Beth was a strong triathlete. I was a sluggish runner. And to celebrate our 40th birthdays, we decided to race together. I used to think that this story was about me, and the power of determination. Now, with humility, I realize that it is about my friend, and the power of support. Oh! Well now, that’s kind of embarrassing.
Beth and I have been best friends since my seventh birthday party. Secrets, sleepovers, summer camp, gymnastics team, school plays, we shared them all. And then, when we turned thirteen, she moved across the country. Somehow we kept the friendship going, and now we have hilarious and touching letters and audio tapes that tell the story of our friendship and our lives.
Exercise had always been a part of our connection starting way back to that YMCA gymnastics team, so racing together seemed like the perfect way to celebrate our entrance into our forties. I found the race for a wonderful “Girlfriends Weekend” in Galena, Illinois. Beth would fly in from Denver, and we’d drive from my home in the Chicago area to the sleepy town of Galena, filled with farms, wineries, gift shops, and bed-and-breakfasts. We’d race, drink wine, and relax at a lovely inn. There was only one problem: while Beth had been competing in triathlons for years, and I had run some races and liked to bike, I didn’t really swim. I mean, I COULD swim — I just had no interest in training as a swimmer.
But good news! The Galena event was a triathlon and a duathlon! Here’s the description of the event: For triathletes, the event begins with a swim in the waters of Apple Canyon Lake with a beach start & finish. Duathletes begin with a 2-mile run. The 2nd leg of the race is a breathtakingly beautiful 16.8-mile bike on the hilly & winding country roads of Jo Daviess County. The final leg is a 4.3-mile run, which winds up and down the picturesque lanes & roadways.
So, great! Beth could do the triathlon, I could do the duathlon, and everyone gets a trophy! (Ok, probably not that last part…) I wasn’t worried about the double run. I knew I could do a 2-mile and then a 4.3 mile later. I figured that the bike ride would be the challenge, as all of my biking had been for pure childlike enjoyment. I had no bike races behind me. So, ok, there was plenty of time to bike train between registration and the race. Problem solved!
But not really. Life got in the way, and while I kept my running going, I never really did get around to that bike training. Ok but no biggie! I can ride a bike, and I like it! I’ll just probably be really slow! That’s ok, I’m not in it to win the thing, just finish.
Have you been to Galena? I had not been there for years, and really just remembered that it was pretty and that there were a lot of shops. And I didn’t think much about that line from the event description: … 16.8-mile bike on the hilly & winding country roads of Jo Daviess County.
I remember my breath kind of catching in my throat as Beth and I drove into the county, her racing bike strapped to my car alongside my clunky bicycle. Hilly & winding country roads? Oh my. I mean, these were HILLS. Huge, steep hills. Up and down. There was, I knew, absolutely no way that I could bike up those hills. I was unprepared. I was quiet, and Beth was, too. She knew, too.
But hey, we said we were going to do this! So, we signed in, found our B&B, had our carb-loading dinner, and showed up early the next day, ready to race. Well, as we now know, Beth was ready to race. I guess I was ready… to have an experience. This was before we all toted cell phones around all day, so we figured out how we’d meet up after finishing. Then we gave good luck hugs, and went to our respective starts.
My start was that 2-mile run. This should have been no big deal for me… except that it was one mile UP a hill, and then another mile back. Um, I was used to running in the flat Chicago suburbs. By the time I was about halfway up that hill, I was already in last place. There it is.
On to the 16.8 bike ride. As I remember it, there was nobody around when I got up on my bike… that’s how far behind I was. Off I went, discovering within the first few minutes of the ride that I was absolutely unable to bike up the hills. Did not want to quit, though. Was not going to quit! So, I went with the “experience”, and, for 16.8 miles, I marched my bike up hills, chatted with the cows and lambs in the beautiful countryside beside me, got back on the bike at the top of each hill, and whizzed down. I was FAST going down those rolling hills! Look at me go… WHEEEEEE!
At one point, I heard someone calling to me from behind on a megaphone. I later learned that Beth, long finished with her race, had tearfully alerted the officials that her friend was still out there. Something must have happened to her friend! They were certain that all racers were in by now, and they were closing the course. NO! HER FRIEND WAS STILL OUT THERE! SHE WAS WEARING A BLUE SHIRT! So, yeah, there was a police car behind me, wanting to know if I needed help. I refused to talk with the officer, because I was afraid that in my exhausted state, I’d give in and climb into that car, defeated. BUT I WAS NOT GIVING UP. I was going to finish, and so I didn’t engage with the nice officer. I did turn once, though, and looked just long enough to see that behind me were that police car, a truck, a bus, and a line of cars. No, I’m not kidding about this. I had stopped traffic. In retrospect, I can see that it was really quite rude of me to put my own stubborn needs in front of those who had somewhere to be. I wish I could apologize, so many years later, and deeply hope that I was near the end of the bike ride when I made this selfish choice.
There, at the very bottom of the last hill, was Beth, running towards me with her arms up in either a hug or a V for Victory. Probably both. “You’re done!” she shouted. “You’ve finished!” She was laughing and kind of crying with relief that her friend was ok. And I looked at her, and said something like, “What? No I’m not. There’s one more leg! Still have that last run to do.”
So Beth, having already completed a 660 yard swim, a 16.8 mile bike in the hilly and winding country roads of Galena, and a 4.3 mile run, having already FINISHED HER RACE and gone through extreme worry about her hapless friend, decided to do that last leg with me. Yes, that’s right. She ran alongside me for another 4.3 miles. Supported. Me. The. Whole. Way. I can only imagine how exhausted she must have already been when she decided that she had over 4 more miles left in her, harvested because her friend needed support.
So I’ve been holding this story back. I’ve been blogging for a few years now, and told quite a few of my own stories in those posts. Not this one, though. I think it was because I couldn’t figure out what this story was about. Is the story about my own determination? Well, that’s just obnoxious. Is it about being so stupid that I would go forward while so ill-prepared? Well, that’s just embarrassing, and I’d like to think that I’ve learned a thing or two about the importance of preparation since then. I have people who count on me, and I can’t just forge ahead without putting in the work first (and I don’t).
Only now, as I reflect on this past most difficult year, and as I look forward to the next few months, do I realize that the story isn’t even mine. It’s Beth’s, and it’s about supporting others.
Here we are, 12 months into a pandemic. There has been so much loss. We have been worried, we have been in pain, we have been wretched. In the midst of all of that, we have also found the strength to pick people up around us, to run beside them when they need it.
Here we are, on the last leg of this thing. We can’t give up now. We can’t decide that we are all the way at the end when, in fact, we are not. There is still a 4.3 mile run ahead of us, and this last leg is incredibly important. Realistically, finishing that duathlon so long ago was important only to me. But doing this thing right, finishing strong when it comes to the pandemic — well, that should be critical to all of us. We are depending upon each other.
In schools (yes, my work as an educator always brings my focus back to schools), we have been through so much. We have planned and changed, drafted and scratched it out, stretched. We’ve done things we never, ever thought we could do. We are proud, and have learned. There are moments that we probably hope to forget. Through all of that, there has been support. Now, as we lean into the last few months of school, we are changing again. We are filled with pride and excitement and, yes, fear.
Please, everybody, grab a friend. Offer support and accept the grace of those who care about you. Finally, we are on the last leg of this thing. We can finish strong, together.