parents. As I turn off my alarm I stare blankly into the dark room for a moment, trying to comprehend what I’m about to do.
Today is the day I run 57 miles from Penn State to Bucknell to raise money for Lyme disease research and awareness. It’s the day I’ve been training for since my diagnosis, over a year, and the day I prove to myself what my body is actually capable of doing. Surprisingly, I’m no longer nervous. I’m excited.
Shuffling quietly around the hotel room I gather my first outfit for the day. My parents are in the other bed and even though I’m tip-toeing around as if they are still asleep, I know they’re lying there awake, trying to process why my alarm rang at such an ungodly hour. But I can’t sleep any longer, and my legs are ready to hit the road.
Outside it is 40 degrees or so and I decide on a pair of tights, my Pacers race tank, arm sleeves, gloves and an incredibly lightweight jacket. The sun won’t come up until 7:30 AM so I stuff my jacket pocket with two LED lights and a headlamp.
Once dressed I push open the conjoining door to our other hotel room and join Dave and my sisters. We make sure my bag full of extra running clothes, nutrition, and shoes is set for the van, and we pack up the rest of our things for my parents’ car while I eat some toast and peanut butter. We quietly play the song Go the Distance from Disney’s Hercules, and giggle excitedly as we sing along, until my Dad comes in and sternly tells us to keep it down. As I ready my first bottle of Tailwind, Erin and I mouth the words silently to each other, still playing the song anyways, not letting my Dad put a damper on our energy.
When we step outside of the Nittany Lion Inn, I see the slick sheen of a wet street beneath the street lights, and realize it’s raining. It wasn’t forecasted, but because it’s just a drizzle I don’t worry too much. We hop in the van and drive through State College’s campus – not another soul on the streets. As we approach the stadium and the track facility my stomach does a flip flop. It feels surreal the moment is finally here.
We learned the day before the outdoor track was kept locked and we would be unable to get access to the traditional start line I had imagined myself standing at for so many months. But, because ROTC was practicing on the indoor track at 5:30 AM, I would be able to run a lap on the indoor track instead. As we hop out of the van I see the ROTC kids beginning to filter into the track facility, and I hurriedly grab my gels and gloves before rushing over to grab the locked door they’re holding open.
When I walk into the facility a flood of memories take hold. I remember the smell of the rubberized track, the lofty ceilings, and spacious warm up area. I remember the last time I stepped on this track as a freshman in college, sick and unready to run a 5k. I think about how that race felt apart for me, how I barely had energy to finish, and how disappointed I was in myself for failing my team. Not today, I say to myself as I approach the familiar 200m oval. Today, I would run a lap to start my 57 mile journey, on the track I never truly was able to be myself on and show my true potential.
ROTC shows me no particular interest as I step gingerly up onto the red lanes. I look over at my family waiting behind the rail and they smile encouragingly at me. My watch is
ready to go and reads 0:00:00. With a satisfying beep, the seconds start piling up on the watch face as I take my first few steps on the track.
It’s silent. I run past the 5k start and see my younger self standing there, unsure and afraid. I see a girl who doesn’t yet understand who she is and the strength inside her. She’s sad and confused, still struggling with depression and an eating disorder, and doesn’t know beauty and strength is more than a number on the scale or a reflection in the mirror. I blow past that girl on the track, my body strong, mind powerful and heart so full of love and gratitude it hurts. I don’t look back as I continue my lap around the track. I know she’ll be okay.
My family cheers for me as I come back around the bend and finish my lap. I’m smiling now. It’s go time.
Once outside my Dad and Dave join me to run me out of Penn State. The roads are peaceful and dark and even though it’s chilly, I warm up quickly. We chat to pass the time as we run toward Route 45, the road I’ll be running the majority of my 57 miles on. As I try to keep pace in check, I notice the light drizzle is steadily increasing, and rain comes down steady and cold. Earlier in the first few miles we had all shed our jackets, but as the wind blows a sheet of icy rain in my face, I quickly throw my jacket back on in hopes of retaining a bit of heat.
Route 45 brings our first big challenge of the run. We run down the two lane road single file in the shoulder against traffic, but the road is narrow coming into Penn State. Traffic from the surrounding towns begins streaming in and we are faced with a constant line of fast-driving cars, coming dangerously close to the line. Even though we are decked out with headlamps, blinking lights and reflective gear, cars have a hard time seeing us in the rain, swerving out unexpectedly last minute as their headlights illuminate our single file line. Some cars angrily honk and my heart beats wildly in my chest. This was not what I imagined, and I am afraid for my family’s lives.
Our first stopping point with Erin, Caitlin, and my mom is about 6-7 miles in. We can see them parked up ahead on the opposite side of the highway and I know it’s a no go. I’m already on edge because of my father’s frustration and the horrifying traffic, and as we come to a stop across the road from our caravan, we’re all suddenly screaming back and forth at each other with no real conversation happening.
“ENOUGH,” I finally scream. My entire body is shaking and I’m unsure if it’s from fear, frustration or the cold. “I’m running up ahead and I’ll meet you when I meet you.”
“I’m going to help them find a place to park up ahead,” Dave tells me and he expertly dashes across the road during a break in the traffic to talk with my mom.
“Let’s go,” my dad exclaims, “you stay behind me.”
The dark road and constant traffic is daunting. We make mad dashes across tiny bridges with no shoulder and I find myself singing over and over in my head, Jesus take the Wheel. I curse my sisters for getting the song stuck in my head in the first place, but I can’t deny how relevant the song is in the moment. Eventually, I see my mom and sisters in a pull-out up ahead and we re-assess, grab more fuel, and my dad and I decide to continue on together until the sun comes up.
The next few miles are a wash of head lights and rain. My dad runs ahead of me, the steady rhythm of his cadence guiding my own steps forward. I want to talk to him but there is no way he’ll be able to hear me over the traffic. In some ways, the silence is comforting in itself. We know we don’t have to talk to make a connection, running is our connection. Following his footsteps is something I’ve done all my life, and I feel comfortable with his reliable figure ahead of me.
Slowly, the sky lightens at the edges. The menacing dark fades and shadows of farmhouses and barns become clear against the graying sky. The silhouette of mountains surrounds us and my heart lifts as I watch the first ray of light peek through the trees on the horizon. We’re finally visible running along the shoulder and the traffic does not feel as threatening. My dad pulls along side of me for a moment. We look half crazed I’m sure – soaked to the bone from the rain and our brains still trying to comprehend the traffic. We ask each other if we’re okay, and we both lie, replying yes.
We meet up with the van around the half marathon mark and my dad switches off with Erin. Because the roads are still too dangerous to bike, she runs instead, packing her bike jersey full of nutrition and hydration. It’s still drizzling on and off and I change only my socks, deciding to keep on my damp outfit on until the rain is completely finished. Surprisingly, I’m not cold.
The miles pass quickly as Erin and I chat about life, health, future plans and upcoming races. We fall into our old rhythm together and it is as if we’re out for just another training run, not 14 miles in to a 57 mile endeavor.
We are seamless with the undulating rhythm of Route 45 and we follow the ups and downs through winding countryside and one-street towns. It’s much later into the morning now but the world still seems to be waking. As we pass one farm in particular, all the cows in the pasture look up at us as we run by. Slowly, one of the cows trots after us. And then another. And another. I can’t help to pick up the pace as I glance back over my shoulder and see the whole herd chasing after us along the rickety fence. Laughing, we leave them at the end of the field, their curious eyes still staring as we disappear around a bend in the road. An Amish horse and buggy passes us a few moments later, and we wave to each other from the gravel roadside. It’s as if we’ve entered another world.
Being out in the Pennsylvania countryside reminds me of the hundreds of runs I set out on while a student at Bucknell. Runs I took with the team. Runs I took with new friends, Erin, or the runs I set out alone to try and find a little piece of my self. When I ran alone, I sought nature to heal me. Sometimes I ran to fight the demons I often felt lurking inside. Sometimes I ran to soothe heartache, and other times to distract myself from a feeling inside I did not quite understand how to describe. An emptiness I was sure I could fill if only I pushed myself a little harder, a little farther. If I felt a little more pain. I never found the answer then, but had a feeling I would today.
Miles pass. As we approach mile 23, I come to the parking lot of Millheim Small Engine Hardware. It is a small, local store and as I come up to the van I can see my dad up at the store front talking with an Amish man. At this point, I’ve fallen into a routine at my rest stops: check my Tailwind, grab more gels and check my socks. My legs are still feeling chilled so I decide to keep on my tights but opt to finally change out of my damp arm warms, tank and jacket. The rain must finally be done, I say to myself as I rummage through my bag, looking for my Bucknell training tech tee I’ve had since becoming a member of the cross country team. Grabbing the tee and sports bra from my bag I go around to the back of the shop where my mom tells me there is a port-a-potty and begin to change. As I don my fresh tops, I hear the pitter of rain against the plastic roof of the port-a-potty. Screw it, I say to myself as I burst out of the small bathroom and trot back over to the car. I love running in the rain, but I am quickly growing tired of it on this run.
When I get back to the car my mom tells me the owner of the shop wants to talk with me and he’s made a donation to my run. Although I’m eager to get back out onto the road, I know my run is just as much about the journey as it is about the running. I want this day to be about the people I meet and the memories I make with my friends and family as we raise awareness for Lyme disease research. I walk over to the man my dad is chatting with and introduce myself. His name is Henry and I learn his daughter is currently in treatment for lyme. He tells me her story and how no one could diagnose her, and how she probably had lyme for a long, long time once she was finally diagnosed. His story reminds me of how many people are affected by lyme and why I’m out running in the first place. I’m running for those who cannot, I remind myself. I’m 23 miles in, but I feel like I’m starting fresh.
Dave runs a few miles with me and then switches off with my Dad. At this point we’re a few miles past my first marathon and we’re headed for Bald Eagle State Park. It’s here I’ll hit my biggest hills and where I expect my legs to start really hurting. As we near 30 miles, my dad and I run stride for stride, chatting about memorable runs long in our past.
“You’re going to learn a lot about yourself out here,” my dad says pointedly, during a lull in our conversation.
“I know.” Nothing else needs to be said.
A little past 30 miles we begin climbing a hill into Bald Eagle State Park. I can see a larger crowd of people standing on the side of the road up ahead. Our Bucknell alum friends have arrived, and I am excited to have fresh legs to run with and the energy they bring to all they do. There is a lot of hugging as I cross the road to greet them and they ask how I’m feeling. Surprisingly, my legs still feel relatively fresh other than some fatigue growing in my quads. I decide to finally change from my tights into shorts, and change into a new pair of Hokas, a wide width I planned to use as my feet swelled with the mileage. With a fresh pair of socks, I can almost trick myself into feeling brand new.
The guys decide to take turns running with me in groups of two or three. I head into Bald Eagle State Park with Justin and Tim and we talk to pass the miles as we continue to climb up and up. The trees are full of reds, yellows and oranges in Bald Eagle and even though my legs are starting to feel fatigued, I can’t help but feel happy to be running through the fall foliage with friends on a now-beautiful day. When we finally reach the top of an endless hill, around mile 35, Justin lets me know we’re at the top and it’s all downhill from there. Of course, I don’t believe him (he was right).
The miles begin to blur together, but distinct memories stick out to me: randomly bursting into song, singing Vanessa Carlton’s A Thousand Miles as we head downhill through Bald Eagle; passing the gravel road where our cross country coach used to take us to run a wretched hill workout each season; leaving the park with Chuck and Mike and realizing I still have at least 18 miles to go.
It is the middle of the day now, and as we leave the shelter of Bald Eagle, I realize how much the road has warmed up in the sun. I assess how I’m feeling. My intake of water and Tailwind has been steady and with the help of my team, I successfully am taking gels every 45 minutes or so. Even though I have not eaten any real food since my toast early in the AM, I have no desire for real food. My legs feel stronger than I expected them to be this late in the game and my spirits are high.
Throughout my training for this day I kept mentally preparing myself to deal with the inevitable wall I envisioned myself not only hitting, but slamming into full force once I went over a 50k. But the wall was no where in sight and in a moment of realization I knew I was never going to hit it. I was much stronger than I ever imagined. Every ounce of my body and soul was ready for this day and I was going to enjoy it.
Somewhere around mile 43 we come upon a gas station. I am running with Justin and Josh at this point, and I insist on going inside to try and go the bathroom. I don’t really need to go, even though I’ve been drinking fluids all day. Part of me feels I have to try because I had not gone since mile 7 of the run. We walk into the gas station and suddenly, everything feels surreal. I’ve been out on the road for so long running it doesn’t seem right for me to be in a public place, in front of other people, trying to function normally. Shuffling over to the bathroom I lock myself inside and look at myself in the mirror for the first time since the hotel room back in Penn State. It’s odd who I see staring back. I’m weary, but determined. My legs ache now, but they’re still strong. The days leading up to my run I had wondered, but what if I can’t finish, and now I only wondered what will we do once I’m finished?
Josh, Justin and I leave the gas station and head back out to Route 45. Although the road is beautiful, I’ve just about had it with the highway and when one of the guys suggest we hop over to the rail trail in a few miles I don’t hesitate to agree. It feels incredibly warm as we trudge along the open road and I can feel my stride shortening as I try to lessen the impact on my legs.
I keep shuffling along the shoulder as I get back into my rhythm after our stop, and step over what looks like a metal straight-edge spatula. Before my brain can even process what Justin is doing, I watch him scramble to pick it up mid step. As I look over my shoulder to see why he is holding it, I watch him turn back and chuck it tomahawk style down the shoulder. In a perfect arch, blade over handle, we watch it collide with a telephone pole, the metal end wedged deep into the wooden beam, sticking out perfectly perpendicular to the road.
“Did you see that?” Justin screams and for a moment we’re all just standing and shouting in excitement on the side of the road as we stare at a metal spatula sticking out of a telephone pole.
It’s then I realize we might be a bit dehydrated.
Mile 47 brings us to the Buffalo Valley Rail Trail. We’re about ten miles out and everyone is getting excited. My college coach is at the trail head and lets me know he plans to start track practice at the outdoor track because it should line up perfectly with my projected finish time. Even though I am so close, it is still hard for me to envision myself finishing yet. I know it is going to happen, but it seems too soon. My sense of time is warped.
The rail trail is relaxing. At this point I am taking small walking breaks more frequently, but it gives me more time to take in the little moments and appreciate all the support from my family and friends. My dad, Caitlin and Erin join me on the trail for one leg and it’s the first time I can remember all working out together since our childhood. Colorful trees and big open farm fields surround us and I begin to recognize the roads we cross over as ones I once ran down during college.
My watch beeps and we hit 57 miles.
“Alright guys, we did it,” I jokingly exclaim pretending to slow to a stop, even though we have a few more miles ahead of us. The 57 miles stares up at me from my watch and it’s hard to imagine all those miles behind me. The morning’s dark treacherous miles seems like an entirely different day and I had been having so much fun with my family and friends over the past few hours, the miles built up effortlessly. Before the run, there was a part of me believing if the run ended up being more than 57 miles I wouldn’t be able to run another step. But here I was continuing on toward Bucknell, planning out what we would do for dinner since I was actually finishing at a normal hour.
About 1.5 miles out, I say goodbye to most of my crew as they speed off to the finish. Our assistant coach, Coach Rob, from Bucknell has run out on the trail to meet me and run me to the track with Erin, Dave and a few other Bucknell guys. Being so close to the end, I feel a surge of energy and I know it will all be over soon, so I try to take in every moment. Every step takes me one closer and I can feel the emotions beginning to build. Soon my feet are carrying me down a familiar route I’ve run countless times before.
We hit Market Street and I gingerly step along the cracked sidewalk. The busy street is lined with Lewisburg’s historic green three-globe lamp posts and it’s a sign we’re finally home. We hang a right onto 7th street and campus looms ahead of us.
Running down 7th street feels natural. Back in college, I ended so many of my runs cruising down this road back to my dorm or the field house. It takes us past Stucco, our cross country house and past 7th Street Cafe, one of my places of work while a student. As we pass by Stucco we all glance over at the pale yellow house where we spent a good deal of our time. It held different memories for all of us I’m sure, but many we also shared.
We hang a right onto Moore Avenue and are greeted by Welcome Home decals hanging from the lamp posts. Campus is just as I always remember it, and I can almost trick myself into thinking I’m still a student and returning to campus after a quick afternoon run. We head down Moore and as we near the outdoor track, the guys race ahead to watch me finish. Coach Rob runs me up to the gates, and leaves me to run through to the track on my own.
My heart is pounding and I can’t stop smiling. This is it. The moment I’ve been envisioning for over a year. The moment where I enter Bucknell’s track and finish in the spot where I finished my collegiate career.
As I run through the front gate, my friends, family, and the track team are all waiting for me. They clap and cheer as I run past and I am overwhelmed by the support. I step onto the blue and orange lanes and am greeted with the all-too familiar smell of polyurethane. It reminds me of past workouts, races and endless loops with my teammates. It reminds me of the place I came from and the hardships I endured to make me the person I am today.
Rounding the final bend I can feel tears welling in my eyes. I am proud of myself. Proud of all I accomplished in the past 10 hours or so, and all it took for me to get to this moment. All my failures, struggles, accomplishments, and dreams led me here to the finish.
Running has always grounded me and steered me to clarity in my life. As I near the finish I think about the doctors who told me I wouldn’t be able to run again after my knee surgery and I should take up another “hobby.” I remember the triumph I felt after I finished my first marathon and qualified for Boston, the pride I had finishing Boston, and the absolute elation I felt after taking on my first 50k while still in treatment for Lyme. I think about all the things people have told me I can’t do and how I went and did them anyways – sometimes in spite, and sometimes to prove to myself I wasn’t the broken individual I often felt like.
Crossing the line, I throw my hands triumphantly into the air. I slow to a stop and hit the final split on my Garmin to end the run. There’s so much hugging and celebration that I could not stop smiling if I tried. The final mileage on my Garmin states 59.8 miles in 9:28:49 (10:50:18 was the total elapsed time from start to finish).
After standing on the track for a bit, it finally dawned on me it was over. I raised $6,350 for Lyme disease research and awareness but the journey to and during November 2nd, was more than I could have ever asked for. The sun is setting as I slowly walk off the track (this is where the sore quads finally caught up with me) and I am so thankful for what my body was able to do and for all the friends and family who helped me along the way. I looked over my shoulder one final time at the finish line of my journey as we walked out toward the waiting car.
Until next time.
Many, many thanks to all who supported me during my training and the day of my event. I couldn’t have done it without my many friends who got me out the door on long run days and kept me company on endless runs.
And again, thank you so much to my support crew: my parents (moms and dads on both sides of the fam!), Caitlin, Erin, Dave, Chuck, Josh, Chris, Justin, Tim, and Mike!