I am a member of a special club. You pay the membership dues with grit, tenacity, stubbornness and courage. The members of my club understand each other on an unspoken level. We feel each other’s pain. We relish each other’s accomplishments. We know each other’s struggles. This club is called the Back-of-the-Packers.
The members of my club fight cutoffs with determination and perseverance. We admire elite runners for their speed. And at the same time, those elite runners admire members of my club for our strength and resilience. It was an honor to induct a new runner into this club recently.
I am the race director of the Baker’s Dozen Half Marathon in southern Utah. The event is less like a race and more like a celebration of running, complete with cake, funny costumes and a hefty dose of laughing.
After nearly four hours, the race cutoff was approaching. My friend Melissa was working the aid station. She said to me, “One lady passed through the last check point really late. She’s the last person. But she told me she’s determined to finish.”
The four-hour cutoff passed. Every single other runner had finished and gone home. The aid station volunteers had left. But I couldn’t bring myself to pull a runner from the course. The words “She’s determined to finish” kept playing in my mind. I know how hard Back-of-the-Packers fight. She had already come so far, and I wanted her to receive the accomplishment of finishing.
I saw someone make the last turn and head toward the finish line. When she arrived, I put a medal around her neck and noticed tears in her eyes. They didn’t seem to be tears of pain. They seemed to be tears of pride after realizing the monumental task that had just been achieved. I asked what her name was.
“Kerstin Bolton,” she said, adding that this was her first half marathon.
The next day I posted a picture of her finish on Facebook, commenting how impressed I was with her strength. The outpouring of encouragement and support was overwhelming. I found Kerstin on Facebook and told her she ought to see the comments that were being posted about her finish. Average runners, elite runners, and even a World Record-holding runner were all inspired by her race finish.
I was inspired by Kerstin, too, but my respect and admiration grew even more when she wrote me back. I learned that her husband of 18 years had suddenly passed away the year before, leaving her a single parent to their children, ages 12 and 14. Amid the grief and despair, she had a realization that if she was going to be the kind of parent her kids needed during that difficult time, she needed to take care of herself.
She began a structured walking program to get healthy, with a goal of eventually completing a 5k race. By December she had finished a few 5k races and did something she previously thought was unthinkable – she clicked the “Register” button for a half marathon.
“The biggest fear I had was letting myself and my kids down. I knew I would be over the four-hour time limit because of where my time stood per mile. I tried and tried to get my time under 19-minute miles. I’m just not there yet, but I told myself I had to try no matter what.
“When I came across the finish line my eyes teared up for so many reasons. First and foremost, it was because I had not given up on my goal and on myself. For so many years, I have let my self-image stop me from doing things that I wanted to do. I let the fact that I was overweight and not healthy keep me from attempting so many things.
“Over the past eight months, I have had to chip away at that broken mentality and realize that I am allowed to try (and succeed at) so many of the things I want to do in life. For one of the first times in my life, I didn’t care that I was the slowest person, weighed more than the other women participating or that I could barely run (and I mean barely), and that I didn’t fit the mold I had created in MY mind of someone who would complete a half marathon.
“I also thought about my kids and the example this set for them. I needed to show them that despite the obstacles in life, it is okay to pick yourself up and keep going. I also need them to know that it is okay to find happiness through opposition and to keep living and have these amazing experiences despite their grief.”
As a race director, I was overcome with joy and pride at the outpouring of support that the running community showed Kerstin. “I have read posts where I have been referred to as an athlete and this has blown me away,” she said. “People in the running community have not viewed me by my weight, stature or time on the course. They have viewed me as a person who set a goal and didn’t quit. I am so very grateful for that and it has provided fuel and inspiration to keep going.”
May Kerstin’s story inspire all of us to be brave and shoot for the impossible. On behalf of Back-of-the-Packers everywhere: Kerstin, welcome to the club!