This fall, my daughter took a half-year course called “A Hero’s Journey”, which delved into the theory of Joseph Campbell that all of our favorite stories resonate with us because they follow the same narrative pattern. A hero is separated from what she knows, is tested, receives help, battles and wins, and returns home, not quite the same. You see it played out in books like The Odyssey and The Hobbit, in movies like “Star Wars”, “Forrest Gump”, and “The Hunger Games”, and in everyday life, yours and mine. We might live this same cycle over and over in our lives, progressing as people a little more each time.
This weekend, I lived out a hero’s journey and though I’d never categorize myself as a hero, I did conquer. I did so with the help of my mentor, that same daughter, who helped me identify the sixteen steps as we met them together. She helped me believe that what was impossible was actually possible, and her belief made it so. To you, it may not seem like such a big deal. A half-marathon, in very cold and windy weather, completed by a forty-five year old woman. You might say there’s nothing all that epic about a race that literally hundreds of thousands of people have completed, but, and please forgive me, you’d be wrong. Like I said, I’m no hero, but I did conquer.
Part I: Separation/Departure
Call to Adventure (some new information causes hero to head off into the unknown)
The day I completed my first 10K, I was convinced that would be my longest distance ever. When my friend, Dianne, said I could eventually run a half marathon simply by adding five minutes to my long run every week, I didn’t totally buy into her theory, believing that distance to be reserved for ‘real athletes’. Still, I added the time, slowly progressing further from home, but not knowing at all what was ahead.
Refusal of the Call/Acceptance of the Call (at first reluctant, hero finally accedes)
It took me an awfully long time to officially put down the money to sign up for the Ocean’s Run half, but the unseasonably good weather and promised flat course led me to finally register. Maura was in the room at the time and knew how hard a thing it was for me to do. She was with me from the beginning.
Supernatural Aid (help is given, makes hero wiser and stronger)
Maura was given to me as a mentor and thank God she was. Her firm, steady guidance and wisdom go well beyond her years. She literally gave me her (under) armour, and Tim gave me his balaclava, a head and neck covering meant to protect a runner from cold and wind. The word comes from a similar protective garment worn by soldiers in the Crimean war. Suited up with all kinds of armor and protection, we were going into battle.
Crossing of the First Threshold (hero crosses point of no return)
An early race time necessitated an overnight stay in Westerly, RI. Maura gave me her whole weekend and we left about noon on Saturday. There were bagels and pep talks.
Entering the Belly of the Whale (hero enters zone of danger)
We went directly to the beach race location to pick up my bib number and other information and it was freezing there and very windy. This cannot be overstated. Do you remember when I said it was the unseasonably warm weather which led me to commit to this race? I had never trained in less than forty degrees. At the beach at 2pm on Saturday: twenty-two degrees and winds ten to twenty miles per hour with gusts up to thirty. Because of the wind, race organizers couldn’t put up their signage, tents, or finish line arch, but had to spray paint course directions on the ground. It looked like a barren wasteland. Many volunteers and even the race photographer bailed. And we didn’t know this yet, but four hundred of the eight hundred registered runners wouldn’t show up at all.
It was impossible.
Part II: Initiation
Road of Trials (hero progresses through a series of tests)
The current and forecasted race-time weather (8am: sixteen degrees, winds gusting up to twenty-five miles per hour) resulted in a full-blown panic. Doubt and despair were knocking, hard. I was so afraid of failure. It was all Maura could do to keep me from turning around and going home.
Meeting with the Goddess (hero meets a powerful female figure, gains support)
We went to a local parish, Immaculate Conception, for mass, where I asked (okay, begged) Jesus and His Mom to help me. All the while, my close female friends and spiritual director were sending me texts with promises of prayer. Then we went to dinner and while we were seated, a couple came in to wait for a table and the missus looked exactly like my Mom who art in Heaven (even Maura had chills). We made long eye contact that should have been awkward, but it wasn’t. She just kindly smiled at me. Eventually, she and her husband went to wait in the car and just like that, she was gone. Think what you will about that, but it really helped, all of it.
Woman as Temptress (she offers short-term relief which would cause hero to fail)
Sunday morning at 7am, we walked through the hotel lobby in all of our many clothing layers when a local witch raised her bony, crooked finger and screeched at us to stop. I am semi-serious about this. The desk clerk, unfortunate in appearance and manner, told us we had better not leave without first warming up our cars. Then she proceeded to tell us about a race by the beach that her policeman-boyfriend was working that morning that was going to be seriously dangerous. When we replied that I was, in fact, running that very race, she slowly creaked, “I don’t know…” while solemnly shaking her head. It was unhelpful. We proceeded through the automatic doors.
Atonement with the Father (hero must confront ultimate power/concept that directs)
As we reached the beach, we were met by Tim and Brian, and as I pinned my bib to one of my many layers, they were notably cheerful and nervously supportive. It struck me. When you have the opportunity to do something that your teenage kids might always remember as a life lesson and triumph, there’s really no question about whether to proceed. As my Dad would say, “Let’s do it.”
Apotheosis (hero transcends, perhaps changing in appearance)
At race time, it was fourteen degrees with a wind-chill of negative three, winds holding at ten-twenty with gusts of up to twenty-five. I planned to wear my red, puffy coat (the heavy one my Mom bought me years ago) until the very start of the race and then shed it, but I couldn’t let it go. Tim promised me he would collect it wherever I dropped it, and my runner-kids advised starting with it, so off I went, tropical ‘In The Heights’ soundtrack in my ears, the puffiest runner on the course.
When I dropped it a third of a mile later, I was shedding more than a coat. I was committing to finish. I was all in.
The Ultimate Boon (goal of the journey is achieved)
There was a lot that happened on that run that I can’t quite explain. I felt carried, somehow. There were parts when I called out audibly for help from God and I got it. I saw a fisherman statue that looked just like one my Mom had and which we mercilessly mocked. The winds pushed and I continued on, slowly. There was water and sky and Lin-Manuel Miranda music which is always about hope in the end.
As I passed mile eleven, I knew it was the time in which my legs usually cramp up terribly, but I was determined to run on. They felt good, or maybe numb, which is just as good. And when I passed mile twelve, I ate the last of my energy gummies and looked for the finish line.
Tim and Brian were at mile twelve point five. Tim was waving a large red banner which looked like a hero’s cape but which I ultimately recognized as my puffy coat, long discarded. It, and they, were calling me back home. The last tenth mile was set around a parking lot with traffic cones, and as I entered that space, I saw three crazy women holding signs. They were for me. They read, ‘RUN, KERRY, RUN!” and “She will soar as with eagle’s wings. She will RUN and not grow weary” from Isaiah. It was a total surprise and it wrecked me, these dear women making the trip to stand in the frigid temperatures for me. They were jumping and clapping and even Irish-jigging, and they made me want to finish strong, the way I told my spiritual director I would, with a spring and a leap over the finish line.
And there was my Maura, my mentor, my daughter, my friend. Pulling for me, pulling me with her solid, determined will all along the way toward the finish. When I found her, we hugged and sobbed and I told her I could never have done it without her. And it’s true. It’s so true.
Part III: Return
Refusal of the Return (hero wishes to stay in the place he’s found bliss/excitement)
It may be true that I wore my medal for the rest of the day, even after showering and changing clothes and in public view all day long.
Magic Flight (mad dash home)
Already facing a late-checkout deadline, we packed up the breakfast-smoothie blender and all of my sweaty gear and hightailed it out of there like we were escaping.
Rescue From Without (hero is rescued from a final plight)
When you run thirteen point one miles in sub-freezing temperatures, your legs are not in prime driving condition. Thankfully, with four drivers in the family and two cars (one with a heated passenger seat), we all made it home in comfort and safety.
Crossing of Return Threshold (hero returns to home turf, safe from pursuit or woes)
After a celebratory lunch, I came home to find messages of love and congratulations taped to my front door. My sweet neighbors welcomed me home.
Master of the Two Worlds (completed the journey out/ back in, now a master of both)
Today, a day after it all happened, I taught a class full of kids, went grocery shopping, and cooked a little something special for my mentor/kid who would go from school to rehearsal to work. It was an ordinary day, but I don’t feel ordinary. I feel different. As I walked the dog around our familiar route, I looked up and the sky looked particularly blue. You could see the moon and its shape clear as day and I just nodded at it. Some days we get to see everything.
Freedom to Live (hero has earned right to live life as she chooses)
The value of my experience will hopefully be as an encouragement or inspiration to others who might face things they think are impossible. My first run since compulsory high school gym class took place well after age forty-one and four years later, I ran a half marathon with the wind decidedly in my face. That’s not for nothing. I know in a way even more settled in my bones today that I can choose my life, that I’m given help when I need it, that I’m not alone, that I’m stronger than I think, and that I can do the impossible.
And so, my friend, can you.
Thanks for reading…and thanks, Maura, for everything. I love you.