In December 2009, I made the somewhat questionable choice to run my first half marathon in a snowy, cold and windy State College, Pennsylvania – the home of Penn State – where I was working as an assistant coach.
I trained for it with my own training plan that was ill suited at best and a complete disaster at best. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing when it came to running but I had an ego and was going to do it my way. I ran every day or every other day for months leading up to the race, adding mileage as I went. I didn’t stretch. I didn’t cross-train. I didn’t do much strength training. I didn’t fuel my body with healthy nutrients unless you call beer, perogies and cheese fries nutritious. I didn’t listen to my body and had a possible stress fracture in my foot which was neither confirmed nor disproved by an actual doctor. This “injury” kept me from doing much running the two weeks prior to the race.
The day before the run I got in my car and drove the route of the race. Bad idea. It was hillier than I thought, although right around mile six the route went straight downhill for over a mile. I thought to myself, “Oh, the downhill will be awesome!” I then found out that the last ¾ of a mile was straight uphill past the local hospital. Former participants enjoyed sharing that I would be thinking of veering off course to check into the hospital by the time I got to this hill. Seeing the course and reading the past runners’ reviews almost stopped me from moving forward to the start line.
The morning of the race it was cold yet sunny. It had snowed throughout the week but the roads were clear. My hopes that the race would be canceled due to weather, and not my fear, did not come to fruition so I showed up to get my bib and my race chip.
Even though I was told by many people to start slow, I am not sure that my adrenaline-fueled brain understood that advice as I started out a bit too fast and it took some time to get my pace figured out. About five miles into the course, I started to get my stride and felt pretty good and then the turn came where we approached that long downhill stretch. I was super excited because gravity would take over and it would be easy!
It was brutal.
I found out that running downhill is actually quite difficult and uses way different leg muscles than flat or even uphill running does. My quads were burning by the time I got to the bottom of that hill and I was slowing down quickly. I kept moving and as I started to approach that last hill, my mind took over and I slowed to a walk. I was limping and hurting and thinking about stopping all together when I heard a voice. A woman, and fellow runner, I had never seen before and had no connection to, looked at me and said, “You can do this. Keep going. It’s only a mile. You can run a mile. You got this.” She smiled as she ran past me and my pace picked up to a slow jog.
Although I did consider that detour to the hospital, my legs kept moving. I made it to the top of the hill, around the corner, past Beaver stadium and eventually to the finish line as the race clock ticked to 2:25:51. I did it – I finished my first half marathon.
The woman who encouraged me has a name, a story, a path. That woman is someone I had never met prior to the race and have never seen since. She didn’t have to say those words, she didn’t have to encourage me, but she did. She chose to take a brief moment to encourage a complete stranger she saw struggling.
I moved out of Happy Valley six months later to New York City. I took a new job and have since made my way to the west coast, living 2,682 miles away from State College. I have never forgotten that woman and how much her encouragement meant to me – how a few short sentences transformed me and my experience in that moment. That small act continues to sit with me years later, and reminds me often of the importance and deep impact of basic human kindness. Never underestimate how even the smallest gesture can move a mountain for someone else. Give a nod, a word of encouragement, a cheer, a pat on the back, a gesture of sympathy, a note of gratitude, a moment of empathy or even a basic hello to acknowledge another’s space in this world. It may do a little, it may do a lot, but it will do something to connect and ideally encourage, be it momentarily or for years. You never know, so take a chance on kindness.
I finished my first half marathon that day and those woman’s words have rung in my ears many, many times since then.
“You got this. Keep going.”