It was October 6th, 2013, and I was 1 mile into the Twin Cities Marathon when I turned to Michelle Lilienthal next to me and said “let’s do this.”
Michelle and I chatted along the course, keeping each other in check when the pace picked up, and pulling each other along as each of us dragged. We decided that anyone who cheered for one of us was cheering for both of us. We called ourselves “Team Love.”
Maybe it was the endorphins, maybe it was the nerves, maybe it was the sisterhood of our mutual respect for one another as people and as distance runners. Or maybe it was the fact that we had both gone through a lot of changes in our lives over the previous three months.
The previous July, I had had the sudden realization that I wasn’t and couldn’t be the best version of myself while staying at ZAP, and therefore I couldn’t sign on for another year at the impending end of my contract. And so within 2 weeks of my decision, I left the comfort of living as a fully-sponsored professional runner at ZAP Fitness with my then boyfriend Cole and the rest of my ZAP family.
I moved home as a 27-year-old on a mission to get a job as an assistant coach at any college program that would take me. I just had this overwhelming hunch that that would be the key to bringing out something better in me.
Within what seemed like the longest 4 weeks of my life, I rekindled my coach-athlete relationship with Terrance Shea, found an awesome job opportunity for a great boss at Rider University, joined the New York Athletic Club’s Running Club, packed all my things into my tiny Toyota Yaris, and moved to Central New Jersey.
Meanwhile, during the same three months, Michelle had gone through a divorce. She had to make some tough decisions to become a better, happier version of herself as well. And as a result, her life was also in the very beginning stages of recovering from the consequences.
Despite all of its obstacles, my training block had gone really well. I was confident and happy to just be in a stable living situation, fit, healthy, and ready to race. It was all so surreal that everything had worked out.
I knew Michelle was fit, she knew I was fit, and we were both on a mission to prove that the decisions we had made were right for us. We didn’t really talk about any of the details before, during or after the race, but that common bond was palpable.
Michelle and I stayed side by side through 24 miles of the course, at which point she granted me the go-ahead to leave her behind. During those final 12 minutes or so, my runner’s-high-induced self decided that I would come across the line with my hands in the shape of a heart over my head in honor of our Team Love and all that our teamwork had done for me and Michelle as we finished 3rd and 4th at the 2013 US Marathon Championships in huge personal best times for both of us.
At that time, the heart was all about Michelle. Twin Cities 2013 was a huge breakthrough for me in many ways. And one of the biggest breakthroughs was the realization that I cannot run my best marathon alone, and helping Michelle along the way had only helped to bring out the best in me.
Over time, that finishing pose came to mean so much more. It came to represent the huge change that had occurred in my life. I had gone from a place where my job was to focus purely on myself, to a place where I had the beautiful distraction of focusing on helping others to be their best selves in running, too.
I took my position as a role model very seriously and knew that the Rider athletes would learn so much more from what they saw me do than from what they heard me say. That had made all the difference in my approach to my own training.
In yoga, they have the practice of closing a group practice with the word “namaste,” which is translated to mean various expanded versions of “the spirit in me honors the spirit in you.” My understanding is that namaste is a way to close the practice with gratitude to those who shared in it and to all the people and events that brought you to that moment in peace.
The heart over my head has become my running version of yoga’s “Namaste.” It is my acknowledgement and gratitude toward all of my competitors who helped to drive me to this moment of accomplishment. It is for all of the people, schools, and sponsors that supported me along the way. It’s for the love and joy of running itself, and for the simple fact that the sum of life is so much greater than its parts.
So next time you see me celebrate 3rd place or 11th place or 55th place with a heart over my head, it might still look silly, but at least now you know what it means to me.
Do you run with heart?