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I was describing the Million Dollar Marathon to a runner friend a few weeks ago and he said, “Oh, so it’s not actually a real marathon?” I foolishly agreed because, in a very literal sense, he was right. There is no start line, no aid stations, and no one keeps time. But at the time of this conversation, I had no idea that I was headed into one of the most meaningful and most real experiences I’ve had.
A 3:30 AM wake-up call does not make for an energetic runner, in my case. But the minute I arrived at the start site an excitement and energy began to build. I met my team for the day. Helen from Virginia, the baddest ultra runner I’ve ever met, who ran in honor of her friends. Jeffrey from New Jersey, who came to support Helen and ended up logging serious miles. Rich, the self-proclaimed military brat currently stationed in D.C., sporting a shirt on which was written the names of 375 patients, survivors, caregivers, runners, and fundraisers in the fight against cancer. And our support crew who navigated, encouraged, and fortified us throughout the day.
We set out together over beautiful, lush, rolling farm land, uneasily eyeing the mountains that loomed ahead of us. The weather was ideal, the scene was perfect, and the company was unbeatable. At that time we didn’t know each other well and had no idea of the challenges we’d face over the next 18 hours. Or that we would run through darkly wooded trails only to find a padlocked gate. Or that we would climb up mountains only to find the road closed. Or that the perfect weather would give way to boiling sun. But as each challenge presented itself, we smiled, backtracked, found a new route, and kept running.
At each moment, I was keenly aware of the miles traversed to get the baton to this point in the Shenandoah Valley. And even more aware of the miles our team needed to log to keep the baton moving towards the Atlantic Ocean. As the day progressed, my body ached, my legs threatened to give out mid-way up a mountain, and I thought about quitting while the sun beat down.
Regardless, we could always count on the team to make a joke, offer aide, or jump out to take over if one of us needed a rest. Our support crew members were quietly resilient and ever encouraging in their resolve to help us across those mountains to our goal. Slowly, painfully, as a group we moved our mileage up those mountains and closer to our finish.
As we ran, I found myself thinking about how closely this experience mimics that of the cancer support team. We pushed toward a seemingly elusive goal with mountains to scale along the way. There were extreme highs and extreme lows. We celebrated the highs together, like when we crossed the first 26.2 of the day off the list, and encouraged each other through the lows, like when we ran 3 miles up to find the road at the top of the mountain closed. Small gestures became fuel for the soul and body, like being handed a cold bottle of water or a joke to keep our spirits high and legs moving forward. We needed each other and we were bound and determined to pass that baton to keep this momentum moving forward.
We pushed on through the day, each one of us playing to our strengths and carrying the team through. Around 5 PM we began our last climb of the day. I took this leg and as I ran I desperately searched for the sign “Skyline Drive” that signaled the top of the mountain was near. My legs screamed against the uphill pavement and with every step I wanted to give up. But my team was counting on me in this moment. And with the momentum of the 100-plus runners who ran their marathons before me, the runners who would carry the baton after us, and the people we were all running to support, my legs kept moving.
The road was steep and winding and as I burst around the final bend, I saw the summit half a mile above me. The view of the valley below was breathtaking as I flew down the curving road on the other side of the mountain. I let the momentum carry me, and I thought about all the names on Rich’s shirt, about my boss Helen, a three time cancer survivor who was celebrating her birthday as we ran, about Charlie, a member of the support crew in the van behind me who recently finished chemo, and about the many others we ran to support or to honor with rememberance.
If someone were to say to me now, “oh, so it’s not actually a real marathon,” I would have no trouble explaining how real of an experience the Million Dollar Marathon was. This race was intensely personal, and at the same time it was communal. It was both the most difficult and the most exhilarating experience I have ever had. It gave purpose to the movement of our feet and fuel to a community fighting cancer. It was real.