It’s the journey: My reflections on the marathon experience.

Today, Nov. 13, 2018 is World Kindness Day: How appropriate! I hope I can accurately describe my marathon experience while thanking the many people who helped me along this journey! The amount of kindness and camaraderie in the running community is off the charts.

As a writer, I spend 99 percent of my time writing about others. However, so many people have encouraged me to turn the tables and write about my own running journey, that I’ve decided to try “first person” for once. I decided to do so for three main reasons: 1) I hope it inspires others in some way, 2) there are so many people I want to thank and 3) it allows me to share my faith. Here goes.

Sunday, November 11, 2018 will forever be a treasured memory. It was a near-perfect first-time marathon experience. The weather was perfect and the sun was shining, but more than that, I truly felt the love of family & friends the entire day.

I have to give God all the credit, first. He put all the right people in place and I felt His presence in every one of my 700+ running miles so far this year. This may surprise some people, but I pray during nearly every run & race. How do you pray while running? It’s more like an on-going conversation with God. I wear cross earrings during every race and if you look closely at my running shoes, you’ll see two Bible verses written in Sharpie, one on each foot. I say these things not to brag about my faith in any way, but to share my faith. I feel His presence with me. HE has given me the ability to run and for that I am grateful.

For more than a year, my goal was to run my first marathon before the age of 50. But my long term goal is to stay healthy enough to continue running the rest of my life. I had all but given up on the possibility of ever running again, after cracking my kneecap at the age of 16. I tried to get back into running in my 20’s and 30’s, and finally five years ago at the age of 44 thanks to yoga, ballet & Pilates cross training, I was strong enough! I can’t imagine “not running” ever again, now that I’ve rediscovered it. Running inspires and challenges me, and in return, I hope my story inspires others. It’s never “too late” to do anything you set your mind to do. Just ask God to help you find a way and He will put the right tools and people in your path.

Mile 25 of the Harrisburg Marathon, along the Susquehanna River. Photo thanks to my dear friend Anne.

Why do I love running so much? I think it contributes to my wellbeing in many ways, especially by being outdoors. I love running in inspirational places whether they’re urban or rural, whether I’m in a crowd of thousands or alone, in NYC’s Central Park, the Grand Tetons out west, the hallowed ground of the Gettysburg Battlefield, along the ocean during beach vacations, and even my weekly routes on the country roads of Cumberland County or along Harrisburg’s Susquehanna River. Running in these places make me feel small within God’s great big world, and it helps me put life in perspective. I especially love the unspooling feeling of letting my mind go while I run—some of my best writing ideas come during long solo runs. Every day and every run is a gift.

Running with my daughter Kelly along NYC’s Hudson River Greenway

Some of the runs I cherish the most take place with my daughters, when they are home from college/work, or when I can join them for a run where they live (NYC and Georgia). How many teenage/20-something “kids” actually WANT to be seen in public with their mom, let alone be seen running with her?! We have done lots of 5Ks together & they are some of my favorite races.

Running a 5K in the NYC area with my daughter Katie

Every run over the past year formed a building block for the marathon, and my running journey has introduced me to some very special people!

The Fleet Feet marathon training group is led by Coach Fred Joslyn, who is not only one of our region’s most accomplished runners but also one of the most selfless and positive people I know. For example, he finished 3rd at Sunday’s Harrisburg Marathon. But the finish line did not mean he was finished with his day. He met nearly all of our training group members on the course, and ran side-by-side with each of us, offering encouragement. He was with me for about half a mile, joining me on a HILL, asking how I was feeling, telling me I looked strong, during mile 25, just when I needed a boost. He then went to wait for the next Fleet Feet runner, to do the same for her. And so on and so on.

Fred (in red) snaps a pre-Harrisburg Marathon photo with a handful of our Fleet Feet Mechanicsburg Running Club runners

Only a handful of people know I struggled with foot pain (plantar faciitis) in the past 4 weeks. Thankfully Fred introduced me to a wonderful PT, Scott, who got me into race day condition in the nick of time. I did his prescribed regimen of stretching & strengthening exercises faithfully every day, saw him for several appointments, and had very little pain during the marathon. What a blessing!

My miracle worker: PT Scott prescribed the perfect mix of exercises to get my feet back in marathon condition

Mile 26, right after Fred left me, fellow Fleet Feet runner & friend Ali met me on the course. He ran his marathon in Chicago a month ago & was a race volunteer at Harrisburg. His shift was over, and this kindhearted man ran me in to the finish line, offering me encouragement the entire way. How amazing. I was on the verge of tears.

Mile 26: Look closely… there are two shadows in this photo. One belongs to Ali.
Mile 26: Ali is on the right. Photo by my dear friend Anne.
26.1ish: As I approached the finish line, Ali left the race course. Photo thanks to Anne.

Then the tears starting falling. While Ali & I were running together, my friend Anne SURPRISED me (she had texted me well wishes the day before & said she had to work on Sunday. Ha… surprise)! She herself completed her first marathon in Harrisburg two years ago. Back then I told her I didn’t think I would ever run a full marathon… and she told me, “Yes you could!” She knew exactly where I would need a friend on the course. She cheered, took pictures, and ran with Ali & I for the final 3 blocks. The Fleet Feet runners who had already finished were gathered & cheering there as well—that brought more tears to my eyes. The Harrisburg running community is incredible. As my Fleet Feet runner friend John says, “With running, you compete against each other, but yet everybody is supportive of each other. In what other sport does that happen?” (I quoted him in my article, “Marathon Made,” published in TheBurg!)

Anne and I, at the finish line. (heart) Note my Hershey’s chocolate milk, best recovery beverage! (Which my husband had all ready for me.)
Dawn was so happy for me!
My sis-in-law Dawn, brother-in-law Troy and nephew Isaac join me at the finish line!

During the Harrisburg Marathon, runners pass City Island numerous times so that is where many spectators congregate. My wonderful husband was there, cowbell in hand, every time! Not only that, I was so touched that my sister-in-law, brother-in-law and nephew drove from State College to cheer me on! I wish I had a picture or video of my sister-in-law Dawn ringing her cowbell—she is 4 feet 11 inches, and God bless her, she rang that cowbell for all it was worth.

Mile 3: Amy & I had some great conversations! Photo thanks to running friend Jeff.
Another photo of Amy & I, thanks to my dear friend Nada

More people who made a difference in my first marathon:

  • Amy, above, a fellow Fleet Feet runner! We ran side-by-side for the first 10 miles (til I needed a potty break, ha ha) but then I caught up with her again & we ran close by most of the rest of the way, encouraging each other.
  • Also seeing my Fleet Feet running friend Joanne, volunteering at mile 18, was significant. Joanne & I ran together during SO many of our training runs. She cheered & said I looked strong, which carried me for the next several miles.
  • Ali, as mentioned, ran with me. But prior to that, he flagged race traffic at mile 3. When all the runners had come through, the race reassigned him to traffic near mile 18 with Joanne. So he cheered for me at both locations, calling out encouragement like, “You’re doing great, keep it up, you can do it.”
  • At the very beginning of the race, just as I climbed the stairs to the Market Street Bridge where the race begins, someone started hugging me. It was Emily, another wonderful Fleet Feet runner! A moment later, Fleet Feet runner Michelle & I also exchanged hugs & wished each other well. Those pre-race hugs meant the world.
  • I also passed race volunteer flagger Mel several times. She has a smile that LIGHTS up her face & she flashed it & cheered for me each time. I ran with her during last year’s Fleet Feet half marathon training.
  • Husband and wife Fleet Feet runners Jeff and Julia took numerous photos during the race which was very kind! Jeff then volunteered as a race flagger within mile 26. Somehow, he managed to 1) flag, 2) take a photo of me (and many other runners coming through), 3) cheer and 4) offer me a gummy bear from a huge Ziploc bag. (I took one & it was delicious.) A few minutes later at the finish line, it was Julia who put my silver “heat sheet” around me when I was too overcome with emotion to do it myself. And one of their sweet daughters put my medal over my head.
Mile 25: Photo (somehow) by Jeff as he also waved his flag, cheered & offered gummy bears.
First time marathoner!
  • River Runners is an informal running group in Harrisburg led by Michelle (my pre-race hugger) and Mike. Jeff (the gummy bear flagger) is also very active in this group. At packet pickup Friday night before the marathon, they encouraged River Runners to sign a banner that they hung right on the Walnut Street (pedestrian) Bridge. That was so meaningful & thoughtful! Mike is one of several key people who encouraged me to write this piece.
  • Speaking of writing and reading… Cathy, a Fleet Feet runner, loaned me Deena Kastor’s book Let Your Mind Run, which was the perfect book to read through Oct-Nov while tapering, for inspiration.

One topic Deena writes about is a phenomenon known as “flow” while running. It’s basically when you get lost in your thoughts, yet your feet and body are still carrying you along, and before you know it miles and miles have gone by. It’s kind of like daydreaming while running. If you’re focused on your time/pace, you probably don’t ever experience flow.

Our fellow Fleet Feet runner Jeff is not “flowing” here… I’m in the background with Amy and others

At the Harrisburg Marathon, I had some amazing flow going, on and off, but especially from miles 18 to about 23, that started when Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Let’s Groove Tonight” came on my playlist and inspired a six minute-long running dance party down North Front Street alongside the Susquehanna River and my heart was so happy I thought it would burst.

A few minutes later, I suddenly realized I was at a water stop operated by several cheering women wearing matching costumes (or pajamas?) in a bright yellow color, and one was offering me a doughnut. I said “No, thank you,” grabbed a gel and water and kept running. They laughed & I laughed. I can’t imagine eating a doughnut while running. I don’t think I dreamed that. Sometimes “flow” turns into “fuzzy runner brain.”

As I was running, I started daydreaming about a burger at the finish line… and here we are!

Anyway, the race volunteers and spectators ALL had great spirit and personality, and I thanked many of them along the course.

So many friends & family members texted, messaged, emailed, called or commented on Facebook to wish me well at the marathon, that I told my husband it was more overwhelming than my birthday! I love and appreciate each and every one of you… and I thought of each & every one of you during the marathon.

I also wore a bracelet that has special meaning. It is wooden, with American symbols and logos for each branch of the service. It was given to me by a very special man, Bill, who is 80+ years old. He & I meet for coffee about once a month. It’s a special friendship, as he is one of the last, great, true journalists alive, a super talented newspaper man in his day. Early in our friendship, I noticed his bracelet & asked him to tell me about it. He recounted Army stories & said the New Cumberland VFW sells the bracelets. About two days later, my very own bracelet arrived in the mail, as a gift from him. I told him his spirit would run in the marathon, in the form of the bracelet, on Veterans Day. Wearing it also reminded me of my dad, brother & uncles who served in the military, especially my Uncle Skip with whom I shared a special bond as our birthdates were/are both on September 9 (9/9) exactly 30 years apart.

Newshounds: My dear friend Bill & I during one of our coffee klatches

I would not be a marathoner today if it weren’t for my supportive husband. This wonderful man woke up with me every Sunday morning at 5-something, for months, in order to drive with me to City Island in time for 7 am runs. He usually rode his bike, checking up on me during the runs. Although he questioned my sanity at times, he listened to all my running stories which dominated our conversations for months. He probably knows more about tempo runs, tapering and lactic acid buildup than any non-distance runner alive.

Pre-marathon: My wonderful husband & I, on the Market Street Bridge!
Sept rain: My supportive husband Robert, at the Harrisburg Half Marathon.
At the finish! I asked him to please wear his yellow vest so that I could spot him along the course. (I have very bad eyesight.)

I say “non-distance runner” because he was an accomplished runner—a sprinter—in high school and college. They are two different mentalities, sprinting and distance running. I say he was an early bloomer and I was a late bloomer. His high school, districts and state medals are on display in our home aside my own growing race medal collection. His for short impressive bursts of speed, mine for long tests of endurance. Opposites do attract!

Our wall of running honors!

Marathon training has been both challenging and rewarding. The Fleet Feet group ran through rain, heat advisories, humidity, on long runs along the Susquehanna that felt like they’d never end and speed workouts that sound like torture when described to non-runners. The elite runners make it all look so easy, but for “average” runners like me, I can honestly say that if I can do it—although it’s not easy—certainly you could too.

Mile 26: Making the final turn on the marathon course. Photo by Anne
Finish line in sight! Photo by Anne

Leading up to the marathon, I was emotional just thinking about crossing the finish line. You might think it’s because the emotions build up throughout the year-long training process. And that’s certainly part of it. But I think the emotions come because I feel so humbled, that God would give little old ME the ability, and that He would put so many kind people in my life to help me—through training, through advice, through well wishes, etc, etc, etc. I am so blessed.

This is why nearly every race I run benefits someone or some nonprofit. I like the idea of “giving back” through every step and mile. The Harrisburg Marathon benefits the Harrisburg YMCA.

LOVE to all the Fleet Feet marathon running club members

Every time I see my Harrisburg Marathon medal, I will think of everyone who helped me to earn it. I share it with each one of you.

When I run, I don’t focus very much on my time or pace. The numbers aren’t as important as the sense of well-being and joy that running gives me. And I truly believe that joy is found, not in one destination such as a finish line, but in the God-led journey along the way.

© Karen Hendricks, November 13, 2018

Celebrating the journey
Move over 13.1, there’s a new magnet in town.





2 thoughts on “It’s the journey: My reflections on the marathon experience.

    1. Mary Lou, many thanks for your kind words–it truly means a lot coming from you. And I agree that mile 25 along the Susquehanna is one of my favorites too. I am so thankful that my friend Anne captured that moment.

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