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.
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...