Before I go to sleep on Saturday, I'll set my alarm for 4 a.m. I'll double-check the weather and lay out the clothes I'll wear during the Iron Girl Half Marathon, which starts and ends at the Columbia lakefront. I'll safety-pin my race number to the front of my shirt.
Over the years, I've run marathons and half-marathons, 10-milers and 10Ks, and I've slogged up that last brutal hill on the Centennial Lake path to cross the finish line in three Iron Girl triathlons.
Before every event, as I puttered around the house the night before, knowing I would be too nervous to sleep well, I've seriously entertained the thought of just sleeping in, skipping the race and instead enjoying a leisurely morning of coffee and newspapers and pancakes.
Not this year. Like other runners, I am more determined than ever to run, to cross that finish line in a big, public event. "You won't find many runners who will be deterred by what happened in Boston," said Laurie Chin, who will run the Half Marathon this weekend. "I have spent the past five months training for this and pretty much nothing is going to stop me from getting to the start line!"
Here's a little secret about running. It is hard. It is boring. It hurts. And that's why these awful brothers will never change us. We already know what it's like to keep going, through the pain and fear. As they approached that fateful finish line, those Boston runners had already slogged up Heartbreak Hill, had battled exhaustion and nausea, had passed the 23-mile mark knowing they still had a 5K to go. Nobody can take that triumph from them.
Five years ago, I ran the Frederick Marathon in the pouring rain, with a high temperature of 50 degrees. Slogging through those 26.2 miles (and that last .2 was the longest, hilliest and windiest .2 miles on the planet) fundamentally changed me. I am a marathoner. A runner. When life gets challenging, I say to myself, "I can deal with this. I ran a marathon." I ran after my children were born, I ran when my father-in-law was dying, I ran through 20 weeks of chemotherapy.
I run probably five days a week, and I hate it nearly every time. I hate that my neighborhood seems to get hillier each day. I hate the mechanical voice on my MapMyRun iPhone app that tells me I ran a mile in 9 minutes, 45 seconds, when I want to run it in 9 minutes, 15 seconds. I hate waking up at 4:30 in the morning to do speedwork on a high school track in the cold and dark (OK, I've only done that one a few times). I hate that my lungs burn, my knees creak and my left foot has a weird new twinge. I hate the heat, the cold, the humidity, the ice on the roads.
But here are the things I love. Running as the sun comes up on an early-spring morning. Seeing the deer and foxes in our neighborhood. Running with friends, chatting about everything in the world as the miles pass under our sneakered feet. Most of all, I love being strong.
Race days are special, and so are the people who selflessly wake up early in the morning, standing outside in all kinds of weather, holding funny signs ("Toenails are for wimps!" "Kick as-phalt!") to cheer us on. Our names are on our race numbers, so people will shout out: "Great job, Karen. You've got this. One more mile" I don't know why, but those words of encouragement are more effective than a water stop. I can feel myself pick up speed.
There are no guarantees of safety in this world. People die in car accidents, in bathtubs, in terrorist attacks. The best we can do is keep living as long and as hard as we can. And for runners, that means running.
See you at the finish line.
Karen Nitkin is a Howard County resident and a freelance writer for the Baltimore Sun Media Group.