Monday, November 14, 2011
The sun was just coming up over the horizon when I arrived at Waterside on Sunday morning. It was a beautiful pinkish-orange backdrop to the American flag that was waving thanks to a brisk wind coming off the water.
I had arrived decked out in 75 yellow ribbons attached to the front and back of my running clothes. The only spot not covered in ribbon was the spot over my heart, where I pinned a photo of Chris. "Running in honor and memory of Chris Campbell," the badge read. "Sept. 16, 1974 - Aug. 6, 2011."
To say I was nervous about the race is an understatement. I was undertrained and overweight. I had stayed up most of the night before with a heating pad under my lower back. I didn't know anyone at the race start and wondered if I'd see any familiar faces along the route. As all of these thoughts ran around in my head and the clock neared 30 minutes until start time, one prevailing thought finally squashed the others and took over: "It's not about you. It's about Chris."
Ever since that awful Saturday in early August when we found out our high school classmate - a carefree surfer-turned-Navy SEAL - was killed in a helicopter attack over Afghanistan, I had been on auto-pilot: scrambling to train for the Norfolk Freedom Half Marathon, making weekly visits to the physical therapist to fix every new problem that arose, and raising money for the Wounded Warrior Project, the charity Chris requested we focus on if he should be killed in the line of duty.
Now the scrambling was over. And a quiet took its place. A quiet that allowed me to focus on only one thing: Chris.
As the runners lined up at the start and the "presentation of the colors" was announced, something very odd happened. Instead of typical pre-race chatter and last-minute stretching, everyone was focused ahead. Not a word was spoken or a song played. It was so quiet, the only sounds were of chirping birds and whipping flags. This wasn't going to be a typical race. Most people weren't there to break records. This was about honoring the men and women who were serving our country, the veterans, the heroes who sacrificed their lives for us. This was about Chris and his comrades. This wasn't about us.
At 7 a.m., the runners - including me - took off.
It was a lot easier to run with ribbons than I expected. And the ribbons served their purpose, as a number of spectators - including passengers in a car that drove by me - asked what they represented. I was able to tell them about my classmate who was killed, his Wounded Warrior Project wish and the people listed on the ribbons who donated to his cause.
There were rough moments during the race: stretches where I feared I was last because I couldn't see anyone around me; the moment I tripped over my feet and fell onto the pavement (strategically right outside a hospital); miles 11 and 12 when all I wanted to do was take a nap I was so exhausted.
I had to walk most of miles 11 and 12. But when I hit the last mile, I had an odd little burst of energy. I was able to run more. And then the song "Arlington" came on my iPod. It was played at Chris' memorial service, and as I listened to the words, I touched my hand to my heart - Chris' photo - and thanked him.
I was about to turn the corner into the last stretch when two very good friends surprised me, cheering and taking photos during those last steps. I can't say I ran the rest of the way - a combination of "Arlington," seeing my friends and approaching this hard-fought goal brought on the emotions and I found myself unable to breathe. But I was able to refocus and carry on.
The finish line was a near ghost town compared with other half marathon finish lines. After all, I was finishing an hour and fifteen minutes after the average person would finish. And though it was quiet as I approached, someone restarted the music, and the opening notes to "The Final Countdown" played. I smiled wide and finished.
BY THE NUMBERS:
Two-month Wounded Warrior Project fundraising goal: $3,000
Amount raised: $3,466 (with $50 more pledged)
Number of fundraising letters sent out: 150
Number of donors: 75
Original half marathon time-limit: 16-minute-mile pace
Revised time-limit: 4-hour race (or 18-minute-mile)
My half marathon time: 3:30 (yes, a personal worst)
My half marathon pace: EXACTLY 16-minute-mile
My place: 7th from last (but not last!) POSTSCRIPT: Turns out I was 17th from last! (or, 1187th out of 1204)
Number of ribbons I started the race with: 75
Number of ribbons I finished the race with: 75!