Looking back on the year that was

Published Jan 1, 2017 at 9:00am

(NOTE: First in a series.)

They say running is a metaphor for life.

Even Oprah (Winfrey) has said it: “Running is the greatest metaphor for life because you get out of it what you put into it.” She’s right!

Usually this is the time of year I reflect on my running goals for the upcoming year and ask my fellow Mohawk Valley Hill Striders and other friends in the running community to contribute.

Recently when I had a little quiet time to myself, I started to think of all the obstacles I was forced to overcome over the last year. But at the same time, I was encouraged to consider the milestones I had accomplished as well.

These reflections were sparked by a special Christmas gift I had received from my close friend and running partner — who is currently on hiatus — Jessica.

Jess had collected all the cellphone pictures and selfies we had taken during my first Endometriosis Awareness Run in March, our training runs for the Utica Boilermaker, as well as before-and-after shots of our celebrated first 15K.

She then made a Wonder Woman photo book for me. Everyone who knows me is aware of the personal meaning Wonder Woman has, as far as being a symbol of strength, perseverance and courage. Please don’t mention that I (Wonder Woman) have been fired from the United Nations, because there will forever be a grudge.

When I started looking through all the photos — the exhausted, sweaty faces after an evening of running 7 miles in 86-degree heat and the bright smiles of accomplishment over at the Matt Brewing Co. in West Utica — Jess gave me a gift even more special than the one I had just opened.

“You kept saying what a horrible year 2016 was and how you couldn’t wait for it to be over — how you needed it to be over — but I wanted you to see that it wasn’t all bad because we were able to share a lot of special ‘firsts’ together.”

I just had a difficult time typing that, trying not to make myself cry here at my desk. You see, getting back to running being a metaphor for life – I used to imagine that what I was starting to go through in my life just more than a year ago was like me trying to run through my Erie Canalway Trail in Oriskany during the winter at night (which I have done plenty of times, but wouldn’t recommend).

I felt I kept running through what seemed like this dark tunnel with thick trees and the occasional swamp to my side. I would just keep running and just focus straight ahead, hoping soon I would make my way toward the light of the gas station that neighbors the parking lot to the trail.

As one foot went in front of the other, I would think about how that dark trail was like my life — I was running in the dark, lucky to see maybe a few feet in front of me, and hoping that one day I would find that light up ahead. But I wasn’t quite sure I ever would.

Then earlier in the year I thought I was starting to see that “light” up ahead and my heart had a little cautious hope inside.

But unfortunately, that light came from a “train” and it hit me head-on from the tracks nearby. That train made a lot of noise as it swiftly passed, but then it just went silent and kept going.

That train was far gone, but the pain was unbearable. I just wanted to keep lying down on that trail after that train hit, but I knew that I still had a job to do. I had my first Boilermaker 15K to run, and I wasn’t going to let anyone — that train — derail me and keep me from accomplishing my goals and dreams. I couldn’t let that “train” take away my chance at finally finding the “light.”

So I kept running. During some of those Boilermaker training runs, that heaviness I felt in my heart was like carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders.

I had moments when I just wanted to give up. But when that light was dimmest in my eyes, that was when fellow Hill Striders stepped up and said, “Nicole you’re doing great. You’ve got this.”

They ran alongside me and were there to meet me at the end, making sure I realized that with each practice run I was getting stronger and better, and I was making progress.

My closest friends did the same. They knew I was hurting and struggling, but they ran along with me and didn’t leave my side.

When I felt like giving up they wouldn’t let me. Those friends encouraged me to keep running straight ahead and not look back — not to let my challenges take over me, but instead make me stronger. “This is a friendly reminder: Keep drinking your water!”

I’ll never forget that grimaced look on my face as I crossed the Boilermaker finish line — and unfortunately I can’t thanks to www.MarathonFoto.com — my lower back was killing me.

I didn’t win a trophy or even get a pin for my accomplishment.

Instead my prize was a phone call maybe 30 seconds after the finish. It was my friend Michelle on FaceTime, crying and telling me how she just watched me cross the finish line on TV. “You did it! I am so proud of you, Wonder Woman!,” she uttered through the sobs. And then I started to cry.

Later that day I got to celebrate my personal “victory” with someone who will forever be very special to me and one of my best friends — my grandma. I think I was still trying to explain to her, “No grandma it’s 15 kilometers, not 15 miles, whoa! That’s 9.3 miles.”

“Well that’s still a lot, you’re nuts,” she’d say with a grin and devilish look in her eyes.

“Yup grandma, I am!”

So carrying the “runner’s high” of a personal win, I decided to forge on and keep running to find that light, despite the scars left from that “train.” I “got myself back out there” on the “trail.”

A little more than a month later, when she and the rest of us found out she wouldn’t be here very much longer, I gave grandma a little Wonder Woman tiara bracelet so she’d know that I couldn’t be a “Wonder Woman” if it wasn’t for her.

In return, she promised to “look down” when I was on my runs and make sure I wasn’t “over-doing it” or she’d “kick me in the butt.” I told her that if I ever felt a sharp pain in my “you know where,” I’d know it was her foot.

The first run I went on with the Hill Striders after her passing, I remember struggling with my back pain and wondered how long it would take for grandma to give me the “foot” as I pushed my way through over the hills.

And as I “got myself back out there on the trail,” my back wasn’t the only thing that kept getting hurt.

...To be continued next week.

Running friends advised me to take it easy — to let myself heal before I injured myself worse. Meanwhile, my friends recognized how much my heart hurt too, and with all that I had been through in 2016, said I “needed” to give myself a “break.”

I went from running through that dark Erie Canalway Trail to making a dead stop. I was tired of fighting my way through and thought I needed time to rest and to mourn my grandma and just concentrate on grad school. So I was about to retreat and do something that I didn’t believe in because others had done it to me — retreat into my “tunnel” and “just run away.”

I thought I had successfully surrounded myself by the woods of that trail, so not even the light of the moon could hit my path. I tried running away, but then something — someone — stopped me. Despite all the darkness that surrounded me on that trail, this person was somehow able to “see” me when no one else ever could. Even while trying with all my power to just keeping running, there he was. Instead of running away, this one wanted to run right alongside me. And he’s not even a runner, go figure!

Now I have this “light” that I’m running toward and for once it’s not a “train” that’s coming head-on. I get to enjoy people say to me, “You look different. There’s this light in your eyes I’m not sure I’ve seen in you before.”

So I guess running really is a metaphor for life. When running, it’s important that you always push yourself to do your personal best, despite all the obstacles and challenges. When those “trains” run you down, don’t let them keep you down. Pick yourself up, brush yourself off and don’t let them keep you from running toward that light — it’s there! If you keep running on the right path, you’ll find it! Don’t let anyone change you or take that away from you.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be “hills” along the way. You may suffer an injury that sets you back, but that’s OK. Take the time to heal and recoup. It will only make you better. We may never want to endure pain, but it is true what they say (even when we don’t want to hear it) — it does make us stronger, if we let it.

And whether you’re running your first 15K, your first marathon or your first mile ever, your true teammates — your true supporters — will be right there running with you. They will remind you to “stay hydrated” and scream at you, “Great job!”

You can break a personal record or have your worse race time ever. They won’t judge, and they’ll still be there ready to cheer you on. They realize you’re human and make mistakes — that you struggle but persevere. And because of that, they’ll be waiting right there to watch you cross that finish line. Those are the people you need on your team, so leave those “trains” to their tracks and let them keep going. “You’ve got this!”

So in 2017, I look forward to “seeing” and celebrating with you at the finish line!