Running has never just been about running for me.
In my school days I played soccer, basketball, softball, volleyball—I was even an all-star cheerleader and got to do a couple of NBA halftime performances. But running? Running was the warm-up, the cool down, the punishment used in all these other sports. Running was not something I did for fun or voluntarily.
In my late twenties, my husband and I bought a house in New Jersey along the D&R Canal and dreamed of filling it with children. It had room to grow. It already had a swing set in the backyard. It was also less than a mile from the towpath along the canal. I had this vision: how cool would it be to be one of those people who ran along the towpath—with their dog!
We didn’t manage to fill the house with children. But dammit, I forced myself to learn to run. And my dog loved it.
Running made sense. I could set goals, make plans, see progress. Learn to run 30 minutes without stopping? Check. Learn to run a 5k? Check. Run a half marathon? Check.
Of course, running wasn’t without setbacks. Early one morning, I stepped in a pothole and fell over. I’d managed to completely sever a tendon and partially tear two ligaments in my ankle. I was sidelined for months. Fortunately, I had an orthopedic surgeon who believed I could heal without surgery, and he was right.
During those months of physical therapy, I decided to run my first marathon. I needed something to aim for. Something to believe in. I needed faith.
The day after I finished the Marine Corps Marathon, I had a full day of interviews at a major company halfway across the country. We packed up that empty house in New Jersey for a fresh start in Kansas City.
Running in Kansas shocked me. Kansas isn’t flat. I learned to tackle hills. But running and I fell out of step for a while. I felt unsettled. After we bought a house in Olathe, Kansas, I returned to running. I did a series of local races and then… the Chicago Marathon. We’d never been to Chicago. We made a mini-vacation out of it.
Now that we had two dogs, they made marathon training extra fun. But after years of trying to be content with just dogs, we realized we wanted something more.
We became foster parents in 2016. The plan was foster to adopt. We were overjoyed when we got the call that a three-week old baby needed placement. We had a couple hours’ notice. We were in love instantly. We took to parenthood like it was our true calling. No sleep? No biggie. I just put off running for a few months. We knew that there was a high likelihood that it would be temporary. Fostering puts reunification first, adoption second.
When our little man was big enough, into the jogging stroller he went. My life was full—of diapers and running.
After years of halfheartedly putting my name in the ring for a lottery entry into the New York Marathon, I was shocked to learn I’d gotten in. Holy shit—that meant I had to start training again. The training schedule was tough with a little one, but dammit if I wasn’t going to get ready for that first Sunday in November.
Then we found out our little man was going to be returning to his mother—at the end of November. There was no way I was going to miss out on one of our last weekends with him. How could I enjoy a marathon, an event that’s supposed to be filled with pride and accomplishment, if the whole time I was wishing I weren’t there? I deferred until the next year.
The day before Thanksgiving 2017, after more than 15 months of raising this beautiful, perfect little boy he was removed from my arms, removed from our home. The social worker could hardly meet my eyes when she turned to walk out with him. When the front door closed, I wailed into my husband’s chest with a primal sound that I’d never made before. None of the other losses we’d faced could compare. A hole gaped in our hearts. Grief overtook me for months.
I ended up in the hospital. My body, so overwrought with the psychological and the physical pain of our loss, had given up. I spent 11 days in the hospital with “severe acute pancreatitis” and received a surprise diabetes diagnosis. I wasn’t allowed to run for three months. My internal organs were too fragile to be jostled around. My attack was so severe, the damage so permanent, that any step outside the food boundaries of my new super-strict diet would send me to the ICU and kill me.
As I recovered, I itched to run again. I began my training to get back to some structure, some semblance of control over my life.
As spring turned to summer, I reached out to my longtime coach who helped come up with a training plan. At the same time, my husband and I reached out to some attorneys and adoption agencies. We still wanted to build a family, in whatever way made the most sense.
We signed on with our adoption team, flew through our home study, and waited. And I ran. Weight and grief began to fall away. I got faster.
Then we got our match. A little boy was due in December. The timing couldn’t be more perfect. I could continue my training; I felt stronger and healthier than ever before. Two months later, our match fell apart but for all the right reasons.
My left knee started to give me problems. It would hurt on uneven ground, especially on downhills. It finally collapsed underneath me on my final 20-mile training run. With three weeks to go until race day, I needed to react and adjust quickly and carefully.
I dedicated myself to a strict massage therapy, foam roller, stretching, and stick regimen. I took myself off the road for a full week and completed my miles on an elliptical. I got a knee strap and used it dutifully. It all seemed to work as my legs loosened up.
Emails seemed to come in tandem: from my coach, outlining my race strategy; from the adoption team notifying us about a woman looking to place a child. Each time, we submitted our profile. As I packed my bags for New York, we were so ready to build our forever family.
I’ve often said that returning to New York is like putting on an old jacket that still fits. The visit for the New York Marathon was no different. I met up with my bestie, Britt, who was going to be running her second New York City Marathon and was letting me stay with her for the weekend. We went to the Expo at the Javits Center to pick up our race packets. I went to a pre-marathon party at my former boss’s apartment overlooking Central Park. Doris and I greeted each other warmly after having not seen one another for years.
That night I got more than eight hours of sleep for the first time in months. I felt like a new woman! The next day, I met up with Doris and her husband, Charlie, enjoyed the autumn beauty of Central Park, and had lunch. Then, Doris led me by the finish line—already set up with a timer counting down the hours and minutes until the start of the race. I’m going to cross this line tomorrow, I thought.
On Saturday night, my turbulent thoughts edged out sleep. As I lay there, I had the clearest vision of holding a newborn baby. I could feel it in my arms. And I wasn’t even dreaming, because I wasn’t asleep! A year ago, I had been making the most of my last days with the little man we had to give up. Not even 10 months ago, I had been in the hospital. And here I was, getting ready to run the New York City Marathon.
When the clock-face finally showed a time that wasn’t too far off my alarm, I got up. Britt and I took a subway to the Staten Island ferry, then a bus to Fort Wadsworth at the foot of the Verrazano Bridge—the starting line.
The runners’ villages were massive, overflowing with all kinds of people from 50 countries, some in wheelchairs, some on crutches, some with head scarves, some with yarmulkes, but everyone with a common goal: to run 26.2 miles through the five boroughs of New York City. I was one of 52,000 people.
Britt and I were in different corrals and she started 20 minutes before me. I got my headphones ready and reviewed my race strategy: going out slow, but not too slow. If I could sustain under 11 minutes a mile, I would achieve my goal of beating the five-hour mark.
The starter’s gun went off, and I began that first mile up the Verrazano Bridge as Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” blared over the loudspeakers. Running completely uphill, I wove around the slower people—the jugglers and ball dribbler, the tourists with selfie sticks—and settled into a pace. To my left was the skyline I had seen so many times, crossing this very bridge on visits to my grandmother’s house or to my husband’s band rehearsals.
When my watch beeped for the first mile, I was thrilled to see I’d run it in 10:32. Sub 11—right on pace! Mile 2 immediately sent me downhill and the effort eased tremendously. I looked down at my beeping watch: 9:50. Too fast—slow it down, I told myself. I still had 24 miles to go.
Crossing the bridge from Staten Island into Brooklyn, I entered the borough where I would spend most of the race. Crowds lined either side of the course—nonstop cheering. I had purposely ironed patches on my race shirt with my name on the front and “Kansas” on the back. It paid off in encouragement. Each time someone called my name, it lifted my spirits as well as my feet.
A few friends and family were planning to cheer me on from certain points along the course. Looking for them helped motivate me to run with good form—looking good even if the road was tough. At Mile Four I heard my name called out—the correct pronunciation was a dead giveaway that it was someone that actually knew me! I shrieked with joy and ran over to give my friend a double high five.
I finished the first 5k at a 10:19 pace. Still too fast, but it was hard to slow down with all the excitement.
More friends greeted me at Mile Seven. Their enthusiasm pumped me up—a little too much. I finished the first 10K at a 9:57 pace. Sub Ten was way too fast and unsustainable over the long haul. How many times in my life had I thrown caution to the wind, gone way too hard and fast, only to fizzle out and not reach my goals?
Crossing the short bridge from Brooklyn to Queens, I felt strong. Slowing myself down, I caught sight of the Queensboro Bridge ahead. Way up high. I’d been warned that the Queensboro Bridge is long and lonely and particularly tough. After running 15 miles with constant cheers and support, there would be only silence and the toughest climb yet.
Finally, I got my average pace down to 10:56, but was starting to feel spent. As much as I’d been warned about the loneliness of the bridge, I’d also been promised that once I crossed over, I would be greeted with a wall of sound like nothing else. That was my slowest mile, at 12:34. I ran toward the promise.
As I landed in Manhattan, it sounded like the entire borough had come out to cheer. The crowds were 12 people deep in some places, but I managed to make out Britt’s mother’s voice amid the din. I missed my mother, who had been watching me on her race app. She saw the dot on the phone, but not me on the pavement—at least she would be there, near the end.
The long rolling slog up 1st Avenue through Manhattan was alleviated only by the constant crowds. I knew my dad hoped to be between Miles 24 and 25, and my mom and Doris were going to be positioned just before Mile 26.
As I made my way toward Mile 20 and crossed into the Bronx, I knew that even if I didn’t see them, people I cared about were watching and cheering me. My husband hadn’t made the trip but he was tracking me. My online running groups were tracking me. Coworkers were tracking me. All of these people willed me forward.
While running the Chicago marathon, I’d seen a sign: “The first 20 miles you run with your legs, the last 6.2 you run with your heart.” I knew I had it in me, even though my pace had slowed down into the 11s and I needed to dig deep. As I turned to leave the Bronx and re-entered Manhattan for the homestretch, I grinned at a woman holding a sign that read, “THE LAST DAMN BRIDGE.”
Coming down 5th Avenue, I ran once again toward the promise. The end was coming, but it took a while—I was running uphill. Then I saw Central Park and was rewarded with a splash of autumn colors, followed by a lovely, rolling downhill stretch.
I pushed through pain as my right knee, having compensated for my injured left knee for the last few weeks, started to rebel. I wasn’t going to stop—not this close to the finish line. I looked for my dad between Miles 24 and 25, but never saw him. He could see me on the app, but not in person.
We briefly exited the park and ran along Central Park South. Ahead was Columbus Circle, where I’d spent years building my career—my launching pad. From there, I would run toward the finish line. I veered to my left, picking up my pace and weaving around those who were running out of gas. I spotted my mom and Doris. I waved excitedly and slapped high fives all around. Then I flew, my coach’s words encouraging me: Why leave anything in the tank? I was going to leave it all out on the course.
The Mile 26 sign reaffirmed the plan. My pace had dropped below sub 11 after passing my mom and Doris; now it was sub 10.
The finish line was right there, and I gave it everything I had right to the end. Crossing the finish line, I thrust my arms up in the air and stopped my watch. Then I nearly collapsed. They gave me food; my blood sugar had started to drop dangerously drop. My legs cramped. My right IT band screamed. I had to sit down.
I checked my official time: 4:45:29. I killed it.
Later would come the slow and crowded march to leave the park, a celebratory dinner, and rehashing the race for hours and days to come. But in that moment, I was invincible. Yes, I was in pain, but I only felt joy and a deep sense of accomplishment.
I wasn’t even bothered by the email I saw later, notifying me the last woman we’d shared our profile with had matched with another couple. I knew my race wasn’t really over yet. Neither was my story.
My poor dogs are a too old to go for longs runs anymore, but I still get out on the pavement. Not long ago, I got a good deal on a double-jogging stroller. I needed it and more quickly than I ever would have anticipated.
The extra weight and wind resistance, particularly on the hills, presented a difficult challenge. But nothing compares to the joy I get from pushing around my newly adopted twin daughters as we go out on a run. It promises to be quite the journey.
Delia Berrigan is a writer, editor, and strategist based in Kansas City. A former literary agent, she’s written more than 10 children’s books. When she’s not working on her latest project or training for a marathon, you can usually find her spending quality time with her husband, dogs, and daughters. Visit her website at: primarilyprose.com.
Image Credit: ©Fabio Formaggio