Yesterday, I ran my longest race – the 10K Cherry Blossom Run in Branch Brook Park in Newark, NJ. I kept the tunes flowing to drown out the sound of my labored breathing and the strikes of superstar runners all around me. I kept cranking up the volume as I heard the cheers at the finish line growing closer. I knew it was there in the distance, but if I focused on it, I feared the road would feel much longer. I don’t usually have that eye-of-the-tiger, “you got this” mentality.
Intellectually, I know I can do this, but during the race, I started to fray at the edges. By the fourth mile, the weight of my legs felt heavier with every step. On a quick walk break, I texted Sam that I was “losing it” and was “delirious”, which was so misspelled that auto-correct didn’t even bother. How the hell does Dean Karnazes do 100-mile marathons? Boy, the Cathedral bells sound beautiful this morning! Is that a dead skunk I smell? Sam had crossed the finish line before me and came to cheer me on. I kept my head down as we ran together the last quarter-mile. I squeezed my eyeballs hard to restrain the tears. When I saw that my finish time was better than I expected, I bawled. Sobbing and shuffling across the finish line, I sniffled with tears of pride as I thanked the nice lady who gave me a medal.
As I’ve grown older, it’s been harder to accomplish goals. Adult responsibilities vie for our time as we battle decades of intrusive self-talk. Sometimes, I’ve decided giving up is easier than combatting the yelling in my head. But lately I’ve been feeling nostalgic about the upcoming anniversary of an accomplishment.
During my freshman year of college, a family hardship forced me to leave school unexpectedly. It felt like the world collapsed on me. After the initial shock, I refused to roll into a ball, even though attending community college often made me want to. My dream was to leave the town I grew up in and get a college education, even though I would be the first in my family to complete one. It took me over two years of letters (the kind you write on paper, slip into an envelope, and drop into a blue box with an eagle on it) and telephone calls to figure out how I was going to get into a college I could pay for on my own. At the risk of sounding like a dinosaur, I was at the mercy of using what is now called a land-line which was frequently out of service due to my mother’s difficulty keeping up with her bills. During those periods, I’d stockpile pocketsful of change and walk to the convenience store at the corner to call admissions, financial aid, and the registrar at the University of Pittsburgh, all while cars idled behind me in the parking lot.
Soon after my twenty-first birthday, I rented a 20-foot U-Haul truck with my car on a trailer behind, and drove six hours, alone, out to Pittsburgh to the roach-infested efficiency apartment I rented from a lady who had lipstick on her teeth. At first I didn’t know a soul until I connected with a friend from high school who was also a Pitt student. It took me two hard years to finish my degree there. Without support from my family, most days felt like a struggle. For a long time, I drowned in self-pity. It felt like students all around me spent their days playing Frisbee on campus, studying abroad, and going to parties, all while their parents kept their money flowing.
So when I recently decided to move my career in a different direction, I set a new goal. On Sunday, May 3rd, I will run my first half-marathon in Pittsburgh, to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of my graduation.
I will celebrate those years of struggle. I will celebrate every cockroach in my apartment. And every day that I had to work with a lecherous guy who made comments about my appearance. And every time I chuckled seeing Handyman Joe Negri from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood walking through the music building. And every time the bus downtown made the turn that showed the spectacular Pittsburgh skyline and I felt so blessed to be working toward something I so desperately wanted.
Some people achieve enormous goals, but accomplishing a degree from the University of Pittsburgh felt like climbing a mountain at times. I’m sure parts of the half-marathon are going to feel that way, too. I will call on that focused and fearless young woman I once was to mute the volume on my inner critic. I can guarantee that I could probably fill all three of those Pittsburgh rivers with tears of joy when I cross the finish line.