Personal Worst, or, Finding My Cheerleader

Me, miserable after the Super Hero Half Marathon.

Me, miserable after the Super Hero Half Marathon.

A little over four years ago, I was recovering from hip surgery. I was an amateur triathlete and in the greatest shape of my life, but an injury had sidelined me—and the only way to get past it was to fix it. I followed the doctor’s orders and did everything my physical therapist told me to, and the recovery went perfectly.

It was tough going, at first, and my recovery involved me being slightly dependent for a little while. For the first few days, I was on two crutches and wearing a brace that extended from my hip to my knee.

I was married at the time. A few days into my recovery, my then-husband turned to me and, perhaps in response to something I said about the difficulties of getting a glass of water while on two crutches, said, “I’m not going to be your fucking cheerleader.” I was stunned. All I could think was “If not you, then who?”

First bike ride, 8 weeks post-op.

First bike ride, 8 weeks post-op.

Of course, I recovered 100 percent—physically, at least. After a week, the brace came off, then one crutch was cast aside, and then, finally, I was walking on my own. After four weeks, I was swimming, and after eight weeks I was riding my bike. It did take me six months (ok, five) to get back to running.

But the sting of my ex-husband’s statement never left me. Over the course of the four years between then and now, I often wondered what in fact it meant to have a cheerleader. And, maybe even more importantly, could I be a cheerleader for someone else?

Within eight months, we would be separated, sharing custody of our then 9-year old son and our dog. Fully healed from the surgery, my adjustment to life as a single parent included transitioning from my part-time job as a personal trainer and full time job as a mother to building my own business while figuring out how to manage all the demands of running a household by myself.

There’s a company called Superhero Events that hosts running events with a superhero theme. The t-shirts and medals all bear superhero-related images, and many people participate in some sort of superhero garb. I recently participated in the Superhero Half Marathon.

Like with most races, I made all sorts of deals with myself beforehand: I’ll skip the race if it’s pouring rain. I’ll skip it if it’s hot and humid. So when I got to the starting line of this race and it was pouring rain, I laughed with a friend and said, “Well, at least it’s not hot and disgustingly humid!”

At about mile 1, the skies cleared and the sun came out. And the mugginess engulfed me. By mile 3 I was drenched in sweat, and somewhere around mile 4½ I was walking and on the phone (something I had NEVER done in a race) talking to my boyfriend, who had agreed to wait for me at mile 9, which is typically the place I need a boost most of all. I told him there was no way I could run this race and that I was dying. He told me that he was almost to mile 9, and that when he got there he would call me.

I had never struggled this much in almost 10 years of triathlons or running races. Definitely some have come close, but this one took the cake for me.

I hated hearing my pace announced through my headphones via my running app as I struggled through the miles.  I’m competitive, and I had a goal for the race. I convinced myself I didn’t have the mental capacity to continue, and couldn’t find the point of doing so.

I was probably at mile 6½ when my boyfriend called. By then I was running again, so I told him I’d see him in a little bit (but that I was running unbelievably slowly). I felt badly that I was so far behind schedule because he was my ride home, and I was going to be late, and his son had a baseball game he wanted to see. So I kept running. And walking, and running again.

I approached mile 9, and there he was. Smiling at me, telling me I looked great, walking with me, holding my hand—and then sending me on my way, saying “I’ll see you at the finish line.” Seeing him there shook me loose from my cycle of mental misery. It was only natural for me to say “See you at the finish” right back to him.

Also, the fact that I coach people for a living, helping them find the inspiration to keep going even when it is hard, was a force within me. Instead of quitting because I wasn’t going to be able to meet my goal, I let that goal go and just kept running. I started to simply move forward. I ran some, walked some, and drank plenty of water at all the water stops. I even admired the lush woods that the race took me through for the last three miles or so.  

And as I crossed the finish line, and once again saw the face of my partner, I knew that despite the fact that this was NOT my personal best, I finally understood what it meant to have a cheerleader.