Marathon Eve

heather

Tonight’s sleep will likely not come easy. Instead, I will toss and turn to the humming of “What Ifs?”

What if my IT Band starts to ache early on?

What if Chicago’s infamous gusts torture us?

What if I start too fast?

What if I mess up my fueling system?

What if the heat becomes unbearable?

What if I can’t do this?

This is not my first time running 26 miles, but the marathon is a distance that, no matter how many times you do it, you must respect its demands. It’s one of the greatest things we as humans can do and it’s the only sport in the world where elite athletes compete next to the average man who just wanted to do something extraordinary. The marathon is not just a physical test, but also mental one for it’s not the fastest that conquer a marathon but those with the steadiest minds.  And for that, it’s to be feared.

I can’t predict how my body will act nor my mind, but I know that I have nothing to truly fear. My body can psychically do this and my can cooperate. Even if all goes horrible, which there is no real reason to think it well except unfortunate circumstance, I can still manage.

But the truth is that tomorrow should be a wonderful day. For so many reasons, including:

  1. I will be running with the same group that has met me for Saturday morning runs for three months now. They have become a source of strength and reliance and I am excited to run with them tomorrow.
  2. My mom and boyfriend will be waiting for me at certain points. My mother flew all the way from South Dakota to be here and my boyfriend has gotten up every Saturday morning for the last three months to drive me to my team runs. There are so much support and I am so incredibly lucky that they will be watching me.
  3. I will be with my city, following its cemented paths and embracing its cheers.
  4. Thanks to the generosity of my friends and family, I’ve been able to raise money for 47 people to receive clean water. 47. That’s amazing, and more than I ever thought possible. All the people who gave, all the people who are being helped. It’s truly enough, no matter if I have to crawl to the finish line.

Tomorrow hasn’t even started and already I know it is a great day.

For Niger

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First day in my village, Dan Tchiao

My longest run is done. I have raised 94 percent of my fundraising goal. Everything seems on track and it feels almost certain that I will cross the finish line in two weeks with a smile, knowing that I have accomplished both of my missions.

While I am fairly confident that I can get the last bit of my increased goal, I am still worried, like I am still worried about my ability to run the entire marathon without much incident. I sometimes panic about if I have done enough or not. Should I be email blasting my office? Should I find a way to inject a pitch into every conversation? Should I be sending individual Facebook messages to everyone I know?

Raising $2,000 doesn’t seem like it shouldn’t be too hard, but it’s pretty scary to ask people for money. They might turn you down. They might judge you. They might distance themselves from you.

Last night I decided to send out a pitch email. I’ve only sent a few emails out and really only to people I feel comfortable asking. The ones I have sent were rushed and told only the basic story of my own experiences with unclear water and my attraction to World Vision because of its work in the countries I have lived. As I sat down to write this latest email, I thought about Niger more.

Niger is one of the countries that World Vision does water projects in, a direct benefactor of our raised funds. I will never forget the moment I opened up my blue Peace Corps invitation and saw the name Niger after Country: on the assignment sheet. I ran to the map to see where it was and then started learning what I could. It did not seem like a great country to go to. It was poor, hot and seemingly dangerous. As I searched through fact books and news articles, I couldn’t help but wonder if I had just made a huge mistake.

Niger is so hot that entire villages come to a halt at certain hours of the day. Niger is so poor that most children walk around with exposed rib cages and protruding bellies from malnutrition. Niger is so dangerous that after just seven months in the West African nation, I was forced to leave.

What I didn’t discover in my research, and that I could only experience firsthand, is how truly beautiful Niger is. It’s full of people who would go hungry to feed you, their guest. It’s full of people who smile because no matter how hard life is it’s better when you smile. It’s full of people who suffer more injustice and tragedy than most Americans ever will and still have faith in the healing powers of God and time.

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Girls and women of my village

My heart broke when I had to leave Niger due to security reasons and so many times I wondered how different my life would be had I stayed there for my full two years. I wonder what good I could have done. I wonder what happened to the people in my village. I wonder if there is anything I can do for them.

Shortly after I returned home from Niger, and before I left for Lesotho, I ran a half marathon. The entire time faces of the people from my Nigerien village raced through my head and I told myself that some day I would run a marathon for them, a physical dedication to show my emotional dedication. It seemed right in the moment, although lackluster later on.

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My host mother, her oldest son and her granddaughter.

I forgot about that moment until yesterday, when writing that email.

For months, I’ve been telling myself and others the reason I thought I was doing this, raising money and running a marathon. But maybe I didn’t truly understand the why, I just had the calling. There is a good chance I still don’t know, but the more I thought about Niger last night the more I wanted to do this for the people of Dan Tchiao and the rest of the people of that nation that deserve way more than what they get from the developing world. I know that there are other ways and opportunities to help the people of Niger, but this is the journey I currently am on and I want to finish it out in the name of Niger.

Yes, asking for money is awkward and sometimes I am scared how others perceive my asking for donations, but all of that falls next to what I feel for Niger. Even though it wasn’t my choice to leave the country, I am still plagued by what I could have done. Although this isn’t much, it’s something. As I get closer to the marathon with some money left to raise, I do so aligned in commitment to Niger. I choose to believe that the donations my friends and family have made will benefit those that mean so much to me in Niger, because cynicism doesn’t produce much good and it doesn’t carry you through 26 miles.

And, as I run, I will think of those faces again and again wonder what else I can do.

You can contribute to my commitment to Niger here. 

20 Miles

I walked through this beautiful path in Lincoln Park this morning after my run. It was such a great reward to the run. My city is so pretty.
I walked through this beautiful path in Lincoln Park this morning after my run. It was such a great reward to the run. My city is so pretty.

Last week, I started to doubt the reason I chose to run this marathon for World Vision.

Not everyone is supportive of this cause or this organization and a few conversations with friends left me wondering if I should have gone with another charity. Maybe I should chose a safer charity, one everyone will want to support, in the future, I told myself.

This week, in the hardest week of my marathon training, I got sick. I called in sick one day and cut runs short this week to prepare myself for Saturday’s 20 miles. I was tired and mentally exhausted. I just wanted this whole thing to be over. I wasn’t afraid that my body couldn’t do it; I was scared my mined would turn on me.

Then this morning came, early at 4:30 a.m. We were asked to be at the run, which was setup as a mock race, at 5 a.m. so I had ate my pasta, watched Nike inspirational commercials, and went to bed before 9 the night before. Ethan, boyfriend of the year over here, insisted that he also get up at that time, drive to my house, pick me up and take me to my run. See? Boyfriend of the year. It was dark, rainy and cold, like all of our Saturday morning runs had been leading up to this point. Because I was one of the eager bunnies, we stood in the cold for almost an hour before we began the run. Trust me, 20 miles sounds even less appealing when you have to wait in the wind and rain 60 minutes beforehand.

Before we run our team runs, someone usually gives us an inspirational word or two. Today, it was Justice’s turn. Justice, a Kenyan, is the World Vision liaison in Kenya and he was in Chicago to visit the WV office and to cheer on the runners. Justice told us about the children who need clean water and how many of them will soon have it.

“You make an impact,” he said. “I’ve seen it.”

Twenty miles never flies by but it felt as good as it could. I led my pace group for most of the way and we were quite consistent. My head was strong as well as my hydration and fuel, all things that failed me during the 18-mile run a few weeks ago. My legs ached but I was could walk just fine after. This run set me up so well that I can go into the taper with complete confidence in my ability to have a great race day in three weeks.

A few members of my pace group after the run.
A few members of my pace group after the run.

What helped the most, I think, was not seeking motivation from within. I let Justice’s words snap me back into focus when my thoughts turned sour. Then faces of children from village in Niger popped into my head and I fantasized about my efforts specifically reaching them (Niger is one of the countries our clean water fundraising benefits). I thought about the people I love in Lesotho and how sometimes I am scared that I let them down. Our pace group told inspiring stories during the last two miles of the run, when our legs wanted to give out. I thought about all my friends and family who’ve supported me along on this journey – including an entire group who came to a fundraising party last week and chipped in – all because I asked.

World Vision may not be the perfect cause, but I am not the perfect runner or fundraiser. I may not agree with them in all aspects, but I agree and believe in them on this one. What I am doing here is not heroic or groundbreaking, but it means something. And that’s enough to carry me through pain, exhaustion and, even, doubt.

Three weeks to go.

Please consider helping more people access clean water. Donate here

This is where it gets hard

About five years ago something very scary happened to me.

I had just moved to my village in Niger and was trying to settle into this very new life. I was the only American in a 30-kilometer radius. I did not speak the language. I couldn’t figure out how to hang my mosquito net to avoid malaria. I did not have a reliable way to charge my phone and there was no connection in my house, meaning I couldn’t reach my family or friends whenever I wanted.

On that first day, I started to unpack my belongings, including a suitcase I hadn’t opened since I arrived in country. I didn’t really need it during our Peace Corps pre-service training, so it sat in storage at our training center. But, when I opened it in my village, I realized that a bottle of precious American shampoo had exploded and covered almost everything in the suitcase, including ruining a few things.

I panicked. There was no faucet or hose with an endless supply of water. I actually didn’t have any water in my new hut, and when I realized that my throat tightened up a bit in the Sub-Saharan sun. I didn’t have water and I didn’t know how to get it. Even though I didn’t get all the material things I wanted as kid, this was the first time I ever even questioned where my water would come from. It was terrifying.

My host family eventually brought me some water and, although it took a solid week, I finally figured out how to get water, which meant paying some village boys to stop by my house with a large yellow bideon and then emptying it into a clay pot that I kept under a thatched hut, halfway buried into the sand to keep the water cool.

The water was sometimes slightly brown and my heart skipped a beat when I noticed the pot getting low, but I learned to live off small amounts of water. Even in Lesotho, where the water is cleaner than in Niger, yet not always in endless supply, I could take a bath, mop my floor and make my breakfast with one pot of hot water. Showering and washing clothes were second priority compared to drinking. Each drop was precious.

I’ve always been thankful for the experience of fearing where my water would come from and how clean it would be. It was such a small and nearly insignificant experience compared to what people in Niger, Lesotho and other African countries face daily, but it’s not a perspective middle-class Americans like myself usually get. Every time I take a shower or down a bottle of water, I think about how lucky I am and it’s the type of gratitude that can only come from a stressful experience.

A few weeks ago, Josh, a team leader for World Vision, said that many people have been emailing him about injuries and pains. You are hurting,” he said. “That’s a good thing.” It wasn’t until this week that I truly understood what he meant.

Training is taking a toll on me, physically and emotionally. I am exhausted, always hungry, and in a fixed panic about the next long run. The late summer heat this week is not helping and my head and inner dialogue often fail me. This weekend is 18 miles and then it’s two more long and hard weeks before the taper. The mountain seems to be getting steeper.

Fundraising has also not been easy. It seems like I am starting to annoy people with my asks and while the donations continue to come in, it’s only at a trickle. I feel like I am not doing enough and doing too much at the same time.

Every day is hard.

But it’s meant to be. Running marathons is not an easy endeavor and what’s harder is asking people to give to a cause that you really care about, which in a way is sort of selfish.

This week’s runs have been extra yucky with the heat and I’ve been nervous about tomorrow’s 18. Our running group doesn’t start until 7, meaning it be well into the morning and the heat by the time we finish. I thought about starting earlier and running only a portion of the run with the group, but something about that seemed like cheating. I decided to post something about being nervous for the heat on the Facebook group and one person responded saying that that we never know what race day will be like and sometimes God gives us experiences to prepare us.

All of sudden, I was eager to run those 18 miles, whether in 80-degrees or 65.

My teammate’s comment reminded me that God has never brought me to an experience that I couldn’t overcome. An 18-mile run in the heat is nothing compared to being in a place where I knew no one, couldn’t speak the language, and had no idea where my next cup of water would come from.

But that experience was absolutely necessary in order to fully experience living in Africa for nearly three years. Not having an endless supply of clean water is part of life in Niger and Lesotho and I had gone there to experience life in those countries. It was hard because it is supposed to be.

Running a marathon and raising money is a different kind of hard, but it’s still hard. God called me to run this marathon and raise money for World Vision and that means enduring, and embracing, all the hard stuff. The hard makes it worth it.

Rea Leboha

My favorite moments in Lesotho were when it rained. Everyone would stop what they are doing as way to respect the rain as it fell down. As country dependent on small farming for food, the Basotho treated the rain as a gift from God, and it was. As the downpour muddied the entire village, children would splash around and scream, “Pula, pula” while the men and women would look up, smile, and say, “Molimo, rea leboha.”

God, we are thankful.

I woke up for my training run this morning and was all IcyHot and body glided up before I realized it was raining. I hadn’t really been into this week’s long run. It was “only” 12 miles and my IT band was acting up again. Maybe a few extra hours of rain would do me good. I saw the downpour as an excuse to go back to bed, so I did and listened to the rain as I fell back asleep.

But I woke up a few hours later in anger. “Heather Marie!” I screamed at myself. “You are not allowed to skip your long runs!” I quickly grabbed my things and went out to my run, angry at myself that it was already mid-morning and that I should be finishing my run by now, not starting it.

While the rain has seemed to stop when I started my run, it began again during my 12 miles. It started to sprinkle and then it was down pouring, so much that I had to stick my phone in my shorts to make sure it didn’t get too wet. As it came down, I started to think about those rainy days in Lesotho. The Basotho, in my opinion, always treated the rain right. They always took a few minutes to enjoy it and be thankful for it.

I always know there is more in life that I could be thankful for, so I decided to turn my woes about the run into gratitude.

I am thankful that, even though I got a late start on my run, the cooler temps allow me to have enjoyable and safe runs throughout the day.

I am thankful that, even though I lost one of energy gels along the run, Feet Fleet supplies free Gatorade to runners during marathon season so I could take in some calories and that I found the gel on my way back.

I am thankful that, even though I missed the group run, I can still run 12 miles easily and comfortably and that I had some alone time.

I am thankful that, even though my IT Band has been hurting, I ran mostly pain free today.

And lastly, I am thankful for the rain. It brings us new life and new hope each time.

What are you thankful for? 

Not about me

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My nerves are often tweaking a bit on Fridays. A long run is lingering and I start to question my abilities, not in just running but also fundraising.

While spending precious time that I could use to do literally anything else, I was scrolling through social media when I saw a connection’s post about a fundraising project. Lots of people seem to be raising money socially for something and I wasn’t at all surprised to see this person jumping on the bandwagon. I clicked to the fundraising landing page and scrolled through the donations. My stomachs tightened a bit as I read the familiar names all contributing to this person’s selfless act. I was annoyed, and frankly jealous, that so many people were supporting this person, when I didn’t think that he deserved it. How come those people hadn’t supported my page and my fundraising campaign? I certainly deserved it more. 

Now, this is not at all the first time that I’ve been envious about the support this particular person has received, sometimes claiming that it isn’t deserved, and while I should probably bring this up with my therapist, I had to take a step back.

First, I had to look at the numbers. I’ve raised 83 percent of my goal and fundraising is going so good that I am inspired to raise my goal amount. It doesn’t matter that other people have raised more or have higher goals, this is a big deal for me. I honestly wasn’t sure I could even make it this far.

Then there are my supporters. If you have followed this blog or this one, you know that I tend to focus too much on those outside of my circle than those in it. The truth is that I have been simply astounded by the support from my family and friends. Each time I get a email that says someone has donated, my heart leaps a bit. Then I tear up when I look at the donation, whether it is $10 or $100. It means so much to me that people would be filling to give money to my cause, that they want to be on MY team.

But that’s the thing, this isn’t about me. Yes, people donate because I ask them to, but the money isn’t for me. The goal isn’t to see how many supporters I have, the number of donations or the final figured compared to others. This whole thing is about supporting someone else. Giving a bit to someone who could really use that bit. In this process, I am merely a middle man, showing people who want to help where to go. IMG_5303

This weekend, I ran 12 miles with Team World Vision as part of our weekly training run and then I joined two of my friends for the 6 K for Water. The team run was great and my pace group straight out crushed those miles. Then, I got to chat with my two friends and breeze through a very organized and pleasant run. Throughout both runs, I wore a race bib with the picture of a young Kenyan girl, Grace. Grace is just one of the many people in Kenya that will benefit from the new pumps her community leaders will build with the help of World Vision. She will be able to go to school, live with fewer illnesses and properly nurture herself with clean water. Her whole world will change with access to clean water.

When I was a Peace Corps volunteer, my only real goal for two years was to improve one life, that one person would be a bit better off because I crossed through his or her life. I will never know for sure, but I have to believe that I accomplished that gaol, even if for my own piece of mind.

With this marathon, I am not out to prove that I am a good person or to have so and so donate to my campaign or to brag about how much I raised or whatever. All I want to do is make one person’s life a bit better and hopefully I can find a few people to help me in that endeavor. Just one life, that’s all I can hope for.

Why I chose World Vision

Today marks two months until the Chicago Marathon, which simultaneously feels like tomorrow and forever. So much time and not enough.

Even though my IT Band is still giving me some issues, I feel good psychically. The rest of my body is eager to run and feels at ease out there on the trail. I know that the next five-six weeks will be the toughest, but I am OK with it because I also know that once I am out on the streets of Chicago all will be worth it.

My nerves are a bit more touch and go when it comes to the fundraising.

Yesterday, thanks to an anonymous donation (whoever you are, I love you), I was able to hit the halfway mark of my goal – 13 people who don’t have access to clean water will now thanks to some great humans I happen to know.

However, I still have about $700 to raise, which seems doable but not without some uncomfort and awkwardness.

Other members of Team World Vision, those who have run five, six, seven, races with TWV, say that the running a race that the first person who tried it died is the easy part. It’s the asking your friends and family to give some of their hard-earned money to a cause (not just a cause, though, YOUR cause) that is the excruciating part.

When I was about nine years old, standing in front of a cement stoop and trembling with a Girl Scout cookie order form, I decided I would never sell, seek donations or do anything that involves me asking for money ever again. I hate asking people for money because of the awkwardness it imparts on us both and I try to never put myself in that kind of situation.

This past year I’ve thought a lot about the things I am afraid of in life and how that fear paralyzes me. I don’t want to avoid being vulnerable and in turn risking who I want to be. I want to be the person who does things and does things that help other people, not the one who talks about it and says some day. And, as a dear friend once advised me when I was contemplating all the reasons I shouldn’t do Peace Corps, sometimes the reasons why we shouldn’t do something are the reasons why we should. Because I am afraid of asking people for money to support something I truly believe in is the exact reason why I should run this marathon and fundraise along the way.

World Vision is not just a charity I chose because it’s one of the biggest or because they have the brightest jerseys. A lot of people run for TWV because someone spoke at their church or they know someone who has done it for years. For me, it was personal.

Along the road between Maseru and Thaba-Tseka, the road I ran hundreds of times while training for the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon and trying to find some kind of normalcy in my life, there is a World Vision sign. WV had worked with leaders in the area to form HIV/AIDS support groups that not only taught prevention but also helped those impacted by the disease, whether it was them personally infected or a family member. The WV team did such a great job integrating people from the surrounding villages in their efforts that they deemed the project sustainable and stepped away from it, allowing villager leaders to be the driving force. What I liked about WV wasn’t that they were dropping in and giving a bunch of things to needy people, rather working with people in those areas to develop sustainable solutions. They also hired Basotho to run the office, not expats.

World Vision, like any aid organization, isn’t perfect but their approach to development, on the ground in Lesotho, wasn’t about giving to feel good, rather being an active member of society to help find solutions because that is our duty as humans.

I wanted to be apart of that, even if in a little way and even if these efforts aren’t directly related to WV’s HIV work in Lesotho. Clean water is still a worthy issue to bring attention to, another firsthand understanding I received in Lesotho and Niger.

Sometimes I wonder if I am not fundraising enough. Today I saw the donation page of a someone trying to raise $10,000 with the marathon right after raising $7,000 for a triathlon. But, just like a marathon, fundraising isn’t about sprinting to the finish or trying to be the best. It’s about exploring the different ways to get to my goal, the fears behind them and then unlocking the courage to be vulnerable and awkward as I ask a friend to give a little bit of their income. Because I may just reach the finish line or I may just find a whole new journey and path.

Yes, raising the second half of my goal is scary and I do worry about it, but sometimes we need to do scary things because we are called to do them. Sometimes we need to face our fears because hiding behind them hurts more than just us.

Please consider helping 1,2 or 3 people get access to clean water. Donate here