The inaugural Country Music Marathon took place in Nashville, the country music capital, so of course, CMT was one of the enthusiastic sponsors. I had the awesome privilege of representing country.com in this history-making event as one of the 8,500 runners.
My six-month training consisted of running five days a week, working up from a three mile run each day to eight to 10 mile runs the last three weeks. Sometimes a whole week would go by when running would be replaced by the demands of life and/or work, so my training was somewhat sporadic. However, I kept myself motivated by indulging in daydreams where I would be the first woman to cross the finish line, nabbing the $20,000 prize. Of course, I would have run the course under 2:30:00, receiving the $10,000 bonus. Then I thought, “Well, if I’m going to dream, I might as well go all the way!” So, I would visualize myself coming in just under 2:29:00, qualifying for an additional $10,000 and a total purse of $40,000 — not bad for a day’s work, but the real money would come later, after I’d sold the book rights to Hollywood and made the talk show rounds.
One of the 40 bands that kept runners going in stride.
Race day, April 29, found me at the starting line with what I considered to be a more realistic goal: to run a five-hour race. Within an hour of running up and down the hilly terrain, my aching hamstrings forced me to abandon any hopes of finishing within my self-imposed time limit and resort to Plan B: to finish the course that same day.
Somewhere between the 10th and 11th mile, while I was standing in line to use the port-a-potty, the first woman runner, Kenyan Lucia Subano, made it across the finish line in 2:37:02. Some 25 minutes earlier, the first male runner, Luka Kibet (also from Kenya) had finished the race in 2:12:55. I wondered how in the world it was possible for them to maintain a five-minute mile for 26.2 miles. For thousands of us, whether we would make it to the end at all was still questionable.
By the 13th mile my legs felt like they were on fire, the bottoms of my feet were blistered, and I was seriously considering lying down on somebody’s lawn. Then, rounding a corner, a large group of spectators burst into applause and cheers. I looked around to see what all the commotion was about — and they were cheering for me! They thought I could make it and dang it, all those people couldn’t be wrong!
I continued on, sometimes walking and sometimes running — not that anyone could tell the difference. The hills, like asphalt waves, seemed ever endless. I took to walking uphill backward. It was just as painful as going forward, but at least the pain shifted to another group of muscles. Always, just when I thought I couldn’t go on, the encouragement from the spectators gave me the energy to continue to put one foot in front of the other.
So on I went. In passing and being passed by other runners and without realizing it, I became caught up in their struggle to make it to the finish line. I came up behind a woman who appeared to be in her 50s, and by her wobbly gait I thought she would certainly never make it to the end. Then I saw the concentration on her face and the determination in her eyes, and I knew she would. I felt ashamed for judging her from her outward appearance instead of by the strength of her spirit.
A runner pushing his friend in a wheelchair passed me. It was obvious that it was an effort to get the wheelchair up a hill, but he showed no signs of giving up. An old ’70s song entitled “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” came to mind. I wondered if I was the kind of person to merit this kind of consideration from my own friends and family and vowed that I would try to be.
The Dolly Parton triplets went by about then, and even though they were keeping a pretty good clip, they took time to pose for pictures with people from the crowd and with other runners. It was evident that having a good time — and making sure others did too — was their motivation to continue. By now I was hurting in places I didn’t know could hurt, but their sense of humor dulled the aches. “Dear God,” I thought. “Help me to be like them — never to take myself so seriously that I forget about helping others — trying to make them smile.”
I couldn’t help thinking that life is like a marathon, and all of us are caught up in the race. Sometimes the pace is downhill, but too often we face those uphill struggles. I drew a parallel between the thousands of people who chose to station themselves along the route — volunteers who took time out of their day to make the marathon possible and the wonderful spectators who never seemed to run out of encouraging words — and the people in my life who through word or deed (and sometimes without knowing) had helped me when my life’s course traversed personal mountains.
Then, wonder of wonders — I was at the 25-mile marker! I waddled, hobbled, limped and shuffled until all of a sudden I was at 26 miles. As I ran across the finish line, I heard my friend calling my name and looked over to see her jumping, cheering and going totally nuts as if I was the first person to finish. She was so excited for me, as was the crowd — not because I had won $40,000, but because I had completed the course. The wow-meter went way up.
In the words of John “the Penguin” Bingham, who pens the “Penguin Chronicles” for Runner’s World magazine, “the miracle is not that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.” Will I run the Country Music Marathon next year? Yes, because I know everyone who enters will be a winner. Not every winner will get a cash prize. The lucky will be rewarded with a newfound appreciation of those in their lives — family and friends — who nurture that courage within.