Thursday, November 14, 2013

My Marathon

It has been more than a week since the marathon. I wrote the following recap a few days after the race. I'm not sure why I sat on it, waiting to post it. I guess I wasn't ready to really be "done" with this chapter. I will hold the memories of the past few years very close to my aorta and heart. For two years, I was Team Ritter. I focused on the marathon for so many, planning, fundraising. Even for the few months last year after the marathon was cancelled, I felt connected to the team because there was unfinished business. I am so thankful for the opportunity. It pushed me physically and emotionally. And the best part was connecting with amazing, caring people who have been impacted by aortic aneurysm and dissection, including many dealing with the profound loss of a loved one. These passionate people are putting their stories out there, raising awareness and saving lives. I deeply admire and love them.

Nobody wants to have open chest surgery. But I am so grateful for that experience. My life was saved by diagnosis and surgery. I wouldn't really change the last four years for anything. Do I wish that I never had an aneurysm? Hmmm...I don't think I would wish for that. Even though there were very dark times, there is now light. Because of my aneurysm, I have a peaceful appreciation for life and new, important friendships. I am thankful I get to see my kids grow up and have new adventures with them and my husband. I hope to live life to its fullest, not taking it for granted, even as I settle back into the routine of day to day. I will draw on the my memories of the marathon, the inspiring members of Team Ritter, the hope and possibility of the future, and the fact that I was saved to remind me of this. This sounds all perfect, but I do know that I will have to continually work on this. I will try to lighten up and relax. I have been told that I tend to focus on negative things, be too stressed, worry too much about what other people think. My new focus is to, on a daily basis, express gratitude for all the blessings in my life and truly be present with my family and the people I interact with.

And I will continue to spread awareness of thoracic aortic aneurysms and dissection. I have a family connection as my niece, Allyssa, was diagnosed with bicuspid aortic valve, soon after my surgery. Individuals with this condition are at risk of developing aneurysms. Now she can be monitored throughout her life. My kids may have inherited a bicuspid aortic valve from me, so now I am aware that they need to be screened as well. And according to my cardiologist, there is a good chance that I will need to have my bicuspid aortic valve replaced at some point in my life.

My Marathon

I didn't sleep very well the night before the marathon. I got up at 3 a.m. and then again at 4:45. I stayed awake after getting up at 4:45. I was very worried that I would sleep in and miss my 7:15 a.m. bus. I could feel the cold air seeping in around the windows of the hotel, so I knew I was in for a very cold morning. I ate some yogurt and a few crackers, and carried my bagel and banana in my bag. I wore my running capris, regular running socks, and my Asics Gel Kayano 19 shoes. On top I put my favorite old running bra and my Team Ritter shirt. On top of all that, I put an old long sleeve tshirt, Kmart clearance size large yoga pants, and an old Gap hoodie. My hair was pulled back into a ponytail. I had my fuel belt packed with three gels, some Tylenol, and lip balm. I will admit to putting on waterproof mascara that morning as well.

My niece, Allyssa, was staying with us at the hotel. She was on a roll-away bed in the living room with the kids on the pull-out sofa. I could hear stirring out there and checked on my family. We all decided to walk together to the bus. Marlo and I got the kids bundled up and we headed out the door. Generally, I think I'm pretty good with directions, but that morning, I wasn't. I relied on Marlo to get me to the NY Public Library to catch my bus. I was meeting a Team Ritter teammate, Cathy Pool at the bus. Half way up 7th Avenue, I saw a caravan of buses, with a police escort, rolling past. I got very nervous, because they were coming from a different direction than where I was heading. I started to panic because I thought that maybe I got the location of the buses wrong. Marlo tried to calm me down. I quickly texted Cathy to make sure I was heading in the right direction. When we finally got near the library, there were buses stretched down 42nd St as far as I could see. A big crowd was waiting and mingling outside and runners were climbing into the buses. A policeman directed us across the street to cut over to the buses. He smiled and said "Have a great race!" and I felt emotional. We waited on the corner for Cathy to arrive. I took a few pictures with the kids and gave hugs and kisses to them and Marlo. We saw Cathy, all bundled up, and we took another picture. Lily was emotional and wanted to stay with me, but finally she let me go. We flashed our bibs at the security person and then walked into the line waiting for a bus.

Cathy and I went all the way to the first bus in the line. The volunteers were awesome. I heard things like, "welcome!" and "you are going to rock this" and "have a great race!" It really made you feel like a superstar to hear all those encouraging words.

The bus ride to Staten Island took about one hour. Cathy and I talked a bit and I checked Facebook and emails for any last minute encouragement. I decided that I should memorize Marlo's St Thomas cell phone number just in case my phone died during the marathon and I needed to reach him. Cathy and I practiced memorizing his number. This will come up again. I read to Cathy something that was posted online that, in a nutshell, said "You will cross the start line one person, but you will be an entirely different person when you cross the finish line." We were among the last buses to cross into Staten Island via the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. This is the bridge we would soon be running over for the first two miles of the marathon. The views were great. There were many police helicopters in the air and lots of police on the bridge and at the point where we got off the bus. The cops were friendly and welcoming. We stood in a large group of runners, all bundled up in their "throw away" clothing, waiting to get into the start village. We had to go through security in order to enter. Bags were searched and I was stopped and scanned by a stern lady cop with a hand-held metal detector. I must have looked shady.

Once we entered the start village, we looked for the UPS "Ship it Home" section, as that was where we were supposed to meet the rest of Team Ritter. Many of us were in the Blue Start Village, but some were in Green and Orange. We thought we'd meet up at one place for last minute team encouragement. We found one member of Team Ritter, Edward, waiting there. Unfortunately, Ed soon left and Cathy and I sat under a tree, her in a plastic poncho, and me in a giant, black garbage bag. We looked pretty funny. But it was so cold and so windy, the poncho and garbage bag provided much needed wind barriers. I waited in line for about an hour at the porta potty. I was shocked and excited when a bundled up woman came up to me and hugged me. It took me a second to recognize that it was Charlotte, my St Thomas friend and running partner! Out of 50,000 people, we happened to be in the same area. She was in the second wave of runners, and I in the fourth. We chatted a bit and then I went with her to meet her sister, Alex. I was also on a quest for coffee, but since Cathy and I hadn't ventured far into the start villages, we never found coffee. Charlotte and Alex pointed out the coffee area to me and I went that way to get a cup. After coming back to the tree to be with Cathy, I commented on how she looked homeless. She was bundled from head to toe, sitting under a barren tree, holding a Team Ritter sign. You could barely see her face. I wish I had taken a picture! I looked in my start village bag and realized my Body Glide was in there. I forgot to put it on that morning, so I huddled under my garbage bag and put it on around the elastic of my running bra, my waistband and around where my iPhone would be on my arm.

They tell you to wear "throw away" clothing to the start villages. We all had on cheap sweats, hoodies, hats, earmuffs and gloves. There were GIANT piles of clothing everywhere. Several volunteers were walking around collecting clothing from people to donate to charities like Goodwill. I can't get over the amount of clothing, blankets, gloves. I even saw several pairs of running shoes in the piles. I guess people wore old ones to the start village and then put on their "good" shoes for the race. I would continue to see clothing on the side of the streets for several miles, and hats and gloves all the way to the finish line.

Cathy's husband, Jock, and best friend, Jacqui, were assigned to the Staten Island ferry. They arrived rather late to the village. Cathy received notice that they arrived and were in the Blue village. We abandoned our post under the tree and walked over to the Blue area. Finally we found Jock and Jacqui. The four of us hung out as we moved into the start corrals. We never did see anyone else from Team Ritter at the Start Village.

We were in the Fourth Wave, Blue. We started in Corral 60!! So basically we were at the very end of the entire race. We had a great time in the corral, joking and laughing. Jacqui started a round of "Happy Birthday" to me and got a few other runners in on it. We slowly moved our way to the start line at the base of the bridge. We could hear a woman singing "God Bless America" on the loudspeaker. Soon, like everyone else, we started chucking our "throw away" clothes to the sides. I kept on my gloves and my hoodie. The wind was howling and it was very cold. My plan was to wear the hoodie for the first two miles across the bridge. Our wave ran on the top side of the bridge. We heard the cannon for our wave and I started my Endomondo tracking on my iPhone. It took us about 5 or 6 minutes to get to the actual start line after the cannon. Frank Sinatra's "New York" was blaring. People were cheering. There was a DJ and a bunch of people standing on the top of a trailer wishing us well. The cops, fire department, etc...lots of people at the start were cheering for us. Finally I realized I had crossed the start line and my race of a lifetime began.

Miles 1,2 The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, connecting Staten Island with Brooklyn.
This is the largest suspension bridge in North America. It is about one mile up, then one mile down. Within a few steps, I felt my calves start to tighten up. I've never had any calf issues, so I was a bit concerned. I started worrying that I should have stretched or moved more to warm up my body while in the start village. My calves didn't hurt to any degree where I thought I'd be in big trouble, so I kept going. Slow and steady. I kept telling myself that throughout the day. My three team mates seemed to keep a faster pace than I and I soon lost them. Every now and then, I'd catch up, but I didn't want to go out too fast. Even down the bridge, I felt like I should hold back a bit. Police helicopters flew by us, very close to the bridge. I felt thankful that they were there, keeping us safe. The energy on the bridge was exciting and electric. People were in such great moods and energetic! The views were spectacular, with the NY skyline, a coast guard boat blowing water like a fountain underneath, and thousands of runners in front of me. I couldn't believe it was finally happening. I was thrilled!

Miles 3-16 Brooklyn
At the bottom of the bridge, a bunch of dudes decided they couldn't wait for the porta potties and started peeing on the side of the road. Some went down into the grassy area next to the road, others just peed wherever they were. I took off my hoodie and placed it on a barricade. I hoped someone would pick it up for Goodwill. Then I noticed all the "Welcome to Brooklyn" signs. The run through Brooklyn was fun. I was still feeling good, although I realized on the bridge, that I had a small pebble in my right shoe. I tried to shake my foot around as I ran to move the rock to a different spot. No luck. I thought I should stop and get it out, but I kept running. Physically, besides some annoying tightness in my calves, I felt really good. The crowds were loud and fun. There were a few bands playing. People reached out to slap my hand as I went by. I purposely ran on the right side of the street so I could be part of that. I heard my name many, many times during this long stretch in Brooklyn. It was also great to hear "Go Team Ritter" from strangers on the side of the street. I stayed close to Cathy, Jacqui and Jock for a bit on Brooklyn. When Cathy decided to walk a bit, I kept running and I didn't see her or Jacqui again until dinner that night. I ran with Jock for a while, but then lost him as well. It was just me...and the thousands of people on the course and on the sides of the road. It was really fun through Brooklyn. I finally gave in and had to get that damn pebble out of my shoe. I ran to the side of the street and sat on the curb. I had to take both my shoe and sock off. I didn't find the pebble, but I didn't feel it again. I felt a bit panicked watching everyone run past me while I sat on the curb. I saw a Team Ritter runner, Katelynn, run by and look down at me. I got excited and waved and yelled, "I have a pebble in my shoe!!" She waved and kept on running. After I got my shoe and sock back on, I began running and then I felt like a thread from my sock was pulling tightly from my toes to my heel. I spent a few miles trying to break that thread or move it. Finally, I just didn't feel it anymore. My favorite socks kind of let me down! One thing I remember about that stretch was the road at the water stations being so sticky with Gatorade. Each step kind of peeled off the ground.

On the Pulaski Bridge, taking me out of Brooklyn and into Queens, I hit the halfway mark. I was kind of hurting. I had a slight panic that I was only half way there. My legs felt kind of frozen and heavy. There was no moisture or heat in the air to loosen me up. I didn't take this into account and I should have been stretching more in the Start Village. Everyone told me, though, to conserve my energy there. Regardless, I felt some discomfort in my legs. But I soldiered on and still felt optimistic.

Then came the Queensboro Bridge. The bridge spans across the East River into Manhattan. The seemingly never ending incline wiped out a bunch of runners. They were pulling off like crazy to stretch, walk, stop, sit down. I contemplated doing that as well. I didn't. Maybe I should have. I don't know. There are no spectators on the bridge. You run on a lower level with cars above you, I think. I thought at one point I could hear cars driving above us. Maybe not? Regardless, you are underneath. You have no sky above you. It kind of felt like a prison. Hardly anyone talked. You could hear huffing and puffing, shoes hitting pavement, groans and moans from the runners. At one point, an over-enthusiastic dude was trying to cheer us up and root us on as he wove in and out of the crowd of runners. His booming, loud voice was not what I needed at that point. And I don't think I was the only one. Nobody was having it. Everyone around me was serious and cranky looking! On that bridge, I saw a man and woman sitting on the side. The woman looked like she had been crying, had her eyes closed and her head rested into the chest of the man. He had his arm around her tightly, comforting her. It was sad. She looked like she was sleeping...done. I wondered if the woman injured herself and couldn't go any further. How sad! I think her race was over on that horrible bridge. It really hit me that I still have a long way to go. When I finally felt like I was running slightly down hill, I felt a small bit of hope. I just kept running. Just keep running, running. Like Dory in Finding Nemo..."just keep swimming, swimming." I kept saying that to myself and it became my mantra for the rest of the race. Eventually I could hear a crowd cheering. I was getting close to the end of the bridge. Finally, we made a sharp turn to the left and we were in Manhattan. The crowds were great. It's like they knew how bad and lonely the bridge was so they were extra boisterous. After that sharp curve, I noticed a bank of porta potties. I'd been holding it for a while, so when I realized there were very short lines, I stopped. After a brief wait, I went in. you can imagine. The squatting burned my thighs. I wasn't sure I could straighten up after that. But I did. And suddenly I felt a huge "second wind" sweep over me. Energized from crazy crowds and my potty break, I started to run at a slightly faster pace. I knew my family and the Team Ritter cheering crew were waiting for us around Mile 18. I started up First Avenue with a smile and energy. I purposely ran on the left side of the street, close to the crowds, so I could hear the shout outs and encouragement. I was so excited that I would see my family soon!

Miles 17-20 First Avenue
With my second wind, I felt optimism about the rest of the race. My legs were hurting, though. But, I still had confidence that I would make it. I really don't remember much about those first few miles on First Avenue. The crowds were great, although, I imagined them bigger and louder. I think there is something about starting in the last corral in the last wave...the crowds start to thin a bit. But there were people out cheering. After I passed mile 18, I saw some familiar white and purple Team Ritter shirts and posters. I then saw my tall husband and kids and I started waving like crazy. I felt tears well up in my eyes as I made my way to the left side of the street. When the Team Ritter supporters saw me, they erupted in cheers! I started slapping hands with everyone. I grabbed my kids and hugged them tightly. I quickly looked around and smiled at everyone. My husband gave me a big kiss and told me that I was doing great and that I was getting close.
As fast as that, I was back out on the street. I felt emotional for a bit, and tried to hold back the flow of tears. I was pretty sore at that time. But I just kept running. Many people were walking at this point. I had to maneuver around them. And later, I had to maneuver around banana peels. Yes, they handed out bananas at a late water station and the road was littered with peels, cups, sticky Gatorade, and water. Treacherous!!

My goal in the race was to try to run the entire thing. No walking, except around the water stations and the bathrooms. I tried my best to continue this for the rest of the race.

Miles 20-23, The Bronx, Harlem and Manhattan
The longest I had ever run up until that point was 20 miles. Everyone tells you that at that point, you hit the dreaded WALL. I remember thinking that if I can just get through that 20th mile and see the 21st mile sign, I would be ok. I had tunnel vision as I jogged through the Bronx. There were a few people out cheering, although, some of the bands were packing it in. I felt sad about that! We, the slow pokes in the last corral, needed the support the most. But those who did stick around were very encouraging. I heard my name many times and felt so thankful for the call-outs. Finally after I hit mile 21, I felt a more optimism. Just keep running, running. Around Mile 22, we were in Harlem. There was a beautiful, loud gospel choir on the steps of a church, singing and lifting us up. I felt tears again. I wanted to hug everyone. I slapped hands with many kids on the sides of the street. People yelled out my name with conviction, almost scolding me to not give up. "AMY, Don't you dare start to walk! You run, girl!" I yelled "thank you" many times during this mile. At the water stations, the volunteers were so kind and encouraging. Even as my shoes started sticking again to the Gatorade on the ground, I kept running. It was starting to get so hard. My hands and arms were numb. I tried to put on lip balm at one point and could barely get the cap off. I think for several miles, I had been clenching my fists and hunching my shoulders. I don't remember doing this, but I must have been. There was hardly any feeling left in them. I spent several steps swirling my arms over my head, stretching them out, and opening and closing my hands. I did have one more potty break during this stretch, although it was like a blur. Probably a good thing.

Miles 23-26.2
I didn't expect to see my family again until after the race. I exploded with emotion when I saw Marlo, Gabe, Lily and my niece Allyssa on the left side of the street as I neared the park. It was around Mile 23 and I was in a huge amount of pain. As I ran to the side of the street to see my family, I almost, JUST ALMOST said "I'm done, I can't do this anymore." Marlo looked me in the eye, as if he knew what I was thinking, and he said "don't you dare stop, you keep running, you are almost done, I'm so proud of you." I hugged everyone and limped back into the stream of weary runners and walkers on Fifth Avenue. I just kept running. I know my niece captured a picture of me at this point looking rather energetic and happy. (see below!) I think I was just delirious. In the weeks leading up to the marathon, I had read about all the historical and scenic things to look at in this area...museums, statues, etc. Didn't see anything. Just the backs of people in front of me and the grey road.
Everyone says a marathon is more of a mental challenge, than a physical one. I agree. I felt that up until this point I was doing a great job of coaching myself through each mile, thinking about why I was doing this, my family and my deeply personal journey to get there. I was in pain, but I was not going to give in. However, after I saw the Mile 24 sign, I felt like I was floating outside of my body, looking down at myself running. Weird, but true. I knew I was in pain. I had a pain in my chest and that made me very nervous. But then again, every part of my body was hurting. At one point, I just knew that I was going to die. Sounds dramatic...Yes. I had no rational thoughts in my brain...I felt as if this was the end. But my legs kept moving as I resorted to pleading with God to "get me to the finish line and please don't let me die." At this point, I knew I wouldn't make it within my goal of less than 5 hours. I didn't care...I just needed to be done. I vividly remember seeing the sign that said Mile 25. I started to run faster. I don't know how, but I did. I know there were people on the sides of the street, but I barely looked at anyone or anything. I did hear someone say, "Go Amy, you are finishing strong!" I just kept going. I don't remember seeing anything that said Mile 26. I remember a sign that said "800 yards to go" then a sign that said "400 yards to go". But I couldn't see the finish line. It was around a curve or something. Finally there was a straight-away and I could see the clock and the finish line. I glanced around at the nearly empty bleachers and figured that I was the very last runner of the night. Everyone had packed up and left. Then a voice came over the loudspeaker..."YOU ARE ALMOST THERE." And then with every ounce of energy I had, I raised my arms up over my head as I cross the finish line. I instantly buried my face into my hands and started sobbing.

I started walking, and ended up face to face with the New York Road Runners CEO, Mary Wittenberg. She was greeting the runners and congratulating them. I thanked her and kept walking, focusing on my breathing. My chest hurt. My heart hurt. I didn't want to get too excited. I looked straight ahead and there was a woman with an armful of finishers medals. I waited patiently in a small line to get my medal. She looked at me and said, "SMILE! You did it!" I didn't have the energy to do much more than a half smile as she put the medal over my head. I bypassed the happy people getting their pictures taken and kept walking, not sure where I was going. Then I started shivering. I was really cold. It was dusk and the wind was really blowing. I noticed a lady in a heavy warm coat up ahead handing out heat sheets...giant sheets of aluminum foil with the marathon logo on it. I made my way toward her and she handed me one. I draped it over my shoulders and then a young guy came up to me with a big piece of tape and secured it around me. Then a person shoved a "recovery bag" into my hands. It had water, gatorade, an apple, some pretzels, and some other stuff. I hugged the bag to me, holding onto my heat sheet. I just wanted to see my family. I didn't even open the bag of goodies, I just kept walking.

The walk took a very long time. The weary runners huddled up walking slowly to wherever they told us to go. I sent a text to Marlo saying that I finished. He sent me one back saying to meet him by the gold statue in Columbus Circle...he had a surprise for me. I sent back the last text before my phone died, "OK". I just kept walking, following people. Finally we were directed to an area to pick up our orange fleece poncho. I couldn't wait to get one of those on. I walked up to the poncho guy and reached out for one. He shook his head and motioned for me to come closer. I stood there like a child, hugging my plastic bag full of "recovery" treats close to my chest, as he draped it over my shoulders and attached the velcro. He then asked me if I wanted the hood up. I just nodded. He carefully lifted the hood onto my head and smiled. I just whispered, "thank you so much" and turned away. I saw all the volunteers doing this for the runners. What probably seemed like a small gesture to them, was to me, a great moment of kindness and compassion. I was so exhausted.

The drama of the family reunion
I continued walking for what felt like a half of mile until I got to the family reunion meeting area. We had decided the day before, that this would be too crowded. That's why he picked a place away from the finish. What we didn't know is that Columbus Circle was completely barricaded off. I could see it, and the golden statue, but we were directed away from it, a few blocks around. I felt very weepy watching all the runners reuniting with their loved ones. I just wanted that hug from my husband and kids. I followed the crowd down one street, and then turned left down another. The streets were completely packed and we moved very slowly. I was trying to circle back to the statue. Finally I broke free of the crowd to see that the entire area, all sides, were barricaded off. I would have to walk several blocks to even get near the statue. I didn't have it in me. It was so crowded. It was getting dark now and I felt so completely alone. I tried to remember the name and location of my hotel, but I couldn't remember it. Weird how my brain turned to mush. All this time, I could see the statue and imagined my family waiting there for me. I was hoping I'd catch a glimpse of Marlo, but then he would never recognize me among hundreds of orange poncho clad zombies walking in the street. Finally I lost it. I started to cry a bit. Not sobbing or out of control, but crying.

Then a sweet, angelic woman with a heavy Russian accent approached me and asked me if I would take a picture with her teenage cousin who was visiting from Russia. The young girl looked about 15 and didn't speak any English. She smiled and nodded at me. The older woman who spoke some English asked to make sure that I had run the marathon and thought it would make a fun picture for the teenager to take back to Russia. I was a mess and had no interest in taking a picture, but then I agreed, thinking I could ask her to use her phone. After taking the picture she agreed to let me use her phone. I just stood there holding it, staring at it. I couldn't remember Marlo's number, even after practicing it so much that morning. Mush brain. I was on the verge of tears again and told her that I can't remember my husband's new cell phone. It was programmed into my now-dead phone. I asked if I could make a phone call to someone else and she agreed. The only number my foggy, emotional brain could think of was my sister Jen's, in Michigan. I dialed and my nephew, Luke, answered. In a panicked, rushed voice, I told them to call Marlo. But they didn't have his new cell phone number. So I asked them to call Allyssa, my niece, to find out where they are. I told Luke to have Allyssa call back on the number that came up on their caller ID. I asked the kind lady to wait for a few minutes until my niece called. She agreed and put her arm around me, trying to comfort me. In a minute, my niece called. I asked her where she was.

The nice lady then directed me to the area where they were. I thanked and hugged them, and then I was off. When I turned a corner, I saw Lissy and my kids...and a horse drawn carriage that was supposed to be my surprise from Marlo. But Marlo wasn't there. He decided that since the last text said to go to the statue in Columbus Circle, he would look for me there. Allyssa didn't have Marlo's number. The carriage driver, who had been waiting in that spot for 45 minutes, didn't have Marlo's number. He offered his iPad and asked if Marlo was on FB. Marlo is not on FB, but I am and I remember messaging his number to someone the day before. So I tried to log on to my FB, but of course....I couldn't remember my password. Finally I went into a coffee shop and asked if anyone had a charger for an iPhone. Nobody did. Then I, still in my orange poncho with the hood up, I walked a block to another tea/coffee shop and saw a girl with a charger in her iPhone. I took a deep breath and tried to hold back my panic and emotions and then I asked the girl if I could please use her charger so I could call Marlo. A guy was sitting across from her smiled and told me that he was doing the same thing. His phone died during the marathon and he couldn't find his people. I plugged in my phone and waited for it to turn on. It would turn on, then off. There was nothing left at all in the battery. It would take a few minutes. I was feeling very impatient. The girl told me to wait a few minutes and that it would be ok. Finally I saw Gabe, my little boy, run into the coffee shop, followed by Marlo. Marlo decided to come back to the carriage to see if I made it there. He looked as panicked as I did. We hugged and thanked everyone and then we left. All I could do was apologize for the drama. I felt bad about the whole thing, all because I couldn't remember his phone number. It was dark out, and we all climbed into the carriage for the ride back to the hotel. I snuggled under a blanket with Marlo, still apologizing for the entire mess. The kids enjoyed the carriage and asked if I had won the race. I think I did!

Sitting here now typing this, I realized that Marlo's number was written on the back of my race case of emergencies. Ugh!

That night, Marlo and I met up with Cathy, Jock and Jacqui and her husband and son. We went to dinner and celebrated our success, sharing stories of the road to the finish line. I think we were all too tired to finish eating our huge meals. We stared at our half eaten food, and glasses of wine, half full. Finally we threw in the towel and left. I hugged Cathy tightly. She is a special person to me and I love her like my sister. She and Jock spent the weekend with Marlo and I last year in NYC, for the marathon that never happened! I feel a special connection with her and hope we stay in touch.

I spent the next day completely exhausted. We had great intentions about taking the kids to see Phantom of the Opera. My favorite. We bought half price tickets at the TKTS booth. The show started at 8 p.m. and the kids fell asleep half way through the Second Act. I fell asleep during "All I Ask of You" the First Act. I kind of rallied for the Second Act, but I think I dozed off a bit. I was so, so tired.

It took me a few days to really appreciate what I did. I have to be honest, the first few days after the marathon, I focused on negative things like, "I didn't reach my goal of under 5 hours" or "I was in so much pain, that sucked" and "My family reunion was stressed and sucky." I swore up and down that I would never run again. Finally, I accepted the race as it was. It was awesome. I had fun. Yes, it hurt, but I did something not many people do. I completed a marathon. And I ran the entire thing. That is great! And, the best feeling is that I did it for myself, my family and for those affected by aortic disease. I was able to bring awareness to and raise money for the JRF. Four years ago, I had open chest surgery. It's pretty incredible that I ran the marathon. I have some feelings of sadness that this journey is over. The members of Team Ritter, Amy Yasbeck, the Ritter family and Tracy Bensend are wonderful people, committed to making a difference. It was such an honor to spend time with them all.

I'm going to run again. Probably not a marathon, though. Unless I can run the NYC Marathon again with Team Ritter. Then I would do it! I can't imagine any ol' marathon measuring up to the NYC Marathon. I am going to stick to half marathons. I smile about how people on Team Ritter are already planning their next marathon and can't wait to get out there and run again. I'm so not like that. I really, really wish I was. I am not. Honestly, I feel like sleeping, eating and drinking my way to the new year. But, motivated by my Team, I won't. I am signed up to do the Miami Half Marathon in February with Charlotte. That should be fun. And it will keep me running, so I don't get too lazy. I'll find another half marathon to do later next year.

So my marathon was spectacular. It was a very special time in my life and the lives of my family and friends. I do feel like I crossed the finish line a different person. I believe in myself a little more, and I appreciate what the human body can do. I am thankful that I was diagnosed and saved. I feel like I shouldn't be afraid to try anything that initially seems too hard, or unrealistic. I have no idea what the next "thing" is going to be in my life. But I'm excited that I get to find out.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

One month to go!

I can't believe that today is October 5 and I have ONE MONTH left before the marathon of my lifetime! Last weekend I ran an 18 mile long training run. Tomorrow I have a short 12 mile run. My training mileage peaks on Oct 12 with a 20 mile run then I taper down until the big day. These next few weeks will fly by. Each time I have a long run, I just focus on the number of miles I need to complete. I use Endomondo on my iPhone to track my pace and mileage. And every week, once I hit that number, you can almost hear the squeal of my brakes as I stop. I always end my runs feeling like I could not have taken one more step, and then I start getting nervous about the next long training run. But I felt this way after my 10, 12 and 16 mile runs, just to go out next week and do a few more miles. Knock wood, but I feel pretty confident about my 20 miler in a few weeks.

My shorter training runs have now moved inside on a treadmill. It is just too hot by the time I drop the kids off at school at 7:30 to start a run outside. I enjoy treadmill running because it is air conditioned and I can set a goal pace and stick to it. I'm much faster on a treadmill than outside in the blazing sun and heat. If I can manage to run outside before the kids go to school during the week, I run the route from my house down a big hill to Magen's Bay and then back up the hill. The hills are important and necessary for training, but they are NOT fun at all.

I have to say, though, I am looking forward to NOT training for a marathon anymore. I miss sleeping in a bit on weekend mornings, making breakfast and lounging around with my coffee. The long weekend runs take everything out of you and it takes the rest of the weekend to recover. You kind of slowly hobble around for a day or two after. BUT, I do love, love, LOVE the feeling of accomplishment I have after I finish one of those long ones and I love how my body is becoming stronger and leaner. And I love that I'm running with a great group of people on Team Ritter. Many of us are marathon first-timers. And all of their stories of why they are running with Team Ritter are very inspiring. I am glad that we are in this thing together. Read the stories of Team Ritter here.

I have watched this video many times. Each time I watch it, I get teary eyed and excited. Nervous, but excited. I am so looking forward to running this marathon. I hope and pray that the next month goes by smoothly, with no injuries or sickness.

We are bringing the kids to NYC with us. They are excited about me running in the marathon and ask "what do you get if you win?" Haha! Gabe is so concerned about making sure he gets to the Lego store and FAO Schwartz. Lily is ready to see Phantom of the Opera. My niece, Allyssa, is joining us for two days and she is going to take pictures for me to capture the weekend. Hopefully, she will find me somewhere on the course. And hopefully I will look like "Ridiculously Photogenic Gal" and not grotesquely distorted and in pain!!

I do not have any plans to train for another marathon. I am excited to do half marathons, in fact, I recently signed up for the Miami Half Marathon in February. I like to run for a goal.

That's it for now. Nothing deep and insightful. Just plugging away and getting excited about NYC on November 3.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Am I a "real" runner?

We recently returned to St Thomas after a few weeks in Michigan to visit family. I have to admit that I wasn't very serious about running while on vacation. I did manage to get in my three long runs during that trip. I needed to have run more, but I didn't. Back to St Thomas. I'm facing the realities again that I have to train here in this oven. Eventually I will have to run 20 miles here. I keep telling myself that it will be OK. But I need to get out there and run. Period. I have no more excuses. I've written about the heat, the humidity, the lack of running routes, etc. Nobody wants to hear about that anymore. It can be done. People from St Thomas run in marathons. They find a way.

My problem is that I keep telling myself "you are not a real runner."

On Sunday I was supposed to run 10 miles. I ended up running 9.8 miles. I just felt that I couldn't go any farther. I ran with my friend Charlotte. She has great form, runs a faster pace and just simply looks like a runner. I run next to her complaining about everything. I blame my slow pace on the heat, the humidity, the road, my shoes, my clothes, the sidewalk, that small hill, my excessive dehydration that is one minute from killing me; I just complain.

Am I a real runner? A real runner is someone who runs regardless of...well, anything. They run, without complaining, while on vacation, in rain, heat, humidity, snow, sore legs, etc. They enthusiastically say things like:

"I just HAVE to run!"
"Running makes me sane!"
"Running is my life!"

I have never said those things.

A real runner reads books about running and nutrition. A real runner definitely has a pace of less than 10 minutes. A real runner has at least one black toenail and several blisters.

Nope, this doesn't describe me, either. Must not be a real runner.

Ok, I just need to shut up.

This morning, I finally got frustrated about this. I have to stop that inner negative voice that seeps out to bring me down. I have to stop complaining, comparing, compromising, cursing...etc. I am a real runner. So what if one of the reasons I run is so I can justify a second (or third) glass of wine or a bigger piece of pizza because I'm carb-loading. I still get out there and run. I run because I love the feeling I have AFTER I am finished. I feel alive and healthy...sore, but alive. I love how my body is changing, getting stronger. Even after bitching and moaning at 5:30 a.m., I still get out there and run. I wish I had that "rah rah" cheerleader feeling in the morning when I have to get up; I just don't. But that's OK because I still run. I'll never qualify for Boston, but that's fine.

Everyone who knows me knows that I am running the NYC Marathon to raise awareness of aortic aneurysms and dissection. I am running to inspire people to donate money to the John Ritter Foundation. But I am also running this marathon as a gift to my family and to myself on my 42nd birthday. I'm running because four years ago as I was slowly pushing a wheelchair holding my oxygen tank around my little section at the hospital, I wondered if I would ever cross "run a marathon" off my bucket list. Really, I did think about that. I remember kind of laughing about it because it seemed impossible. Back then I could barely move the little ball up in my incentive spirometer (Google it!). Today, a 10 mile run is now considered a "short" run. Instead of beating myself up about my slow pace, I need to feel a sense of accomplishment for where I am today.

I'm running whereas a lot of people do not run. Some people will tell me things like, "you are crazy...26 miles is FAR!" They are right! But I'm in this thing to finish. I'm in it to celebrate life. I'm in it for a cause. I'm in it for more than just crossing off a bucket list item. Am I already planning my next marathon?? Hell no! ;-) But I will continue to run after the marathon...for exercise, to justify carb-loading and that third glass of wine, and I will run because I can.

I guess at the end of the day, I am a real runner just because I run.

Here are some pictures of my running route downtown. Narrow sidewalks at times. But at least there are sidewalks!

Monday, July 29, 2013

If I didn't feel the flutter

This weekend, we chartered a boat and a captain to take us on our first trip to the British Virgin Islands. It wasn't the best day to go out on a boat. It was cloudy, very windy and very choppy out on the water. But we had planned it, got everyone excited about it, so we went out anyway. At one point, Marlo and the kids were in the back of the boat and I sat alone in the front. Cruising across the blue water, with green islands around me, I had one of those "wow, I'm actually here" moments. I spent some time reflecting on my life.

Bouncing along in that boat, I started going through the What-Ifs...I wonder what would have happened if I didn't change jobs so long ago, if I didn't go to grad school; what if I had stayed in the wrong relationships; and how would my life be today if I didn't muster up the courage to email that cute Canadian consultant I met at work a few years earlier about how "the Red Wings are going to beat the Avalanche."

But the biggest "what if" I thought about on that boat was was "what if I didn't feel that flutter?"

In the summer of 2009, I was 37, healthy, happy, and looking forward to a trip to Michigan to visit family and to go to my 20th high school reunion. I had a happy life with my two beautiful kids and my hunky husband, and I was in the best shape of my life, emotionally and physically.

A few years earlier, I was at the doctor and mentioned to her that Marlo and I were going to try to get pregnant with my second child. She said that she heard a heart murmur. Probably nothing serious, she said. But she wanted me to go to a cardiologist just to have it checked out before I got pregnant. I really didn't want to go because I was told at some point in my life that I had mitral valve prolapse. Nothing really serious. But I went anyway. The cardiologist, Dr. Collins, listened to my heart, ran an EKG, the usual stuff. He said that it sounded like mitral valve prolapse with a possible leak, and he ordered an echo. He was unconcerned, as I was. Marlo wasn't too sure I needed any tests. He felt like doctors prescribe too many unnecessary, costly tests. I scheduled the echo, but never went. I found out later that week that I was pregnant with Lily.

Lily was 18 months old when I finally had my echo in June 2009. I had been feeling slight pain behind my breastbone, like a moving pressure feeling that I ignored for months, written off as a pulled muscle or something from working out. It was really just a small flutter in my chest that pushed me to follow up with the cardiologist. Just a few seconds of flutter. I remember later when Dr. Collins called me and left a message on my cell phone. He said, "Your echo was normal, but you have a bicuspid aortic valve and your aorta is VERY ENLARGED. I want you to schedule a CT scan as soon as possible." I had several days to think about what he just told me on my voice mail. I called my mom (my weekend medical professional) and she said that she didn't know anything about enlarged aortas or bicuspid valves. I played the message several times for my friend, Diane. She kept saying, "well, if it was very serious, he wouldn't have left a message on your cell phone." I did lots of googling. Most of the stuff I read was scary. Within a few days, I had a diagnosis and an appointment with a surgeon.

On the boat this past weekend, I couldn't help thinking about what if I didn't feel the flutter? The flutter likely had nothing to do with my aneurysm. But thankfully, it definitely got my attention. We can never truly know what would have happened if I didn't have the echo, but the odds favored me suffering an aortic dissection at some point. Maybe I would have been saved, maybe not. It brought tears to my eyes to think about that. My kids. My husband and our relationship. My family. Our adventures we are to have in life. This boat, these islands, this water.

I know many people will say "look forward, not backwards, and stop analyzing the what-ifs." Makes sense, I agree. And I also feel that thinking about the past and the what-ifs from time to time can truly help you appreciate your present and future. I am happy to be here with this scar on my chest. I feel so thankful for all the blessings in my life...blessings of health, family, friends and new adventures. I am thrilled to be a member of Team Ritter, training for the NY Marathon, raising money for and awareness of the John Ritter Foundation.

Monday, July 22, 2013

My running life in St Thomas

I have to admit that I felt a little guilty after my last post. I complained a lot. I haven't quite let go of Denver and my life there. None of us have, quite honestly. Gabe is having a hard time with the move. Lily seems to be handling it better, but she is also having her moments. I think Marlo is feeling the same, but he has the routine of going to work in the morning and focusing on other things during the day. But it's heartbreaking when your child cries and asks to move back "home" so he can be with his friends. I guess, we would be dealing with this regardless of where we moved. It seems like the challenges of a move are just magnified here. You can't say, "Oh, let's go out to dinner at Noodles...that will make you feel better!!" We are in a whole new world here and it can be uncomfortable and scary. Coming up with positive ways of dealing with change and uncertainty is hard for me. But again, this is our new reality and we need to accept and adapt, or fall apart. And that is not an option.

Sunrise over Jost Van Dyke, this is my morning view before going for a run.
Running in St Thomas is so awesome!! Ha, just kidding, but it is getting a bit better. I am following Hal Higdon's Novice 1 marathon training program. I run Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday with my long run on Saturday. I haven't gotten to the part of my training where I am doing double digit runs. So right now I usually take the 5 minute drive from my house to Magen's Bay and run along the parking lot, into the woods, then back into the parking lot, up the street, turn around at the top of the hill. That trip is about 3 miles. My other option is downtown. I haven't done downtown since we moved to our house. But that run is basically cruise ship dock to cruise ship dock (yes, we have two large docks for cruise ships here). This trip is about 5 miles. I think it can be stretched into 6 or 7 if you go past the Crown Bay dock to the airport and then through the university and then back...I haven't done this yet. But these are the two main running routes that I have done. I live on the north side of the island, an area called Estate Peterborg, in a gated neighborhood called Sydney's Fancy. Peterborg is a peninsula on one side of Magen's Bay. There is another run out here that takes you away from Magen's up the peninsula to the Point. This is very hilly and challenging, but the reward it the view at the end of the Point. (Although, then you have to run back!)

As I mentioned in my last post, my main concern about running here is vehicle traffic. The roads are very narrow and, except for downtown, there are no sidewalks. Also the roads are very curvy and steep. I've had cars wait till the last possible second to move ever so slightly over as to not clip me. Magen's Bay road is basically a paved tunnel through the woods...the trees provide a delightful shady canopy for running. But, I have had to dodge crushed crabs, smushed mongoose and an occasional chicken. Last week, while running, I noticed some brown stuff in the road about 20 feet in front of me. Then I noticed a big brown blob coming down from the tree, spattering all over when it hit the pavement. Not sure what it looked like animal poop, but I didn't see anything up in the tree. Some stealth iguana or ??? something was probably waiting for the right moment to hit me! Thankfully, the blob and its splatter, missed me by a foot or two. But ick!

The Road to Magen's Bay

Running on the trails into the woods requires a leap of faith! Usually I am alone in there with just occasional sounds popping and cracking next to me. I use the woods to amp up my speed. I want to get out of there as fast as possible. It's all head down, legs moving. While the woods provide much appreciated shade, there is also very little breeze flowing through. So it is very still and quiet. And, the woods at Magen's look like a haunted forest in a horror movie, I imagine some Blair Witch type creature scoping me out from a distance. Also, there are large holes in the ground along the trails. I did see movement in one of them once. I think it was a giant crab...I didn't stick around to check. But I also imagine there are 100s of black tarantulas lurking in those holes, just a few feet away from my super speedy shoes. I can probably break a 4 minute mile in there...I just want to get out! But I run in the woods for shade and to tack on a quarter mile here and there to my training runs.

The "Haunted" Forest
Even with the challenges of running on a tiny, tropical island, I'm in this thing to finish! I am still so excited to be on Team Ritter. This year the team is really active and excited about raising money for the John Ritter Foundation for Aortic Health. Everyone on the team has an important, personal story about why they are running. The stories can be found on the team's Crowdrise page. Click on a team member to read their story or to donate to their fundraiser. I'm hoping to again raise at least $3000 for the foundation. The money is used to fund research programs, provide support to families and individuals dealing with aortic disease, and promote awareness and understanding of the Ritter Rules.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Week two of training, week six in St Thomas...or the post that should be called, "Amy the Complainer"

It's too hot here. It's too humid here. I hate the bugs, especially the mosquitoes and spiders. And a tiny lizard fell out of my pantry the other day. Just fell out and scurried away before Marlo responded to my screams of horror! He never found it. It probably squeezed into some crack under the cabinets and is just hanging out waiting to freak me out again. Also, in my house I've had a giant cockroach, tiny ants and a huge ass spider. Marlo is still fighting his role as spider killer. Why does he fight it? I'm never going to kill a giant spider. Ever. He needs to just accept it and kill the damn thing instead of saying, "I don't understand why you can't just kill it." I'm never going to kill it. Get over it and just kill the spider. I hate fricken bugs. There...I got that out of the way. That's how I'm feeling right now. I have nothing deep or important to say about my adventure in St Thomas right now. I feeling like venting a bit, then I'll just let it go. It will always be hot and humid here, and the bugs aren't going anywhere. I have to learn to live with the "uncomfortableness" of this big life change.

I'm officially a pony tail girl. No makeup, no jewelry, no decent hair. It's too damn hot and humid here! My hair is a frizzy, witchy, sweaty mess all day, everyday. I fantasize about getting a pixie cut all the time. I sweat like never before, so my skin is always shiny. My wardrobe rotates between three sundresses. I packed a ton of stuff, but I wear the same three lightweight dresses all the time. I don't need my cute sandals and handbags...flip flops and a cross body bag are all you need here. For running, I have two pairs of shorts and ONE tank top that I feel comfortable wearing. I'm learning that it was true when people told us to pack lightly. Ok, there, I got that out of the way, too.

I am meeting some really nice people here. I even met a woman who is also training for the NY Marathon who lives very close to me. Most of the people I'm meeting are connected to Marlo through work. I have met some moms through the kids sailing camp at the Yacht Club (sounds so fancy, but really, it's super casual) and the kids other camp down the street at Magen's Bay. It's good to meet people, but being on the introverted side, pursuing girl friends is a challenge for me. It will just take time, I'm sure. But it's a small island and everyone seems to know everyone else. And I've heard that everyone seems to know everyone else's business. I have to take care with what I say to people.

My marathon training program is chugging along. I managed to get my required 7 miles in early on Saturday morning, even though I had at least 3 glasses of red wine Friday night. Again, it was brutal. Hot, humid at 6 am. In all honesty, it was probably 75 degrees when I started...cold by island standards. I'm just not used to it yet. I am going to have to switch my long runs to downtown in the next few weeks. I cannot continue to run these laps around Magen's Bay. I can get a longer stretch and SIDEWALKS downtown. At Magen's, a big part of my run is on the road. The cars drive on the left side here, so I run on the right side, facing traffic, so I can see what's coming at me. I have played chicken too many times with drivers who either don't see me, or seem to want to mess with me. It's very stressful at times especially because the roads are super curvy with no shoulder. You often can't see what's coming at you. Also, at times, I'm completely alone on the road with woods surrounding me. If I'm not listening to music, I hear a few roosters doing their morning "cock-a-doodle-doos" or I hear random popping and cracking. That is also a bit stressful. I imagine the noise is probably from the many stray cats or iguanas, or mongooses, but I'm always looking out for stray dogs...ugh, pit bulls seem to be the dog of choice around here. I love when another runner or walker goes by me. I always look people right in the eyes and say "Good Morning". Most are friendly and reciprocate your greeting but some are not interested in pleasantries.

Ok...I felt like venting. But even as I type this, I can hear the waves crashing below me. When again in my life will I have the chance to live where I can hear waves crashing?? I see storms passing by in the distance with occasional lightening and thunder. I'm living in a beautiful place. I hope to never take it for granted. I probably will at times, especially when I get consumed with the "uncomfortableness" of island living. But hopefully the sounds of the waves and the turquoise blue of the waters below will remind me to keep things in perspective.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

It's been a year so why not try this again!

One day I'll get the hang of this blog thing. It's been a long time since I blogged. I seem to look at blogging as writing for someone else...but I need to look at it as writing for myself and my family. I'm writing a bit of my history and the history of my little family. My blog is now in three parts...the first part details my diagnosis and heart surgery and recovery...scroll back to June 2009 if you want to read about my aortic aneurysm journey. The second part from 2012 is my "first" marathon blog. I wrote a few times about my training for the NY Marathon 2012. As most know, that marathon was cancelled because of the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. My husband and I were actually in NY and picked up my running bib before they finally cancelled it. We had a fun time in NY anyway, but I was totally heartbroken to not get the chance to run the marathon. I trained hard and worked to raise a bunch of money for the John Ritter Foundation. I have very generous friends and family who donated more than $4000 to the cause. I will make them proud by finishing the marathon this year.

Now it's July 2013. I'm once again training for the NY Marathon. I am on Team Ritter again. I want to raise money for the John Ritter Foundation. I also want to continue to raise awareness of aortic disease by telling people my story.

Late last year, my husband was offered the job Chief Learning Officer with International Capital and Management Company. The company is located in St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. We discussed this opportunity and the required move to St Thomas a lot. We knew there would be challenges with living on a tiny island in the Caribbean, but ultimately decided that Marlo would accept the position and we would all move to St Thomas to start a new adventure. Career wise, it was the right move for my husband. I gave up my career path back in 2005 after my son was born. I'm totally fine with this and fine with moving for my husband's job. Family wise, we thought it would be a great learning adventure for all of us, especially Gabe and Lily. Gabe is now 7 and Lily is 5. They seem to be the perfect age to do this and they have settled in nicely so far.

When I was younger, the idea of living on a tiny, tropical island always sounded so romantic and adventurous. The reality of it is that it is a beautiful place, but now it's our real life. I need to go grocery shopping, banking and to the post office. Kids will have school and schedules and I still need to cook dinner and clean the house. I have been here since June 6 and I still get lost every time I go to the grocery store or to Kmart or Home Depot. I am trying to get my head around paying $6 for a four-pack of greek yogurt and $4 for two peaches. Most people on the mainland of the USA probably takes for granted being able to go into any grocery store any day of the week and pick up fresh produce and dairy. Here, the boat with the fresh produce arrives Sunday afternoon and the stores get it out on shelves for Monday and Tuesday. That's when you shop..when EVEYRONE shops, so the lines are painfully long and your frozen food is not so frozen by the time you drive home. Which in my case is always 45 minutes later because I get lost EVERYTIME! You've probably heard of "island time"...well it's real. Nobody (except for me) is in a rush for anything. The cashiers will pause and have a two minute conversation with a friend, while ten people with full carts are waiting in line. You just have to accept and lower expectations. I'm learning how to slow down and breathe, rather than running from here to there expecting to get in and out quickly. I'm learning how to plan meals well in advance and, ugh-gasp, make lists. Usually I lose my list or leave it in the car, but I'm trying.

We just started our St Thomas adventure. This adventure also includes me training for the NY Marathon. This is the thing I'm most nervous about. I just started my official training and it's brutal. Yes, I haven't run big distances since last year, and I probably have more than a few extra pounds on me right now. But it is HARD! Training for your first marathon is hard anyway. I'm just really nervous about training in this heat, humidity, the heavy, salty air and especially the lack of safe running routes. I will continue to plug away at my training and eventually maybe my body will adjust appropriately to living here. We shall see. Regardless of where I'm training, I will run the NY Marathon. I may not finish in 4:30 like I hope to, but I will finish.