I’ll never forget that moment: a perfect June morning on the beach at Jean Klock Park in Benton Harbor, Michigan. As I stood in a literal sandy sea of some 2,000 people also zipped into full body wetsuits, I breathed it in.
I chatted briefly with a few other athletes, synced my GPS watch with the satellites and anxiously waited my turn to enter a calm, 70-degree Lake Michigan. I also happened to glance up at a handful of dedicated spectators on top of a small nearby sand dune. It was 6:30 in the morning.
Wow, I remember thinking to myself. There are some lucky racers here today, for sure. Their people showed up. They woke up early and clim…
Suddenly, I did a double-take at two people on top of the dune.
I saw my Dad first. How could I miss a 6’4, bald and incredibly pale man wearing a blue polo and shorts? His hands were cupped around his eyes as he scanned the crowd of black wetsuits and pink and green swim caps, trying to find me.
Mom was right next to him, looking determined to keep her balance on the uneven sand while also methodically searching the beach.
I waved my arms a good two minutes, eventually catching their attention. Dad immediately went into photographer mode (one of many traits I inherited, along with the pale white skin gene), snapping several pictures of the crowd and me.
As I inched closer to the rolling start, where race officials allowed four people in the water at a time, every five seconds, Dad made his way across and then down the dune so he could get video of me swimming.
I couldn’t stop smiling. Partly due to confidence in all the work I’d put in leading up to that moment (and partly due to an unbelievably calm lake), but largely because I hadn’t expected to see my parents until much later that afternoon, at the finish line. But there they were. They showed up.
My 70-year-old mom and dad woke up super early that morning, drove an hour to a place they’d never been, parked a mile away, hopped a shuttle and climbed a sand dune. For me.
Approximately 37 minutes later, on my way from the lake to my bike, I saw them again and gave Mom a smile and high-five.
And again, 3 hours after that, as I completed the 56-mile bike to South Haven and back. I cried happy tears the whole ride into the transition area because they were there.
Here’s the deal. Growing up and moving away from home and family to earn a degree and then chase a career was fun and exciting. But it was also incredibly isolating. Raising babies five hours from family is hard. We maybe see each other five or six times a year and the past few were tough as I battled my own demons and worked through deeply painful personal issues.
During that time, I turned against some of the people who wanted to be there for me most – especially my parents.
Things got so bad about a year ago that I told Mom and Dad they shouldn’t even come to South Bend for my 34th birthday because I didn’t want to see them. So they didn’t. They dropped my gifts in the mail and stayed home. I know… it sounds like such a bullshit Millennial thing to do. And in hindsight, it probably was.
But that’s also around the time a friend I knew through my barre studio sent a random text on a weeknight, asking if I would do a Half Ironman with her. I said yes without thinking (because that’s what I do). And somehow, training for that race broke me wide open.
I pushed my body and mind further than I ever thought they could go. I literally cried in the middle of hard bikes and runs. I worked out 12-15 hours a week, which sometimes meant two workouts in one day. It was hard. But I used much of that solo time to reflect on the relationships I’d damaged and to forgive myself for it.
I also started communicating more with my parents. I sent screen shots of 5-hour Saturday morning training sessions, or updated them after a 5am weekday swim. I Face-Timed them immediately after crossing the finish line at my very first triathlon in May (a much shorter distance than the Half Ironman) to tell them I won my age group and was the fourth overall female finisher.
Eventually, I asked if they would come to “the big race” in June.
And then they showed up.
Just like they always had when I played sports or sang at competition or performed in the high school musical, they stood on top of that sand dune. For me.
And they weren’t the only ones.
My loyal friend Nicole popped up around mile 50 of the bike ride and at least 4 times (that I remember) along the run, shouting words of love and encouragement. She’d packed up her two little girls, rescheduled her own 10-mile marathon training run for later in the day, drove an hour and found spots to surprise me along the course. But I shouldn’t have been surprised at all. That’s Nicole. She invited me to Thanksgiving and Christmas with her family when she knew I would otherwise be alone. She checked on me often throughout my training journey and reminded me how strong I am. Of course she showed up on race day.
My best friend Jodie also woke up before sunrise and drove over from Chicago. I first saw her face as I started the 13.1 mile run. Then about an hour later, around the halfway point of the run. She smiled. She asked how I was feeling and told me I’m a badass (even though I tried to shoo her away because I was scared I would be disqualified if she ran next to me). Then again, that’s Jo. She’s there when I need to cry or scream or tell her about something really awesome that happened. We talk several times a week and she’s my voice of reason. She always shows up.
Then there was the last leg of the race. The very end of the run. I’d been walking for a bit. I was tired, extremely dehydrated and hot. I knew I needed to start running again so I could finish strong. But I just couldn’t get myself there mentally.
“Hey!” a woman in shorts, a tank and ball cap yelled.
I didn’t recognize her so I didn’t respond. Instead, I turned around. Surely she was talking to someone behind me.
“Hey! Kelli!” she said. “Kelli! You have a quarter mile left. Let’s go!”
She jogged toward me.
Oh my gosh, Olivia!
Olivia. The friend who had run alongside me three years ago in my first race, ever. During that one – a 10k – she refused to leave, even though I’d begged her to run ahead. We crossed the finish line together.
Olivia is a serial marathon runner and gives me so much training advice. So when she showed up at the tail end of my 70.3 miles, I greeted her properly, saying, “You can’t run next to me. I’ll get disqualified!” (I didn’t know Olivia had checked with the race marshal near that post and cleared it with him ahead of time.)
“Fine,” she replied. “I’ll just run on the sidewalk.”
So she did, yelling, “Everybody! This is Kelli! Cheer for her! She’s worked so hard to get here. Cheer for my friend Kelli!”
Olivia ran with me until I got to my kids, Jodie and, of course, my parents at the finish line. My kids… who spent lots of hours in the gym daycare and with babysitters while I squeezed in training miles. My parents… who spent seven hours on a hot beach cheering for me, tracking me on their phones and waiting for me to finish.
Then I got to my phone (they aren’t allowed on the course) and saw DOZENS of texts and well wishes from others who had also been tracking my progress. I had no idea so many people cared that much.
And that’s what prompted a deep post-race reflection.
I haven’t been great at showing up for other people the past couple years. At times, it was all I could to do be a mom and simply show up to work every day. But after the race, I started thinking about everyone who has shown up for and supported me, despite my efforts to keep many of them at arms’ length.
The people who continued to check in with calls, texts and Facebook messages... even when I didn’t respond.
The people who listened when I needed to vent or cry.
The people who lifted me up when I couldn’t find grace or forgiveness for myself.
The people who came over for my birthday, because they knew I really didn’t want to be alone.
The people who stepped up when I asked for help.
The people who were patient enough to know I needed time and space to get back to myself.
I think my friend Fay Flournoy said it best in a recent Facebook post:
There’s a big difference between our hearts breaking FOR someone and WITH someone.
One is done from a safe distance and the other requires us to get in the middle of the mess.
One is talk and the other is showing up.
In our social media and cell phone driven world, be the someone that shows up (like for real, in person).
At first, I thought the training and triathlons themselves are what caused a massive turning point in my life that led me to the most confident and peaceful existence I’ve ever experienced. But the further I get from that Half Ironman, the more I’ve realized it wasn’t the swim or the bike or the run or even the finish line that helped me heal most.
It was literally the people who showed up.
“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.
Let’s start at the worst point. And I am SO. NOT. EXAGGERATING. I wanted to either pass out or throw up. My stomach was rolling. I felt gross. Everything kind of looked fuzzy. People cheering (shut up, please… I’m trying not to faint). A band playing (damn, that’s really loud). I could see the finish line but it seemed so far away. I remember telling myself I couldn’t stop. My kids were somewhere up there. Waiting for me. Watching for me.
Before we’d even reached the halfway point of the race, I started begging my friend, Olivia, who was running with me to run ahead but she refused. She stayed right next to me, knowing it was my first time. She had so much energy and I didn’t realize it then, but I’d made a rookie mistake… starting way too fast. Like running a whole minute faster per mile than my average training pace. By the first hill at mile 3, I felt like death.
I couldn’t breathe. My legs were screaming. I felt like I was 85 years old and in need of a hip replacement. Or a donut. MMMMmmmmmMMM…. Donuts. From Rise-N-Roll.
Anything to take my mind off of the fact that this whole race thing was anything but what I’d expected.
What is happening? I wondered to myself.
I trained for this. I’ve worked so hard. It’s 60 degrees outside. I shouldn’t feel this bad this far in.
Did I eat the wrong stuff last night for dinner?
Am I having an “off” day like Olivia and others had warned me sometimes happens on race day?
Then there was that last hill. I remember rounding the corner and staring straight up, thinking, Oh, hell no. Experienced runner-friends who have done that race in the past had also warned me about ‘tough hills toward the end.’
I’d shrugged it off, thinking I could handle anything. Seriously though, we might as well have been racing up a freaking mountain.
Hallelujia Hill, they call it. A happy little sign at the bottom said so.
What, no one thought of Hell Hill?
I Never Want to Run Up You Again Hill?
Somehow I made it to the top, super out of breath and wondering how Olivia made it look so effortless as she trotted practically in place waiting for me with an encouraging smile on her face.
I spotted a police officer friend of mine blocking traffic with his motorcycle and I may or may not have mouthed an expletive at him as I passed by. He laughed.
I saw another police officer friend a block down the road, looked at him and said, ‘HELP!’
“No hug?” he yelled with a smile on his face. “You can’t even say hi to me?”
I flipped him off. I was done. Dying. We were so close to the stupid finish line.
I should have just stuck with the 5K, I told myself. I could have killed that race.
Instead, here I was, the race killing me. I semi-sauntered across the finish line (Olivia – who has run 3 marathons and countless half marathons, 10K & 5K races – jumped, hands in the air) feeling disappointed, exhausted and defeated. Our official time was 1:01:58. I really wanted to finish under the 1-hour mark. Ugh.
“Well that sucked,” I said, scanning the crowd for my kids.
“What?” she asked. “You were awesome! You finished!”
I did. We did. I finished my first race.
The hi-light of the whole day was seeing my beautiful babies with my husband at that finish line, holding a sign and flowers. The guy had just worked a 24-hour shift at the fire station, picked up the kids at his parent’s house, got them dressed, fed them breakfast and made it to the finish line by 8 a.m. That’s pretty damn amazing!
AND my two oldest cuties got their picture in the newspaper the following day – an extra special keepsake from that first race.
I was really disappointed in myself for weeks after the race, but I could never figure out exactly why, aside from the time issue. I think I just expected to feel so much better during and afterward. Instead, I was literally sick to my stomach for hours and had no energy that day.
With time, I’ve been able to process the whole thing and in turn, really be proud of what I accomplished. Weird, I know.
It’s now been two months. I recently ran another 10K and did so much better with a time of 57:49. I started out a little slower than that first race and didn’t die on any hills because there weren’t any. Plus, my kiddos (yes, my husband once again wrangled all 3 to the finish line on time) got cotton candy & slushies. Can’t beat that!
Still, I haven’t decided if I love running, hate it or am somewhere in between. I don’t know if it’s a forever thing, a couple year thing or if I’ll stop in a few months. But somehow it has this grip on me. So much so that I'm currently training for the Chicago Half Marathon next month. Add that to the list of things I've never even thought about doing.... Who AM I!?
I don’t like how I feel if I miss a run – if I planned for it, scheduled it and for whatever reason, it still doesn’t happen. I don’t like waking up at 5 or 5:30 a.m. to get out and get my miles in (but let’s be honest, watching the sun rise on a country road during the summer in Indiana definitely doesn’t suck); but since my husband is a firefighter, that is literally the only time I have some days. I don’t like that I’m terrible at giving my body the rest and stretching time it so desperately needs to recover.
But I do like that all my pre-baby clothes finally fit again. (Too bad some of them are semi out of style now… or at least that’s what I tell my husband when I’m shopping for new ones.) I like that when I’m on the road, it’s my hour (sometimes longer) to myself – to think, to let go of things that have been bothering me annnnnnd to try not to pee my pants. Seriously… I always scoffed at women who knowingly told me my bladder control would change after having kids. I didn’t know that meant sneezes, coughs, laughter, burpees and running would become danger zones for my 31-year-old post baby body. Holy cow!
I also know that I love what running 4 days a week (along with barre workouts the other 2 or 3 days with a rest day thrown in the mix) is doing for my body and soul. I love that I’m now 4 pounds BELOW pre-baby weight and it’s still coming off. I love that I’m in the best shape I’ve been in since college. I love that after overhearing the ages of my children (1, 3 & 4) a stranger told me she never would have guessed I had that many kids so recently. I love hearing my boys say, ‘I’ll be back in a little bit, Mommy. I’m going for a run!’ as they jog laps around the inside of our home or out in the back yard. I love being able to keep up with my kids as an active, involved mom.
I also love that I can finally see the changes from all my hard work.
I have 3 kids under 5 years old. I work a full time job. My husband’s work schedule is crazy.
Those could easily become excuses NOT to take care of myself, but instead they are my motivation to work harder and be better. I have a few more pounds to lose until I hit my second “big goal” (getting back to pre-baby weight was the first).
These pictures also show my body hasn’t changed overnight. It’s been more than a year of consistent work.
Exercise is just one part of how I’m working toward a better version of myself. There are also nutritional and emotional aspects that have been crucial to the changes (shout out to my awesomely supportive husband who packs my lunch just about every single day). Don’t worry. I haven’t managed to cut out cake, chocolate or red meat… and ditching those is not in my long term plan. OMG and cheese. I love cheese too!
Someone recently asked me, ‘What’s your secret?’
At the time, it caught me off guard. The only answer I could give was, ‘Lots of really hard work,’ which is partially true.
But I also should have pointed out that I don’t put myself in some exclusive or elite club. I know lots and lots and LOTS of moms who run races – 5Ks, 10Ks, Half and Full Marathons – and squeeze in their workouts waaaaaay before the sun ever comes up.
The more I’ve thought about it, the more I realize I’m taking cues from those other strong women I know. I simply made myself a priority and decided I’m worth it. And that has made all the difference.
I'm a mom to 3 beautiful, spirited, tiny 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...