Running to remember – a personal marathon story
I wasn’t a runner when I started my first full-time photojournalism job in 2009. I was coming off a 10-year stint as a couch potato. Working overseas – where I gained 80 extra pounds – and then two jobs while attending college left little time for fitness. I remember struggling to keep up with friends while hiking. Skipping social activities because I couldn’t fit into my clothes – at one point, I had only two outfits to choose from. I was depressed.
After moving to Tacoma in 2007, my husband Joe and I joined the YMCA. We set some personal goals and began to get fit. Joe lost 70 pounds. I built up the stamina to run on the treadmill for an hour. It felt good to get in shape. We did a Turkey Trot together in 2008 – a first race for us both. I ran the 5K in 30 minutes. Joe – who prefers walking to running – walked it in an hour. I remember thinking it was one of the hardest, yet most physically-rewarding things I’d ever done.
On August 1, 2009, I began to work at the Northwest Guardian – a military newspaper on Joint Base Lewis-McChord. I knew nothing about the military, but lucked into a job when the editor lost the paper’s only photographer and was desperate for a replacement. I remember making military acronym sheets and rank and unit flash cards. I didn’t know the difference between a Command Sergeant Major and a First Lieutenant, but I was determined to learn. Less than a month later, I received the first of dozens of emails that would inform us of a 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division casualty. August 25, 2009 – Capt. John Hallett and 3 soldiers were killed while on a good will mission in Afghanistan. The emails included photos of the deceased – and sometimes of their surviving family members. I’ll never forget the photo of John’s wife, Lisa and the couple’s two sons. (Her daughter was born days after John deployed. He died having never met her). I looked at this family – so young and full of life. I remember thinking how we were just about the same age. How it could have been my husband who was killed. I wondered how she must have felt knowing she would have to parent alone, three children under the age of 4. I just couldn’t fathom what she was going through.
On October 27, the largest group casualty of that deployment occurred. Seven soldiers were killed when an IED ripped apart the Stryker vehicle in which they were riding. Sgt. Patrick Williamson, a native of Louisiana, was among the fallen. He was just 24 years old. He left behind a sister Betsy, a brother Max, and his parents, Sybil and Buddy. Vice President Joe Biden flew to JBLM to speak at the soldiers’ memorial service. I photographed the event for our paper. It was front page news.
By the early spring of 2010, nearly 40 soldiers had been killed. The year-long tour wasn’t over. Spouses and family members of the deployed were anxious. Would their soldier be next?
Bob Reinert – our paper’s sports writer and I shared a cubicle. I’d always loved sports and began to collaborate with him on stories. We covered anything and everything. We’d find an excuse to get to professional events – always looking for the military hook that would make it newspaper-worthy. Rumors of a local running group that met to honor the Stryker brigade’s fallen started to surface. He told me he heard how the spouses and family members of those killed would meet at the local Burger King parking lot on Saturday mornings and run around the base airfield. They would put out little flags with the names of the fallen attached to them. The group was called “run to remember.” All lowercase.
In June 2010, run to remember partnered with the Seattle Rock’n’Roll marathon and half marathon series to put on the very first “wear blue Mile”. It was not very organized – but it was powerful. Family members and friends of the 41 who were killed held flags along a portion of the course with streamers on them bearing the names of those they’d lost. The runners of “run to remember” needed a training goal, and the June race seemed like the perfect fit. Some ran, while others were on the Mile. I wasn’t able to attend the event. But desperately wanted to.
I finally got around to photographing the group in the summer of 2010. Bob had left the newspaper, so I collaborated with Laura Levering on the story. It was then that I met Lisa – an avid runner before her husband was killed, and the group’s co-founder. By now, run to remember had outgrown the Burger King parking lot and instead met each Saturday at a school in DuPont, Wash. Routes were marked. It was organized. Lisa was determined to keep the memory of John and so many others alive. Runners wore blue – the color of her husband’s PT shirts. People were moving forward, but the emotions were raw. I was touched.
I met up with run to remember – now re-named “wear blue: run to remember” – for a second story in January 2011. They formed a Circle of Remembrance prior to each run. Calling out the names of the fallen for whom they ran. They started handing out paper slips with the names of those who had been killed on that specific weekend throughout the Global War on Terror. They didn’t want to leave anyone out. They didn’t want a sacrifice to go unnoticed.
In June, while 8-months pregnant with our first child, I was determined to cover the group’s presence at the Seattle Rock’n’Roll marathon. I didn’t want to miss another year. Our writer was unavailable, so I decided I would write and shoot the assignment. I met with Lisa and co-founder Erin O’Connor for coffee a few days before the run. I asked them who I should focus on – what story was particularly compelling. They shared a couple names with me. One was Sybil Williamson. We first spoke at a carb-loading dinner. She was Sgt. Patrick Williamson’s mother. She was sweet, southern, and completely heartbroken at the loss of her son. She wasn’t much of a runner – but her son was. When he was stationed at JBLM, he told her that he wanted to run the Seattle marathon. She said she’d come and watch. But he was killed before he could achieve his goal. When she heard about wear blue, it only seemed natural to run her first marathon in Seattle in his honor. I followed her journey. Her husband, Buddy, held Patrick’s flag on the wear blue Mile. Photographing Sybil as she clutched the flag with her son’s streamer remains one of the most impactful and inspiring moments of my life. Sybil finished that race with her head held high. She’d done it for Patrick. She’d done it for herself. She did it for the two of them.
I quit my job and started a freelance business after our daughter Rosie was born. Lisa and I kept in touch through Facebook. We hung out from time-to-time. In October of 2012, she asked me if I knew anyone based in Washington D.C. who could photograph wear blue’s inaugural year at the Marine Corps Marathon. They were going to have a wear blue Mile like the one in Seattle. But this time on a national scale at one of America’s largest marathons. I unashamedly said that if they could pay my way, I would like to go and volunteer to photograph the event. Lisa said she’d look into it and secured a donation to cover my airfare. Family friends let me sleep on their couch. I went to D.C. and was inspired beyond words. The imagery was rich. Moments were intense. I would continue to do so each October for four consecutive years. Many non-wear blue runners began to be touched by the Mile. wear blue was growing through it’s emotional connection. People felt compelled to run for something bigger than themselves. Individuals who didn’t personally suffer loss put on blue shirts and signed up for races.
In the meantime, Lisa became an Ironman. Again, and again, and again. She competed in Whistler, Coeur d’Alene, Chattanooga, and Louisville and at the Ironman World Championships in Kona. Her dedication to training blew me away. I began to think that I needed to do something. If she could train for Ironman while juggling her kids and non-profit, maybe, I, too, could be “just a runner.”
MY RUNNING STORY
In 2014, Lisa invited me to attend a wear blue staff retreat in Arizona. Of course, she said I’d need to run the Arizona Rock’n’Roll half marathon with the group. wear blue had formed a partnership with Competitor Group and the Rock’n’Roll race series and began to host “wear blue Miles” in select cities across the country. Competitor was comping staff entries in Arizona. It would be the perfect time for me to start running, she said. I committed to training. Even though I’d never ran more than 6 miles at a time. I found out about a Fleet Feet Tacoma-based training group that had a half marathon training program and signed up. I knew absolutely nothing about running and was in for a crazy learning curve. Coach Sabrina Seher – with Fleet Feet – had us running weekly track workouts and hills. She assigned us strength workouts – which I NEVER did – and said that we needed to do them in tandem with our running to develop a strong core and prevent injury. We met on Saturdays for long runs. It was hard. But I began to love it. By now, my freelance business had grown and I’d had another daughter. I realized that running became an outlet where I could put all the busyness in the world on hold. It was just me and my running shoes and 3-5 crazy fast miles. It was amazing. I ran that Arizona half marathon and felt empowered. I felt like I finally understood a little bit more about the therapeutic powers that running could offer.
I signed up for more Fleet Feet group training, but was sidelined by an achilles injury 10 days before the Tacoma City Half Marathon. I put running on hold for three months. I was devastated to learn that I was human. So I started to go to PT with Dr. Erik Waterland – who informed me that my butt was totally out of shape and the cause of my achilles issues. HOW DARE HE? But he was right. By September, 2015, I started running again. It was like starting all over. I had no cardio stamina. Running a mile was breathing agony. I wanted to quit, but I remembered how amazing I felt when I was in running shape and kept at it. Erik advised me to run only three days a week and supplement my runs with strength training. I bought a BOSU ball and did some occasional stretching work. My achilles felt good as long as I respected its limitations. I was encouraged.
In October 2015, while photographing MCM for the fourth consecutive year, I decided that barring major injury, it was my time to train for and run a full marathon. I wanted to run MCM and I wanted to do so in blue. I asked Joe if he could help support my goals – knowing that the extra training would take time away from our family. He told me to go for it and that he’d help wherever I needed. I was excited and a little bit nervous to begin the journey.
In November, I went to Erik and asked him for advice. He gave me some tips and suggested I start strength training for real. Finally, in January 2016, I began attending twice-weekly strength training classes at b.Well – a local gym – and realized just how weak I was. I’d be sore for days following one kettlebell/body weight workout. It was agony. My pushups resembled a caterpillar crawl. I didn’t want to keep at it, but I was determined to run MCM and knew my body needed to be strong or else I’d wind up injured again. I kept up the 3x per week run/2x per week strength regimen until June. Then I began to add in 2x per week hour-long bike rides. I ran half marathons in May and June. Knocking 7 minutes off my Arizona time. All the hard work was starting to pay off!
In late June, Coach Sabrina and I met for coffee. She had since left Fleet Feet to start her own run/strength/personal training business called Run Super. I wanted to pick her brain about marathon training. We ended up settling on a trade. She’d give me one-on-one training in exchange for marketing and visuals help. It was the perfect exchange for me. Sabrina came to my backyard twice a week and put me through grueling hour-long boot camp sessions. We worked on my butt, hamstrings, core, arms, hips, etc. It was hard work, but I began to feel strong. Sabrina is a kick-ass woman who has run over 180 marathons!! I mean, how is that even possible? I don’t know. I really don’t. All I do know is that Sabrina is a strength training ninja. She’s a perfect example of how a strong body can do incredible things. And she has a kind and generous heart that wants to help so many people succeed. I’ve found a life-long mentor and friend in Sabrina. And for that I’m thoroughly grateful.
The one struggle through all the training became my footwear. I’m a women’s 12 wide. Not the easiest size. Running stores don’t carry it – so I have to go through an order-and-try-out basis. Which takes a lot of time and patience. And I needed to accommodate my achilles – which would flare up when I wore lower-drop shoes. I tried out eight different shoe models in six months before finally settling on a pair of Adidas Men’s Boston Boost size 11. The toe box was a touch narrow, but they were light and my achilles never hurt. I put extra body glide on the sides and soles of my feet before each run and completed 18, 20, and 21 mile runs in the shoes. On the last short 6 mile Saturday run a week before MCM, something felt off. The joints under my 2nd-4th toes on my left foot hurt. It felt like I’d landed odd, but I knew I hadn’t. I thought perhaps the narrowness of the toe box wasn’t a great fit for me. So, I talked with Sabrina and decided to take the last week of training off. I felt that I’d need to run in something different for MCM, but the thought of running a marathon in new shoes freaked me out. I decided to overnight a pair of shoes that I’d worn before and knew contained a good-sized toe box. The only draw back – they were a 6mm drop instead of the 10mm drop like my Adidas. So I was prepared to experience some additional soreness following the race. As the week went on, my toes felt better. I wore the new shoes for three days straight prior to the race. Walking many miles in them on the streets of D.C. And, to my delight, no additional toe pain. It wasn’t a huge confidence boost, but it was something!
The week prior to MCM, I also came down with a cold. I’d felt good all summer – and so I was a little bit dismayed to be so fatigued heading into race week, but I’m learning there are just so many things about racing that you have little control over and health is one of them. I loaded up on zinc and vitamin C. I drank tons of water. I went to bed early. Finally, it seemed to be better. I flew with my entire family to DC on the Thursday before the race. Drinking Airborne like it was going out of style. But alas, the cold came raging back and settled in my sinuses. My head was stuffed up and I couldn’t breathe well through my nose. Lisa suggested I use a Neti Pot. So my dear husband ran to the drug store the night before the race and bought one. I used it twice and felt a bit of relief, but still, the cold raged on.
I debated over and over again about whether or not I should run with the name of a fallen soldier on the back of my wear blue shirt. I feel incredibly fortunate to have not lost my spouse/sibling/parent in service to our country. And so I run to remember to support those who have. But I don’t want to be flippant and wear the name in vain. In September, Sybil contacted me to catch up and told me she thought she might be holding Patrick’s flag on the MCM wear blue Mile. Since our first meeting in 2011 in Seattle, Sybil has ran 5 marathons. Each one for Patrick. I let her know that I’d be running the race for the first time and was ever so excited to see her on the mile. In October, she confirmed that she and Buddy would be there. At that point, I knew that since she wasn’t running, I needed to honor Patrick by putting his name on my shirt. I ordered the shirt and sent a photo of it to Sybil. I was humbled by her response. She gave me some advice: “One thing I started doing a while back – and maybe it’ll help you…At each mile marker, I recite the names of the guys on the back of my shirt. It has actually given me something to look forward to as I run all those miles.”
Race week with wear blue is always jam packed with incredible events. Typically I photograph them, but this year I felt torn – should I rest up for the race? Photograph some of them? Skip all of them? Attend some and not photograph them? I decided to photograph three events. One on Friday and two on Saturday. The final one – a moving wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier – had me feeling like I’d bitten off just a little too much. I almost backed out of doing it, but decided at the last minute that I needed to be there. I’d already walked 7 miles, hadn’t had water or anything to eat since breakfast, and was beginning to panic about my lack of preparation for the following day’s race. As we were leaving the ceremony, Krista Simpson – the driver of the vehicle I was in and another Gold Star spouse – said she wanted to visit her husband’s grave. I almost had her drop me off at the Arlington National Cemetery visitor center, but felt compelled to join her. As soon as we pulled up to Section 60, I saw them. Sybil and Buddy were standing next to the massive headstone that is etched with the names of Patrick and the six others. I respectfully walked toward them. We hadn’t yet seen each other while in DC. We embraced, then looked at the stone. Buddy had decorated a pumpkin for Halloween and placed it at the base. We posed for a photograph by the stone. It was one of those surreal moments where everything came together. It just felt right. I decided to push aside my fatigue. This race was going to be amazing, because it was going to be for Patrick. For Sybil. For Buddy. For me.
Before bed, I read a pep note from Lisa. She encouraged me to trust my training. To know that the marathon is simply the cover on the book of training. To dig deep and persevere. To kick ass. To be strong. I fell asleep feeling positive and at ease. I was not stressed.
3:15AM, Sunday, October 30. I woke up and took a long, hot shower. Donned my running gear. Decided to stick with my plan to wear the new shoes. Had breakfast which consisted of a cup of coffee and two poached eggs on top of one boiled potato. Joe was going to photograph the start and finish for wear blue. So he and I took an Uber to a hotel were other wear blue runners were staying. We then boarded a charter bus to the drop off point near the Pentagon. Walking in the dark the mile plus distance to the starting area was exciting. There was a buzz in the warm pre-dawn air. The anticipation was amazing. Hundreds of wear blue runners – most of whom I’d never met – joined in a pre-race Circle of Remembrance. People shared who they were running for and then we all headed off to the start. I ran into Sabrina – who also flew out to race – and she gave me a great last minute piece of advice to handle the unseasonably warm temperatures – it was 65 degrees at the race start. The temp topped out at 82. “Drink two glasses of water at every aid station and dump one on the back of your neck,” she said. I’m certain that tip saved me from a visit to the medical tent. I started my Garmin and crossed the start line just before 8AM. The race was on. And a sea of 33,000 runners was off to accomplish the goal of completing a marathon. It only took me a mile to realize that this would be the hardest race of my life. My legs felt like they were moving in molasses and my head was stuck in a fog. The first three(ish) miles are hilly before descending into Georgetown. I kept saying Patrick’s name – thinking that channeling him would help me focus. At one point around mile 7, I actually entertained the idea of running off the course across the Arlington Cemetery bridge to the finish where I could meet up with Joe and simply wait for all the wear blue runners to cross the line. I hadn’t even reached the wear blue mile, and I was ready to give up. But I decided that Patrick would probably think I was a wuss. How could I ever explain why I quit to Sybil and Buddy? Lisa and Sabrina would understand, yet be disappointed.
As soon as I arrived at the flag portion of the wear blue Mile, I saw Lisa with Sybil and Buddy. Words can’t describe how much of a pick-me-up it was to stop and hug them. Sybil said they were so proud of me for honoring Patrick. Lisa jumped in and ran with me for a bit. I told her I had to conserve oxygen and that I couldn’t chat – but would love to hear whatever she had to say. She told me that they had more volunteers than ever on the mile. So many that she actually needed a PA system to address them all. It was an incredible site – to finally run through what I’ve photographed so many times. To be on the other side. It’s solemn, beautiful, vibrant, alive, silent. Moving. I couldn’t quit. I was almost halfway done. Which was both motivational and discouraging. How could I feel so poorly while only halfway through? Before the race, while at my peak training, I had wanted to run a sub 4 hour marathon. I had trained consistently and felt very good with a pace in the range of 8:45-8:50, so I knew I could do it. At the halfway point, I was two minutes ahead of a 4 hour marathon pace. I started to walk every water station – which seemed to be about every two miles. I’d motivate myself to keep going knowing that one would be just around the bend. At mile 15, I felt like I just couldn’t continue. I walked a bit. I was beginning to get mad at myself. I said Patrick’s name once or twice.
My incredible mother-in-law and her friend joined us in D.C. to watch the girls on race day. We came up with a plan to have them meet me at mile 17 at the base of the U.S. Capitol building. The stretch of road along The Mall between the Washington Monument and the Capitol seemed like an eternity. I felt like I’d never reach it and my kids. I caught sight of them as they were moving positions and yelled out their names. They thought they’d missed me and had a panicked look on their faces. A gigantic lump formed in my throat. I wanted to cry when I hugged them, and was so filled with joy. They all told me to keep going and then wished me luck. We posed for a picture and then I took off. After I left them, I knew I was on the downward slope. I could do this thing! Only 9 miles separated me from being DONE and accomplishing the goal that I’d set out to achieve one year prior.
And that’s when the stomach cramps set in. I didn’t know if I’d had too much water, too many shot blocks, or what. But I did know that the last-minute addition of a few squares of toilet paper to the pouch on my hand-held water bottle was going to come in handy. At mile 19, before heading back to Virginia across the infamous bridge over the Potomac, I swallowed my pride and found some bushes. I left my cramps and used TP behind. As I sat crouched in the bushes, the 4 hour pacer passed me. I felt disappointed in myself, but also a sense of relief. Now I could just run the last seven miles at a realistic pace. I would walk when I needed. Run when I felt good. Drink water at every aid station, and know that I was one step closer to becoming a marathoner. I had felt light-headed off and on throughout the day, so I knew that if I pushed any harder, I was in danger of not finishing the race. In my head, “not finishing” wasn’t an option, but the number of runners that had collapsed and were receiving medical aid on the sides of the road told me that it was most definitely a possibility.
The last six miles were not pretty scenery-wise. Which, I’m guessing, is why I’ve heard so many horror stories about them. You run on hot asphalt around a parking lot near the Pentagon, then up into Crystal City. Then back beside the Pentagon and onto the freeway where the race began. The last long mile is straight, then at the 26 mile marker, turns left and up a little hill to the finish. I’ve visualized this hill on training run after training run. I knew it would be a struggle. It felt like I was crawling up the hill. I know I wasn’t walking, but I definitely wasn’t running. When I saw the finish line, I saw Joe. He had his camera trained on me. And I knew I wasn’t going to finish looking at the time on my watch. I threw my hands up in the air like I’d won the race – because I knew that I’d won the internal battle. That I’d finished the race for me, for my coach, for Lisa, for Patrick, for Sybil and Buddy, for Joe, for my kids. I was done. I became a marathoner. And each step was hard work, but I did it. My official time was 4:06:33. Which is probably a good thing or I might not ever want to run another marathon. But now I know that there’s another race out there. There’s another goal to achieve. Another battle to be fought. A sub-4 marathon to race. Because after all, now that I’ve ran one marathon, the first question that people will ask is: “So, when is your next race?”