It’s Sunday, October 12. I wake up early and think of Kim, who’s been nervous for weeks. I turn on my phone and there is a text from her, waiting for me: “Heading out in 30 minutes. Trying to remain calm.”
I text her back, “I am thinking of you! You are going to do great!!!”
She responds with a picture of the sun rising in Chicago. That tells me she’s at the start, ready to go. Today is the day she will run her first marathon.
One thing’s for sure: the girl I knew from over a dozen years ago would have never run a marathon.
I met Kim when she was still in college. She was a serious and quiet student interning at the women’s center where I worked back then. She was eight years younger than I, and she had big, beautiful eyes, smooth skin, straight hair and the coolest taste in music. She’s the one who introduced me to Ryan Adams and Lucinda Williams, but that came later, when she was working at the center, managing the front desk volunteers and trying to keep all of us organized.
At work, we relied on her to keep operations running smoothly. If you wanted something to get done, and get done perfectly, Kim was the one to ask. She was surrounded by dreamers and idea-makers, people not concerned with details as she was. She was the grounding force of our team, and she was my grounding force when I had one particularly bad breakup, the kind you think will never stop kicking you in the gut. She and our friend, Steph, took me out on weekends, which were the hardest: we ice-skated; we sang Backstreet Boys in the car, at the top of our lungs; and we danced at a college nightclub, despite my being way older than everyone there.
Kim was petite, slight and willowy, and she was the type of person who wore jeans, earth-toned cotton shirts, and Birkenstock-type loafers. She was more about blending in than standing out—you would not have caught her blaring music, wearing bright or wild clothes, or speaking loudly to grab attention. And I loved all that about her. But like every trait, being timid and humble can have its shadow side: it can mean putting other people’s needs before one’s own, and standing back so other people can come forward.
Sometimes I wanted Kim to step forward, shove everyone else aside and stand first. I didn’t know running would figure into her story, or my hope.
I check the time. 8:15 am. I click on my Chicago marathon app where I can track her progress, and sure enough, she began her race at 8:08. She’s off.
Kim didn’t get into running until a year ago. Way back when we lived in the same town and were working at the center, I was the “runner” (in reality, the slow jogger). I don’t remember Kim ever being particularly athletic—not that she didn’t have the perfect slender, reedy body for running, but she never took an interest in sports in general. So when she told me, back in the winter, that she had started running, I was impressed, surprised, and happy. Running is something you do for yourself and only yourself. I wanted that for her.
It’s 9:20 am, and I’m at a coffee shop. I click on my Chicago Marathon app to see where she is. She has passed the 10K mark! Split time: 00:58:35. Impressive.
Kim didn’t just take up running as a little hobby, the way I have done for the last 27 years. The length of my runs has generally been anywhere from 1 to 3 miles. Period. But Kim was not satisfied at such a small goal.
This past spring when she came to visit me after she’d turned runner, I thought it would be fun for us to run a 5k, something she’d already accomplished but that I had never done. So we signed up for a local race on a Saturday morning. Kim had said to me before we got there, “I don’t know whether I’ll just take it easy or really push myself.” And I thought, If she thinks she’s going to just “take it easy,” she’s crazy. I know my girl.
When we arrived, it was chilly and uncrowded at the hilly, curving golf course. As we were stretching and waiting for the start to go off, Kim paced around me a bit. Just before the go, she said, “I’m think I’m going to push myself.”
I waved her on and said, ”I’ll meet you at the end.” Off she went, speeding down the path. Throughout the 5k, I caught glimpses of her in the distance—the course path wound back on itself, so we would pass each other. Not that she was looking at me. She was focused. And all that focus got her the trophy at the end, beating all the other women. I was watching my friend build her strength and her confidence. I was watching her take a step forward.
At 10:30 am, I check my Chicago Marathon app again. She is past the half. Split time: 2:03:36.
Kim set her sights on this marathon months ago, and she was running many miles in preparation. Then, she suffered an injury in late spring, and the Chicago Marathon began to slip from her grasp. But Kim went to a physical therapist who told her she had to start from the beginning, work up to where she’d been, but slowly. She worked on repairing the injury and strengthening her leg, doing stretches and exercises every day without fail. And then, as soon as she could, she was at it again. She could only run a mile at first, and after that, just a little more. But she had a strict training schedule, and she followed it, building the muscles and the miles.
And now after weeks and months, my friend has arrived.
I don’t check the app again until 12:20, and I am shocked when I do. My girl has already finished. FINISHED! In 4 hours, 5 minutes and 16 seconds.
I call her on the phone, “Congratulations!”
She says to me, “That was awesome!” and I love hearing how strong and loud her voice is in the crowd. She is out of breath, but from exhilaration, and I imagine she is wading in a sea of people—runners and revelers and supporters—and she’s trying to find her friends in all the chaos of the finish line as I am trying to tell her how proud I am of her while crying at the same time. I want her to enjoy her limelight there, with her friends, and though I want to keep her on the line, I let her go. It’s time for her to shine.
Steph used to always say, “It’s never about what it’s about.” And in this case it is so true. For me, her finishing the Chicago Marathon was never about running, and my tears aren’t for the medal she gets for crossing the finish line.