Race Day

It was March 2020, the onset of COVID-19 had just begun, and I was registered to race the Brooklyn Half in May.  When the announcement came that the race was canceled due to the pandemic, my friends began to chill out on running and ease into quarantine. However, I began to train hard.

I was a runner – and I was going to be running regardless of whether or not there was an actual race.I told myself that while the race might be canceled, my goal wasn’t, a mantra that I continued to carry throughout the next few months as cancellations became standard and life turned upside down.

Nicole On Street

When it became evident that the NYC Marathon was going to be held virtually, my first thought was, “Who wants to run 26.2 miles, alone?!” Running the NYC Marathon is like your very own rock concert around the 5 boroughs. There are over 100 live bands on the course, the crowds are epic, and you are in an incredible rhythm with your fellow runners around you. The feeling of flying through the streets of New York City, with 2 million spectators roaring is one that cannot be replicated.  But, once again, I told myself that while the race might now be virtual, my goal wasn’t and I decided to continue training and go for a personal record for the virtual marathon.   

On Tuesday, October 20th, just 5 days before I was set to run my virtual NYC Marathon, I got the call that no one wants to get. I had breast cancer. A routine mammogram the previous Thursday, detected a small tumor, and my biopsy was scheduled without hesitation. 

When a runner is a week or two out before a race, running coaches will frequently say, “the hay is in the barn,” meaning there is nothing you can do now, training-wise, to run a better race.  This build-up to race day is referred to as a “taper”, where weekly mileage gets reduced and emotions tend to run high. From a training standpoint, my barn was full of hay and I was in the middle of my taper.  I was READY to run this marathon, well, physically that is.

But now, I was concerned about my mental game.

Afterall, 26.2 miles is a long time to be with your thoughts.

105 laps around a track. Literally, running in circles, for hours.

I could almost hear my voice talking myself out of the race–”you are sick–you have CANCER! –you should not be stressing your body like this–what are you thinking?!

But I remembered the mantra that carried me through the quarantine, carried me through homeschooling my two kids while working full time, continues to carry me through the pandemic, and I told myself that while the race might look different, my goal wasn’t. I did not want cancer to take my race away from me.  Actually, I would not LET cancer take it away from me.

So, the day before my race, 4 days after my diagnosis, I sat down and told my eight year old & nine year old kids that I had cancer. I explained that it was a miracle that we caught it so early and that I was going to have surgery to get the lump removed. I rationalized to myself that if we all went out the next day and they saw me run 26.2 miles– they would not think this was a death sentence.

I wanted them to see me strong.

I wanted to see myself strong.

The next day, as I was getting ready to start my race, I purposely put my long hair in a ponytail because I thought it may be the last time I actually have a ponytail for a while and I wanted it to be there with me while I ran. I looked at myself in the mirror, taking in my strong body and my healthy state. And I took a deep, long breath.

As I looped 105 laps around the local track, I surprised myself at how good I felt – it was the exact opposite of what I had anticipated. I was happy and my thoughts were overwhelmingly positive as I covered those 26.2 miles. I felt free.  Free of worry. Free of doubt.  I actually felt like I was flying.  I didn’t want those miles to end.  I was proud of myself.  I felt strong.  My husband and children joined me from time to time on the track and at mile 25, when I knew I would be victorious- as they ran with me one last time- I asked them to remember this moment, to etch it into their minds. I wanted them to always remember me strong and us as a family that sticks together. 

I was worried when I went on to run this marathon 5 days after a cancer diagnosis that my negative mind would run amuck. But something wonderful happened instead.I was grateful to run that race. I was so happy to show my children my strength and what it means to follow a plan, set a goal and believe in myself. 

My mantra, while the race might look different, while my circumstances might be different, my goal wasn’t, carried me and I crushed my previous marathon time with an official time of 3:43:39 – a whopping 13 minutes faster than my previous race.

Life is going to hand us obstacles – it might look like a cancellation, like a diagnosis, like a global pandemic (!), and it is our opportunity to set the goal, find the possibility, find the wonderful within it. I had to run that marathon five days after my cancer diagnosis. And that is why.