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Why I Decided to Run a Half Marathon on Sunday

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(When I Have Never Even Watched a 5k)

Why I Decided to Run a Half Marathon on Sunday photo 1 

Noa has a sunny disposition to match her bouncy, blond ringlets which is partly why I didn’t catch the signs of her deteriorating health. My eyes flew wide open in mid-May when she had an acute asthma episode and turned some scary shades of blue.

Breathing takes on new meaning after watching your 6-year old pull her oxygen tank through the hospital corridors. She pretended it was her dog. She named it Moxie.

My daughter spent four days at Lutheran General with a partially collapsed right lung and IV steroids, sunny disposition fully intact. She licked cherry popsicles around the clock, played Crazy Eights bedside with volunteers named Jenny, and cried just once, only a little, when her IV was removed.

Unlike Noa, I don’t have a sunny disposition (particularly when sleep deprived). But I, too, know asthma. And I, too, am resilient.

I was the kid with sissy, snotty asthmatic lungs and an inhaler. In seventh grade gym class, you could find me schlepping around the track at the back of the pack thinking, Wow, this really sucks. And suck it would to die from respiratory failure at age 12 wearing a school-issued, polyester, pinstriped onesie that snapped at the shoulders. On particularly bad days, I’d go home and my lung doctor dad would pound on my chest to dislodge any residual mucus.

In short, I hated running.

For over three decades, I hated running. So for over 30 years, I did not run, not even for the train. (Except the one time I did. And fractured my left cuboid.)

But – as with many things in life – needs change, tastes evolve, lungs mature. In November of 2009, I started running the streets of Skokie each night after tucking my girls into bed. I was in search of solitude and serenity and running fit my working mom schedule. A colleague with four kids ran a marathon in a skirt. A pair of size 8 lime-trimmed New Balance called out to me from Marshall’s clearance racks. Desperation, inspiration, an amazing shoe sale . . . the next thing you know, I’ve taken up running in the dead of Chicago winter.

With running, I found I could open the door, put one foot in front of the other, and be done 30 minutes later. I didn’t need anything; just my shoes and my thoughts. Whatever I was stressing or swearing about as I laced up those shoes dissipated by the time I got home. I could go further every day. And I could breathe.

I knew what my breath looked like when it was five below zero. I knew what my neighbors watched on their flat screen TVs. Even better, I knew when Orion appeared in the sky. I knew that Devonshire smelled like laundry detergent on Sunday mornings. How far I’d gone or how fast I’d run, I had no idea – but with sweat-drenched shirts in the bitter cold, a Chicago winter has never passed more quickly.

In February of 2010, I ran for the first (and last) time on a treadmill, like a hamster on a wheel going nowhere quickly. I became fixated on the numbers in red, measuring calories, heart rate, speed, converting kilometers to miles and back again, wondering if my ass would expand exponentially the moment I stopped.

I had reached that critical juncture, as with any new love, when it was time to define the nature of the relationship. Do I let myself be wooed by fartleks, Turkey Trots, and negative splits – concepts that two months ago were not a part of my vocabulary? Do I become obsessed with the anatomy of a leg? Do I start frequenting running stores and online forums and buying Garmin gadgets that yesterday I didn’t know existed? Or do I run for the sheer pleasure, because I can?

As I wrote that month in my journal, I look forward to my first spring as a runner (am I a runner?), running in the forest preserve, watching the streams thaw. I look forward to feeling asphalt turn to dirt turn to sand beneath my feet, as I run past dog beaches, sand castles, cloud formations, shades of Lake blue Michigan. With a collegial nod of my head, I’ll acknowledge my fellow runners. (Am I a runner?) Will I ever run in a pack with a number on my chest feeding my ego? Or do I just step outside, take a deep breath, and feel the earth move under my feet.  

For the next year, I stuck with my carefree, sporadic, solo runs. I knew the exhilaration of seeing a deer on the path at dusk. Nature, solitude, and wellness. That was enough.

You’re probably expecting me to say it was the challenge of Noa’s asthma that prompted me to undertake the challenge of a half marathon. To show her that a person with asthma (like her and like me) can learn to manage it, breathe, and run free. That you can be a mom and a professional and a strong active woman who knows she is not perfect, who knows nothing is perfect, who knows the world is beautiful, who knows she is beautiful as she runs.

That’s the version of the story that I will play in my head during the final few miles on Sunday, when I’m at the back of the pack thinking, Wow, this really sucks. That’s the version I’ll be telling Noa when I cross the finish line.

But the truth is in February of 2011 I had my own health scare. Room-spinning vertigo followed by a brain MRI. “You have a brain lesion and need to see a neurologist,” said Dr. Stern. A long, scary wait, followed by a positive prognosis. Collective sigh.

In short, I registered for the North Shore Half Marathon because I didn’t have a brain tumor. I had excess energy that needed to be redirected. 13.1 miles with throngs of spectators should do it.

I don’t think of it as a race. I think of it as my first group run. Everyone asks me my pace and I still don’t know. Yes, I traded in cotton for wicking and developed a fondness for organic pomegranate passion energy chews. I’ve subscribed to Runner’s World, watched Chariots of Fire, read Born to Run, and yes, I even want a Nike Sports Watch GPS for my birthday. But on Sunday I’ll be lining up at the back of the pack and my goal is just to finish.

Yesterday I drove the course in Highland Park. In short, I’m so fucked. But tickled to discover the final two miles take me directly past the house I lived in during my angstiest teen years and the high school I so loathed. If I’m still vertical, I imagine I’ll feel triumphant.

This one is for Noa, Moxie, and Emma. Rachel. Sarah and Brett. And the pediatric staff at Lutheran General (especially Aunt Dr. Karen)! 

Why I Decided to Run a Half Marathon on Sunday photo 2 

Postscript: Dana at the 6/12 finish line with her two daughters – still vertical, slightly nauseous, feeling triumphant. 

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