First, I saw my friend Bob Hutchings and his family sitting in their chairs by their house. Last year, they were handing out bacon. This year, they were dealing encouragement in heavy doses. I demanded a high five as I passed and they all cheered. It was very invigorating. My next encounter was with the legend himself, Bill McChesney. Bill and I have an interesting relationship. He has given me loads of great running advice and even some parenting advice. He is also something of a novice philosopher, though he will never claim that title. He was seated in a lawn chair with his wife along West Amazon and they both gave me a peck of a kiss on the cheek for luck. This small act quickened my pace. I felt like I could fly the next 26 miles if I needed too. Next I saw my family along with friends from my girls' school. My daughters had made signs that said "Never give up, Mama." and "When I grow up I am going to run a marathon just like you." They were a sight! I was feeling good still and on the top of the world, so I didn't linger in my visit.
About mile 7, I saw my dear friend and running partner Stephanie Gray. She ran with me for a bit which was real thrill, fulfilling a dream for me. She and I ran our first real distance together in the training and half marathon the year earlier, so it was comforting to have her along with me for a bit of the 8th mile. I asked her to go along with me for "the hill" but she had left her family and husband curbside and had promised to run a sort distance with others.
Then, just after the water stop on 19th, I saw a giant, spray-painted sign that said one word: 'RHONDA' in letters that were each 3 feet tall. I thought surely that sign is for someone else named Rhonda. But when I got closer, I saw that it was my friends Tom and Marilee Peryam and their sweet little boys standing on the edge of the road looking for me, holding the sign. This was the first time that I lost my control over my emotions. My throat closed up a little, I will admit and I had to fight to maintain my composure and my breathing. Some years back, before I had ever run more than 4 miles and before Tom and Marilee had their first son Charlie, we had run the Steep Hill Chase together here in Eugene. This was one of my first struggles in running. I still don't know if it was because of the MS or not but I remember the run vividly. I also remember their encouragement and kindness afterwards. It was amazing to see them along the Eugene Marathon course cheering for me! I cannot find the words still. Truly good friends.
Shortly after that, I climbed "the hill." I did well with the climb, never walking and keeping a strong pace. At mile 9, I looked for my coach, Joe Henderson. He was hard to spot because it was so packed with people. Instead of spending too much time, I pressed on. At the split, where the marathoners head east away from the half marathoners, I started to feel fatigued. This was the first time that I thought I may have started too early. Then there was the doubt that crept in about my MS; this always happens on my long runs or when I am not on the top of my game. At the half way point I saw my dear friend Toviana Jackson and her sweet little girl way out in no man's land cheering me on. It was great to see them because there were few spectators out on the Springfield side of the course, but also because I had been through a lot with Toviana. She had known me since I had first really started running, since before I lost 30 pounds, and she had been a big cheerleader for me. I didn't expect to see her at all, but there she was. This was another moment when my throat closed up a bit. I was overwhelmed with gratitude.
I have my doubts about what I can do. With people and with my physical abilities, I just don't always feel confident. I mean, sure I have MS-- I don't discount my efforts around overcoming that--but this was something more. I had no idea how many people would come out to support me or how many people that believe when I do not. I sure was surprised and I sure was grateful. This is a good life and I am truly blessed.
When I checked my splits I saw that I started fast, much faster than is typical for me. I maintained that speed, just slightly over my comfort level, for the first 13 or so miles. Does that sound familiar to any second marathoners out there? Then, right about mile 16, the sun came out. Who knew it could be sunny in Eugene, Oregon on April 29? Seriously. Come to think of it, it was completely sunny the year before at the Eugene Marathon, so I m not sure what I thought. I always take our spring weather for granted here in Oregon.
Here's the reality for me and for others with MS: heat is not my friend. It zaps my energy and my drive. Heat takes me from strong to string in about 2 minutes. This was certainly the case by mile 17. Honestly, I tried to return to my typical, slower pace, that steady beat that carried me through the Portland Marathon some mere months earlier, but alas, it was too late. I had paced too fast. I was in over my head. The sun was shining down. I was fading fast.
At about mile 18, I met up with my family. My sweet little girls and darling husband decided to run a long with me for a very short distance. I used this as my excuse to walk some and visit, taking me all the way up to the check table for my team. Tonya McKay was waiting, smiling, taking pictures (bless her heart for being there!) I wore most of my canteen's contents, pouring it over my head and down my back. Tonya gave me a small, plastic water bottle to carry (God bless you Tonya!) So I bid my family a quick goodbye and I was off again.
Near mile 21, the French school had gathered and they were cheering in French and banging drums and rattling noise-makers, Mardi Gras style. It was endearing and welcomed...and my last little bit of hope for a strong finish in the climbing heat of the morning.
Then at mile 23, I saw my family again. Now they had been joined by a larger group of friends from the girls' school, including Darcy Guhl. I had given Darcy a ride to the start line earlier that morning and she had run the half marathon, placing well in her age group and finishing in less than 2 hours. My husband had run up to me and started coaching me along, as he could see I was not doing well. "Do you need help?" He asked. I told him if I stopped to visit the families and all of the cheering kids, that I would likely break down and cry. This might cost me the finish all together. Dave responded, "You don't have to stop. Darcy is offering to run with you if you need her to help you." I gasped, "yes." It was all I could say.
Soon, Darcy fell in next to me and took up a strong, yet slow pace. She started talking about all sorts of things. Honestly I do not remember most of it, but what I do remember is that she carried me with her words and her encouragement. This was the hottest part of the route. No shade. No water stops. No cheering crowds. A narrow path that winds along behind an industrial stretch. Darcy talked about her son. She talked about her half marathon that morning. She talked about persevering. In a blur, bits of her conversation came to me, pressing my feet to the pavement.
Nearing mile post 25, I had the idea that I might actually make it. Darcy took a call on her cell phone and found out that she did quite well in her age group (and in women's overall) for the half. She was truly inspiring for me then. She had already ran 13.1 miles and managed to do it with some recognition, and now she was back on the course with me, helping me limp in to just finish. We entered the tunnel that goes under the train tracks and she reminded me that we were truly in the home stretch. As we came out of the tunnel, I saw my friends The Peryams again with their giant 'RHONDA' sign. They still had their young boys clutching them and cheering, having relocated and were there cheering me on. At once, we were back in the crowd, and there was more cheering and more hoopla. Darcy yelled as we approached the 26 mile mark. She told the crowd my name and said I needed help and they all went wild!
And then I thought about that crazy fantasy that I have from time to time. What if I never had been diagnosed with MS? Would I have been inspired to push myself to this place in time. Would I have allowed this person to help me along these last three miles? Would I have so many supporters along this path? Would I ever have even attempted a marathon? Fundraising? MS awareness? At the gates of Hayward field, the questions fell away from me. Darcy stopped there and gestured me on. She had already had her finish. This was for me.
Darcy in green, me in orange (donor shirt)
And I had to pause and take it all in, to relish the feelings of the moment knowing that I had not done it alone, that I could not have done it alone, that I don't have to do any of it alone again if I don't want to. It was a tough run but it came with a valuable lesson that I would not trade for the pain, sweat and tears. Thank you to all of my angels along the way, that day and always.