Five months ago, I ran my first half-marathon. On a whim, I decided to see what races were going on while I was traveling on a journey that would change my life. I paid for my race fees, then crossed my fingers that I would have a guide runner on race day and a bus ticket to get there. My guide runner materialized months before I bought my ticket.
That race had perfect weather, with sunny skies and a light breeze and not too much heat. Even though my training program went completely sideways due to my guide dog’s emergency surgery – and later the thick smoke from wildfires that blanketed Edmonton for weeks – I’ll never forget it, and never regret it.
No sooner did I write the words “I’m never doing this again” than I started looking for my next half-marathon. Less than a week after arriving home, I signed up for what Edmonton Runners call the Hypo Half. It’s a half-marathon, run in February, in Edmonton – where temperatures can range from -40 to something above freezing… and you never know what you’re going to get.
I had no idea.
Spring and summer running are relatively easy. You get motivated by the opportunity to spend time outside, enjoying the neighborhood or trails or wherever brings you running zen. I knew winter running would challenge me in the motivation department – it’s cold and dark and sometimes snowy and gross. So I signed up with a training program through the Running Room, and started running with them three times a week. Over the course of the next four months, magical things happened. I found my space with a group of people who never once made me have to adapt to how they did things. There was always someone running with me, because you always run in pairs in the winter. Rick, our instructor, was always up to provide fascinating information (who needs Google with a Rick around?) or trying to talk all the runners into sticking around for a post-run coffee. Ed, who would later guide me and Jenny on race day, often joined me for coffee and was generous with his time, fuel, and date bites on long runs. I don’t think I had a single inappropriate question asked of me (the first person who asked anything about my vision promptly ran into a pole). The super fast runners still cheered for those of us who brought up the rear. Anyone who’s rarely had to insert their way into a given space may not understand what it feels like, this instant knowing you belong somewhere. And I was lucky enough to just fall into it.
Over the next four months, training was HARD. We ran on icy sidewalks, down hills that required traction devices on our shoes, in the cold and snow and wind, through three inches of snow that felt like running through sand. More than once I wondered why I was doing this – sometimes, the shocked response to my running in winter was enough to make me smile and keep going. We ran fast, or we plodded along. I mixed and matched my winter clothes, and had more than one fellow runner leave gloves in his car for me because I finished most of my runs without them. I learned more than the importance of good form or nutrition, I learned a few things about life and about myself. At low emotional moments, I discovered the somewhat magical healing properties of running the 109th Street bridge. And I had to really learn that staying upright and uninjured was better than logging the speed and mileage (because kilometerage isn’t a word) that my training plan demanded. This was a whole season of my life where the universe was trying to tell me to just be OK with just being.
And then, the first Hypo Halfers ran their race in early February. It was -30 Celsius, with the windchill making it 10 degrees colder. One of them gave us late Hypo halfers a pep talk – what worked, what didn’t – and I thought I was ready…
And then, February 17, 2019. It was just like any other Sunday morning. My alarm went off at the same time it does every Sunday. I drank my coffee, ate my bagel and eggs (after spending the previous five days eating more than two teenage boys could pack away), and got myself ready to run. Ed, my guide and friend, picked me up at the same time he has every Sunday morning for months. It could’ve been any other Sunday… except that day I held a race bib and a couple of obnoxious safety pins. The temperature was a relatively balmy -18 Celsius. “Not too bad,” as Ed wrote on Facebook before we went outside to wait by the start line.
Ed, Jenny and I found a few of our other runners, we wished each other well, and we started running. There’s something magical about the cadence of multiple pairs of feet – the rhythm in the light dusting of snow – that I can’t adequately put in to words. it finally felt real – we were really running! After several kilometers, it just felt like Ed and Jenny and I were alone on the course. And still runners – some we knew and some we didn’t – and volunteers cheered us on. Our speed was flawless, and I felt like I could take on the whole race… until 12 kilometers in. I didn’t wanna do this any more. I slogged through four kilometers of mental mud, swore at Ed when he “tried to be encouraging” by helpfully reminding me we’re 17 weeks out from a full marathon, and pushed… and pushed… and PUSHED. Finally, I got a second wind, and found my motivation – two of our runners were running with injuries; they wanted to run this race so much that they didn’t care if they had to crawl that finish line. I ran those last three kilometers for them, thinking of their grit and determination, and finding some of my own. When we crossed the finish line – 2:28:22 after crossing the start – I felt proud and tired and ready to eat! Jenny just felt tired, but looked REALLY cute with her own finisher’s medal.
The brunch is one of the biggest draws of the Hypo Half in Edmonton – that and winter running badass points – and it didn’t disappoint. I stuffed myself on bacon and fruit and potatoes while Jenny snoozed contentedly under the table. Many of our running crew came by to congratulate and commiserate, to high-5 and to compare notes, to laugh at the error in my chipped time, to ask the question we’ve been asking for weeks – “What’s next for you?” Some of us are training for another Half, others are preparing for a full, and some – like Ed and I – are straddling both worlds because of the dates of our next races. But I couldn’t think about a full marathon – I just had to soak in the successes of that morning, and all the people who helped to get me there.
It’s been four days since that race. I’m a little stiff and sore, but ready to get back onto the road to log the distances that will lead me to another goal: my first full marathon! This journey will be unlike anything I’ve done before, and yet I know some familiar faces – some of my people – will still be with me, training and cheering and dreaming their own dreams, and helping to make my own possible.