In January, I made it my New Year’s Resolution to run the Tar Heel 10 Miler this year.
For the last three years I’ve planned to run it, even signing up and paying the registration fee a couple of times. But every year, something would come up. Excessive snow and cold or last-minute meetings would prevent me from training. I’d back out shortly before the race and run the shorter 4 mile course instead, or have an unexpected commitment and not run at all.
This year felt different. After my personal failings and loss in last November’s election, I’d made the decision to prioritize my health in 2016, and even wrote about running the race in this paper, hoping the awkwardness would hold me to it.
I’ve always been a casual, if infrequent, runner. The farthest I’d ever run was a 10K (6.2 miles). I knew if I was really going to make this happen this year I needed some accountability.
They say the Tar Heel 10 Miler is more challenging than many half-marathons. The course runs through campus, downtown Chapel Hill, and some of our historic neighborhoods. Our homegrown race benefits the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro YMCA.
The race finishes up Laurel Hill, a winding road running from 15-501 to UNC’s law school. I’d run Laurel Hill a couple of times during the four-mile route, and knew it was tough. I wasn’t sure what shape I would be in when I hit it 8 miles into the race.
I joined a training program at Fleet Feet in Carrboro. At my first session, I could tell I was out of my element. I was wearing old running shoes, a long-sleeve T-shirt, and sweat pants. Everyone else had on real running pants or tights and gear, and it seemed like everyone was running the race for their second or third time. Many had goals of beating a certain time; I just wanted to finish the race!
As the weeks of training went on, my distance and comfort slowly began to increase. Regular yoga sessions helped me breathe more deeply, and made my legs feel limber. I started to build a running playlist, featuring the music of Beyonce, Carly Rae Jepsen and songs from “The Wiz.” I learned strategies for long hill runs – hold your shoulders back, and when needed extend one hand in front of you to keep your posture in place. Our instinct when running hills is to lean into the road with your shoulders, which expends more energy and is counterproductive.
The Fleet Feet program did long runs on Saturday mornings, and once we started to hit 6 miles I started to look forward to each week. Every Saturday as we increased our distance was a personal record for the longest I’d ever run in my life. I started to get to know other members of the program and enjoyed chatting about our lives while running.
One Saturday a month from the race, we were caught unexpectedly in a downpour. The drops of rain felt good as first, but as our distance from the store and amount of rain increased, I started to feel miserable. My cotton T-shirt weighed me down from how much rain it was holding.
Halfway through the course we came to a neighborhood clubhouse where a Fleet Feet employee was on hand with water and energy chews. She offered to take our electronics back to the store given the rain. Unlike some folks, I didn’t have a fancy waterproof armband to hold my phone. I just carried it in my hand, and was concerned that it couldn’t handle another 4 miles of torrential downpour. But music had been my crutch through much of my training, I knew that when I was losing steam a couple songs from “Hamilton” could propel me forward.
As we prepared to start the second half of the run, I quickly put my phone in the box to be taken back to the store, and ran off, speeding away before I changed my mind.
And it worked. Freed from depending on pop hits or my finely tuned “Crazy in Love” Pandora station, I was able to let me mind wander, filling it with my own music or thoughts about what was to come. I was less distracted by my soaked shirt, although I did still ring it out from time to time. The soundtrack of my mind proved more inspirational than anything I could have found from my playlist. When I finished with our group at the Fleet Feet store four miles later, my last shred of doubt about my ability to finish the Tar Heel 10 Miler went away.
On race morning, I began the run with a nervous mix of excitement and trepidation. The first couple of miles were tough, the road was crowded and something wasn’t clicking.
About three miles in, I hit my stride. It may have been seeing Sandra Rich on Franklin Street cheering us on, waving her Tar Heel blue pom-pom and a cut-out of Michael Jordan. A friend from the program and I were running about the same pace, and linked up and ran the second half together.
When I came to Laurel Hill, I knew the combination of my training (and pumped-up music on my playlist) would give me what I needed to finish. As I climbed, I couldn’t help but think of all the things that led me to this moment. Failure that had inspired me to do better, months of work, and friends that supported me in this endeavor. I carried it all with me as I ran up Laurel Hill.
Lee Storrow is a former member of the Chapel Hill Town Council and resident of Chapel Hill. He finished the Tar Heel 10 Miler on April 23, 2016. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org