I am not a natural runner. My body is far from slim, my legs are not long. Gazelle-like is not how I would describe myself. I mean if I had to describe myself as an animal it would certainly be more along the lines of momma bear; fierce, strong, protective of her family, determined and…well insulated. Weight is something I’ve struggled with for most of my life, I’ve never aimed for a size 2, my body was never meant to be a size 2, I just aimed for happy and feeling good.
After college I went through a really intense right of passage time. I’d broken up with my fiance and boyfriend of 5 years, my dog had died suddenly a few weeks before graduation and I had no idea what I was doing with my life, so I decided to run. Like, not run away, but literally put on some really old shoes and run. I ran every day, either outside with my mom’s dog, or inside on the treadmill, as long as I could and I got down to a steady 9 minute mile. I never ran a race, or had any specific goals, or did anything like that, I just, ran.
Then, months later, after another bad break up, and another bout of ‘I don’t know what I’m doing with my life’, I stopped running.
That was 9 years ago.
Over the last 9 years there had been several attempts at trying to be “a runner” again. Sam would always be by my side.
I think it’s easier to start running for the first time, than it is to have been running, stop, and then try to pick it up again. When you’re trying to pick it up again, you long for the loving it part, and you hate yourself for every stopping, for being lazy and getting so. very. slow. I’ve always said I hate running, until I love it. And at each attempt at loving it again, I always failed.
This January, I decided to try again. This time, my friend Thea agreed to help train me. She’s like a super runner. I mean, she’d never say that, but she’s done all those crazy runs, where you tag team for some ungodly distance. She’s a beast, and I am so thrilled to call her friend.
For 4 straight weeks I ran at least 3 times a week, I had a printed out calendar hanging above my treadmill where I’d record the day I ran, distance and time. I could see it improving, I could feel my breath and endurance returning. I had the date for the Houston Rodeo Run 5K marked. I still didn’t love it yet.
I would take Sam when I could. She was the kind of dog that could run off leash, she’d trot on ahead, sniffing things, tail wagging. I’d yell, “over here”, and she’d come trotting back running right ahead of me, turning to look at me as if to say, “come on lazy, let’s go.”
Thea paced me. She taught me to control my breath, to lengthen my stride, things I never did the first time I loved running. She ran slow, with me, even though I know she’s loads faster.
This dog LOVED to run. She’d do this thing we called her “crazy run” where we’d clap really fast for her and she’d take off like a shot and run figure eights through the trees in our backyard at top speeds. She’d pass within inches of you, but she knew where you were and would never, ever run into you. If I ran on the treadmill, she’d sit right next to me and stare, with her dark accusing eyes. I knew she was pissed about it.
Then the fire happened. I lost my furry running partner. I lost my treadmill. I lost my brand new expensive running shoes. I lost all my sports bras (which if you’re in the larger cup range and do any kind of athletic activity you know how great a loss this is). All my running clothes, gone. My calendar with my progress, gone.
The 5K we’d signed up for was not first in my mind, it wasn’t even 5th. It wasn’t until a week after the fire that I’d even thought of it. I toyed with the idea of quitting. I’d lost training days. Even if I wanted to run, I didn’t have shoes.
Two weeks after the fire I texted Thea, “I still have to run it, I will be slow, but I still have to run it. Will you still do it with me?”
She said yes, of course, because she’s really awesome.
A week before the race a sweet friend gave me a gift card to REI so I could buy new running shoes. I went and sat stunned, looking at all the things in REI we’d lost; camping gear, hiking equipment, trail running shoes. We like the outside and over the last two years had pretty much completed our camping gear collection. “How can I help you?” “My house burned down and I need to run.”
I sat tunnel visioned on the REI guy and the shoes he was showing me. I picked a few and turned around to sit down and wait for him to bring sizes and a woman who had been trying on an exact pair of train running shoes I used to own stopped me. “Did you say your house burned down?” She had tears in her eyes.
“Yes mam, I did.”
“My son and daughter and law’s house just burned down.”
My heart fell. It fell because this had happened to someone else. Logically I know it does, but emotionally, I know what it feels like and it hurts me deep that anyone else has to feel like this.
We chatted, along with Bill. They lived in the heights, it burned down three days after ours. She was walking around in the same daze my mom had been walking around in. I knew the stare. I don’t recall what other specifics we talked about. I do know that by the end we were both crying and hugging each other.
The REI guy brought out my shoes.
He helped me, I bought shoes, I ran in them through the store to test them out. Running felt good, it felt freeing, I felt a little normal.
I had dinner with that friend that night and showed her the shoes and we hugged for a real long time. On the way out from dinner, I missed a step and rolled my ankle. I got back to mom’s and completely melted down the pain of everything along with the pain of my ankle, it was just too much. I cried, hard. I had a panic attack. When I was able to speak again all I could say was, “the fire took so much and now I have to loose this too.”
I babied that ankle all week. I iced it over and over. I rubbed it with arnica. I kept it elevated. I got a massage on Wednesday and I got the ok to run on it.
Another friend made me a shirt with the words “Stronger Than Fire” written on it. I gave her a shirt that was donated to us to put the words on. It seemed right.
When I picked up my race packet I felt like I was an imposter. Like I shouldn’t be there. That I wasn’t a real runner. I mean, my favorite running shots were from Walmart.
The night before the race I paced around the house gathering all the things, laying out my clothes, packing a bag with water, lara bars, sunscreen for Issa. That morning the cleaning folks had brought back a small box of our things they were able to clean. In it, were the tags Sam wore when we first adopted her. I laced them into my new running shoes.
We arrived at the Houston Rodeo Race early, two hours before start time. The air was brisk and cool. Trail riders slowly filed into downtown Houston. Floats lined one of the streets, ready for the parade that was to start 30 minutes after our start. Half a dozen high school marching bands from across the city started to practice. Cheerleaders stretched.
While we waited for the race to start, Thea and I had a chance to talk about everything that had happened since we’d last seen each other, at the ruins of my home, when I found Sam’s ball in the back yard and had completely melted down, in front of the insurance adjuster and the fire inspector.
I was nervous about the race. I’d done fun runs in college, and I’d worked raced and cheered for friends who were participating but I’d never done one myself, not like this.
I would not have done it without Thea.
The energy in downtown continued to increase. You could feel it filling up the streets and spilling over into the bayous that travel our city. It reminded me of the energy at the Buffalo Marathon, where I’d worked last May and watched runners cross the finish line and was moved to tears by the energy and the emotion of the experience.
Our race began, slowly as they do, because it’s like funneling sheep through the eye of a needle…or is it camels? I don’t know. But it’s slow. I didn’t care about being fast, I just wanted to not stop, to finish and also not die.
We ran a steady pace for a while and then the emotions started to hit.
I truly believe a large portion of running is a mental game. You’re in your headspace and your brain starts telling you things like, “you really should slow down, don’t you feel your legs getting heavy?” and “you really can’t do this, you’re already so tired, you should just stop.” It’s a game. And you have to overcome it. I was prepared for this, it happens every time I run. What I wasn’t prepared for was, “you left that candle lit and burnt your house down, you ruined your family’s life” and “you killed your dog, she was your running partner and now she’s not here because of you.”
Mind games folks, crazy fucking mind games.
My eyes filled with tears and I started to slow.
And that’s when Thea started encouraging me. I don’t know if she could tell what was happening in my head. But she supported me in the exact moment I needed it.
Out loud I said, “My house burned down. I am stronger than fire. I can do this.”
I didn’t run the entire distance. We power walked some of it. We passed people, then other people passed us. Thea was my rock during the whole thing.
When I wasn’t out of breath we laughed.
I sang, “She has very squatty legs. The kind you don’t bring out for runnin’,” to the tune of Rick James’ Super Freak.
But every mile or so, I would feel my legs ache, or my lungs burn or the hitch in my back start to throb and my brain would say the same thing, “you burned your house down, you are worthless, you can not do this.” And out loud I would say, “My house burned down. I am stronger than fire. I can do this.”
Then I saw a black lab in a tutu. I looked down at my shoes and saw Sam’s tags. I choked back tears. Not because of any mind games, but just because in that moment I missed my dog, and I was going to miss running with her and I hadn’t opened that box yet or dealt with that hurt and loss and I could feel it welling up.
“My house burned down. I am stronger than fire. I can do this.” Part of me wanted everyone to know.
A little after mile marker 2, I spotted Bill cheering me on. Insert ALL the energy. Then I saw my mom and Issa holding a sign that read, “Together we are stronger than fire! GO MOM!” Thea looked at me, “They are why you are doing this, run for them.”
I pushed harder.
“When we hit Taft Street we’re going to run again, and then when we get right before the finish line I want you to push and run as hard as you can.”
Seriously, Thea is legit the best.
We did, and Issa cheered for me just before the finish line. I crossed the line and wept. I grabbed her and hugged her like I couldn’t let her go. Bill hugged both of us and whispered to me, “Babe, I’m so proud of you.” I cried more. I hugged mom and Thea.
It was only a 5K. It wasn’t like it was a marathon. I was surprised at how the whole thing was much more difficult on the emotional level than it was on the physical level. I battled some serious mind demons on that course.
Just across from where we were hugging were a few EMTs. They congratulated me and Issa told them how I’d “won the race”. I thought of the EMTs that helped me the day of the fire and thanked these folks for their service and told them what had happened to us. The gentleman there was actually a fireman for Houston, and had heard about the fire at our house. After we chatted for a bit he hugged me and we took a selfie. I will forever be indebted to fire fighters, I will never be able to thank them enough for what they did for us that day.
In the wake of disaster and destruction and devastation I ran that 5K. I’m ready to sign up for another one, and start training for a 10K in the fall and possibly a half next spring. But I have a feeling that 5K will be the hardest one I will ever run, because of the mind games and the tragedy. I think it will also be the one I am most proud of myself for completing.
Thank you Thea for loving me enough to run slow with me and support me. Thank you to my family who cheered me on. Thank you to my friend Shawne for buying me my new running shoes, they were like running on clouds. And thank you to Sam, who I will forever see, looking back at me when I’m running, telling me to hurry my butt up.