Last Saturday, I stepped up for the first time to the starting line of a full marathon — 26.2 miles. Just writing those lines gives me a bit of a chill. A miracle. I knew that day I would finish. I could feel it in the looseness of my limbs and taste it in the tropical Washington D.C. air filtered through the emerald forest along the C&O Canal Towpath where we would race.
Running is one of my sources of great joy, especially along trails and streams where kingfishers fly. My passion goes back to my freshman year in high school, joining my Dad in long runs in the Concord, Massachusetts woods.
On my best days, after a mile or so I start to flow into a rhythm like flight. With every mile, my mind clears. Sometimes, I solve perplexing problems or come up with writing ideas. Other times, I simply take in my surroundings, pausing to marvel at a pair of soaring red-tailed hawks or sunlight dancing upon a leaf.
Racing is in my bones too, since discovering I had natural endurance and ability in high school. Unfortunately, injuries punctuate my running history, especially when I train for marathons. I’d come close to that starting line six other times, with training runs of up to 22 miles and speedy times that had me considering competitive placing in my age group. Each time, I was derailed in a different way — hamstring, knee, hip, calf, quad and back.
Ask my son Ian. When I told him in June I was going to try it again for September as a last chance to qualify for the Boston Marathon alongside my brother Rob, he looked alarmed, concerned and almost parental. “Mom, don’t do it. You’re asking for trouble.”
Ian had a point. But I had my ace in the hole —a physical therapist named Ben Brooker in Missoula. He’d identified the two key weaknesses that likely have led to injuries from repetitive running over long distances— a weak left glute (butt!) muscle and wimpy abdominal muscles that are needed to keep a strong core.
I followed his instructions to the T, executing the exercises, stretching, running only every other day, adjusting to a slower pace, and listening to my body. If I intended to run long, but my body protested, I stopped and went for a bike ride instead. The rule? Run pain-free.
Two days before the September 12th Abebe Bikila Marathon on the C&O Canal, Rob and I woke up with cold symptoms. Rotten luck. I fought mine off. His worsened, but he decided he could be tough. After all, this was the last calendar weekend to qualify for Boston in April of 2016. He had trained well and was extremely fit. Instead, we focused on beating the heat and humidity forecast to be 80 degrees and 85% respectively. We froze wet hand towels rolled up to put around our necks before the race, stocked up on extreme endurolyte pills to deal with salt and electrolyte loss, and lined up my fabulous sister-in-law Cynthia (married to Rob) to be on the course with a cooler of ice and our favorite gels. Their daughter Becca volunteered to help too.
As we drove to the marathon starting line, a rainbow arced across the Washington DC skyline. Clouds lowered and the air felt cool. At the starting area, the sky grew even darker and the idea of ice appeared irrelevant. Instead, we joined in the camaraderie of a local race capped at 300 runners, a day to honor both the victims of September 11th and the memory of one of the greatest Olympic marathoners, Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia, most famous for his barefoot victory in 1960.
When the race started, I did not take off and push forward like my usual competitive self. I just thought—stay loose, enjoy this experience, and take in the beauty of the canal, the forests, the Potomac River, and the fellow runners who have each come here with their own story.
Every marathoner there had run long distances again and again in training to get to this point. For some, those might have been with headphones rocking out to tunes. Others ran in pairs or with groups chatting. And some likely trained more like I do, mostly alone and with senses open to the world around me. In the weeks leading to the race, I’d run while traveling from New Mexico to Washington D.C. with Sandra — with treasured memories of explorations in places I would never have seen otherwise, like the back forest roads of the Chickasaw State Forest in Tennessee.
Running this marathon to qualify for Boston seemed particularly right for Rob and me. We, along with my brother David, grew up in a National Park Service family. Our Dad —Dave Richie— once oversaw this stretch of the C& O Canal as part of his stewardship of the George Washington Memorial Parkway that takes in the canal, Great Falls on the Potomac River, Mt Vernon and Glen Echo. He also ran the Boston Marathon twice in the 1970s.
Dad and I shared a special relationship over long distance running and competing in road races in New England. While he delighted in my victories, he was particularly thrilled when he beat me! Competition is a Richie trait.
Rob and I could feel that beaming smile of his and embracing bear hug invisibly yet tangibly there for us at the starting area. I didn’t have to say anything to Rob, but I know he felt it too. Dad died in 2002 of cancer at age 70. As my mom often says of the great loss for her and for all of us: “He never got old. He’ll always be young.”
Every day, Dad inspires us to follow in his footsteps. We have a ways to go. Besides the Boston Marathon, he hiked the entire Appalachian Trail while the project manager. He climbed to the summit of Mt Rainier while assistant superintendent of that Park (our favorite of all). He also could identify dozens of warblers by song alone. Most of all, Dad had a leadership style in work and in the family that was at once gentle and yet expectant of living up to a higher potential. Buoyed up by his belief in us, we’d take on some risky challenge and surprise ourselves.
This was going to be that day to step up and push ourselves to a new place. Rob took off with the 8 minute/mile pace he needed to achieve to qualify. I settled into just under 9 minutes/mile, enjoying the slowest race pace I’d ever run. Instead of racing, I ran with the ease and the freshness of the rain on glowing leaves.
After so many solo runs, I was ready for the company of fellow runners, scattered spectators, and the friendly people at the aid stations offering water and gatorade. The setting infused me with a deeper joy. No cars. No roads. Just the towpath and the lush layers of trees — sycamore, tulip, oak, maple and hickory—rising up on both sides with the dreamy waters below where a great blue heron stalked. It was my kind of course.
Rain fell lightly. By the half-marathon point, the showers turned into torrents. We ran on soaking wet through puddles in gratitude for the coolness on what could have been a hot, humid day. Sadly for my valiant brother Rob, it would not be his day. The fever from the night before (and likely during the race) had sapped him. He called it over as a half marathon, still a great finish for a tough condition. Then, being my resilient and cheerful brother, he turned around his disappointment into full on support for me.
I kept on skimming like the kingfisher I revere, following the waterways of the out-and-back twice course, not minding the repetitiveness in the infinite beauty of the forest and the Potomac River, and the chance to smile at fellow runners going the other way on the 12-foot wide historic tow path.
At mile 20, I knew I’d entered both the home stretch and the part of a marathon that people so often tell me about—that deadly last 6.2 miles to the finish. I was puzzled. What was so hard? I still felt loose and happy and had picked up the pace. Then I hit mile 21. First my left quad spoke up. “Hey, this hurts and I’m tired so I’m going to just go all heavy on you.” That was interesting. I shortened my stride a bit and ignored it.
At mile 22, the right quad joined the conversation. At least I’m balanced, I thought. Two lead weight quads. I slowed my pace, but not too much. My breathing felt fine. If not for this heavy legs, I could go forever. What was up?
It was time to enlist a bit of help. I dug deep into Chi Running tips that have rescued me in the past. “Remember,” I told my legs silently,” it’s not about you. I’ll just keep this chi posture with a slight forward lean and let gravity work in my favor. Those legs are going to glide out behind me soft and easy. My feet are going to land with the lightness of a cat.”
Amazing. It worked. The legs did not lighten, but when I checked my Garmin watch, my pace was still steady. It took more focus to stay present, to keep looking at the trees, to taste the rain on my face, and smile, always smile at every runner and person I passed.
Coming into the last stretch, I could hear the chanting. “Marina from Montana! Marina from Montana!”
Of course, Rob had enlisted the race announcer and most of the small crowd in this personal cheer as I ran in the last 30 yards. Okay, the smile became one big beaming idiot grin. There I was high-fiving everyone who held up their hand at the finish. I’d done it. Three hours, 51 minutes and 48 seconds. A milestone of a marathon. And my Dad? He had the biggest grin of all —that invisible one that wrapped every wet soaking finisher in one happy place. Thanks Dad.
Later that day I got a call from Ian: “Mom, I’m so proud of you.”