When I decided to run my first marathon, my heart was shut off. Somewhere in that 26-mile process, it sputtered back to life, like a jammed copy machine that needed a good kick in the paper-tray.
I'm back here again, two days to the Keys100 fifty-mile race, and my heart is shattered. There is no other way to put it. They say no one can use your flaws against you if you own them, so here it is: I am destroyed. I went through a shocking experience that left me in a complete state of grief. It doesn't matter what happened. It only matters what I do with it now.
They say that the only way to move through grief is to feel everything. So I'm lucky to be running fifty miles on Saturday. I want to feel it all. The ugly. The sharp. The abstract. The poignant. The powerful. The calm. All of it. I want to be a human in the most human way – and the best way I know how to do that is to run, and run long.
That's what the Keys100 has always meant to me – a way to live an entire lifetime in a day. It washes my soul. But this year will be different because I made a huge step in a new direction. My brother called me on Wednesday, and he asked if he could fly down to Florida and crew me for the race. I did what I always do, at first: I said, thank you. But I'm okay. You don't have to do that. Really, I am okay, and you'll hate crewing. You'll be so hot and tired and bored. I'll come visit you after the race. I promise I'm fine. Blah blah.
Even as I was saying it, the tears were rolling down my face. Because I'm not fine. Because what I wanted more than anything in the world was support. For someone to be by my side. And it's also the thing that most terrifies me. It is hard to accept help. And love. And to be vulnerable. It's fucking hard. So I brush it off like I don't need it. But clearly that's not working well for me. So I thought about it and decided: things cannot get worse. They can only get better. If you do what you've always done – as Einstein, or DMX, or someone always says – you'll get what you always get. So I shut my mouth and wiped my face and said, you know what – yeah. Come down. Let's rock this shit. I cannot wait. What beer should I buy?
That's the moment things began to turn around. Rather than isolating and seeing nothing but darkness, I am visualizing how great this can really be. I realize how much my brother makes me laugh. How we have that shared history that makes us communicate like clockwork. I realize that he's willing to take off work, book a last minute flight, and risk a bad sunburn and a 10-hour death march of ultramarathon crewing just to be by my side when he knows I need it most.
Gratitude has slowly begun to glow inside of me. I am reaching out to people. I spent a few nights in deep conversation with my older sister, who I admire and love in the complex and deep way that sisters love. I reached out to one of my biggest mentors and wrote a long note. I reached to my dad, who is out of the country right now. To my closest friends, who responded with nothing but love and kindness. I just began to reach for what I need. It wasn't scary at all. Imagine.
I'm going to tell you a story. When I was a kid, my dad used to buy the biggest Christmas tree he could find in North Alabama. We lot-shopped like we were buying a new car. Then we hoisted the thing on top of my mom's old diesel Volvo station wagon and hauled it home, wrestled it into the house, propped it up in a corner and fed it water and aspirin. And then my dad would go through this ritual of wrapping it in so many strands of colored lights that he could have electrocuted the whole neighborhood. When it was done, we turned off all the lights in the house and plugged it in.
The tree was like a force of multi-colored nature. It almost blinded you in a light show of psychedelic color. You could barely hang ornaments without sunglasses and aspirin. The dogs would eye it carefully, and the tree would eye the dogs back.
And every year, it fell.
Not right away. Not when anyone was home. But once everyone had left the house in different directions, and the tree was able to breathe a sigh of relief, it leaned forward and face-planted into the floor. The dogs would go to their bowls and eat and pretend they didn't know what happened. I am sure that the crash was incredible, in sound and color and slow-motion. But the tree would always crash alone. And whoever got into the house first to witness the aftermath had the terrifying job of alerting everyone. Mayday. Code Red. The tree is down. Repeat, the tree is down. Copy.
It took all of us, getting stabbed in the face with douglas-fir needles and scraped with gingerbread ornaments, to hoist that motherfucker back up into the corner. But we did. We turned our heads and shut our eyes and positioned ourselves around its girth and we stood the tree. And we tied its ass to the windowsill, the wall, and the edge of the fireplace with fishing line. We tightened the stand. We made sure that thing wasn't going to fall again. We swept the mess, turned off all the lights, and plugged it back into the wall. And the lights always came back on. The tree never quite looked like it did before the fall. But it was okay. It was even better now. Because it was a survivor. The dogs wouldn't go near it.
It is in our darkest moments when we learn our biggest lessons. I see it this way: When you crash, when your heart hits the propeller, you have a choice. You can lay in the dark and protect yourself, or you can let people hoist you back up, tie you back together with fishing line, and plug you back into the magic so that you can shine on. It comes down to what you want. I want love. I want to be connected to the energy and kindness and mojo of the universe. I want to be plugged into a constellation of good people and glow like a beast-ass Christmas tree – not flicker out in the darkness. I'm lucky to have humans that will call in the Mayday and surround me and help me up. I'm the luckiest person in the world.
This race is going to be everything – hard, hot, endless, messy, and painful. But that's what life is, and if we accept and surrender to that truth, we can have the buffet of joy and gratitude and magic. It's endless. But you have to suffer to see it. When I get ugly feelings on the run, I'm going to think of all those friends who are helping me shine on right now. I'm going to see my brother up ahead, with his big smile and his larger-than-life personality. I'm going to see all the greatness. I'm going to be that Christmas tree -- a little broken and tilted, but willing to blind the world with my spirit. My legs are ready. My heart is wide open. I'll let you know how it all goes down.