My First Marathon: A Long Road

Contributed by Liana Davis-Gulzow

I love the smell of spring. The trees, naked for months, sprout tiny buds of life to let us know there are sunny days ahead. The trail seems to take on a new color, and with confidence I know that we are full speed ahead — my favorite running season is finally here.

My fifth grade teacher introduced me to running. Mr. Moody was the track coach, and he loved to see his athletes realize their potential. He had a bad knee and couldn’t run, but I knew he lived through us. I remember standing in a circle on the school playground blacktop, waiting for my name to be called. “Davis, over here.” I had just been called to run my very first mile.

I am the second oldest of five closely spaced children. So when I asked my parents if I could join the track team, my Mom’s first words were: “You need to find your own way home.” Most days after practice, I found my own two feet making the two-mile walk home. Some days if still had the energy, I would run. My love for running has become something that I live for. I don’t feel complete without it. When I run, I am humbled; I feel powerful and alive. I feel like no matter what life throws my way, I can handle it.

I always knew I would run a marathon. I just didn’t know when. But somewhere near the end of March 2009, I convinced myself to register for the Portland Marathon. I was planning to run two half marathons and Hood to Coast anyway, so why not? As soon as I hit “submit” to complete my online registration, I began visualizing myself crossing the finish line — my friends and family on the sideline yelling my name. Two years prior, my husband Brent ran the Portland Marathon. As he finished, I had tears of joy streaming down my face. What an accomplishment! And then, there I was — registered to run my first full marathon. The commitment alone seemed to change my outlook. I finally felt like I was in the game; a marathon is the real deal.

Around mid-June, I decided to start doing my long runs with a group. Running those long miles alone was getting more challenging, and I knew I would love the group camaraderie. Plus, I figured I could learn a thing or two. I didn’t know exactly what to expect from a group run, but I made friends immediately. And from that day forward, I was a consistent member of Jim Mattern’s 4:20 pace group. I looked forward to the group runs all week, and I learned something new and valuable each time. As each long run came to a close, I was amazed at the strength of each runner, and of myself. After my first 20-miler, I felt more energized than ever. I started to envision the details of race day, the crowd excitement, the way my legs would feel after mile 22, my family and friends cheering me on, and the excitement and exhilaration I would feel when I met the finish line.

I love the anticipation of what life brings: a vacation, movie night with the family, even the feeling of sleeping in on a Sunday morning. So I was looking forward race day. I couldn’t wait. As I continued to train throughout the summer, I felt strong and motivated. I felt healthy and vibrant — as though I could do anything I set my mind and body to. An August climb up Mt. St. Helens was relatively easy due to all the training I was doing, and I was surprised that some of my best training runs were the longer 20-milers. I was physically and mentally ready for the challenge I had set before myself.

Summer wrapped up quickly, Hood to Coast came and went, and I could smell fall in the air. The marathon was just weeks away, and I could feel the excitement and anxiousness of the training group as we began to taper our long runs. One beautiful autumn day, I was finishing a 7-miler on my favorite trail. The trees were starting to change colors, and the daylight was lingering just long enough for an evening run. I smiled at the sun still in the early evening sky, beaming the perfect amount of warmth onto my face. I had celebrated my 37th birthday the day before, and I was content with my life and all that went with it. As I walked back toward my car, I was thinking of the next two Saturdays (when we would run our last training runs). And then it would be the big day. The song on the radio was loud and thumping, and I felt motivated and excited about the future. Looking back over the previous six months, I knew I had earned a lot of confidence in myself. I felt more than ready, and eagerly awaited each day since it was that much closer to race day. Then my cell phone rang. And everything as I knew it changed.

I heard my sister in law on the other end of the line, speaking slowly and asking strange questions: “Where are you? Are you headed home? I need to talk to you. Can you call me when you get home?” I felt panicked and pale. “No, tell me what’s wrong,” I demanded. My ears were ringing, my heart pounding. All I heard her say was that my brother Jared had committed suicide. And then I only heard my own wailing cries. One phone call can change everything. Bewildered and confused, I stumbled through my front door. My husband and children knew something was terribly wrong. At that point, I was the only member of our family who knew what had happened. I was faced with delivering news that would change the lives of my family forever. I wanted to run away and take my secret with me. But I knew I had to tell my brothers, my sister, and even my mother that someone we love so much had done the unimaginable. My mind was flushed with questions: What? How? How could he do this? Why didn’t he call me? What about his daughters and his pregnant wife? What about us? We need to fly to Alaska immediately. What about my marathon?

The next few days were a blur. My brother was gone. I felt sorrow, guilt, anger, worry, and other emotions I can’t put into words. I have never before wished so much that I could turn back time. Rewind the clock in hopes of a different outcome. All my goals and hopes for the near future were buried in grief and sorrow.
Somehow, I found myself in Wasilla, Alaska with my family. And somehow I had the forethought to bring my running shoes. In the midst of all I was facing, I had to keep running. Although I would be back in time for the marathon, I was doubting my ability to run it. I had more important things on my mind.

My family and I spent the next difficult week preparing for my brother’s service. It was a time full of emotional family moments and shared sadness. And while we had lost close members of our family before, suicide is a loss like no other. In late September in Alaska, the fall foliage burns with the same colors as fire. The birch leaves turn from green to rich shades of yellow and green. In the distance, the freshly snow-dusted mountains announced the arrival of winter’s presence. I knew it would be a long winter.

My brother’s funeral was one week before the marathon. Since I missed the last group run, I felt determined to log that last 8-miler. Wasilla has a beautiful paved trail that runs along the highway, and I was going to run an out and back. I needed some clarity to get my mind focused on the short-term goal ahead of me. I headed out before anyone else in the house was awake. It was cold, but I came prepared for the weather. I started my Garmin and headed out on the trail with the gorgeous Alaskan scenery greeting me. I noticed right away that my body was tired, my legs felt like lead — like I hadn’t run in months. My heart was heavy. I felt so strong just two short weeks ago, and it suddenly felt like all the long miles I logged had disappeared. I told myself I must press on. The marathon was only seven days away. My mind went to my brother and what he must have gone through. I suddenly found myself on the cold ground, sobbing. My Garmin told me I ran only .29 miles, and I felt angry. I had trained so hard for the marathon. But at that moment, I felt it would be impossible to run. If I couldn’t even run half a mile, how could I run 26.2? Hurt and angry, my wobbly legs took me back to the house.

I flew home on Monday, and I knew I would have to make a choice. I would either need to suck it up and go for it, or simply try again another time. My husband told me that I needed to run this marathon. He said that I needed to focus on the goal I had set for myself, and that the grief would still be there waiting for me after the marathon was over. I decided that I would run. Until race day, I would do my best to fight tears when they came and focus hard on my goal. At that point, my biggest concern was the lack of running over the previous two weeks. Had I lost my training? I knew I had to be strong. I had to tough it out, take a deep breath, and do what I needed to do.

Sunday morning came early, and I was at the start line before I knew it. The darkness of the early morning matched the darkness I was feeling inside. But this was the day I’d been waiting for. I found my group at the start line, and felt confident that I was doing the right thing. The gun went off, and thousands of runners pushed forward. I was surprised to feel my body responding the way I hoped it would. I found my groove and a nice, steady 10-minute pace. I wondered how many other people were running despite hardship, grief and pain. My appearance didn’t give my story away; I looked happy and strong just like every other runner. I was on the verge of tears, but I put one foot in front of the other because I had to. I had to keep telling myself that I was doing the right thing — I was doing what I needed to do. I reminded myself that we all have choices. My brother had a choice. I have a choice. We all do.

When I passed the 26-mile marker, I felt the wave of emotion I had been holding back for days come flooding to the surface. I could hardly breathe as I ran that last quarter mile. I was finally there — finally to the finish line. It was a long race and a long road. And I know that I will grieve for my brother for a long time.

Crossing the finish line felt much different than I had imagined. But in a strange way, it means so much more to me now. Life is wonderful, but it’s also painful at times. You have to lift up your head, take a deep breath, and keep moving forward. I did a lot of thinking during those 26 miles. Someone once told me that you learn a lot about yourself when you finish a marathon. And I always wondered what that would mean for me. I sure wish my brother had found the strength he needed in life. I’ll miss him for the rest of mine. And each time I run, I will think of him and remember the fight I have within myself. Because we all have it — we just need to find it. For me, I will continue to be strong. And I will run.

UPDATE – October 2016

About a year after my brother’s death, my running partner and close friend Alisa told me that someday I would find a silver lining in his loss.  At the time I wanted to punch her in the face, but as the years have somehow disappeared, life has gone on and in looking back I can see the truth in what my friend wisely told me.  There have indeed been some silver linings.  His daughters came to live with my family and I for a year while their Mom was able to get her life back on track. I now have a deep love for them and a bond that I never would have had if Jared were still here. I have gone on to run 4 more marathons, including 2 Boston’s, and 2 more redeeming Portland Marathon races. I also ran Alaska’s oldest and most prestigious mountain races – Seward’s Mt Marathon.  Running this race in Alaska was very special for me, as I felt my brother and my father beside me every step.  I have run more races than I can count, ran more trails than I can remember and I have been able to heal in ways that I never could have if not for my running shoes.  But most of all, I have been able to quietly and tenderly help those who have also lost a loved one to suicide.  There is healing in connection.  There is comfort in forgiveness.  There is internal peace when I run.