Two years ago, in the summertime, I ran my first half-marathon, the Ann Arbor half. It was a long, painful slog and although I love Ann Arbor, the course was less than thrilling. Miles 8 & 9 took us around Briarwood Mall. I had to look at an empty parking lot and an oil change place during what are, for me, the worst miles of the race.
That same year, I saw an advert for the inaugural Sleeping Bear Half Marathon and with almost no time to train for it, I decided to run. It had a couple things going for it – it took place in my favorite part of the world, less than a half-hour away from where my folks live, and it was in October, my favorite month. And it was small. I knew right from jump (and still know) that the big races, the Chicagos and Detroits, are not for me.
The Sleeping Bear has quickly become my favorite race, for many reasons. I did it again the following fall and the unpredictability of the weather (the first year it was sleeting and I finished the race with ice caked on my shoulders, the second year it was mild and warm but utterly pouring, I was wet to the skin in five minutes flat and it never let up) and the beauty of the course hooked me. Moreover, it’s come to symbolize a lot of things for me. I’ve run it during incredibly difficult emotional times in my life, and even though I’ve only done it twice, I can remember the emotional resonance of different points in the course both years. For me, it symbolizes my ability to accomplish things I thought I couldn’t, to combat terror and bleakness with small goals and dedication and optimism and commitment. It symbolizes me taking care of myself and believing in myself and expecting a lot out of myself and doing it alone – I don’t typically run races with anyone else. Every mile helped me stay positive and strong, both years.
This year, plagued as I’ve been with shin splints and inconsistent training and strained back muscles and lack of willpower, I wasn’t ready. But I couldn’t give up another year of affiliation, so I volunteered instead, and had almost as much fun. The weather was cold and damp, we huddled in Johnson Park in Empire with a stiff gale blowing in from Lake MIchigan. In the early morning darkness, in a field that deer had occupied moments before, the organizers set up the tents and timing equipment. They were all jovial and focused, passionate about their event, stalking around in tall Hunter boots and all-weather gear. I warmed to my jobs, helped out with packet pickup and registration, I sold their t-shirts and hoodies, I pinned on bibs. And I was course marshal 10, stationed at the half-marathon turnaround, with a view of Glen Lake on one side and the Sleeping Bear Dune Climb on the other side, with Sleeping Bear Park Ranger Patrick.
I tried to cheer on every runner, and the vibe was awesome. Park Ranger Patrick kept us safe from traffic, and the Glen Lake Fire Department parked their truck on the wide shoulder of the road with their American flag blowing in the cold wind. The runners, tired and spent as they were, yelled back at us, thanking us for coming out and volunteering. I had a huge smile frozen to my face and one runner came up to me afterwards and summed it up perfectly. “This was the most joyful race I’ve ever been a part of,” he said, and I had to agree. And it was made more joyful for me by taking the time to give back. As jealous as I was, and as left-out as I felt at not being one of the nervous runners lining up, the ability to help those folks accomplish their goals was such a happy, positive feeling.
I hope next year that I’ll be running that course again, and if I can apply this mental and emotional commitment and enthusiasm to my training, it may just be the full 26.2 miles.