An 86th birthday half marathon

I promised in one of my earliest posts to tell the story about how my active grandmother (Gram) joined me on a race course. I’m happy to share one of my best memories.

What I didn’t mention was that the race — a half marathon — was on her 86th birthday. Not that I had any doubt she could do it.

Race bling!

Race bling!

The 2007 Philadelphia Marathon was on the list of events for a team I helped coach and coordinate. When I noticed that the race date happened to be Gram’s birthday, I knew I had to see if she might want to add a half marathon to her list of physical accomplishments. (You may recall from my earlier post that she took up skiing in her 50s, helped found a hiking club in her 60s and biked — more than once — across New Jersey.) Plus, because she had essentially inspired me to hit the race course in the first place, I loved the prospect of doing a race with her.

At that point, I’d completed three full marathons but no half marathons, and she was familiar with my participation. And I’d joined her on ski slopes and hiking and biking trails many times over the years. So I called her.

“Gram, there’s a half marathon in Philadelphia on your birthday. Do you think you’d like to do it together?”

“How far is a half marathon?” she asked.

“Thirteen-point-one miles,” I replied.

“Okay,” she agreed.

“Great!” I said. “When it comes time to start training officially, I’ll give you the details.”

“Oh,” she said, “I don’t think I need to train. I go hiking every week!”

Well … okay then!

But she was right. Her regular hiking prepared her just fine. (I wouldn’t recommend this for all beginners, but if you’ve met Gram, you know it was going to be okay.)

The race was on a Sunday. On Saturday evening, our team held a pasta dinner and gathering. I couldn’t have been more pleased to see my wishes about Gram come to fruition.

You see, our family would always tell Gram how terrific it was that she was so active; that she hiked regularly in her 80s; that she still liked to get out on her bike. But she would always respond dismissively, as if it were no big thing. She’s always been modest that way. I wanted her to hear the same accolades from strangers, believing it might give her more of an idea of how awesome and impressive she is.

When my coworkers eagerly approached us to meet her, and when so many other members of the team expressed their admiration to her, I think some of it did make an impression. By the end of the evening, she was reveling in her celebrated status. I was overjoyed.

Soon race morning dawned. We rose early, dressed in layers for the chilly race, and lined up with thousands of others near the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She soon expressed her amused annoyance with repeated photo taking by my husband. When the “Rocky” theme music begin to blare from the PA — the race starts in front of the famous stairs Rocky ran up, after all — we were off!

Our pace was slow and steady, and in 3 or 4 miles we were with a small group of walkers who were shifted to the sidewalks as the streets were reopened to traffic. We went through Center City, past Independence Hall, near the Philadelphia Zoo and Drexel University. It drizzled on us, but Gram kept stating that she was fine in her wool sweater — tried and true on many a winter hike. She even gave me her gloves at one point!

As we were in the final mile, we saw some women coming toward us. Among our team was a group of sisters, each of whom wore a different large dressy hat. A few of the sisters had finished the race already and were backtracking to find their other sisters. When they spotted Gram, they expressed delight in seeing her on the course. Gram stopped in her tracks to gab with them. I had to gently urge her to keep going. “We’re almost at the finish!” I encouraged.

My husband waited just before mile 13 to get our photo, and my dad (Gram’s son) and stepmother found a spot right near the finish line to watch for us. We rounded Eakins Oval, saw the end approaching, grabbed hands and crossed the finish line, as her name was broadcast by the announcer.

We did it!

We did it!

We happily accepted our medals, wrapped ourselves in space blankets, and started to celebrate. Our family eagerly sought us out in the finisher area to offer hugs and congratulations. My dad announced that he was treating us to lunch, and we happily chowed on cheeseburgers as Gram talked about how she couldn’t wait to get in her jacuzzi tub at home.

Proud finishers.

Proud finishers.

Several weeks after the race, Gram called. In the mail she’d received a wooden plaque with a photo of us crossing the finish line and commemorating her third-place finish in her age group. (Which I dispute, by the way. Upon checking the race results, I noticed that the first and second-place finishers were listed as age 99, so I suspect they were people who didn’t input an age and that was a default.)

“Did you get one of these in the mail?” she asked.

“No, Gram — I didn’t exactly finish third in my age group,” I said, smiling. But that was okay. I wasn’t in the race for a PR.

Seven years later, she’s approaching 93 and most recently joined a croquet league. The half marathon plaque still hangs in a place of honor in her home. And the memory of sharing the experience with her holds a place of honor in my heart.

Why I race

OK, so it’s one thing to go for a walk. To set out around the nearby streets of your neighborhood for a 30-minute stroll.

But how and why does one progress from that to deliberately walking 13.1 (because just 13 would be crazy, as racers like to joke!) or 26.2 miles?

For me, it’s about my grandmothers.

No matter where you stand on the nature vs. nurture continuum, we all have both in our makeup to some degree. When the opportunity first presented itself to walk a marathon (more on that in a future post), my thought process turned to my grandmothers.

At that time (2005), one of my grandmothers was not in the best of health. She was 81. During her life, she wasn’t really an exerciser, and her primary form of physical activity over the years was gardening and yard work. Sometimes she did a little stationary cycling.

My other grandmother tended to amaze everyone who met her. In 2005, she was 84, and she went hiking weekly with a hiking club she helped start when she was in her 60s. Even before that, in her 50s, she took up downhill and cross-country skiing, and in her 60s she bicycled across New Jersey (from the northwestern corner to the southeastern tip) with a cycling group on a week-long trip a few years in a row. She was active and fit — and quite healthy.

So, as I thought about whether I could/should/wanted to walk a full, 26.2-mile marathon, I thought of two possible outcomes for my old age, at least in terms of the “nature” angle. And it was clear to me that I wanted to age like my amazing, inspiring active Gram — and to accomplish that, I might want to step it up (no pun intended!) while I was still relatively young.

I registered for the race. And I’ll tell you in a future post how my active Gram joined me on the race course a few years later.