In Honor of My Dad
By Elizabeth Talley Campbell
Five years ago I ran my first marathon, which will always be the most memorable one. Not because it was my first-but because of what it meant to my father.
A few years ago, I received a random mailing from The Leukemia & Lymphoma Association (then called The Leukemia Society of America) advertising the 1999 season of marathons and century bike rides that would serve as the vehicle in raising money for research. I had received a mailing before, but after seeing the word “marathon,” I simply tossed it aside. As a short distance runner, I had always believed that a distance of that magnitude was rather excessive. Maybe I would run a half-marathon, but not 26.2 miles. Additionally, there was no motivation to achieve such a task. However, the next time I received a mailing, there was one I just couldn’t discard.
I read the literature, which was full of inspiring and moving stories, but nothing changed until a trip in late January 1999 with my parents. I made a point to spend as much time as possible with my father, which resulted in a lot of time behind the wheel. So, I jumped at the opportunity to join my parents at the Gulf Coast for a long weekend. As I watched my frail father muster the energy that he did not have to slow dance, my heart sank knowing there was nothing that I could do to rescue my father from this terrible disease. I had to do something, anything to help; and raising money for research by running a marathon was the one contribution I could make. That night, I committed myself to the venture by telling them that I would run the Anchorage marathon in Dad’s honor.
After making my decision public, a co-worker of mine who had long thought about running a marathon, decided to join me in my venture. He joined not only for the sake of a good cause, but because he wanted to run in honor of my father. He knew all too well the pain of having a loved one battle a disease for he had lost his mother to cancer several years ago.
Early that February I began training for what would be my first marathon. The Team in Training February running schedule called for a weekly mileage averaging between 20 to 25 miles. However, that number would grow, and I would have to discipline myself to run the prescribed distances at no less than five times a week. It was most important to adhere to the schedule because falling behind on the mileage could increase the likelihood of injuries, and I could not let that happen after investing so much time and effort. There was more to it than ego—I was doing this for my father, so I had to succeed.
Although the mileage varied, the format of the training regimen was basically the same—“short” distance/cross-training on Sundays, medium runs on Tuesdays and Thursdays, semi-long runs on Wednesdays, long runs on Saturdays with optional, but strongly encouraged, rest days on the remaining days. The mileage increased gradually over the course of three months until the final two weeks before the marathon, where we began tapering our runs from a 45+ miles per week high.
There was more to it than just a running schedule and a visit or two to the shoe store. The LSA mailed monthly newsletters featuring useful tips, workshops to attend, and info on various gatherings, which were both training-related and social in nature. Those who were on-line could become members of the Team in Training forum where you could ask questions, make special requests, advertise TNT-related parties as well as receive news on travel plans and directions on where to run that weekend. I especially enjoyed the weekend runs where you would meet with other members on TNT-scheduled runs, or those organized by your mentor, who for me, as a constant source of support. Pounding the pavement with your fellow brethren made the 20-mile run seem less agonizing. Of course, having my running partner around on a daily basis offered the incentive to adhere to the schedule. I am sure the appreciation was mutual, especially on those Wednesdays when instead of going out for sushi, we would tackle a six to10-mile run!
Every single runner and walker that I encountered had a story of their own, a reason to do what they were doing; you could see as well as feel the determination. Most had relatives that died from leukemia, were battling the disease, or had overcome it. Others did it out of the shear goodness of their hearts. A few were diagnosed with the disease and had beaten it, like one woman on my team who had leukemia just a year and a half ago. Before I knew who she was, I once spotted her running in a Chattahoochee recreation area, wearing a Team in Training jersey and a bandana wrapped around her head. Not cognizant of the fact that her hair had fallen out due to chemotherapy, I thought that maybe she shaved her head in support of female relative with the disease.
"The miracle isn’t that I finished, the miracle is that I had the courage to start." - John Bingham.
On Saturday, June 19th, the gun sounded marking the start of the 8:00 am race where I would set out to traverse Anchorage through various terrain and vistas from the Chugach Mountains to the Cook Inlet with 3600 other runners and walkers, most of whom were fellow Team in Training members from across the United States.
I was very fortunate to have a family member present to support my endeavor. My brother Thomas, a runner himself, purchased a ticket at the last moment for a less-than-48-hour trip to Alaska to serve as a representative of my family. His journey was at first going to be a complete surprise for me until they rethought the situation, worrying about the possibility of Thomas missing me all together. Thomas had stayed up most of the night delivering babies before he left for Alaska. With less than two hours sleep, he drove three hours to Atlanta from his hometown, boarded the plane and arrived in Alaska, showing up just after a Team in Training meeting.
Until that morning, I was concerned about the weather because the forecast called for dismal conditions. Luckily, the rain paused long enough for us to enjoy pleasant temperatures for that time of year. I soon learned, though, that the air temperature was not always the most accurate indicator; the intense rays of the sun warm you quickly when you are so far high on globe. Around Mile 10, I was wishing that it were overcast and dreary as originally predicted. The first mile and a half I spent trying, to no avail, to separate myself from the masses, which resulted in a less than desired time for my first time split. Once I broke free, I settled into a “quick”, but comfortable pace. During the first half, I spent most of the time ingesting the world around me, chatting with runners from the Michigan chapter, and cheering on the walkers as I passed.
The passing scenery left me awestruck as I tried to soak in as much as possible, as well as the signs with poetry lining the course. Much to my amazement, I managed to pass the assistant coach of my group. My confidence swelled, thinking that I was going to meet a secondary goal of qualifying for the Boston Marathon. Much to my dismay, my pace began to slow around Mile 16. Something was amiss—nothing physically traumatic, but I felt as if my resources were depleted. It has always been a part of my ritual to limit my intake to water and juice before a race, but I suppose a marathon IS an exception. Luckily there was a kind soul who could tell I was faltering, and offered me a power gel, which provided the boost that I needed. The damage, however, was done, and from then on the run became a struggle.
I did not pay much heed to the majestic mountains or the sparking streams; I could have been trotting through the alleys in an industrial park for all that I cared. And, those once inspiring signs of whimsical poetry required excessive amounts of energy to translate. Meanwhile, my brother navigated via bicycle to various points along the trail to snap video and still shots. I remember one time in particular near Mile 20 when he asked me “to wave, at least!” but it was very difficult to do as I was beginning to “hit the wall”. A fellow co-worker with experience in running marathons warned me of this phenomenon, where your muscles become completely fatigued once its fuel storage is depleted. I did not believe how I could possibly “hit the wall” being in such excellent shape and doing so well on the 20-mile runs. By Mile 24, I had entered the “survival shuffle.” I knew the end was close, but I could not get comfortable in my pace.
In the last mile of the course, I encountered Insult Hill, which was aptly named. The ascent was brief, but very steep. Half way up the hill, I slowed to a walk. After a few seconds, I heard a booming voice behind me—an unrecognizable one ordering me to get back to running. I reluctantly heeded to the demand from the stranger. Along with the help from the head running coach, I conquered Insult Hill.
The distant cheers of supporters and runners became more audible as I approached the high school grounds where lay the finish line. In my final strides of the event, I raised my hands and let burst forth a cry of delight to which the announcer commented, “She is celebrating ‘cause she knows she’s almost home!” The front-runner who crossed the finish line at 2 hours and 44 minutes had plenty of time to relax, eat, and take a nap by the time I finished the race. I was happy with my performance, though. I met my personal goals of completing the marathon and running it under four hours. I placed 102nd amongst women, with a time of 3:54:46.
My father lost his life in the bitter battle with leukemia July 20, 1999, just a month after the marathon. I was hopeful, even in his last days, that we would recover, but its strength and resistance to treatment was far too great. However, thanks to the advancement of cancer research, I was able to have him here for a year as opposed to only a few weeks.
Around the same time that I decided to run the marathon, I was told that the treatments that my dad had undergone were not successful, and that his time was severely limited. He had tried the traditional chemotherapy, which only put him into partial remission, and the second blast was too much for him to withstand. Around the end of the year, a form of biotherapy was used, but its effects were futile. He would now be subject to monthly treatments with weekly maintenance dosages of an experimental drug that would prolong his life. Even after hearing the heartbreaking news, I refused to believe the inevitable.
Thanks to the company that I had been working with for almost two years, I was able to spend time creating more memories. Not only were they flexible with my schedule, the people there were always there for me. Not a day passed when someone asked how my dad was doing, how training was going, or if there was something that they could do.
Although that last year was very trying, I savored every morsel of the time that I had with him. I was able to enjoy another birthday (both his and mine), another trip to the Gulf Coast, another dark beer at Little Switzerland along the Blue Ridge Parkway, another Rocky Bayou sunset, another boat ride across Choctawhatchee Bay, another cold night on top of a snowy-laden Mount Pisgah, more stories of times past, and a few more family slide shows—that now did not seem so boring. There is no greater gift than that of Time—for it escapes from us all too easily.
Thanks Elizabeth for sharing your article.
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