See that photo? That’s a photo of me crossing the finish line at the Brooklyn Rock n Roll half marathon last Saturday, October 10. My arms are raised in victory and I’m grinning from ear to ear, but my happiness in this moment doesn’t tell you the full story of how I got there or why that finish—or running—means so much to me. Every mile ran in that race and the many races and training runs leading up to it, counts, and we can only run the mile we’re in. That’s why I decided to write this blog post.
Before I can tell you about my evolution as a runner, I should tell you a little about myself. I was born in Brooklyn, NY, and although I grew up watching the New York City Marathon and running around my backyard, I was never a “Runner”. I had enjoyed running relay races as a pre-teen in gym class, but at some point, I started to get slower as running got harder, so I stopped even trying to race, much less caring about it. After my family moved to Connecticut and I became an adult, I toyed with the idea of running for fitness, but by then I’d learned that I’d developed asthma, and since the simple act of running down my parents’ street left me winded, I quickly abandoned it and focused on other activities.
Fast forward about 15 years, to 2013. At that time, I was a relatively new mom with a brand-new career and about 30 pounds of leftover baby weight to lose, even though my “baby” at this point was four years old. It was April, and the weather was getting warmer, and his favorite activity was driving his battery-operated car up and down our cul-de-sac. I would walk alongside his car, but I could scarcely keep up with it. One afternoon as I trailed behind him, he called, “Mommy, run with me!” and reached his hand out for me to hold. I had to run or one of us was going to end up on the pavement, so I kept up with him for as long as I could. To my surprise, I found that I actually enjoyed running with him, and that I could keep up for more time than I expected. To challenge myself while making my son happy, I made a game out of it, saying, “I’ll see if I can run up the whole street” and then, “Let me see if I can run up the street and then back down the street”. Before I knew it, I had run about a little over a quarter of a mile without stopping. The next day, I went outside without my son, and decided to time myself running. I was able to get to about eight minutes before I got winded and needed to take a walking break. I was really starting to enjoy it.
Then, the Boston Marathon bombing happened. Like so many others, I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to harm so many innocent runners and bystanders. The tragedy inspired me to continue running, and around that time, I registered for my first 5k. I had no plan and no idea what I was doing, but I found running more freeing than any exercise I had ever tried, so I did some online research and discovered the “Couch 2 5k” app. I downloaded it and began using it to train in earnest. The quarter mile I started out running quickly increased to a mile, and then two, and within about three months, I had progressed to running a full three miles. It wasn’t easy—there were times where I wondered why I was even trying to run when I could barely begin without feeling like I needed to take my rescue inhaler—but there were also wonderful times where my body felt lighter than it had in years and my mind clearer. I decided that I should invest in some quality running gear, so I went to a local running store and got fitted for shoes and inserts. When I told the salesperson that I was planning to run my first 5k, he said, “You’ll be back here in a year because you’ll want to run a 10k, and then in a couple years, you’ll tell me you signed up for a half. Trust me; this sport is addicting”. I laughed and said, “No way. I’m definitely stopping at a 5k”. My sister and I ran that first 5k for our mother, who had recently been diagnosed with lung cancer.
Well, here it is, a little over two years later, and as you see from the picture above, I just ran my first half (notice I called it my first, because I know there will be others). I’ve battled shin splints, IT band issues, bronchial asthma—which ironically helped me to get my asthma under control through trying different treatments—and knee issues. But I’ve also made more new friends than I can count, lost most of those extra pounds I was carrying around, set a good example for my son, and, as several people have confessed, inspired them to step outside their comfort zones and try running. Half marathon training was one of the most physically demanding things I had undertaken, but I learned that I am capable of so much more than I thought in the process.
To keep myself in the moment during the race and help make every moment count, I vowed that I would run each mile of my half for someone I loved, including my husband and son. I ran one mile for those who can’t, including the victims of the Sandy Hook school shooting and the 9/11 attacks. I ran one mile for my departed friends and relatives. I ran one for my mother, who eventually succumbed to her illness, and one mile for the friends who’ve supported and encouraged me along my journey. I left one mile—the last mile—without a dedication; and that is because I ran that one for me. Every mile counts.
It has only been two years, but I have come so far and done so much good through running that I never want this journey to end. I may not win races or have a runner’s physique, but I have the heart of a champion, and for as long as I can, I will make every step count and run with all I have.
Michele Ridolfi O’Neill