Right now, when I flip my hands over and turn them skyward, I can see angry red marks in the center of both palms.
I didn’t notice them yesterday. In fact, it wasn’t until this morning when I gripped my toothbrush and winced that I even realized they were there. I stared at my hands in the bright bathroom light, baffled by the welts, by their symmetry and their origin. And then it hit me. During the last three miles of the race I was pushing so hard that I dug my fingertips deep enough through my gloves and into the flesh of my palms to bruise them without noticing or caring that I was doing it.
In Roman Catholic tradition, the Stigmata, the wounds of Christ’s crucifixion, appear on those who are impressed with divine favor. I can pretty much guarantee that this is not my situation. And while I don’t know how important a single race is to the man upstairs, I do know that yesterday I drove myself closer to God than I have in a long time.
I honestly can’t say what made me do it, but when the gun went off, I charged to the front of the race and stayed there like an idiot who didn’t know any better. I did know better; I just didn’t care. See, I’ve run three half marathons this year, the fastest of which was just a hair under 1:18 and I simply couldn’t stand it anymore. I couldn’t bear one more race where I sat comfortably behind my crumbling potential and watched it fade into oblivion with the passing months that have an unbearable habit of turning into years.
Yesterday, as I pushed a suicidal pace at mile eight, leading women that were undeniably out of my league through an electric-green tunnel of high-arching trees, a simple, perfect sentence floated in and out of my mind.
“I am alive.”
This is what it feels like, I realized, to really live, to push myself to the very boundary of who I am and exist wholly in one moment without a thought or concern for the step I had just taken or the one I would take next. There was only the terrible and wonderful pain of now.
I have a feeling that anyone watching the US 25k Championships who remotely follows the sport of distance running must have thought I had lost my mind. It seemed inevitable that Sarah Crouch, a woman who hadn’t run her best in years and was in no way in the same ballpark as the two women behind her, would fall apart at 5k, or at 10k or at 15k, but I survived it for much longer than even I expected.
At mile 11, Aliphine charged the hill and for the hundredth time that hour, I asked my legs to respond, to give me something more, and I found that horribly, there was nothing more to give. And there, within the span of about ninety seconds, my race went from “I’ve got this, I’m fine” to “hello darkness my old friend….”
I flew through the half marathon in 1:12:45 and buckled down for what I knew would be a very long final 4K. The men caught me sometime between mile 14 and 15 and with them, my friend Kevin sped by on a motorcycle, filming their race. An hour later, when I told Kevin I didn’t see him when he passed, he said “Sarah, you didn’t see anything. I have never seen that look on your face, you were in so much pain.”
But I didn’t fall apart. I didn’t tank or blow up. Shockingly, I held a pretty consistent pace all the way to the finish after nearly breaking my 10-mile PR in a race 15.5 miles long.
I needed this race more than you can possibly imagine. It had been years, actual years, since I’d run even close to the ballpark of my personal bests. I was a priest teetering on the edge of losing his faith, staring up at a shrinking sun as he drowned in the ocean of his sins. And I think one more slow race might have broken my heart. Or at least my spirit.
I wouldn’t change one thing about how I raced yesterday. I wouldn’t go back and do the “smart” thing and hold back early to save myself from the torment of that final half hour, because it was there, in the thickest and most painful corner of hell, that I found my redemption.