Every runner has traditions.
They can be those private things you do before you head out, in the same order every time, that nobody really ever sees. For me, that’s always having a cup of coffee, and often drinking it sitting on the living room floor next to my running shoes. Or the bottom stair in my entryway. I could sit on the couch or at the counter, the places I would normally drink a cup of morning coffee.
But before an early run, I usually choose the floor. I don’t really know why.
It can be sleeping in your running clothes, so you know you won’t use getting dressed as an excuse not to go. I don’t usually do that, but I know more than one person who does.
Other times, it’s in the races you run – and those can change over time.
When I first moved to Sioux Falls, I ran the Sioux Falls Half Marathon all the time, discovered the Turkey Day 10K in Worthington and the Lennox races on the Fourth of July. I ran them every year for years. I love the T-shirts with the turkeys wearing tennis shoes, or the old school Lennox shirts with the cartoon runners in red, white and blue.
The Twin Cities Marathon was a yearly event for me – I ran, or someone I knew ran, and I had friends and family up there to stay with, turning it into a fun weekend away.
The progression changes – start with your first short race you enter, move into longer distances, maybe bigger races, begin to travel for them. Your weekend morning event turns into a hobby, turns into a reason to go places, turns into a tour of national parks along half-marathon courses, which my friend has been doing for years.
For many years, my ex-husband and I ran the Fish Hook Challenge in northern Minnesota, where he and his family would get a cabin for a week in the summer. We would do the half-marathon around the lake, and then immediately do the 5K that followed. When his nieces were little, they joined us for the 5K.
My time in local 10Ks slowly morphed into trail races, and my planned events and traditions changed. I ran the G.O.A.T.Z. trail races in Omaha, and then kept going as a spectator when I was injured and back again as a runner the next year.
Like many of us, I found races wherever I went, or planned family events around them. One of them was the Afton 25K in Hastings, Minn., which is always held around the Fourth of July. My former in-laws live in the Twin Cities, and I have a friend in the area, too, and we would go up to stay for the weekend.
I’ve done the race for the past two years, and even though many parts of my life have changed lately, some of them haven’t. Every year, Patrick Lalley would be in the cities at the same time. He would leave his in-laws house and come to mine. He would pick me up, and we drank coffee in the car and ate peanut butter toast as we headed to Hastings, about 45 minutes away.
We would stand by the car and fill our hydration packs and double check our numbers and buy the stickers that Rock Steady Running had for sale. We would wonder how much it would cost to get custom buffs with Falls Area Bicyclists, his passion, or the Sioux Falls Area Running club, mine, on them.
And then we would head out. It was his only real trail running, an event he agreed to for all the same reasons I went: It was near where we both were. It was beautiful. It was time spent in nature. It was running.
We always stayed together, no pressure or plan, just starting and staying and finishing at the same time. We didn’t care how we did, paid no attention to the time or the splits or how much was wasted at an aid station. We just ran and hiked and laughed, mile by mile. Last year, for reasons I’ll never understand, I had a full panic attack at the start of the race, trying not to cry as we dipped down onto the single track. It’s never happened before or since in a race, and only one other time on a run.
So this year, as both of our lives were changing, I didn’t know what would happen. We signed up anyway, in February, thinking it would be good to do it if we could, some tiny bit of normalcy, some hope that we could look out into the future and see something.
And as the year went on, it went from maybe to likely to surely.
We drove to the Twin Cities together after work. We didn’t stay with in-laws, which neither of us have anymore. We stayed with a friend of mine. We drove to the race, pinned on our numbers, filled the water bottles.
Before we went, I had looked at the course, told Lalley that he could drop at mile 6 if he wanted to – there was an aid station, and it would be OK. He’s barely run this year, just began to really ride his bike again. We talked about what if he didn’t even start the race. I was OK with whatever, just happy to be there.
But I know him, and he knows me, and I knew he would start. And he knew I didn’t care what our time looked like.
So we ran. I didn’t have a panic attack at the start. He didn’t drop at mile 6. We didn’t break any records and we didn’t beat ourselves up. We ran a full half hour slower than last year – a huge chunk of time over 16 miles. We walked up all the hills. Ate potato chips at the aid stations. Ran the downhills and flats.
And then we crossed the finish together, like always.
I don’t know exactly what Lalley hoped to get out there on the course, there’s always some kind of demon or redemption or meditation that happens on a run, some you share with others, and some you fight through yourself. I know he was more sore than he’s been since he was doing Ironman races however many years ago. I know when I turned in the last three miles to make sure he was still close behind me, he looked tired but steady.
We had the conversations you have on a run.
“You don’t have to wait for me,” he would say. “But I want you to.”
“I know,” I would reply. “I am.”
Then it would turn into a different conversation entirely, about waiting and hoping and what this year has been, the years leading up to it, the years stretching ahead of us. It’s more than this race, and has been. You don’t always know what you’re training for when you begin to accumulate miles.
Maybe it was this all along.
Jacqueline Palfy is a longtime runner, reader and writer, marathoner, mom and board member of the nonprofit Sioux Falls Area Running Club. Her contributions to the 605 Running Co. blog will appear each Tuesday. You can follow her on Twitter @runnerJPK or reach her at email@example.com. Story ideas are encouraged