The Humanity of a Race

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On Sunday, April 13, 2014, Raleigh hosted its first Rock & Roll® Marathon and Half Marathon races.  Raleigh’s selection by the national Rock & Roll® franchise was touted as a defining moment for the city. But as one of the more than 10,000 runners competing, what struck me most on Sunday was that the race was a collection of thousands of defining moments that spanned the spectrum of the human experience.

image(1)At 6:00am on Sunday, I walked out of my brother’s house with my dad, brother, step-sister and a close childhood friend.  We headed to the starting line, each with our own story.  My brother was the only one of us competing in the full marathon. He’s a seasoned triathlete (an Ironman finisher in 2012 even), but this was going to be the first time he’d run “just a marathon.” My friend had a very specific goal – to set a new personal record and finish in less than two hours.  My father, a Boston marathoner at age 48, was running his longest race in the last 5 years. For my stepsister and me, this was to be half marathon #2. My father and I planned to run it side-by-side. He could easily out-pace me by 2 minutes per mile, but that’s not what mattered.  See, there was a time 15 years ago – when I was overweight and struggling with my own health – that he could run faster backward than I could forward.  But on this day, we’d be finishing those 13.1 miles together.  Those were our stories.  But what struck me both as we waited for the race to begin, and throughout, was how many other significant stories surrounded us.

While we warmed up and stretched, I spotted three sisters in matching tank tops labelled “older”, “middle” and “little,” who posed as their mother snapped pictures.  Others wore t-shirts emblazoned in scripture, prepared to share their faith while they ran. Many runners had Jimmy V Foundation-sponsored bibs tacked to the back of their shirts – they were running in honor of a loved one affected by cancer. Hundreds of others dedicated their race to the memory of a loved one, with pictures and names displayed on their race shirts.  There were Ainsley’s Angels, a group of runners that would be pushing wheelchairs for the length of the race so that individuals with special needs could experience such a great event of endurance.

As the race started: more stories.  About a mile in, I read the back of an elderly man’s shirt– he was 82 years old, had competed in every single inaugural Rock & Roll® event across the country, and this one was going to be his 166th marathon.  I had to let that sink in – 166 marathons! How many miles must he have run in his life?  At that moment, I realized I couldn’t fathom how many miles all the participants had logged in preparation for this journey of 13.1 or 26.2 miles. It takes countless hours away from friends and family to prepare for such a race. Not to mention money, effort, sweat – lots of sweat. And for more than 10,000 runners, this day was the culmination of all that hard work and dedication.

Further into the race, my attention turned to those who came in support of the runners. Hundreds of policemen and women reported for duty that morning to keep participants and volunteers secure along the closed course. They were running to the aid of fallen runners when one of the many EMTs wasn’t nearby.  And speaking of EMTs, they worked tirelessly, treating everything from ankle sprains to heat exhaustion.

Then there were the volunteers.  Many were there passing out water and sports drinks, no doubt being splashed constantly.  Dozens of bands – a highlight of the Rock & Roll® events – lined the course, sharing their gifts through music.  (To the band at mile 10 who was blasting a cover of “Don’t Stop Believing” as my dad and I passed, I give you special thanks for that perfectly timed tune.)

Next up were the families, friends, and strangers cheering from the sidelines.  My stepmom, in an effort to see and cheer for us all, covered nearly as much ground as we racers did. run w dad A friend stood with her dog at a sparsely populated corner providing encouragement and snapping pictures.  One newlywed couple dressed in gown and tux held one of the many funny signs we saw – it urged us to run faster, lest we be “caught like the groom.” Residents of the Oakwood neighborhood sat in rocking chairs on their porches, sipping mimosas, taking part in their own small way.  My favorites, though, were the seasoned spectators, angels in my mind, who made a point to stand along the course’s many hills, shouting at the top of their lungs that we “could do it” and we “were almost to the top.” We runners needed to hear that, we really did.

Not all the stories were joyous ones. Near the 11th (or 24th) mile, the course was lined with American flags and pictures of fallen service men and women.  And I’d be remiss if I didn’t include the two men who inexplicably lost their lives while competing in the race.  In a day punctuated by so many precious moments, none display the fragility of life more than those two tragic losses, and my heart goes out to the families and friends of those dear men.

Thankfully, there were also beginnings and “firsts” to celebrate: the runners who achieved their first long-distance race… the couple who got engaged in front of the Raleigh Convention Center, just minutes after completing the race.  Remember my close friend, the one who wanted to finish her race in less than two hours?  She bested her goal by more than seven minutes.  And my jovial brother actually danced as he approached the finish line, stopping to kiss his wife, scoop up their baby and went on to complete the marathon with his child in his arms. At nearly six months old, she’s already crossed her first race finish line. It likely won’t be her last.

So many individuals from Raleigh, from North Carolina, and from the country, were joined together in this one event, and in the end that’s what compelled me to share the experience with you.

It mattered that 10,000 plus runners joined each other in one similar goal.  It mattered that siblings and parents and couples were running that race together.  It mattered that the service men and women of the city were keeping everyone safe.  It mattered that complete strangers were shouting words of encouragement to people they’ve never met and probably never will.  It mattered that friends were sending “good luck!” texts and that coworkers on Monday morning were asking “how was the race?!”

It matters when we set a goal and achieve it.  And it matters when we support each other – family, friends, strangers.  I’m certain that we’d all undo the race if it could somehow bring back those two precious lives, but I also take comfort in the belief that they were surrounded by such a profound display of love and support in their final hours.

My other hope in writing about the race is this: the next time there’s a race in your community – whether it’s a small 5k, a sprint triathlon, or a franchised full marathon – participate in it.  If your health (and doctor) permits it, and you have time to train – do it.  If your family, friends, church members or coworkers are competing – support them.  Wish them luck, send them prayers and blessings, stand on a street corner or the side of a hill and shout words of encouragement at them.  Make a funny sign. Volunteer and pass out water along the way or bananas and protein bars at the end. Host a spaghetti dinner at your house or your church the night before and help the runners “carb-load” before the race.cheering_flickr user Joe

Take part in whatever way you can.  Take it all in.  And remember, whatever you do, it will matter.

-Rachel Meyer

Bottom picture from Flickr user Joe, via CC

A Love Letter… From Me to…_______

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I was reading through some short stories about love and loss, looking for words of comfort I could share with a family member going through a difficult time, when I stumbled upon this:

“I would like to grow old with you, before I lose you.

You may lose me, first, for I am not all so very young, anymore. But I will take care of myself so that I may build thin bonfires on the cold beach with you: I will climb regularly, I will wear through expensive running shoes, I will bicycle daily, I will yoga reluctantly for it stretches me where I am tight and leaning into resistance makes me lazy. I will eat real food and go to bed at a reasonable hour: I won’t drink bad beer, or take my stress too seriously: I am good at sighing. For I would like to live to see you grow old like a thick vine, still flowering.

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I would like to see you wear that same turquoise dress with white flowers when your hair has turned white.”

Waylon Lewis, excerpt from “Things I Would Like to do with You Before I Lose You.”

While reading this, I pictured a man (indeed the writer is a male) thinking of his beloved in this beautiful way, wanting to do the things that were good and right and healthy so that he could stay by her side and grow old alongside her beauty. Hers was a beauty he knew would remain even when her hair was white. And he wanted to be there to see it. It’s a simple but poignant reflection on the power of love between two people and the motivations for living well that love can ignite.

But then I had a thought: what if I had written that love letter to myself? And so I read it again.  To me, from me.

“I would like to grow old with you, before I lose you.

You may lose me, first, for I am not all so very young, anymore. But I will take care of myself so that I may build thin bonfires on the cold beach with you: I will climb regularly, I will wear through expensive running shoes, I will bicycle daily, I will yoga reluctantly for it stretches me where I am tight and leaning into resistance makes me lazy. I will eat real food and go to bed at a reasonable hour: I won’t drink bad beer, or take my stress too seriously: I am good at sighing. For I would like to live to see you grow old like a thick vine, still flowering.

I would like to see you wear that same turquoise dress with white flowers when your hair has turned white.”

7012071637_6305d72a02_bDo I love myself enough to do what is good and right and healthy so I can grow old in beauty? Don’t I want to live long and well and delight to see myself in a turquoise dress with white hair?  To be that thick vine that is still flowering?

I do. And so today I’ll eat lots of colorful vegetables. And I’ll take my dog for a long walk and laugh when he barks at a forgotten Jack-O-Lantern. I’ll do push-ups. And hold a plank exercise pose for longer than my body seems to want. I’ll finally hang those shelves that are sitting in the closet.  And I’ll meet my friends tonight for trivia and laughter and a good beer. Because today, that’s what loving myself means. And that’s what will feed this vine so it can grow old and thick and full of flowers.

Write a love letter to yourself today. From you, to you, for you and your white-haired, flowering, beautiful self.

Rachel Meyer

Images by flickr users 190.arch and Chickens In The Trees, via Creative Commons.

 

The Reflection in the Mirror: A Personal Story of Weight Loss

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When I joined the Clergy Health Initiative in early 2012, I was charged with coordinating the bi-annual health screenings that, in part, help pastors in Spirited Life track their personal progress in the program.  Over time, I’ve come to see my role as helping to provide a “mirror” for Spirited Life pastors.  Some of our pastors love the reflection they see when they come to a health screening… 20 pounds lost, blood pressure that’s come under control, a waist circumference that means it’s time to go shopping for smaller clothes.  Other pastors, I’m certain, dread what they expect to see in the health screening mirror. Despite great intentions, too many desserts were consumed last month.  Mornings once spent on the treadmill have fallen victim to busy schedules, and the numbers will be evidence of that. It’d be easier to skip the health screening this next round, to not have to look in that “mirror” and see the reflection that proves the digression.  After all, ignorance is bliss, right?

Not quite.  You see, I know first-hand that ignorance of our health is anything but bliss.  And I know this because I was once obese.  Not heavy or just a tad overweight, but legitimately and clinically obese.  I started early, initially gaining weight in high school, and despite running the gauntlet of several fad diets, continued to pile on weight in college.

Upon graduation, I loaded up my car, left North Carolina and headed west to San Diego.  As a young adult in an expensive city, I quickly took two jobs – one working in an HIV research center, and the other, serving specialty coffee drinks in a local café.  My first year in San Diego often included 70-hour work weeks, often not having a day off for 30 days in a row.  My schedule, and limited budget, made it difficult (in my mind) to eat healthy meals or make time for exercise, and so I piled on even more pounds.  I told myself it was okay if I was overweight, because I was doing important work for society in my HIV research job.  And I was kind, charitable, intelligent.  That should be enough, right?  It shouldn’t matter what I looked like on the outside, because I was a good person on the inside.  And sure, there’s truth to that.  But in focusing on superficial appearance with that approach, I was ignoring the part of my inside that was my health. And health does matter.

Back then, my dad tried to be my first “mirror.”  He’s a family physician, a two-time marathon finisher, a fit and healthy guy.  When he looked at me, I knew he saw a good person, but he also saw my future reflected in many of his patients – a future that was likely to include heart disease or diabetes.  But I ignored that part of my reflection in his eyes – the one of sadness over my poor health.  I was even ignoring real mirrors in my apartment… no full-length mirrors hung on my walls back then.  And what about pictures?  Well, thanks to technology, I could quickly crop those to “shave” off my arm fat or eliminate my hips from view altogether. I spent extra time on my hair and makeup and focused on that part of my physical appearance, easily ignoring the rest.

But then, there was the picture I couldn’t fix. My brother had come to visit and one particular photo featured us standing on a vista overlooking the ocean. There was no way to crop the picture without getting rid of all that beautiful background.  That’s the day I finally, truly saw the reflection I’d been so actively avoiding.  I was double the size of my brother. My posture was slumped, my eyes sad. I looked unhealthy.  And when I plugged the numbers from my last doctor’s visit into a BMI calculator, the big block letters that popped up agreed.  I was OBESE and officially at risk for all the things my dad so feared for me.

This time, I didn’t jump on a fad diet.  Little by little, I started changing my unhealthy ways and working to build healthier habits.  Sugary lattes were traded for plain coffee with a bit of skim milk. Lunches eaten out were replaced with portion-controlled meals and an apple. And a few months later when my dad was diagnosed with early-stage prostate cancer, I decided to deal with my emotions on the pavement, and in his honor, became a runner.

Nearly 8 years later, I’m 50 pounds lighter than I was back then. My blood pressure is low, my cholesterol levels are in check, and most days, I feel pretty darn good. But that victory has taken years to achieve, and more importantly, maintain. I’ve certainly struggled through my fair share of battles along the way. A knee injury sidelined my running career 6 months after it began. More recently, after having started running again, I temporarily lost my go-to running buddy when my dog was injured in an accident. And then there’s the demanding seasonal work schedule that comes with coordinating dozens of health screenings twice a year. It’s easy to get off track. But I’ve also learned, that it can be just as easy to get back on track if I keep mirrors around me.  Sure, there’s the full-length one in my bedroom now hung in a place that can’t be avoided.  But there are other “mirrors” I choose to see too.  There’s the bathroom scale I step on each week.  The self-awareness that I feel better when eating mostly fresh fruits and vegetables over processed foods.  The joy that comes from seeing my recovered pup’s tongue dangling out of his mouth in exhaustion after a run.  There’s a new picture I make sure to look at too and this one’s not cropped! It was taken while on vacation with friends in Europe a couple years ago. My face reflects pure happiness – and I’m literally jumping for joy in my new, lighter, healthier body.

For those readers who are participating in Spirited Life, there’s a good chance that you’ve seen me at a screening, heard my voice on the phone, or received an email from me about attending your next screening.  I wanted to share the story of my own weight loss and health maintenance journey so that you’d also know how much I really do celebrate your victories with you.  And that I understand the hard work, time, and setbacks that are part of the journey toward better health.  I used to look at thin people and think that being skinny and healthy was natural for them. I know now that, more than likely, they reflect upon and work on their health in their own ways each day, and they surely have their own challenges to contend with on their journey.

I hope you’ll let us, the health screenings team, continue to be a mirror in your lives.  And I hope that by sharing my story, you’ll take some time to find the metaphorical mirrors that might help you along your own path towards wellness.