Better to Have Loved in Loss

I bought a song on iTunes because I hated it so much. Any music that could make me feel so intensely sad was clearly very good. But it wasn’t supposed to end up on the running playlist I’d haphazardly put together on my one-way train ride from Boston to Framingham for my 20-mile trek back on foot. And it definitely wasn’t supposed to be playing on the first long run I’d ever had to cut short due to injury.

You only need the light when it’s burning low
Only miss the sun when it starts to snow
Only know you love her when you let her go

Only know you’ve been high when you’re feeling low
Only hate the road when you’re missing home
Only know you love her when you let her go
And you let her go

“Let Her Go” by Passenger crooned in my ears when my ankle inexplicably gave out after 16 miles, as I was running past the Chestnut Hill Reservoir on the Boston Marathon course, about to make the turn onto Beacon Street. I tried to keep going, my brain and body unable to figure out how to stop before I’d finished the run. But I couldn’t take normal steps, so I told myself out loud, “You’re done for today.”

The song kept echoing in my head as I rode in a cab on the remainder of the familiar route – driving down Beacon Street, seeing the Citgo sign rising above Fenway, turning on Comm Ave, and then eventually breaking away from the marathon course to cross the Mass Ave bridge and return home.

I swallowed my tears, fully aware that I was being overly dramatic, fairly confident that my injury wasn’t even that serious. But I was supposed to be running triumphantly on these roads, finishing my run strong, preparing to celebrate the epic running of the 118th Boston Marathon. It was a cinematic moment, staring out a car window at other marathoners-in-training while Passenger played in my mind.

Only know you’ve been high when you’re feeling low

Running is a gift. It’s magic; it’s a superpower. It was never in my life plan to become a marathoner. Running 26.2 miles sounds impossible; taking a train out to Framingham and running back to Boston is insane. But now that I can, there’s a part of me that is always afraid the pixie dust will fade and I’ll wake from this dream.

And perhaps, that small fear occasionally helps me to appreciate what I have. Health, strength in my legs, breath in my lungs, a body that not only works properly but that responds so eagerly when I push it – all this I take for granted too often.

Only miss the sun when it starts to snow

Due to a chronic injury, my coach, Rod, is no longer a runner. I admire him a lot, not only because of his incredibly effective running instruction, but because he still loves running even though he can’t do it anymore.

A group of us went over to his house after a track workout a few weeks ago and got the grand tour of the place. We tried some his home-brewed beer and saw the tanks where the beer ferments for months before it’s ready to drink. We visited the basement which contains a semi-professional bike repair studio. And we saw the pictures on the wall.

In addition to pictures of family, he had several framed photos and memorabilia from races like his first 5K and the Ironman he’d done with Phil, and marathon medals and finishers’ certificates printed with his times. Of course I’d always known that he was really into endurance sports, but I don’t think it sank in until that moment just how much they were a part of him.

I wondered if I would keep my race photos and medals on my walls if I could no longer run. Could I continue to celebrate a part of my life that I’d loved so much but that was now past?

Only know you love her when you let her go

When I was unable to run track due to my afore-mentioned minor injury, I still went to the weekly team workout to be there for moral support and to do a slow jog around the outside of the track. When I was finished with my lame laps, I joined Coach Rod in the bleachers. “Hey, welcome to the bench!” he said good-naturedly, without a trace of bitterness. I have never heard him sound bitter about anything. “Welcome to my world.”

I asked him later how he does it all the time; I could barely deal with it for one week. He said his joy now comes from our successes. I know he means it because I’ve seen how he reacts when any of us does well or overcomes an obstacle. Andrew is running better than he ever has before, Amie’s gaining confidence, Rob is “maturing” as a relatively new runner who also happens to be faster than most of us. Coach Rod helps us achieve previously unattainable successes, and he is always excited with us when any barrier is broken, even if it’s just something small like a heart rate personal record.

I will never forget how happy he was when I qualified for Boston. I was with my parents and my two best friends after that race, but I remember thinking that while they were very happy and proud, only he really knew the journey that got me across the finish line. He’d poured over my heart rate data and made me detailed Excel spreadsheets with my past paces and future training runs laid out. He’d given me revised plans based on my extensive run reports about when my energy gels gave me stomach cramps and when I could choke them down, about how the summer heat destroyed me on a particular run and the ensuing mental defeat that was far worse than the physical, or about the sprints at the end of a 22-mile run that unlocked my joints and made me feel like I was flying. He gave me tips and tricks to try and new running metaphors to guide my race plans. In fact, it was through conversations with him that I began to think of running as a superpower – one I’m not allowed to engage fully in a marathon until the last 10K. After running twenty disciplined miles, then the cape can come out from under my singlet!

Sometimes, in the midst of loss, you can find a new way to love what you once had.

And you let her go

If you can no longer run, coaching is one way to remain close to a beloved sport. I think it must take a special kind of strength and resiliency not to succumb to envy or bitterness, but Coach Rod has showed me it can be done.

The rare disease community has also shown me a lot about how to be strong and resilient in the midst of unimaginable loss. Over the past few years, I’ve met parents who have lost children to rare diseases and become advocates and warriors in the fight against these diseases. They’ve taught themselves how to fund research projects and start nonprofits and rally groups of people in a common cause. And I’ve met individuals like my patient partner Erica, who sees more deeply and more clearly due to everything she’s been through while living with MPS I, and who has developed more endurance than I could ever develop training for marathon.

Whenever I get that desperate feeling of anxiety, that need to control and grasp things or people I love, I try to remind myself to let go. A clenched fist with fearful white knuckles is no way to live, and it won’t stop the inevitable anyways. Should I lose something I love, it would be difficult and even life-altering, but I can learn how to carry on. I can discover something new – resiliency, endurance, even hope.

People talk about whether it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all; love and the possibility of loss are intertwined. Knowing that possibility can help you appreciate what you have while you have it, and accepting that possibility can help you find joy in memories, in medals and pictures on your walls.


Posted in Running Stories
5 comments on “Better to Have Loved in Loss
  1. Erica Thiel says:

    Jessi, thank you for this, I know ive said it before but so glad we’re partbers in tgisrace and the race for rare diseases!
    I am lucky to be partnered with you,

  2. Jessicac says:

    Thanks so much, Erica, for reading and for being an amazing partner in these races! 🙂

  3. Beth S says:

    Well said, Jessi. I’m frequently asked why I chose running instead of something easier. The long answer to that question has many layers to it, but the short answer is “I run because I can”. For me it’s an exercise in gratitude. I’m not sure what I’d do if I had to give up running. I think I’d keep my mementos out so my children could see that their mom was once cool 🙂

    This is my medal rack. Not nearly as impressive as yours, but I have the same spinner medal from the Allstate 13.1 in Revere Beach (my first half marathon). I’m saving that hook closest to the door for my Boston medal so I can grab it in a fire!

  4. Jessicac says:

    Beth – I love that! “An exercise in gratitude” is a fantastic way to look at it. Thanks also for sharing a photo of your medal rack. That Allstate 13.1 medal is no joke; I think it’s my heaviest one! Also, I am glad to hear you will be saving your Boston Marathon medal in the event of a fire.

  5. phil says:

    I was training for my first Ironman with a very dear friend along with a very special team of triathletes. During our training, my friend and I collided during a group bike ride and crashed badly. Other than bicycle damage and a cracked helmet, I was OK. My friend received a concussion and for the weeks and months that followed was no longer able to train for this Ironman. So rather than curl up into a ball and feel sorry for himself, my friend decided to aggressively participate in other ways. He went to two weeks of bike maintenance training out in Colorado at great expense and became the team’s bike mechanic. He read every book that he could find on Triathlons and endurance training and became the personal coach for a few of the team members. He traveled to the Ironman race with the team and made his way around the entire 140.6 mile course to monitor the team to ensure that everyone would finish. As I finished, he was there to greet me at the finish line as I wept with emotion. With about 35 mins to spare before the cutoff, the last remaining team member crossed the finish line with my friend there front and center to celebrate the team’s success. This willingness and ability to overcome misfortune and make such a significant difference for the rest of the team after having been stripped of his individual opportunity to compete is truly remarkable. That bike accident could have easily ended our friendship as we could have gone in two different directions; instead, we became brothers. Thank you Rod!!

    I frequently witness examples like this within this community; people overcoming such unbelievable obstacles and then painstakingly working to make a difference for others. Being surrounded by this community has made me a better man!

    Great post Jessi!!!

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