As I flew through the descent, it came: a moment of pause; a moment of appreciation. I thought, “she would be so proud of me.” And it wasn’t in a you’re-face-to-face-engulfed-by-grief-so-anything-you-manage-to-scrounge-up-the-courage-to-do-you-should-be-proud-of, kind-of-way. If she were here, she would beam with pride because I put myself out there, in the position to fall, to stumble, to need to pick myself up again, to brush off the dirt, and carry on—irrespective of battling through grief. This would not be “pity-proud” this would be “indisputably-proud”, the kind that only surfaces in the face of vulnerability. She would have smiled for me. So I decided to smile for me, too.
Two days after my Sister’s death, I was scheduled to complete my first ultramarathon: The Chuckanut 50KM in Bellingham, Washington. I distinctly remember sitting on the couch, consumed by a wall of despair-filled tears, deciding whether I should move forward with my plan to race. I teeter-tottered between ‘yes’ and ‘no’, torn by the decision.
Yes: How resilient would I be? I could run for her. She would want me to. I would have new-found purpose that would drive me to race faster, race stronger. I run to feel, to be, me. No doubt this would give me the opportunity to feel it all. To be triumphant in a moment where others fall apart. Of course I would race. Who would I be if I didn’t?
No: How dare I be so selfish? What if she knew that I raced only two days later? It would confirm the thoughts that led to her death—that she didn’t matter; that her death was just a blip in our lives that we could “get over” as quickly as it happened. I had never run for her before, so if I went, it would be all about me. Selfish. Disgusting.
But who was I kidding?
I couldn’t even get off the couch. I wanted to vomit. I had lost my entire appetite. I ate only Cadbury Mini Eggs and a coffee each day. This was all I could keep down. I couldn’t think, let alone speak, in full sentences. I couldn’t bear to leave my loved ones. I demanded that they tell me where they were going and that they were okay when they got there. There would be decisions made about Rachel’s body, cremation, viewing, and funeral while I was away racing that could not be reversed. I needed to be here for my Mom, my Husband, my Dad, my Brother, the Kittens. I was exhausted. My mind raced each night as I lay awake, stunned on the floor in the living room, fearfully frozen in the museum-like eeriness of my own childhood home—her place of death.
The place I still needed to live.
I asked myself “why” I needed to race, and there it was, my answer: I didn’t. If I decided not to race, I would never look back and say, “wow yeah, that was such a bad decision to recognize that plans will, and should, change in the face of tragedy”. But if I did race, it would always sit in my gut, the unpleasant weight of guilt, “did I make the right decision? Would she have supported it? Would it have filled her with sorrow to know that I kept going so easily?”. Compounding on this was the realization that I was conducting my decision-making within the fog-ridden assumption that I would finish. This wasn’t even a guarantee. I had overlooked this fact.
It was equally as likely that I would fall to my knees, full-body-consumed by the physically unbearable first days of soul-shredding, gut-wrenching grief, out in the wilderness. It could be anywhere on the course, 42KM, 34KM, 10KM, 3KM. It would be strikingly unpredictable. I would fall to the side of the trail, racers passing me, unable to understand the pain I was overcome by. I would be helped off the trail by volunteers—who clearly did not sign up to manage such an abhorred train wreck. I would be a DNF: Did Not Finish. My first DNF. A crushing failure.
That was it: I would not race.
And just like that, a weight lifted.
Four weeks later, Marshall and I decided we would travel to Bellingham to run the Chuckanut race course on our own. It would be my ultramarathon, all for me. Official race not required. It would be my first attempt at finding peace again on the trails, and that would be enough. On our planned day to run, we arose early and packed our bags into Wolfgang (my Sisters VW Golf). I put the key in the ignition and turned it:
Chhhhh-chhhhh-pew. Chhhhhhhh-chhhhhh-pew. Nothing.
When it rains, it pours.
The tow-truck arrived, the driver watching our nervous faces as he turned the key himself. He hypothesized a blown fuel pump. Yikes. Awesome. Just what we needed. Would we now have no choice but to embark on a double-tow from Bellingham, across the border, and back to Vancouver? Or worse, need to stay extra days until a mechanic was open and available here?
We were in business! Get in the car Marshall, we are not turning this baby off until we get back home!
Maybe it was a sign. Today was not our day to conquer the ultramarathon. So we headed home. A crisis averted.
Despite our car breaking down and cutting our trip short, every aspect of our weekend in Bellingham was “good”. We had beautiful weather, drove all through the San Juan Islands, and ate fish and chips at the end of a dock in a small fishing town. But it did not feel “good”. Grief’s numbing effect had already taken hold of me. What did it matter if our trip was “good”? My Sister was dead. What even is “good” anymore?
Back at home, I diligently searched for another race. I needed something, and soon, to start moving me forward. To combat this numbness. I was desperate. A little digging into the running community and I found it: The Orcas Island Marathon, in just four weeks. And there were spaces left.
Sign me up.
ORCAS ISLAND MARATHON RACE WEEKEND
My training until March had been spot on. I was ready for an ultramarathon. But running in the last eight weeks since her death was excruciating. In early January, my sister told me that she wished she could run like me. I had responded that it may look as though it’s always an adventure, but make no mistake, I struggle to convince myself to get onto that trail. My response was riddled with selfishness. I was concerned about myself, rather than recognizing that she needed an escape, just like me.
The trail-running-related guilt set in after her death, “why had I not taken her with me? Why had I not had the patience to teach her, too? To help her find her own peace out here in the wilderness? To find herself out here, with me? Why did I not save her with the one thing that was saving me?”
Each step I attempted to take on the trail after her death resulted in this flurry of guilt cycling relentlessly through my mind. Tears would pour down my face as I moved through the trees. My lungs were stretching, expanding desperately to find enough space to carry my deep, heavy sorrow—which was constricting my ability to breathe, climb, continue onward.
It was debilitating to run, and my love for the trails had now become my inescapable heartbreak.
Yet here I was, standing on the start line of the Orcas Island Marathon.
But how did I even get here?
Yesterday, we had an early 2:00 AM start from Vancouver, destined for the 5:00 AM ferry to Orcas Island. I was already exhausted, curled up under a blanket in the backseat, sleeping through the summer sunrise as we boarded the Washington State Ferry. I awoke to the thuds and scratches of metal-on-metal as the ferry docked at Orcas, my eyes un-blurring to the sight of lush coastline and tiny sailboats anchored in the bay.
Here we were. And, what was I doing?
Was this “right”?
Who decides what is “right”, anyhow?
The crisp, salty air filled our car as we explored the island’s main road. Arriving in Eastsound before the town had woke, we sat in silence, gazing out across Fishing Bay. Here it was again. The numbness. We were here, engulfed in natural beauty and immersed in “good”, but yet, void of all emotion. This was the all-too-common manifestation of my grief. The shock, the disbelief. The indifference. The acute awareness that the world is buzzing onward around you, without you. That you are frozen, suspended in time. Stuck. Your feet super-glued to the earth beneath you. You are crunched in, slowly suffocating between yesterday’s horrors and tomorrow’s fears.
And then I realized: I was asking myself to run 45KM, paralyzed.
I removed all of my expectations, deciding that the goal would not be to finish strong, but rather, to simply cross the finish line. This was all I could reasonably ask of myself. It did not matter what state of mind or length of time it required. I just needed to finish. With this resolve, we wandered through town, ate pastries, explored gift shops, basked in the sunshine among shasta daisies, laid out my race outfit, and packed my race bag.
And then there I was, in what seemed like the blink of never-enough-shut-eye, standing on the start line of the Orcas Island Marathon.
Resolved to simply embrace any emotion that would surface today.
The countdown started.
Racer-euphoria creased my face into a slight grin.
5… 4… 3… 2… 1… the countdown ended, and I was off.
Holding back at the start (a lesson learned from my first trail marathon), I found my comfortable, steady race pace within the first three KMs. I actively managed my mind, careful not to let dangerous, emotional thoughts set in too soon. I sailed past the first aid station at 5 KM, without stopping, ready to take on the longest portion of the race without aid.
Maybe this would be okay, I thought.
I picked up my speed and began to pass other racers as I continued along this unknown trail.
Every corner, something new.
Every corner, a different view.
As I was flew through the first descent, under the refuge of aspen trees, warmed by the rays of sunshine flooding through the light green canopy—it came: a moment of pause; a moment of appreciation.
I thought, “she would be so proud of me.” And it wasn’t in a you’re-face-to-face-engulfed-by-grief-so-anything-you-manage-to-scrounge-up-the-courage-to-do-you-should-be-proud-of, kind-of-way. If she were here, she would beam with pride because I put myself out there, in the position to fall, to stumble, to need to pick myself up again, to brush off the dirt, and carry on–irrespective of battling through grief. This would not be “pity-proud” this would be “indisputably-proud”, the kind that only surfaces in the face of vulnerability. She would have smiled for me. So I decided to smile for me, too.
I looked at my feet.
I watched them hop effortlessly over roots and rocks.
And I remembered, this is me.
And in that moment, I felt gratitude for simplicity.
All I needed to do was keep these feet moving. One step. Another step. 50,000 steps. But only steps. That was it.
Tears welled up in my eyes as I became instantly thankful for a momentary reprieve from my numbness.
Today I would give myself permission to push all emotions aside, and to focus only on me. I just ran, and listened to what my body needed—no thoughts, just breathing. Fueling. Pacing. Running.
This headspace resulted in me power-hiking the shit out of the climb to the top of Mount Constitution.
This headspace allowed me to soar back down the twisty-turns of the mountain, arms out wide like a bird, singing joyously to my Wedding Dinner Playlist.
This headspace provided me the capacity to not just support myself, but to cheer for all others that I passed or was passed by along the trail.
This headspace resulted in my best race yet.
I sat on the other side of that finish line, basking in contentment.
It wasn’t just that I did not fall apart on the side of that trail, that day. It was that I summoned the fortitude to not let myself fall apart on the side of that trail, that day. It wasn’t by chance. It was deliberate.
I did, however, fall apart the evening of my finish. I was done. I accomplished my goal. I could exhale. We made it back home to Langley, where I would sleep in my Sister’s bed that evening. Like a flash flood, the reality knocked me off my feet. It was as if I had merely postponed my grief. I still needed to grieve, but now it would be concentrated into these few, nighttime hours of the day. Perhaps this is one of the most daunting realities of grief—it has the power to consume you without your consent. It patiently waits, quietly lurking at-the-ready to overcome you in the vulnerable state of your momentary ‘exhale’.
I tossed and turned, by body suffocating, crushed by the weight of her quilt. Tears flowing, heart racing, until my exhaustion overtook me and I fell into my post-race slumber.
But, when I woke the next morning, I reveled in the fact that I had finished the race. Although the emotions caught up with me more quickly and intensely than anticipated afterward, the seven hours of calm provided me my first glimpse of reassurance that I am still here.
I am still me.
This dear race, my first race after Rachel’s death, was the first (albeit short-lived) moment that taught me it is possible, and it is also okay to give yourself permission to take a break from your grief. To forget everything and to get lost as you weave between the trees—even if only for a day.
Your beloved, lost loved one, would love you for it.