From writing an essay about regaining her own health and battling the cancer of her husband, Mary Shahan has arrived in the Big Apple to line up and run the race of a lifetime, More Magazine / Fitness Magazine Women's Half-Marathon.
Our arrival on Friday allowed us time to go to the race expo and pick up my packet, however not before the streets were closed for the President of the United States, blocking our walk of about 2 miles. A late afternoon arrival in town had left us starving. I will always remember how wonderful the city smelled to me with all the street vendors cooking away. My daughter and I decided to do what you always see the policemen do on television programs and have a hot dog on the sidewalk while waiting for the president’s motorcade to pass and the streets to reopen. The evening continued to smell of gyros and falafel, sauerkraut sauce and sauces of every flavor.
Finally we were on our way to the expo. It was great fun. My most exciting moment was meeting a female NYPD officer. She too was there to pick up her packet. What does a 62 year old grandmother from Texas have in common with a 20 something New York police officer? We both ran the More Magazine/Fitness Magazine All Women’s Half Marathon on April 13, 2014 in Central Park. Yes, that is a big deal to me. She was strong, beautiful, powerful, and we met and spoke to each other and she was equally excited for me to be running the race as well. In her successful career she had no idea that women of my time had many less opportunities. We hugged, and she posed with me to take a photo that I love best of all my pictures of my adventure. For that moment we were the same, two women with a goal and a plan to cover a certain distance and claim that distance as a personal victory of character and strength. Our times and abilities were going to be very different but our respect for each other was the same. I found that healing to my soul.
I found that healing to my soul.
After a hair raising subway ride (to save my legs a bit), where we were so close to perfect strangers we are now family, the evening was spent quietly in the hotel lounge. My daughter helped me order a tasty cocktail and I ate a New York hamburger and people watched out the large windows. Our first day had already been such an adventure of the simple life in New York but oh such a new experience for me. I felt calm in this strange new place and I am sure that my husband was near watching over his girls and giggling to himself about his girl’s adventure. The first day had been good, really good.
Morning came and we eagerly engaged the day of tours that my daughter had arranged. With only one day we prioritized the most important things to us to see. The Statue of Liberty, 911 Memorial, Harbor Tour and more. The city was warm and inviting and wondrous with sites familiar to me only form television or movies and now I am in the midst of it and I was fully involved in being a New Yorker.
In the evening we awaited the arrival of my dear life coach and trainer Dane Boyle. What a joy for me to have him join us Saturday evening. He arrived and we were able to enjoy an evening in New York. He and I chose to walk to a true New York Deli for a special and uniquely New York dining experience. Then we walked back to the hotel. This gave us time to socialize about our day, the coming race and feel the excitement of the city at night.
So the enjoyment of the city and socializing together was stowed away upon arrival back at the hotel to moments before bed to lay out my race clothes, pin on my number and visualize quietly the coming day. The butterfly hatch in my tummy had begun and the twinge of fear and doubt now also made itself known. What would it be like to go early and meet the folks from the magazine, media attention being very foreign to the grandma from Texas? What will they think of me, what will they ask? Will I say the right things? Will my run be good and representative of my ability? Will I disappoint my friends back home? I am not really and athlete, proven and tested with many runs, forged and tried with the pressures of long term illness of my terminally ill husband, or just a simple woman, grandmother, and widow with a broken heart. In truth I am all of these and this moment would see me that way and still inspire others.
As the time drew near for the start of the race there were thousands of women descending on Central Park. There was a buzz in the air as the New York Road Runners were busy with an army of volunteers putting the last minute touches on the course and readying the water stops along the course.
The 5 essay finalists had arrived early for briefing with the magazine executives. It seemed it was a parade of people from the magazine and all with long titles of their profession. They were friendly, and engaged us all with very polite conversation. As more execs gathered there began to be a chatter among them that about a person named Hoda. That is all just saying that name over and over. Now I know of a Hoda Kotb that is a network news person but surly that would not be who this was they were calling only “Hoda”. Suddenly she walked up, and I was speechless as I comprehended that it was the only “Hoda” I had ever known. No what? I don’t know her, but yet I do. I stepped to my daughter and trainer and uttered that common star struck phrase, “do you know who that is?”
Oh my! Now this is getting big. My butterflies are hatching out babies now. We will be on stage with Hoda Kotb.
Time came for the announcements and introductions for the start of the race. By now the crowd was pushing 10,000. There were load speakers through the park for the start and it would seem all could hear. The managing editor called us up on stage and began the introductions. She briefly explained the contest and then introduced each of us with a little about each of our topics of our essays. The crowds listened politely and applauded for each young woman, very young and very attractive women. Each had a truly inspirational story of overcoming terrific ordeals in their lives, different from mine but equally touching.
Then it came time to introduce me, the moment when I would stand on stage and here my name and town and state announced. The editor would say to the crowd her planed notes for that moment. I tried to stand demurely and with a modest smile but later the pictures would prove my fear was on display for all. Our saying here in Texas for that is a “deer caught in headlights look”. She would tell the crowd of almost 10,000 that I was 62 years old and the cheers were suddenly deafening for this essay finalist. In that moment I felt my arm rise up high in the air with a clinch fist and I was fist pumping. I was hollering and cheering with the crowd. Then a second cheer went up for the fact that I had used running to inspire my husband’s remission.
They understood and were inspired by my ability to use running to inspire her husband and to improve her own health. They obviously loved seeing age triumph and give them hope they will still be doing what they love for a long time to come. I was transformed from the little grandmother from South, Texas into a respected athlete that had overcome to achieve. It inspired thousands in that moment to see an example of a stately older lady turned athlete knowing she had endured the training and the cancer and that one allowed control over the other.
Being a cancer care giver will make unexpected demands on you and you will face things along the way that you are not prepared for or trained to handle.
Handshakes and hugs were given out, especially Hoda. She was very gracious and I was able to tell her about my trainer and point him out and say to her how supportive he had been. She engaged me in conversation and said to me that I was such an inspiration.
Finally, it is time for the race. The fear of disappointing was overwhelming. In training for the relay we had trained for shorter runs and quick recycle times. The longest long run I had made was 8 miles about 2 weeks prior. Would I have the endurance I needed to make the whole race? After 5 previous halves my experience said yes. More importantly my trainer assured me that when the race got underway I would settle in and rely on my abilities and race experience to do well enough to finish 13.1 safely.
Mixed into the sea of women somewhere about halfway back the 5 finalist found a spot to wait for the race start to come to them. When we finally crossed the start line and began the official timer of our run the gun time showing was almost at the 5 minute mark, making a mental note to keep that in mind I had my iPhone out ready to start my personal running app to track my race progress. As my trainer and dear friend now said, it was suddenly game on.
Have I mentioned there are not many hills in the area of my part of South Texas? Well there aren't. In fact I have to go looking for them. While training for the one full marathon I did I found training on hills would continually aggravate my sciatic nerve. Not an excuse for me to stop my running but certainly a challenge and condition that I had to accept, rehab and approach sensibly. I had to learn to be good to my body for it to perform better and allow me to use running as positive fun activity.
I discovered the hills in Central Park? Yes, the race information did mention significant hills throughout the course. Another challenge to me because I had not run hills in training in many months. This was the scariest part for me because my experience had taught me to train for all race conditions so you do not come to a race under trained.
Being a cancer care giver will make unexpected demands on you and you will face things along the way that you are not prepared for or trained to handle. My running had been the stress relief for the “hills” of cancer torture. Now that cancer training was going to get me up those hills of Central Park in lieu of my physical training. With my husband gone now the load of his cancer was off my shoulders and my life experience had taught me I could meet unexpected challenges and overcome them by breathing deeply and attacking them one step at the time.
I settled into the race and my goal was simply survive and smile and see the beauty of the day and conqueror those hills, finish and not disappoint all the folks back home that believed in me. Folks like my neighbors that have grown accustomed to early lights on in the house because I am going for an early run to beat the heat. People like the men at the car dealership that keep my car in good repair that ask me each time when I am in, “do you have any runs or marathons coming up?” Folks from my husband’s work, and from Guadalupe Regional Wellness Center and Facebook and on and on that are always tracking my runs.
Experience is the best teacher. My race experience played a huge part in my Central park run. Another sign I felt like a true athlete. You always hear the sports analyst make that point when referring to an athlete’s endeavor. Questioning always will their experience or lack of it affect their performance. Athletes will comment often that their experience got them thought.
I took all aspects of the race in on the first loop through. Using my watch to time the assent on the really big hills and taking a measure of the effort required to conquer each one. I relied on the information I read from the course to avoid congestion and when I could not run, not to worry, I would just shift gears to the power walk. I could actually pass others at that gate and rest while doing it.
Using my experience I timed my hydration and power snacks just right to give me the needed boost where the course demanded it just right. Carrying my own water I can avoid most water stops in large races, there is just too much chaos there. I listened to the inexperience conversations of the “newbies” and the experienced runners as well. I learned that there were more new runners than normal and that the cold temperatures this spring had made it hard for them to train for the long run. On the day of the race it was unusually hot for many of the New York based runners. My Texas runs may not allow for much hill running but what we have heat. We sweat in Texas. I had belonged to a running group named “Hotter than Hell Running Club” that trained together for my full marathon. My experience would serve me well now for sure and it would give me that extra confidence that my training was lacking for this race. I knew the heat would not be a factor.
It was bitter sweet to cross the finish line of my first long race and not have my husband Larry there with the big bear hug for me.
It was particularly joyful getting to see the elite runners go past. Crushing too many, but I had long since accepted that speed would never be an asset to me at my age and realizing my athlete dreams late in my life. But there was something really gratifying about seeing Olympic star Deana Castor streak by looking like a sprinter during an endurance race. For just a brief moment I would be running with world class athletes. My feet would fall in their steps and at the end we will have competed and completed the same distance and crossed the same finish line. The thought that she was there in the beginning to cheer me while on stage was amazing. The Olympic star passed me in my mile 5. She would finish the whole race before I finished my first half of the half. I saw her, not on television, but in person on the same day in the same race. Wow!
I had sized up the course, and the effort required. I had determined when to eat and drink. I had put in to play my running coach’s (from back home) advice and that was to find the advantages of the course and make them work for you. I quickly figured out that I must run the down hills and the following flats and punch the hills with my power walk. That had me running more that I normally run as I use a combination of walk run intervals to complete a run. Mmy confidence led by experience told me that I could push harder with less recovery when I really needed. I found that I was in better shape that I thought and that I had certain advantages and I made them count.
The most special part of my race was the moment that my trainer found me on the course. It was so good to get that high five and to see his reassuring face. Then he would have a spontaneous moment where he joined me on the course to run alongside of me for about a ½ mile. A place in the race where I might have given in to a resting walk became a special moment shared between life coach and client as we had been alongside each other for many of life’s challenges over the course of our relationship and my husband’s dedication to living fully while dying. In that half mile he became the wind beneath my wings that had newly fledged under his gentle urging. I picked up my pace rather than faltering to a walk. In that small amount of time I told him my plan and told him I knew I could do this.
It was bitter sweet to cross the finish line of my first long race and not have my husband Larry there with the big bear hug for me. However, it was very special for me to share this race’s end with my daughter, Michelle and give her a moment of reward for being there when mother needed her most. There too was the man that started it all and had seen me through the battle of getting healthier, the battle to control cancer’s grip on my family and me personally, and now my chief physical supporter helping me trust and prove that physical fitness and attention can carry you through the devastation of losing one’s life mate, and the paralyzing grief of widowhood. His life coach skills were continuing to lift me up and help me “make a plan” for all of life’s movement. Without him and his challenges I may have just given up after losing Larry.
I ran a personal best on this magical day. I had run lighter not having carried cancer. My cancer care training had made up for the lack of hill and distance training. That was such a victory for me. Worried going in that I may disappoint and to achieve a person best under less than perfect physical training lifted my spirits beyond words.
This chapter was no completed and I began the next after crossing the finish line. Never doubt that you can do anything that you put your mind to. My friend, trainer and life coach, Dane Boyle, has taught me to plan, prepare and execute. These 3 words are not only true in a training plan, but in life. See you the finish line.