|August 2009 - Alyson, Curt, and Cindy|
I am a runner. Not the best runner, not the worst, but a runner nonetheless. I never wanted to become a runner, in fact I spent most of my life trying to avoid it at all costs. My old motto used to be “I only run if someone is chasing me”. This is a little story about the healing power of running and the friendships and connections we make.
I grew up with a mom who was (and still is) a very accomplished runner. My brother and I spent many summers running in the sprinklers on the college lawn where my mom trained or playing in the sand pit designed for the long jumpers. My dad ran a little, most likely to be close to my mom, whom he once described as the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen, the only one who left him completely speechless. He was never a true athlete however, nothing like my mom. My mom, at age 67, can still beat me at a 5k with ease. I take great pride at telling everyone that she is the fittest person I know and who can easily kick my butt. I look back on these days fondly and I’m thankful to have had such an early introduction into fitness as a lifestyle.
As parents often do, my mom had hopes that I’d share her love of running and signed me up for a running club when I was around seven called the Gazelles. The team was coached by a very tall, dark skinned and leathery, soft spoken man named Gil. Gil was an amazing coach, kind and supportive but regardless of those facts, I hated every moment of running and wanted to quit with every single step. I recall throwing up before competitions, perhaps from nerves, but like all kids, I wanted so badly to please my parents. Once my parents let me quit the Gazelles, I vowed to never run again. I remained an athlete in childhood however, playing soccer, swimming competitively and riding horses. (I certainly never felt like a Gazelle or anything close to it, I feel much more like a giant wildebeest while running)
Something happened many years later around the time my sons were born and I started running with my mom. I began to love the time on the trails and as pain and breathlessness gave way to fitness, the runners high started to kick in and I was hooked. I started to sort through my problems on the trail, get clarity in my life, work it all out. I was finally glad to understand and share the joy of running with my mom, twenty years later.
I considered myself a casual runner, more like a jogger actually. I showed up at a running store one year to sign up for a Thanksgiving day race in support of a local food bank. I asked the young and lean kid working at the store if I should do the 5 or 10k. He asked what else I did for fitness and when I said I played soccer he said “oh, do the 10k, soccer players are great runners”. I went to the race that day and met and ran with a total stranger who said “10ks are a good start but you should really run a half marathon”. I signed up for the half marathon and told my mom who in turn said “honey, if you are going to train, just run a full marathon”. Before I knew it, I found myself signed up for a marathon, a goal I had NEVER considered for myself. Some people have a goal of completing a marathon on their bucket list. I had always thought it sounded like a TERRIBLE idea.
I trained for the marathon and raised money for the Stroke Association, with the funds going toward Stroke research. At the outset, I didn’t really understand the emotional commitment I was making. I knew training would be tough and the miles would be long. I knew I’d face injuries, terrible bowel issues and maybe even some rattlesnakes along the way. What I didn’t realize was that I’d also gain some amazing friends, and that the day of the race would be one of complete emotional joy.
I ran my marathon in Kona on the highway in June, with nearly unbearable heat and humidity. Just as I was really starting to struggle around mile 18, I started to talk to the man next to me who had been running silently. It turned out that he had survived three strokes and was out there running a marathon (and passing me). During our training runs our coaches had taught us a mantra to help us push through. The mantra was “I can, I will, I’m able”. The meaning of “I’m able” had been lost on me up to that point. Having always been “able”, I had taken this for granted, like many of us do. Meeting this incredible man at my lowest point in the race had transformed my perspective on illness and strength. Curt’s illness drove this home again and when I run now, I think about how fortunate I am to just “be able”.
For the past two years, my mom and friends of mine have run a local race for ALS in Curt’s honor in January. It always seems to fall on the coldest day of the month but it is great to see all of the family and friends of loved ones who have been struck with ALS out in the morning together, braving weather in honor of those they love, strangers, tied together for a common goal. Thinking of Curt helps me get through the race, particularly this past year when I was very sick. I reminded myself every time I wanted to quit that if Curt can deal with ALS, I can certainly run a few miles with a bad cold.
There are certain moments in all of our lives that leave a mark. When my father died unexpectedly in my early twenties, I was lost for many years. Running helped me find my way. I ran and ran until I found myself a little less lost. The moment I received Cindy’s email announcing Curt’s illness was another one of those marks for me. I have been coping with it the best way I know, putting one foot in front of another on the trail, hoping I can run the sadness out of my body, and when that fails, at least make the load light enough to carry.
The support of my running friends has been crucial during this time. One of my friends has a t-shirt that says “Running, cheaper than therapy” and it is so true. Every weekend my friends ask about Curt while we’re running. Some follow Cindy’s blog (and are amazed) and some ask me for updates. In between pants and groans, I tell my friends how things are going. They are all thinking of our family in their own ways, they tell me what they have learned from the Ziemke family, how their journey has changed their lives.
I am going to borrow an excerpt from a book by Kristin Armstrong to discuss friendship and running:
“Since our first mile together, whatever hill we have faced we have climbed together. We train each other in ordinary times, and we surround one another when a crisis hits. We share humor like a cold germ…we have seen each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and we know when to push and when to protect. When something needs to be said, we have earned the right to say it and have built the courage to hear it. When the ache of disappointment or loss is greater than words, we run quietly side by side and wait for God.” The last sentence perfectly describes how I feel about Curt.
Although Curt doesn’t realize it, (and might not like it since he’s more of a motor cross sort of guy), he’s a runner now too. I carry Curt with me on the trails, thinking of him, praying for him and taking joy in a physical act, realizing now after watching him suffer and become immobile that the physical ability to run is a gift unto itself. It’s on the deep trail, out in nature, in and out of the cool and dark forest, along the lake’s sandy shoreline that I think most of Curt. I like to think that I am running for him. Every 7:30 am on Saturdays, he’s out there too (on my mind), dragging butt up the hills, swearing quietly, and enjoying life’s beauty.
For Curt- I carry your heart with me, I carry it in my heart (E.E. Cummings)