For years, running has been a way for me to relax, unwind, and take some time for myself. It has a way of making me feel strong, empowered, free, and happy. But I never truly realized what it meant to me until I was faced with one of the greatest adversities of my life.
Two years ago my boyfriend Matt, whom I'd been with for seven years, called me before he was headed to play a basketball game for a local league he was in. Calling me before a game wasn't a habit for him, but that day he wanted to tell me that he loved me and that he was hoping I'd cook dinner for him for a change. (FYI, the kitchen is not my area of expertise.)
Begrudgingly, I agreed and asked him to skip basketball and come home to spend time with me instead. He assured me the game would be quick and that he'd be home in no time.
Twenty minutes later, I saw Matt's name on my phone again, but when I answered, the voice on the other side wasn't him. I immediately knew something was wrong. The man on the line said Matt had been hurt and that I should get there as fast as I could.
I beat the ambulance to the court and saw Matt lying on the ground with people all around him. When I got to him, he looked fine, but he couldn't move. After being rushed to the ER and several scans and tests later, we were told that Matt had severely injured his spine in two places right below the neck and that he was paralyzed from the shoulders down. (Related: I'm an Amputee and Trainer—But Didn't Step Foot In the Gym Until I Was 36)
In many ways, Matt is lucky to be alive, but from that day on he had to completely forget the life he had before and start from scratch. Before his accident, Matt and I were completely independent of each other. We were never the couple that did everything together. But now, Matt needed help doing everything, even the most basic of things like scratching an itch on his face, drinking water, or moving from point A to point B.
Because of that, our relationship also had to start from scratch as we adjusted to our new life. The thought of not being together, though, was never a question. We were going to work through this bump no matter what it took.
The funny thing with spinal cord injuries is that they're different for everyone. Since his injury, Matt has been going to intensive physical therapy at a local rehabilitation center called Journey Forward four to five times a week—the ultimate goal being, that by following these guided exercises, he'd eventually gain back some if not all of his mobility.
That's why when we first got him into the program in 2016, I promised him that one way or the other, we'd run the Boston Marathon together the following year, even if that meant I had to push him in a wheelchair the entire way. (Related: What Signing Up for the Boston Marathon Taught Me About Goal-Setting)
So, I started training.
I'd run four or five half marathons before, but Boston was going to be my first marathon ever. By running the race, I wanted to give Matt something to look forward to and, for me, training gave me the opportunity for mindless long runs.
Ever since his accident, Matt has been completely dependent on me. When I'm not working, I'm making sure he has everything he needs. The only time I truly get to myself is when I run. In fact, even though Matt prefers that I'm around him as much as possible, running is the one thing he'll push me out the door to do, even if I feel guilty for leaving him.
It's become such an amazing way for me to either get away from reality or actually take time to process all the things that are going on in our lives. And when everything seems like it's out of my control, a long run can help me feel grounded and remind me that everything is going to be okay. (Related: 11 Science-Backed Ways Running Is Really Good for You)
Matt made a ton of progress throughout his first year of physical therapy, but he wasn't able to get back any of his functionality. So last year, I decided to run the race without him. Crossing the finish line, however, just didn't feel right without Matt by my side.
Over the past year, thanks to his dedication to physical therapy, Matt has started to feel pressure on parts of his body and can even wiggle his toes. This progress encouraged me to find a way to run the 2018 Boston Marathon with him as promised, even if that meant pushing him in his wheelchair the entire way. (Related: What People Don't Know About Staying Fit In a Wheelchair).
Unfortunately, we missed the official race deadline to participate as an "athletes with disabilities" duo. Then, as luck would have it, we got an opportunity to partner with HOTSHOT, a local manufacturer of sports shot drinks aimed to prevent and treat muscle cramping, to run the race route a week before it opened up to registered runners. Together we worked to raise awareness and funds for Journey Forward with HOTSHOT generously donating $25,000. (Related: Meet the Inspiring Team of Teachers Chosen to Run the Boston Marathon)
When they heard what we were up to, the Boston Police Department offered to provide us with a police escort throughout the course. Come "race day," Matt and I were so surprised and honored to see crowds of people ready to cheer us on. Just as the 30,000+ runners will do on Marathon Monday, we started at the official Start Line in Hopkinton. Before I knew it, we were off, and people even joined us along the way, running portions of the race with us so we never felt alone.
The largest crowd made up of family, friends, and supportive strangers joined us at Heartbreak Hill and accompanied us all the way to the finish line at Copley Square.
It was the finish line moment when Matt and I both burst into tears together, proud and overwhelmed by the fact that we finally did what we had set out to do two years ago. (Related: Why I'm Running the Boston Marathon 6 Months After Having a Baby)
So many people have come up to us since the accident to tell us that we are inspiring and that they feel motivated by our positive attitude in the face of such a heartbreaking situation. But we never truly felt that about ourselves until we made it past that finish line and proved that we can do anything we put our minds to and that no obstacle (big or small) was going to get in our way.
It also gave us a change in perspective: Maybe we're lucky. Through all this adversity and through all of the setbacks we've faced these last two years, we've learned life lessons that some people wait decades to really understand.
What most people consider to be the stresses of daily life, whether that's work, money, weather, traffic, are a walk in the park for us. I would give anything for Matt to feel my hugs or just have him hold my hand again. Those little things that we take for granted every day are really what matters most, and in so many ways, we're grateful that we know that now.
Overall, this whole journey has been a reminder to be appreciative of the bodies we have and most of all, be thankful for the ability to move. You never know when that could be taken away. So enjoy it, cherish it, and use it as much as you can.