I went for the most epic run tonight in Cortona, Italy; the road I followed proceeded directly out of the tiny town of Pergo, and immediately up and into the hills, winding its way into Cortona from the northeast side, and landing smack in the heart of the city. From there, I proceeded up one of the narrow alleys that flanks the northern most edge so as to literally climb up to the top of the city to enjoy views un-impeded of the valley, and the little terracotta roofed towns below. The cathedral of Santa Margherita is situated atop this alley, watching over little Cortona and – when I arrived there – with my shirt and curls dripping with sweat, a smile on my face and chest heaving strongly from completely taxed lungs, I couldn’t have felt more beautiful.
The feeling reminded me that I had yet to write about the Nike Women’s Half Marathon a few weeks back — an occasion that I didn’t want to overlook here.
Friends and I had talked about this race for nearly a year – a great excuse to get ourselves to the East Coast to see the spring cherry blossoms in the nation’s capital, and the anticipation of what was sure to be another great race put on by Nike. Their women’s series is the holy grail of events for a grand majority of we runner girls; if you can’t think of another reason to go out and challenge yourself with 26.2 or 13.1 miles, what better excuse than an Expotique chock full of red carpets, makeover opportunities, shopping, high-end race schwag, live DJ’s and celebrity appearances, a theme of “run for BLING,” and, of course a custom Tiffany necklace cum finishers medal waiting to be awarded to you by a hunky fireman at the finish? Of course, if you’re the other type of runner girl whom seeks out medieval alleys to crush in her running shoes just to enjoy a view, you don’t need a Little Blue Box to be inspired to run fast and far and to your limit and this type of pandering can be a bit much.
None the less the weekend arrived and so did amazing weather, and 15,000 strong women ready to impress themselves and those that came along to support them with their prowess. Race morning came, and I made my way- calm as a cucumber- to my corral. A red carpet laid out down Pennsylvania Avenue indicated where our morning would begin, the nation’s Capitol Building perfectly framed by the arches of the starting line. Complete VIP treatment as far as urban events go; I was excited, and not nervous, and felt ready, even though admittedly I haven’t been focusing so much on this distance specifically. In comparison to other races and events on my calendar the past few years, these 13.1 miles felt as it if it was a drop in the bucket, a little treat along the racing road.
They say “it never gets easier, you just get faster.” And they’re right. As the starting gun went off and our group surged forward, I could swear that we were pulling the weight of 15,000 women behind us into the streets of Washington, along the Potomac, and past several of our nations most famous monuments. My pack was moving quickly, but not as quickly as the top 10 racers spread out before us with Samia Akbar making every woman runner proud with her chest held high, strong cadence, legs for miles and big smile as she crushed the course. Her grace and strength was inspiring and I found myself watching for her when we would round corners and enter out-and-back sections of the course, just to get a glimpse of her seemingly effortless attack on this distance.
I chose to wear a simple timepiece to keep track of my progress on the course this time around, leaving my perceived exertion to be the guide for when to push, when to settle and when to sprint. My brain told me that I had control of my pace, but as the miles crept up on me, my legs and lungs began to feel as if I my heart was running the show, leaving my strategy in the dust. The plan had been to run, slightly reserved, for the first 5 miles, then to pick up the pace for the next 5 miles. With the remaining 3.1, I would pour out all that I had onto the concrete with hopes of pushing my way to my fastest half-marathon time yet. But, as miles 9-11 rolled under my feet and the needle began inching towards “E”, we entered a straight away. My carrot Samia disappeared, the crowds thinned, cheers subsided, and my drive came to rely on the inspirational quotes lining the route. “13.1 looks great on you,” and “Fear less, do more.” But, specifically, “Run faster than your mascara.”
There was something about this last one that infuriated me; watching Samia run had reminded me to run tall, effeciently, bravely. But these words rang in my ears and bounced around my brain – who is thinking of mascara out here? Do I look like I’m even wearing mascara? I tried to rationalize the pun, and to send appreciation to whomever had written the damn thing for knowing that we women would need little tidbits to chew on along these loneliest miles. In the end, the reality was that – whether my focus was positive, or negative – the innate quality of this statement provided a potency to my running that seemed to surpass my desire to break a personal record; and not just do my best, I wanted to shatter the stereotypes surrounding women who run. I hadn’t dressed up, or prissed out, and certainly hadn’t put on mascara to run this race; I had merely stepped into the shoes of my best self and walked out the door.
Ladies, run because the landscape within you as you’re moving your body powerfully is far more beautiful than anything you can imagine. This beauty seeps out over your entire being when you run, when you’re confident. When you’re strong. As I slowed my pace, running through the arches of the finish line on Pennsylvania Avenue I exhaled deeply, closed my eyes and let me head fall back with my face to the sky. Done. At last. Every last drop I had was poured out over those 92 minutes.
A new PR, a little blue box, and a banana were waiting for me on that red carpet — it doesn’t get better than that. And not because there was a lovely necklace/medal presented to me. But because I asked my body to do something challenging, that it had never done before, and together with my will and spirit it accomplished the goal just as I had asked. That little necklace is a symbol of my crossing the finish line that morning; it indicates that I was one of a few of the “lucky” let into an exclusive lottery and that I accepted an invitation. But that is all.
What it doesn’t say is that I brought my best self to the party. And, I am convinced that – as I exit the finish area of any event, or walk the last block back to the house in Pergo as the rain starts to fall – this is the only validation I’ll ever need.