Positive Affirmations For Pessimists: Thinking my way to my first sub-four marathon

I have been trying to break four hours in the marathon since 2015. This year’s attempt was at a hometown race, the Onward Shay Boise Marathon. Although initially I was not thrilled about running in such a familiar place that I knew would have little to no crowd support, by the end of my training cycle I appreciated the benefit of knowing the course well and being able to visualize every mile of the race. There was no magic of New York this year. This was the year to focus, to push hard, and to break four hours.

From that standpoint, I was putting a lot of pressure on myself. In my mind, I had never executed a marathon property. Always fading significantly towards the later part of the race, the 26.2 mile distance eluded me. I had never performed to my capabilities in the marathon. I wanted to prove myself. If I didn’t this time, I was scared I might give up and never run another marathon again.

Physically, I knew I was capable of running a sub-four time. I put almost 650 miles on my legs over 18 weeks of consistent training, hitting all of the prescribed paces. Day after day I showed up. I worked hard and consistently. But my mental game had to be strong. I couldn’t give myself an out, and I couldn’t beat myself up and force myself to the finish line with unkind words. Close to the end of my training cycle I read a Hansons article entitled, When Do I Know I’m Ready? The part of this article that really resonated with me was the part about focusing on the process. So many times in racing I have tried to force the result or berate myself to the finish line. I took these words to heart and set the intention to focus on the process while also working on confidence and preparing myself for the difficult task ahead.

The last 10k in particular terrified me. I had a history of slowing down significantly during this portion of the race, and I had a bad experience in one race of getting hurt during this segment. I wanted to go into this marathon with the mindset that I could push through without fear, that I could Be Brave. I loved this piece from Carrie Mack about giving it all in Chicago. I thought about her words often both before and during my run, reminding myself to be patient during the first 20 miles and Be Brave during the last 10k. I wrote “I AM BRAVE” on my arm.

The week before the race, I wrote several positive affirmations on post-it notes on my bathroom mirror. Things like “Be Positive,” “Be Brave,” and “Sub-4.” I later decided that I should write them as “I AM” since that is a much stronger statement that adopts these things as true: I am brave, I am positive, I am a sub-four marathoner. I wrote these things and more in my journal and read them over and over before the race. I acted as if it had already happened. Normally, I would feel that behaving in such a way would “jinx” my performance, but I was going to try this. My mental game had been the weak link for so long that this was worth a shot. What did I have to lose? I felt like I needed to go into this race with the unwavering confidence that all of the things I was proclaiming to myself in the mirror – positive, patient, limitless, flowing, letting the race come to me, brave, transcending discomfort, strong, ready, a sub-four marathoner – were true. After all, my coach and teammates believed these things about me, why shouldn’t I believe them about myself? It felt weird, saying these things to myself, but I kept doing it. Even if just a small part of me believed, maybe it would make a difference.

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The morning of the race, I had sore areas on my posterior tib and my heels that I was slightly concerned about. I gave them a pep talk. Out loud. “Ok legs, we’ve done 600+ miles and you can do 26.2 more. Then we rest. You are strong, you are ready. Let’s do this!” And again, I repeated my affirmations in the mirror. “I am brave. I am a sub-four marathoner.”

I lined up at the start and was pleasantly surprised to see pacers. There was even a 3:55 pacer. I thought “Great! I just need to stay comfortably behind her!” I followed her for the first mile. 8:57. Perfect. Second mile. 8:44. She was going way too fast! But I didn’t freak out that I had run the second mile that fast. I took a deep breath. I told myself, “You know how to adjust,” (words directly from my coach to help counteract my tendency towards catastrophic thinking), and I let the pacer go. Banking time was not the strategy I was going for. I lost sight of the group several minutes later, even though I was running under the average pace needed for a 3:55.

As the miles ticked off, one by one, I remembered to be patient. “I am patient. I am relaxed.” My coach had told me not to be scared when I started to feel discomfort, and those were very important words for me to remember. When I started to feel discomfort, I acknowledged it, and moved on. “I’m getting warmed up. Each mile is different. One mile at a time. I am flowing. I am letting the race come to me.” I focused on the process. Mile by mile. Keeping my splits in check and being careful not to go too fast. Around mile 13, the 3:55 pacer was in sight again! However, also around that time, the wind picked up and I found myself running into a nasty headwind. My next two splits were 9:07, even though the effort felt harder. My initial reaction was discouragement and I could feel the negative thoughts trying to creep in. My body started to tense up and I could feel the fear and anxiety in my stomach. I had to work hard to stay positive. “I am positive. This is fun! I am doing it! I feel great!” I thought if I told myself I feel great, it might be true. I knew that my coach and teammates would be at the mile 16 aid station, which was also the turnaround point. I reminded myself that I was running towards them, that I was excited to see them, and that once I turned around the wind would be at my back. Seeing my coach and teammates at mile 16 was wonderful, encouraging, and definitely provided me the mental boost I needed at that point in the race.

I glanced at my watch and noticed after seeing my friends and turning around with the tailwind and slight downhill I had picked up the pace a little too much. So I held back, reminding myself, “Be patient. The race doesn’t start until mile 20. This is your warm-up. You are doing great.” I knew from experience how much can go wrong in the last 10k, so every time I started to think it was going well, I worked to temper any excitement and to just stay with the moment. To stay present and to run the mile I was in. Mile by mile, I was working my way to the finish line. When I got to mile 20 the 3:55 pacer was still in sight. “Be brave,” I said out loud. “Go with her.” I picked up the pace a bit for miles 20 and 21. However, that proved to be a little too much and by mile 22 I was back to 9 min/mile. Mile 23 was difficult and at the end of that mile a biker got in my face and said, “Do you need help?” The course was not a closed course and I didn’t know if the guy was a race volunteer or a spectator joking around with me. Either way, it messed with my mental game. This is the part of the race where your mind is overriding your body’s signals saying “Hey, can we stop or slow down?” and you are leading with your heart, and when this guy asked me if I needed help I started thinking “Do I look that bad? Do I look like I need medical attention? Am I about to collapse, but I’ve somehow convinced myself I am fine?” It took me a good half mile to collect myself and get back on track. Miles 24 and 25 were my slowest at 9:10 and 9:20. I could see the 3:55 pacer, who I had almost caught, getting further away, and was trying so hard to keep her in my sight. “Don’t let this race slip away from you now. Keep going. To that tree. 400 meters at a time, 200 meter pickups. You can do it.”

Coming into mile 25 my friend Kylee appeared like an angel in white on the side of the Greenbelt. She ran beside me to the end saying words of encouragement, but never expecting a response, as she knows well the pain cave you are in at the end of a marathon. My family was there at the last .2 and Kylee took photos which I will treasure forever. I crossed the line in 3:55:59, an eight minute PR and my first sub-four time after three years of trying. It was so special to have both my family and Kylee there to share that moment with me.

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Coming into mile 25. Dying. Photo by my friend Kylee.

Although of course you need the training and a healthy body, I firmly believe that it is the positive and process focused thinking that got me to the finish line in under four hours. There were three points that I looked at my overall time during the race: the 16 mile mark because I told my friends what time I thought I would be there, the 20 mile mark because I knew what time I wanted to hit that point, and when I saw Kylee so I could mumble to her how much time I had to will myself to the finish in under four hours. The rest of the time I was focused on the process. On each mile and properly executing the mile I was in. On staying positive, relaxed and keeping the right mindset. I didn’t try to force it. And when I did all of that, 3:55:59 was there waiting for me at the finish.

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Did I just luck out and happen to have a good run that day? Maybe. And certainly things like weather and the way I physically felt on that day were important.  But I don’t think that was all of it. I think the positive self talk and intentional confidence, as weird and unnatural as it felt to me (and even if it felt like I was faking it), made a big difference. So I have made a commitment to implement it throughout my training (not just during the taper) as well as in other areas of my life. Let’s see where it takes me. Onward!

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Choosing Happiness: My 2017 TCS New York Marathon Race Report

“So I went to New York City to be born again. It was and remains easy for most Americans to go somewhere else and start anew. …. and when the [train] plunged into a tunnel under New York City, with it’s lining of pipes and wires, I was out of the womb and into the birth canal.” ― Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Like most marathoners, I have a love/hate relationship with the 26.2 distance. I am drawn to it for its elusive nature and unpredictability. As a type A control freak I want to control and dominate the marathon, yet it refuses to be controlled. I come back again trying to control and it will continue to teach me that it cannot be controlled until I let down the walls of perfection, let go, and open my mind to the possibility that perhaps what I had in mind for the race is not what the race had in store for me.  I come out of each marathon a better, more self-aware person.

Prior to the November 5, 2017 TCS New York City Marathon I gave some real thought to the why of the marathon. Why do I do this? Why do I intentionally put myself through this pain and suffering and call it my hobby? Lauren Fleshman says that as runners we are privileged to be able to choose our form of suffering. Not everyone can be so fortunate. For me, being able to go to that place of suffering and to push through to the other side helps me realize that I am stronger than I think I am. There is beauty in the suffering, particularly when it occurs collectively. The struggle offers  the ability to practice coping skills that are needed in real life, and allows me to learn more about myself and about humanity.

New York was marathon number six for me. Marathon number five (California International Marathon in December 2016) did not go as planned. I had trained to run a sub 4-hour marathon and my training went really well – right up until the taper when I started to develop pain in both of my femurs.  As a result I found myself in an MRI just four days before the race. I had some swelling in the bone, but was cleared to run. I rested until the marathon, had a good 22 mile run and was on pace for that sub-4 time, but ended up limping through the last 5k and hobbled over the finish at around 4:22. Aside from the extremely disappointing last 3 miles, it was a good run and I learned a great deal about pacing and positive thinking.

The sub-4 hour marathon time is like that cute, popular boy in high school that would flirt with me but never ask me out on a date. At times the possibility feels so real to me I can taste it, but it has remained just out of my reach. In training for New York, rather than focus on a time goal, my coach had me run fewer miles and less often with the goal of getting me to the start line injury free. Even with this plan, I developed some shin pain in my left leg. With some last minute modifications and physical therapy we accomplished the goal of getting me to the start line feeling healthy, yet I felt under-trained. My mind wanted that sub 4-hour time, but I understood that my body may not be trained for it. All of the stars would have to align just perfectly. And in a race like New York, with the long wait before starting, the crowded course, and the bridges and multiple turns in the second half of the course, I wasn’t sure if I should attempt my BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) on minimal marathon training.  Regardless, it was in the back of my mind.

I left my hotel room at 5:20 a.m. and took an Uber to meet my friend and teammate Sarah in midtown Manhattan. We waited in a very long line that wrapped around several blocks to catch a bus out to Staten Island.

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On the 90 minute bus out to Staten Island

Once we arrived in Staten Island we went through a security check (thanks NYPD for keeping us safe!) and then waded through the masses at the start village to find our starting waves. Sarah was wave 1 green and I was wave 2 orange.

My friend Jessica was also wave 2 orange so we had the pleasure of waiting in the corrals and starting together!

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At the start!

I will never forget standing at the start line and hearing and feeling the thunderous boom of the start cannon followed by “New York, New York” and thousands of runners climbing the Verrazano bridge to begin their 26.2 mile journey through New York’s five boroughs. It brought tears to my eyes.

As we started our run, a light rain began to fall. The first mile is a gradual uphill to the crest of the bridge with the second mile being a gradual downhill to the bottom of the bridge. This is the greatest elevation change of the entire race. My first mile was around a 9:30 something and my second mile was around an 8:30 something. My coach and I had discussed anywhere between 8:45-9:15 as a suggested marathon pace and I was trying to feel out what was comfortable, while keeping the pace reigned it. I did not want to run under a 9 minute per mile pace (with the exception of the downhill mile). I ran comfortably through Brooklyn and tried to relax and follow the runners in front of me while enjoying the crowds and the neighborhoods.

The day before the race I had the honor of hearing Meb Keflezighi speak. Before Meb spoke, Mary Wittenberg, the former race director for the New York City Marathon, also spoke. She gave a great overview of the course and some wonderful tips on course strategy. But the piece of advice that she gave that really stuck with me was this: “When I was the race director I used to always tell people to keep their heads down and run. But then I ran the race.” (Wittenberg did not actually run the New York Marathon until after her time as a race director.) “Now I tell people the exact opposite. The crowds are what make this race. Enjoy every moment. High five every child, every police officer.”

There are three start waves in the New York Marathon: orange, blue and green. The three colors run a slightly different course until mile eight in Brooklyn when all three colors merge. The merging caused a large bottleneck which was exacerbated by enthusiastic spectators that were migrating onto the race course. To make matters worse, the rain had picked up slightly making the roads slick. Suddenly, I was unable to run even a 9:30 pace without significant weaving or throwing elbows.

I tried to keep close to a 9 minute per mile pace in a effort to stay on track to finish in around 4 hours, but I found it extremely difficult. I was having to zig-zag in and out of runners, I slipped slightly on a GU packet, and ran up suddenly on a wheelchair participant that I was unable to see due to the crowds. I was also elbowed by another runner trying to jostle his way through the pack and witnessed a curse word laden fight between two runners, one of whom believed she had been wrongly shoved. It was not a pretty scene and it was not how I wanted the next 18 miles to play out. I could feel the frustration growing inside of me as my pace began slowing. And then I made a choice.

For the month prior to the marathon, I had struggled with finding happiness in my running. Filled with paranoia of recurring injury and fear of being too “slow,” my workouts had been marred with feelings of unworthiness and doubt. Instead of congratulating myself for showing up, I would beat myself up for not being good enough. This led to two of my workouts being cut short in the month leading up to the marathon due to my anxiety while running. Both my coach and my mental health therapist had expressed concerns to me about going into a race in the mental state I was in. I was not confident in my ability, not confident in my body’s health, and I was constantly beating myself up. I would try to relax and do positive visualization in the week prior to the marathon and end up in a panic. It was not good.

Before leaving for New York, I had written down all of my negative feelings about my running and the race and given them to my coach to destroy. I did not want them anymore. And in mile 8 in Brooklyn, I chose happiness. I chose running to build myself up, not beat myself down. I took Mary Wittenberg’s advice to heart. I high five’d all of the kids, thanked the police officers and volunteers and tapped on the signs in the crowd that said “Tap Here for Power!” When I saw my husband at mile 17, I stopped and gave him a big sweaty hug. After all, I was running THE NEW YORK CITY MARATHON! I would never again have this chance in my life, so I better enjoy it and get the most out of it!

When I made that choice there was a small voice in the back of my head that wondered if I was somehow giving up, if I was making an excuse not to try my best, or if my coach would be disappointed in me. I quickly quieted that negativity and told those voices that choosing happiness is the best choice, the stronger choice. Mental strength is so important in running and in life and I was making a choice that would not only get me to the finish line healthy, but would also help me enjoy the experience along the way. Having a mind that can stay relaxed, focused and positive will help me post faster times when my body is physically ready.

I smiled my way through Brooklyn and Queens, enjoying the crowds and going with the flow. I enjoyed seeing the different neighborhoods, reading signs, listening to music. Running over the Queensboro Bridge was amazing: going from the silence, solitude and camaraderie with other runners to the loud cheering on First Avenue is something I will never forget. Around Mile 21 runners cross the Madison Avenue Bridge from the Bronx back into Manhattan. When I crossed it there were two people at the top of the bridge with signs reading “Last Damn Bridge” and shouting “Really! It is!” It gave me a good laugh at a point during the race when I really needed one. I so appreciated all of the spectators who came out to cheer in the rain!

At Mile 22 I started to feel something tightening in my hip flexor. This is the point in the race and the point in my body when things started going south in my last marathon. I took a deep breath, reminded myself that this was not my story any longer, that I had left my fear and negativity with my coach, and continued running. Before I knew it, my mind drifted on to to the fact that I was running towards Central Park and towards the finish line! Turning into Central Park and the last two miles of the course in the park were probably my favorite part of the race. At that point, I knew I would finish, and finish running strong! Being able to run across the finish line and run across the finish line of New York — the same one that Meb, Shalane and Stephanie Bruce had crossed just a couple hours earlier — was absolutely amazing.

I crossed the finish line in 4 hours, 18 minutes and 44 seconds. That’s 4 hours, 18 minutes and 44 seconds of not beating myself up mentally. Four hours, 18 minutes and 44 seconds of choosing to race happy. Do I still want that sub-4? You bet I do! And when I get it, which I will, I will enjoy every bit of it. I will not feel disappointment because I ran a 3:59 and not a 3:57. I won’t get there by beating myself down. I will only get there by building myself up. One good choice at a time.

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Running with the Locals, Running with the Legends: My Onward Shay! Race Report

Today marked the running of the inaugural Onward Shay! Half Marathon and Marathon in Boise, Idaho to honor of Shay Hirsch. Shay was a Boise native and runner who lost her courageous battle with cancer in 2014. She would often encourage others with the phrase Onward! and she loved the Wizard of Oz, so the race adopted a fun Wizard of Oz theme and the name Onward Shay! For its inaugural weekend, the race hosted several running legends many of whom helped organize the race.

At the start line I saw my coach chatting with Nick Symmonds (hopefully they were planning a beer mile) and Joan Benoit Samuelson grabbing Frank Shorter to go take a photo with local celebrity writer Tony Doerr. The runners had to wait an extra 30 minutes at the start, but watching these running legends and chatting with friends kept me entertained. Parts of me started to get antsy (also wet and cold), but I reminded myself that in a racing I need to practice on focusing on what I can control. I cannot control things like the weather and the delayed starts, but I can control things like my attitude and my breathing, so I focused on those.

Finally the starting gun went off and we were running through the streets of Boise. About a mile into the race I found myself running right next to Frank Shorter. Often called the father of the modern running boom and the only American to medal twice in the Olympic Marathon, Frank Shorter is one of the most respected distance runners in the world. I could not believe that I was running right next to him down the streets of Boise, Idaho, the place I currently call home. Amazing! This will certainly go down as one of the best moments of my running career.

As I continued, I started to see familiar face after familiar face carrying me through the course with their smiles, cheers, funny signs, and positive energy. Even though it was a cold, wet, rainy day, Boise showed up for this event. My mom and husband brought our three small kids out to cheer. I saw countless friends and strangers who felt like friends street after street, house after house. Much of the course, particularly the parts in the North End, felt like a huge party. Because of the way parts of the course looped out and back, my running friends and I were even able to cheer each other on at multiple points. I typically run with music unless I am running with another person and trying to talk, but I did not want music during this race. I wanted to fully experience the spectators, other runners, and the course surroundings. I thoroughly enjoyed saying hello to all of the family and friends I saw along the way and feel so grateful to each and every one of them for coming out today.

Those of us who run, race or do some type of endurance exercise understand that we could not do what we do without a tremendous amount of support from friends and family. To have those friends and family not only support us throughout our training, but show up on a wet, rainy race day, means the world!

Around mile eight, the wet and cold started to set in. My quads felt heavy from the cold and my shoes were squishy from the weight of the extra water they were carrying. Everything was soaking wet and I could hardly see through the water in my eyes. My plan to speed up the past few miles did not happen due to the wet and cold conditions, but I held my pace and felt strong through the finish. Most importantly, I ran and finished with joy in my heart and with gratitude for a healthy body and fun race. I hope this race continues for years to come and grows in popularity, and I look forward to seeing how it evolves. It was so much fun to be a part of the inaugural event!

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Pre-race with my running team, the Boise Betties

Photo Credit: Gretchen Hurlbutt (Thanks, G!)

 

Waiting My Turn (AKA That time it was going to be my turn until it wasn’t)

“So I’m sitting here and waiting my turn, oh well, maybe next time I will learn.”

-The Connells

It seems that the universe is trying to teach me that I am not in control. A lesson that somehow in almost 40 years I have not managed to learn. You see, I have not run a marathon since 2006, and the last marathon I completed was a bit of a disaster seeing as how I did it on an IT band injury and hobbled through most of it (not recommended). So I have been looking for a redemptive marathon ever since then. But three pregnancies and several injuries have left me nine years later and still no marathon medal. However, this fall was going to be my turn.

I registered for and was accepted in to the St. George marathon, which is on October 3, 2015. I was nursing a hip injury, but training was going relatively well and I was getting enough (read: the bare minimum) mileage in to eek out a marathon. A week and a half ago I ran sixteen and a half miles feeling strong and like I could have kept going. I was thrilled to be within ten miles of the marathon distance and ready to sign up for an 18.6 mile race around a local lake that I had wanted to run for several years.

But the following Tuesday, I noticed a pain in my upper abdomen. I was still able to go for a seven mile run, but I didn’t feel like eating most of the day. By evening, I was doubled over in pain and I didn’t sleep all night. There was some pain in the lower right quadrant, but not too much. I went to the doctor on Wednesday, and it turned out to be my appendix. I had an emergency appendectomy Wednesday evening and am now prohibited from running from anywhere from 2-4 weeks, depending upon who I ask. I cancelled my plans for St. George and am looking at other marathons later this winter.

The rational part of me tells myself that this happened for a reason. Maybe my body was not going to be strong enough to run a marathon in October due to my nagging hip issue. Perhaps the extra rest will give my hip time to heal 100% and I will come back even stronger. But the emotional part of me still feels grief and anger. I was getting so close! And my hip was feeling better! It was supposed to be my turn this fall!

I have to keep reminding myself that I am not in control. That things happen for a reason, even if I do not understand it at the time. That one day (and probably one day very soon) I will look back and laugh about that time my marathon training got derailed by an appendectomy. And one day soon I’ll be crossing that finish line. Right now my job is to let my body heal. That’s an important job and I need to do it right and do it thoroughly. And hopefully one day soon I will finally learn that I am not in control and the universe can stop sending me all of these helpful reminders.

On Grandma, the Marathon, and Grandma’s Marathon

My friend Gretchen is running Grandma’s Marathon this weekend (Run GG Run!) and my other friend Emily thought of the fantastic idea for several of us to put together the best advice that Grandma ever gave us to give to Gretchen in a send off package. This got me thinking about my Grandma Vivian (who I called “Nanny”) and the advice that she gave me throughout her life. Interestingly enough, the very last time I saw her was in the fall of 2006 during the weekend of the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., which also happens to be the last marathon I completed.

I have a box full of letters from Nanny and went searching through them for bits and pieces of advice from her for one that stood out as both meaningful and applicable to running as well as life in general.

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There are years worth of cards, letters, newspaper clippings and memories in the box. I had not read these letters in years and it was a joy to read through them today (Thank you, Emily!). In many ways, I felt like I was receiving these letters from my grandmother all over again. The one piece of advice that stood out to me repeatedly as I sorted through the stuff was this: Life is so much easier if you have a sense of humor. She had sent me an Ann Landers advice column with that advice (as well as many other jokes and reminders to have fun), and I remember her smiling, laughing and joking constantly. Here is the full text of the Ann Landers clipping that my grandmother had sent me many years ago:

Dear Ann Landers:

When I read the letter from “St. Pete” about the man who dressed up as Batman and ended up hitting his head on the ceiling fan, it reminded me of an embarrassing incident that happened years ago.

My husband and I were newlyweds, getting ready to attend a Halloween party given by friends. I came home from work and asked my hubby to answer the door for the trick-or-treaters while I took a bath. As I was running the water, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun to play a trick on him?” So I put on my flapper raccoon coat and a mask, and without a stitch on under the coat, I sneaked around the house and rang the doorbell. When my husband answered, I threw open my coat and shouted, “Trick or treat!” He was so stunned that he backed up, fell down the steps of the sunken living room, hit his head and knocked himself unconscious. I phoned for an ambulance and had to explain to the authorities what happened. My husband was taken to the hospital, where they said he had suffered a concussion. We never made it to the Halloween party, and, of course, I had to tell my friends why. They thought it was hilarious. My husband and I will celebrate our 40th anniversary soon. I still love Halloween but have refrained from pulling any more startling surprises. Life is so much easier if you have a sense of humor. –Toni in Long Island, N.Y.

Dear Toni: What a story! Laughter is indeed the elixir of life, and it can be a great protector. There are times when, if we couldn’t laugh, we’d cry.

If my grandmother were here today, and if she knew Gretchen, I think she would say “Don’t forget to laugh this weekend!” Indeed, laughter is great medicine. My grandmother laughed a lot, and she lived a long, happy life. She and my grandfather were married for over 60 years. Below is a photo of them celebrating their first anniversary on the beach, and celebrating again many years later (after 50+ years of marriage) at my cousin’s wedding:

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So cheers to laughter, to grandmas, to marathons, to Grandma’s Marathon, and last but not least, to Gretchen. May you run fast, run strong, laugh often, and have a big awesome celebration at the end! xoxo