Months of training and hundreds of miles of running were behind me, as were all nine months of my husband’s deployment to Afghanistan. I ran 19 races in 2012, including half marathons, 10-milers, 10Ks and shorter fun runs, all in an effort to healthfully manage the ups and downs of being a newlywed and a new Army wife while my husband spent most of the year on his third deployment.
We drove from Colorado Springs, Colorado to Phoenix, Arizona, where I would soon run my first full marathon. My family flew into town from Missouri and California, and Nick’s family that wasn’t already in the area traveled from Washington, DC to be there with us. A full marathon is 26.2 miles, and the sport’s reputation precedes it. The marathon is a sport of mental endurance and physical pain. Marathoners are known for too-thin bodies, for worn out knees, and for absent toenails.
Marathons aren’t a sport for the weary or the weak. Marathons are reserved for the willful and the devoted. They require a long attention span and hours upon hours of training runs. I’d always had the utmost respect for marathoners, but until October of last year, I never believed I’d become one. Then, in 2012, the challenge of waiting back home through my husband’s deployment inspired me to do something nearly as hard; train for a marathon.
I was already running when I decided to run my marathon, and I’d already dubbed my journey, “Running Through Deployment”. So when my husband and I decided via gmail in the fall of 2012 that I’d do a marathon in January, I decided that my marathon would be the icing on the cake of his homecoming. The grand finale of this crazy year I’d spend running daily, logging hundreds and hundreds of miles of trail, asphalt, concrete, and treadmill.
On January 20, 2013, I ran my marathon. Nick was on the course to cheer me on, just as I’d cheered him on 14 months prior when he completed his first Ironman triathlon, Ironman Arizona. The temperature exceeded 70 degrees on my race day, and I’d been training in the teens and twenties in Colorado Springs. The sun was hot. The course was long. But mile by mile, I ran. When my muscles cramped, I stopped to stretch. When I came to water stations, I slowed from a run to a walk and I drank water or Gatorade.
In endurance sports, it’s not uncommon for athletes to “DNF”, or “Did Not Finish”. When my IT band got tight at around mile 10, I could have DNFed. When I hit the long, disheartening stretch with no spectators at around mile 17, I could have DNFed. When I felt the first giant blister develop under a toe on my right foot, I could have DNFed. But DNFing was never an option for me.
This race was my personal end to Nick’s deployment. This was the big finish of my first year as an Army wife — of my first year spent mostly apart from the soldier who happens to be my best friend. No good spouse DNFs a deployment. No good Army wife quits on her husband midway through the deployment. That’s why, no matter how tough the marathon was, I was not going to leave the course unless it was by crossing the finish line after 26.2 miles.
Throughout Nick’s deployment, I relied heavily on the support of my brother, Nick’s sister, and both of our parents and friends. When I traveled to races, I almost always ran with friends or family, and when I didn’t, there was family on the course to watch me run. I may not be fast, but I’m determined. I may not be Superwoman, but with the help of the support network we had during the deployment, there wasn’t much I couldn’t handle.
Were there times while Nick was away when I struggled? Yes, absolutely. Even the strongest women (and even the strongest athletes) struggle. What makes a champion isn’t whether we struggle, it’s whether we keep going. It’s not whether we can win once, it’s whether we can sustain over time. After nine months of separation, fear, broken communications, and danger, Nick and I sustained through the deployment. Meanwhile, back in Colorado, I used running to sustain me.
I was exhausted when I reached mile 26 of the marathon. I knew the finish line was ahead, but I couldn’t quite see it yet, and my body was breaking down. My clothes were soaked through, blisters had erupted beneath two of my toes, and I was thirstier than I’ve ever been before. My run had become an ugly, limping shuffle, and I was ready to strip off my wet clothes, take a long, hot shower, and fall asleep under the warm Arizona sun.
That’s when I saw Nick’s mom. Our eyes met, and she jumped up and down, clapping and calling my name. In that moment, I didn’t think about the race or the pain or the medal that was waiting for me two-tenths of a mile away. The singular and overwhelmingly emotional thought that powered me through the last .2 miles of my marathon was, “WE DID IT. We finished this deployment.”
Beyond Nick’s mom was his Dad, taking pictures and cheering. Then there was Nick, carrying a sign that he’d written on in glittery paint, just as he’d promised me from Kunar Province that he would. “If you run a marathon, I’ll make you a glitter sign,” he’d told me over g-chat.
“WE DID IT. We got through this deployment.”
Just as our families and friends supported me during the deployment, there Nick’s family was on the course, helping me finish the last mile.
Runners run for a many reasons. I ran because I had to — it was my therapy, my sounding board and my punching bag while Nick was far away and in a dangerous place. I ran because I needed to feel strong, and while I’d like to say that running made me strong, I know that’s a lie. The strength was already inside me, but running was the only way I could see it in myself.
In 2012, I ran 19 races, all of which were while my husband — who I’d married just 24 days before he deployed — was in Afghanistan.
I ran three half marathons with my best friend, and my older brother was there to see me finish one of those. I ran two half marathons with Nick’s parents, and a 10-miler with his parents, sister, and brother-in-law. I ran a half marathon in my home city, St. Louis, Missouri, with my parents there to watch. I volunteered at the world-famous Pikes Peak Marathon and Ascent, one of the world’s most challenging mountain races, and I hiked the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim with my husband’s family.
I’d like to say that I have the confidence to know my own strength, but when Nick deployed, I wasn’t so sure. Now, I know. Many people ask me how I handled Nick’s deployment so well. I can’t say that the answer for every Army wife is to run a marathon, but I can say that it’s vital to a healthy marriage (and a healthy military marriage, especially) that every spouse finds his or her own source of strength.
It just so happens that mine was “Running Through Deployment”.