One Step at a Time

I stood at the edge of a parking lot near the zoo in Duluth, Minn., waiting for the sun to come up and for the mosquitos to quit biting. They were merciless that July morning, and I had not thought to bring insect repellent. I paced and swatted, hoping my constant movement would make me a less desirable target.

A gentleman offered some bug spray, which I gladly accepted. He asked me my name and introduced himself and his companions. He then asked if I had run this race before, as if he could not tell from my pink shoes, pink socks, and pink tank top which made me stand out like a suburban housewife next to the others. I had sent a text message to my sister moments before: “Everyone here is way more gnarly than I am.”

“Can you tell me about the Power Lines?” I asked. He laughed. My friend who had run the race and encouraged me to register for it would not enlighten me when I had asked. The Power Lines is a section of the course that is both notorious and veiled in secrecy. It is as if every runner who has braved this section wants to talk about it – about conquering it – but also wants the novice to experience it for themselves, without any clue as to what awaits them. The gentleman said, “Last year when I made it to the top of the first hill, I passed out. When I woke up, there was an angel standing over me and feeding me frozen grapes.”

We were waiting for the start of the Eugene Curnow Trail Marathon, 26.2 miles from Duluth to Carlton covering every type of terrain you can imagine in Minnesota. Mud so thick it sucks your shoes off, tall dry grass growing from slippery sand, narrow clay trails peppered with rocks and boulders, acres of tall pines and paths littered with fallen needles, trees that must be climbed over or under, icy blue streams, and hills so steep you have to pull yourself up them using your hands.

This was to be my fifth marathon and by far the most challenging I had ever experienced. I was nervous and a little bit fearful, but as I stood at the start, mentally preparing to begin the first ascent that ends on a ski hill with a breathtaking view of Lake Superior, I had faith that no matter what I faced on the trails ahead of me, I would finish the race. And so it has been with my sobriety. I have been blessed with the belief that if I put one foot in front of the other and continue on the path, I can live a life that is happy, joyous, and free.

For two seasons during my high school years, I was a member of the track team. I was the only person in our small school willing to run the 1600-meter race, or the mile, which is perhaps the only reason I was allowed to remain on the team. I was surely the worst runner in our entire conference, and during the race I would be lapped once, if not twice, by the fastest runners. Still, I finished every race often cheered on by my teammates and my mother.

It was not until years later, when I was encouraged by the fact that Oprah Winfrey ran a marathon, that I was tempted to take up the sport of running again. For several years I completed the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure on Mother’s Day in Minneapolis, but I never trained for it and suffered through every minute of the 3.1-mile race.

Then in the spring of 2010, two and a half years after I accepted I was powerless over alcohol and made the decision to turn my will and my life over to the care of the God of my understanding, I laced up some shoes and attempted to jog. Two times a week, I would drive one mile to Lake Harriet, run one 2.6-mile lap around the lake, and then drive myself back home to replace the calories I had just burned.

At first, I hated it, and I marveled at the people who laughed and talked and appeared to be enjoying themselves while running. I was in constant pain, which must have been obvious to the runners who gave me a double thumbs-up and a huge smile of encouragement as they met me on the path.

One day I set out from my apartment determined to run for an entire hour, which I had never done in my life. I mapped out my course after I had finished and was pleased to see I had run five miles. I told a friend who said, “Wendi, if you can run five miles, you can run a 10K,” so I signed up for the Get in Gear, downloaded a beginner training plan, and completed my first 10K a few weeks later. To celebrate my achievement, I took myself to a bed and breakfast in Duluth. The very next morning while lounging in my room and looking out onto a stormy Lake Superior, I registered for my first half marathon. The running bug had caught me, and as we say, I was off and running. I ran several half marathons in 2010 and my first three marathons in 2011.

For me, running was another step on my recovery journey to spiritual, emotional, and physical wellness. I applied the same tenacity and dedication toward training for marathons that I had used to destroy my life when I was drinking. Where alcoholism had been a way for me to slowly kill myself, running became an affirmation of life and a form of meditation.

I lost 75 pounds while training for my first half marathon and gained many friends who were members of both the recovery and running communities. With every step I took, and every “X” I marked on my marathon training calendar, I gained confidence in my abilities and pride in my accomplishments. As an alcoholic, I felt like a failure, but as a runner I was a winner every time even if I crossed the finish line hours after most of the other racers had received their medals and gone home to shower and rest.

In some areas of my life, I still struggle with feelings of hopelessness and despair. At times I believe I am a failure but running and recovery have given me hope and have shown me that I am not. If I am ever in doubt, I need only to look at the rack of medals hanging in the front entry of my apartment, all of which proclaim me a “finisher.”

Just before I reached the halfway point of the Curnow marathon, I stepped down a two-foot drop to cross a stream and my foot slipped out from under me as it touched a wet rock. I landed hard and paused for a moment to determine if I was seriously injured. My shin and arm were badly bruised, but I was able to get up and continue.

Then, as I approached the Power Lines, I realized that my GPS watch had stopped working. This turned out to be a blessing because, as there were no mile markers on the course, I had no idea how far I had to go to the finish. Instead of worrying and wondering, I tried to be present in the moment and to enjoy the beauty of the Superior hiking trail.

I crossed the finish line at 7 hours and 35 minutes, number 207 out of 248 runners. My friend who was there to greet me asked if I would ever do it again. Most of us crazy runners would answer emphatically, “Yes!” I said, “No, never again. I only want to run on flat pavement for the rest of my life.” Then I moved to North Dakota, and I got my wish.


Wendi Wheeler is a plant-based athlete, writer, and member of the recovery community. She currently resides in Fargo with her old cat, Melvin. Find her at beingwendi.wordpress.com.

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