A week before my most recent marathon, the weather app on my phone predicted rain for race day. I grimaced thinking it would be my second time running the Asheville Marathon on Biltmore Estate in bad weather. The first year I slapped through puddles when it down poured for the first four hours then squinted against the sun that came out and offered me a sun burn along the final seven mile stretch. I had visions of my mud-covered shoes and shriveled feet after miles through damp and over-trodden farmland. I thought, “I’d much rather run in the snow than in the rain.”
It was 75 and sunny in western North Carolina where it snows an average of once a year when I made my claim against the rain. Snow seemed like the least possible scenario.
A few nights before the race forecasters began predicting 3-6 inches of snow overnight and into the early morning hours when the marathon would begin. I kept hoping that either the meteorologists were wrong or the marathon would be cancelled and I could stay home curled up under a warm blanket sipping tea for the day.
When I woke up on marathon morning at 3:50 am and looked outside, snow was still falling and although trees, cars, houses, and the mountains in the distance were completely covered, the streets were bare. I checked the race page online to see that it hadn’t been canceled and pulled myself up to get ready.
When I drove into the parking lot at 6:30 it was still completely dark, snowing steadily, and 29 degrees outside. I sat in my car for a while watching the snow fall in the headlight streams and wondering what I was doing.
When I first heard the forecast of snow I joked about how it would make a great, “When I was your age I ran a marathon uphill in a snowstorm!” story to tell my daughter someday, but when it came time to actually do it I didn’t care about the bragging rights it would afford me. I didn’t care that I’d run in the snow many times when I was training for the 30 miles on my 30th birthday in Massachusetts. I didn’t care that I was a seasoned New Englander and a seasoned marathon runner. I didn’t want to be cold and wet for 26.2 miles.
A few minutes before 7:30, against my will, I stood at the start line with hundreds of other athletes dedicated or foolish enough to face the cold and the snow that was still falling in a steady stream.
I didn’t feel excited when the race started, I was glad only to begin moving to hopefully warm up and bring sensation back to my frozen feet.
I fell into a steady rhythm as I passed the familiar markings along the route. I was keeping pace with the 5 hour 15 minute runners even though I had quickly fallen behind even the 5 hour 30 minute pacer longer before the first few miles the previous year. The snow covered scenery truly was beautiful, but it didn’t feel worth it. I grew annoyed by the runners around me who were doing what I dubbed the selfie shuffle– slowing down or stopping abruptly to pull out their phones for photo ops mid-step sending me swerving around them to avoid collision. My feet were wet and soaked from sidestepping the selfie shufflers into slush mounds and puddles long before the off-road portion began.
At the nine mile water station one of the volunteers asked me how I felt. I said I wished it was mile 19 instead of 9. “You can’t be feeling like that,” someone said. “You have many, many miles to go.” 17.2 miles to go, to be exact.
This year, unlike last, half-marathoners were running alongside marathoners. Mile 10 was a turning point. I could go left and cross the bridge to continue the off-road portion and finish the marathon, or I could go right with the half-marathoners, disqualify myself, and be finished in three miles instead of 16. I thought about going right the whole road leading up to the turning point, but for some reason my body moved left at the final moment.
I thought of the famous Robert Frost poem and the lines, “Two roads diverged in a yellow [or white] wood… I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference,” as I broke off from the dozens of half-marathoners I had been keeping pace with and found myself suddenly alone.
Last year, I volunteered biweekly at a local nonprofit that offered a variety of healing modalities to veterans and their family members. I offered Reiki and received so much in return when I witnessed clients transform from stressed and anxious to calm and peaceful. The first veteran who I worked with had a particularly powerful experience and although I only saw him one other time, the interaction stayed with me and deeply touched me.
After I turned left to pass over the bridge leading to the remainder of the marathon, a soldier locked eyes with me and brought his hand up in salute. As I got closer I realized it was the same man who I’d worked with months before. It was as if time stopped for a moment though my body kept going.
I felt tears spring up and sting my eyes in the cold as I passed over the bridge. I thought about all he’d been through and all he was still going through and how he’d saluted me. The me who had been internally complaining for ten miles about running in the cold. The me who moments before had wanted to quit. The me whose reason to complain paled in comparison to his own. And yet, there he was, standing for hours in the cold just to congratulate runners as they passed over to the remaining miles of their journey.
I wish I could say that after passing the solider on the bridge I didn’t complain any more or that I was totally blissed out for the final 16 miles, but in truth I wasn’t. I kept going though, even when my body and mind wanted to quit and there’s something, I suppose, to be said for that. When hours later I finally crossed the finish line, I held my arms up and screamed at the top of my lungs. I wasn’t proud, I wasn’t boasting my accomplishment, I was just so happy to be finished, to be able to wrap myself in the warm fleece finishers’ blanket and hobble to my car where dry shoes and socks were waiting.
Someday, if my daughter asks, I will tell her about the time I ran a marathon uphill in a snowstorm, but I won’t glorify it or make myself out to be a hero. I’ll tell her how angry, cold, and tired I was for most of the race. I’ll tell her how many times I wanted to give up. And I’ll tell her that something beyond my understanding made me keep going, made me turn left when I could have gone right and that, I’ll tell her, made all the difference.