I checked off a bucket list item this last weekend when I ran across the Golden Gate Bridge both ways. Little did I know when I began the run that the idea of “kicking the bucket” would be what pushed me through the race.
The Rock ‘n’ Roll San Francisco Half Marathon course starts right next to Pier 39, heads straight to the bridge through the Presidio. While I’m not a professional runner, races nearly always fire up adrenaline. This time, I had a plan to run faster than I did last April at a different race. This was a wise plan, given to me by my coach. I would run the first 5K (3.1 miles) close but slower than my goal pace. Then I would kick it up to my goal pace for the next 7 miles. During my final 5K, I would speed up, going slightly faster each mile.
Since the half marathon is heavily sponsored, when I came to the Presidio and saw bright blue knee high posters to the side, I assumed that it was beer ads. This was at about 3.5 miles. Shortly beyond the blue signs was a steep hill winding up towards tall pines. Along the side of the hill were a line of people holding flags. I was surprised to see faces and descriptions of fallen soldiers on those knee high signs, men and women who had given their lives for the country the believed in, lining the way. As I ran past them and just up the hill in the midst of the waving flags, I caught myself nearly heaving with tears. The act of remembering each of these people and the faces of the flag bearers honoring them and the many others like them brought up a deep appreciation and dipped into a grief that has been spinning like an eddy in my life.
I am no stranger to loss. My mom died when I was a teenager, and just this year I turned the same age my mom was when she died. Grief and anxiety about death are just a flag bearer away from the surface for an attack of tears. But on that hill during this race, I couldn’t let the grief bowl me over. A fleeting picture of the moments I’ve stopped on runs in the past, overwhelmed with emotion welled up from memories of my mom or painful experiences of other losses, flashed in my mind, and I decided that I had to move past that in order to move towards my goal. I wanted to make it to the top of the hill without having to stop and walk.
I glanced at my watch and saw that I was running slower than my goal pace. I figured the math would all work out as long as I kept my effort in check. Instead of focusing on my pace, I decided to make effort my guide. The course winded upwards and towards the bridge. I was in the middle 7 miles of my plan and on a slight uphill. We were running the sidewalk on the east side of the bridge, the traffic surprisingly busy on the bridge to our left. I took a moment to look out across the bay. The mist was high in the sky so that Alcatraz and the Bay Bridge were in clear view, but the sky gray and the bridge wet. I remembered a fellow runner telling me how they usually don’t have time to enjoy the view on a race and purposefully decided to catalog this moment of beauty – a mental photo of the race day.
I increased my speed and passed a guy I had been running behind a little before the bridge moved from uphill to down and was quickly joined by another gentleman on my right. Effort dictated that I move faster on this downhill, so when glancing at my watch now, I was going faster than my ideal pace. I knew that I would have more up and down and I went with it. As we faced another uphill, the guy stopped to walk and I kept moving, through and around the parking lot overlooking the bridge from the north. We circled down a gravel path that leads to the west side of the bridge, trail runners who love the downhill thrill passing us more cautious downhillers to the left and right. Then steadily back up a steep hill. On this hill, I walked for 20 feet, knowing that would give me the push to keep the uphill steady for the rest of the time.
Bucket list. This idea originates from the phrase “to kick the bucket.” I have tried to create a bucket list multiple times. Recently I stared death straight in the face. February 22nd marks the day my mom died. It is also the day that I turned the same age she did when she died since we shared a birthday day (we were both born on May 16). From February 5 until early March, I was certain that my body had been overtaken by cancer. I had a pain in my side that would not go away and my doctor couldn’t fully identify the cause. My mom had been in and out of the hospital, visiting doctors who couldn’t tell her what was wrong with her body for months. It wasn’t until she had a seizure that they performed an MRI and found the baseball sized tumor lodged in her prefrontal cortex. So in February, I was certain that I was being met with a similar fate. I contemplated what it would mean to no longer be present as a mother to my two beautiful and young children. I went down the road of how that would affect their lives. I suffered from one panic attack in which I felt like the walls were closing in on me.
The bucket list was the last thing on my mind as I was in my anxiety. And yet, it was in February that I signed up for this race. I had originally planned to run the race I had run last year, but cancelled because of a date conflict. When faced with making a decision about which race to replace it with, it was the fact that I could run the bridge that made me sign up for the Rock ‘n’ Roll.
As I stepped onto the west side of the bridge, I relished in the quietness. Fewer people were here. I wasn’t squeezing by people, so I opened up my stride and looked out to sea. I watched my pace and came to my breath. I knew I had just 1.5 more miles to go until I needed to move my feet a little faster and push my body for the last 5K push. Then I remembered a line from the article my coach had just shared with me right before. Lauren Fleshman, in recounting her own recent half marathon win, repeated the phrase, “Run faster until you can’t.”
I took it on as my mantra and tackled the next mile.
Run faster until you can’t.
Something about running flat ground is that it can become monotonous quickly. I was 1 mile into the flats with about 2 more miles to go and “Run faster until you can’t” needed a little edge. I found myself thinking about how lucky I was to be able to run. That bucket reared its ugly motivating head again. Would I be able to run this fast ever again? What if I wasn’t? What if I found out I indeed would die tomorrow?
At that moment, I decided to use a tool that I normally don’t. I chose someone way ahead of me and committed to passing her. My confidence in my ability to do this is what has kept me from choosing this tool. I threw my concern about ability to the curb and then ground it in with this thought. The woman in a pink shirt in my sights hadn’t been there 2 minutes ago because today, I was able to follow my plan. I wasn’t running steady. I was running harder. I was running harder because I could and because life is too short to not take advantage of the moments of “when you can.”
I pressed towards the pink shirted woman, noticing that I was passing a few others along the way. I caught her, my goal, and kept moving. The road turned and we headed up a hill. I glanced at my watch, the time much slower than I was hoping for. But I knew this hill had been coming and I settled in. I smiled. In past races, I have given up at this point, slowing and making excuses to myself about why that day isn’t the right day. Today I was choosing not to make that my story. I was going to push into life, push into the pain.
On the corner turning down towards the finish line, the street level stage contained two hippily clad twenty somethings with arms overflowing with daisies. I had seen them setting up as we ran out towards the bridge at the start and pictured their peacefulness drawing me towards them. My mom was never a hippy, but I imagine that she dreamed she was. Her Catholic family would never have approved, and though she did many things that her parents did not like, hippy was not one of them. As I passed the hippies, I remembered my mom.
It is a rare finish line that is at a downhill! I picked up my pace as I rounded the corners towards the finish. I lifted my arms as I crossed the line, celebrating my effort, my aliveness.