“What did you run?” asked a man with kind eyes and a lilt in his voice that sounded either Irish or Scottish.
“The 10K,” I said as a cool breeze drifted across the sweat drying on my skin and my still soaked tank. We’d just stepped off the shuttle that took us from Notre Dame Stadium back to our cars after an annual 5K, 10K and half marathon race in South Bend.
“So how did you do?” asked the man, who I gauged to be in his late 40s to early 50s.
“Eh, pretty much my worst race yet. I was ill prepared. It’s been a really rough year for me.” I replied, my voice cracking as tears filled my eyes. “This is way more than you need to know, but I went through a divorce and it’s been so hard. I have no family in the area and really, very few people I can count on. I’ve gained 12 pounds since last fall. I’m slow. I’m somehow trying to figure out how to be the best me again in all aspects of my life. And I’m really struggling.”
The man took in my response as we walked several more yards toward our cars in silence.
“That’s a lot to go through,” he finally said, with sincere empathy in his eyes and voice. “But the fact that you came out here and did it, that says a lot. You’re not a quitter. And you’re going to be OK. I know it.”
“Thanks for that,” I responded, as the tears finally flooded over my lower eyelids and down my already salty cheeks. “My car is right over here. Thank you so much. Good luck to you.”
“No,” he countered. “Thank you. Thank you for your honesty and for knowing it’s OK to be a little broken and actually admit it. Oh, and keep running. Don’t ever stop running.”
I managed the best smile I could force my lips to form and continued to cry as I bent down and fumbled to unlace my car key from my tennis shoe. Holy shit, I thought. That man didn’t even know me.
He didn’t know about the wave of sadness and disappointment I allowed to creep into my soul as I crossed the finish line that day with the realization that, for the first time since I started running in races two years ago, there was no one waiting or cheering for me on the other side.
He didn’t know how alone I’d felt as I made my way through the stadium concourse, congratulating a friend on her massive half marathon PR and then avoiding eye contact with other people I knew.
He didn’t know I’d spent the 10-minute shuttle ride back to the start line wondering why I’m so good at pushing people away.
But that man. His words. His kindness. His compassion. People like him are one of the many reasons why I keep running. I’ll never see him again, but we connected for a brief moment through camaraderie of accomplishing the same feat on the same day.
And he’s not the first stranger to help me through a race. I’ll never forget that big dude with music blaring from his phone trotting up beside me on Lakeshore Drive in Chicago (it was shut down to traffic for the race) at my first half marathon in 2016.
“Are we gonna do this or what?” he asked.
I gave him a blank, exhausted stare. My legs had started to cramp around mile 8 and I’d stopped to walk. Then somewhere in mile 10, the United States Army soldier was suddenly there with a plan to help me to finish strong.
“Here’s what we’re gonna do,” he’d said, pointing ahead. “We’re running the next three light posts and then we’ll stop and walk two. We’re doing that all the way to the finish. Got it?”
Somewhat in shock, the thought of disagreeing with him never crossed my mind. So at the next light post, we ran. And we continued our run/walk method for the next two-and-a-half miles toward the finish line, talking about what we did for work, our families and running. But then in the final tenth of a mile, he found someone else struggling and told me to go ahead.
“Go!” he yelled, stopping to help a woman who was walking and clearly in pain. “Finish strong!”
After I crossed the finish line that day, I looked for him so I could say thank you but it was too crowded. I also couldn’t remember his name at the time. But when the professional race pictures were released, I scoured through them and eventually found the muscular man who had helped me. Using his bib number to look up his name, and then using his name to search and friend request him on Facebook, we finally connected a few days later.
I sent my new friend Kenneth a message, thanking him for what he’d done and telling him how grateful I was that we crossed paths that day. He told me he was glad to do it, saying we all need a little help sometimes.
And then just a couple months ago, there was Donna Brayfield. I randomly ended up running beside her on mile 9 during a half marathon in my home town this past April – tapping her arm and saying, “You taught me science but I don’t remember your name.” (Who says and does shit like that by the way?)
“Donna Brayfield,” she replied. “Freshman year, Sacred Heart Griffin High School biology.”
Mrs. Brayfield asked where I am living now, if I have kids and what I do for work. For nearly two miles we talked about life and love – and she reminded me I can do hard things. And I admitted to her I actually hated biology.
When I could tell she was picking up her pace, I wished her well and urged her to finish strong.
But then it happened again. A man I’d kept pace with the whole race noticed me slowing down around mile 11 (see a pattern there?) and coached me through the last 2 miles.
He also asked about me – to keep my mind off the hard stuff – and how many races I’d done and my family.
“I’m so close to a PR today,” I said, glancing down at my GPS watch. “It’s going to be really close. Those hills murdered me.”
“Then let’s go,” he said. “Just keep going. Keep moving your arms, And breathe. You’ve got this. We’re gonna turn left at that stoplight and then it’s the home stretch. And if you want me to shut up and stop talking, I can do that too.”
Thanks to him, I finished strong and gave him a big hug afterward. Of course, Mrs. Brayfield was there waiting and cheering for me… a few yards from my family. I still don’t know that man’s name, but I’m positive I’ll never forget what he did for me that day. I missed my PR by 2 minutes but it didn’t even matter. I knew I gave it everything I had.
I’ve also crossed two finish lines with good friends by my side. My pal Olivia refused to leave me during my very first race three years ago (a 10K).
Then there’s my best friend Jodie. She literally yelled at me – boot camp style – when I tried to give up and walk off the course at the Chicago Half Marathon last September. That was the race I stopped running at mile 4, simultaneously throwing myself a lovely little pity party. I’d never walked that early. But it was a hot day. My divorce was scheduled to be final in two weeks. I was a mess. Literally falling apart on the course because the weight of it all was too much.
“You are a badass!” Jodie yelled. “One foot in front of the other. Don’t you dare quit, Kelli Stopczynski. I won’t let you give up.”
Jodie and I did a run/walk combo to the finish. Together. Even though there were moments during that race when I wanted to kill her, she gave me strength when I couldn’t find it within myself.
I’ve found (and heard) so many stories about how incredible the running community is all around the world. Incredible people who set crazy goals for themselves. Sometimes we smash the shit out of those goals, and other times? Well, other times we fall way short.
It’s weird how running often mirrors life.
We go through moments in life that force us to slow down and reassess where we are and what we’re doing. But then we pick ourselves up and we ramp it up again.
Somehow the crash and burn make us better.
Pain and experience make us stronger.
But healing takes time. And not the amount of time an impatient Millennial (me) wants… I’m talking about the time that passes after you’ve found the strength to finally pick yourself up off the bathroom floor and wash the mascara stains from your face for good. When you can finally come to terms with the fact that you’ve hit bottom. When you can look back and realize you’ve gone a day, a week, five weeks without breaking from the weight of the hurt.
Through it all though, we persevere… and learn a part of the race that is equally important as finishing is the people running in front of, next to and behind us. We don’t always get to choose who those people are or how big of a mark they’ll leave on our hearts, but we do get to learn from each of those relationships as they come and go.
And it's strange how some of our strongest moments seem to simply appear when we feel so weak..
Last Christmas, my mom gave a book to my kids called, After the Fall. It talks about what happened to Humpty Dumpty after he fell off the wall. For a while, he was scared to climb it again and stayed on the ground. But one day he launched a paper airplane a little too high and it got stuck on top of the wall, forcing him to climb once again. Then at that moment when he reaches the top, he cracks and hatches into what he was always meant to be - a beautiful bird who no longer has to worry about falling... because now he can fly.
I cry every time I read that one and then wonder if my mom really bought it for the kids or for me.
Right now I’m not fast. I’m much slower than I was a year ago. I’m not shattering any PRs or burning up the pavement. But I’ve learned speed and time aren’t important when it comes to moving forward.
Just one foot in front of the other.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
And keep going.
If that isn’t a beautiful mantra for life and the road to healing, I’m not sure what is.
I'm a mom to 3 beautiful, spirited, elementary school-aged humans, I'm addicted to running + strength training, I have no filter & I work full time in the corporate world. But behind the scenes of all that is where it really gets interesting...