At 9 a.m. Saturday, April 21, I’ll line up with several dozen runners and walkers at our local Relay For Life 5K. It’s a yearly tradition each spring to raise money for the American Cancer Society. It costs $20 to enter. Competitors get a T-shirt, the good feeling that comes with outdoor exercise and the satisfaction of giving cancer a kick in the face.
I’ve walked in the race every spring for several years. Every time I do, I make myself remember the first time. I remember ordering a 2X T-shirt so it wouldn’t be too tight around my hips and stomach. (It still was.) I weighed more than my 6’3″ husband did – by quite a lot. I hadn’t done any form of exercise in years. And my dad – my handsome, athletic, happy dad – was dying of ALS.
ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) is a progressive, fatal disease where the neurons that act as messengers from the brain to the muscles stop working; it’s much like snipping the wire between the switch on the wall and the lighting fixture on the ceiling. Daddy’s once-muscular arms grew weak and thin, and his breathing became increasingly difficult. His voice that had sung so many songs and told countless stories became almost impossible for anyone other than Mom, my sister and me to understand. His legs became thin as his muscles atrophied until eventually he needed a motorized wheelchair. Through it all, he kept his sense of humor, his faith in God and his love for everybody.
Shortly before that very first 5K, I remember sitting in Mom and Daddy’s living room, talking to them about everyday things. I had recently started another “get-thin-quick” diet and was complaining about how difficult it was, how fat I was, blah, blah, blah. Daddy looked sharply at me, tapped himself on the chest hard, then waved toward the road in front of their house. With the sound of his oxygen puffing softly in the background, he said, “If I could, I would go up and down the road. Just go up and down the road.”
With his words ringing in my ears, that’s what I did. It’s how I started, walking up and down the road. I could only walk a little way at first, and it made my shins burn, my knees ache and my hip joints hurt. But never again did I take for granted the fact that I was able to walk. Never again.
When my breathing was labored and my lungs felt like they were on fire as I trudged up the steep hill in front of their house, I remembered the glint in my dad’s blue eyes, the sound of the oxygen puffing in the background and his voice saying, “Just go up and down the road.”
A few weeks later, with my 2X T-shirt stretched tight across my waddling hips, I slowly walked that whole 5K. I tripped over my own feet and fell on a bridge crossing a creek, bloodying my elbow. I had to stop twice going up a big hill on the course to catch my breath. I was among the last to cross the finish line. It took me more than an hour, and I was worn out the rest of the day.
This year, I ordered a medium T-shirt, and will finish the 5K in about half the time of my first one. I ran 12 miles Saturday and will run my first half-marathon in Nashville on April 28. My husband Tim is running his first full marathon with our youngest daughter Jenny. We’ve all been having a great time as a family “going up and down the road.” We joined the Idiots Running Club, and through it, have made some wonderful friends and found support and inspiration to continue these positive changes in our lives.
In the IRC, we take an oath to laugh and have fun, and to not take ourselves or any race too seriously. But there is one thing that I hope every runner who has found joy in being outside and feeling the road beneath their feet will take seriously. Pass it on. Let other people know that they can have that joy, too.
Those little words from my dad. Charley Hogue giving me the courage to start running even though I didn’t think I could. David Murphy helping me PR at a 5K. My husband telling me I will eventually run a full marathon, even though I often have doubts. Jenny telling me how much better my legs look since I started running. Countless IRC Facebook posts that seem to come just at the right time.
If it weren’t for all of you, I’m not sure I wouldn’t still be just wishing I was a runner.
Between you and me, I think most people secretly wish they were runners, but they just don’t think they can do it. Sometimes, all they need is for someone to tell them they can.