I am now a marathoner. I have a T-shirt, a medal the size of a WWF trophy belt buckle and four black toenails – the runner’s trademark – to prove it. This is the tangible evidence.
The intangible is what I feel inside, having run the distance of 42 kilometres and thereby joining an elite .03 per cent of the world’s population. The experience added to me a depth not easy to articulate. It’s as though I dusted off a layer of life’s grime, helping me see and feel myself with greater clarity . . . akin to scraping the frost off a winter’s window to peer at the sparkle of fresh fallen snow. I feel more alive.
But it wasn’t just the marathon. It was Belgium. It was Flanders Fields. It was a war long passed, but never forgotten. It was the people I ran beside and their individual stories of struggle and courage. It was the respect and genuine welcome afforded Canadians from the Belgium people. It was all of this and more. I cannot imagine a more meaningful and poignant place to run my first marathon.
Last April, as one of five Moncton-area ladies who picked up the gauntlet thrown down by The Arthritis Society as part of the national Joints in Motion Marathon Program, I began a journey that would take me to Belgium to run the Flanders Fields Marathon on Sept. 14.
It was the first time The Arthritis Society joined with the Royal Canadian Legion for such an event and participants ran or walked to honour either someone with arthritis or a war veteran. For many, it went beyond the physical challenge; it was a pilgrimage.
From the first moment I heard about the program, which also required raising funds for arthritis education and research in New Brunswick, an insistent voice inside my heart began whispering “do it.” I could not run 10 minutes without my muscles, heart, and lungs doing deadly battle against one another. I knew training and fundraising would require time commitment, extreme focus, and discipline.
My Moncton teammates – Paulette Robichaud, Dianne Albert, Renelle LeBlanc and Rosemonde Gilmore – each suffer from some form of arthritis and through the five months of training we struggled, but persevered, together.
Two days before the marathon, our New Brunswick Joints in Motion team took a tour of Flanders Fields, which included a visit to the Essex Farm Cemetery where John McCrae wrote his famous poem. As we stood beside the bunker, our guide handed a copy of In Flanders Fields to Renelle and asked her to read it aloud. He was visibly moved when our entire group joined in, reciting it from memory. His voice was quiet and sombre as he thanked us, saying never before had he witnessed such a tribute.
We visited Tyne Cot, the largest commonwealth cemetery, where almost 12,000 stones mark individual resting places and a memorial wall lists the names of 35,000 soldiers, lost and never found. As I paid homage to endless rows of pristine white tombstones, the names became a blur, but the ages engraved on stone brought overwhelming sadness.
That evening, we Canadians gathered under the arch of the Menin Gate in Ieper (Ypres), where the names of 54,896 missing First World War soldiers remain etched in marble. Every night since Nov. 11, 1929 (with the exception of the years of German occupation during the Second World War), trafficstops while Fire Brigade volunteers play the Last Post. This night, we laid a wreath in honour of our war veterans, and sang ‘Oh Canada’ with tears in our eyes. The consequence of war touched me and I was never so proud to be Canadian.
The impact of what I had seen that day was still on my mind at the starting point of the marathon…the small village of Ramskappel. Under hot, sunny skies, more than 680 people (about 250 from Canada) gathered in the village square. All the long months of training, and numerous injuries were behind us and our little Moncton group was finally here. We hugged and wished each other well.
At promptly 10 a.m, the horn sounded and all apprehension vanished. We were off in a rush of adrenalin and excitement. The course wound through the peaceful Flanders countryside, alongside fields, villages, canals, and reminders of war.
Parents with small children gathered by the side of the course, waving Canadian flags and calling out in French and Flemish – “Ka-na-da!” Runners frequently stopped to hand out paper flags, pins, and other mementoes from home. It wasn’t so much a race as an experience.
Paulette, Jennifer and I started together, maintaining a steady, slow pace in order to save energy for the end. The first 20 kilometres was relatively easy; the heat was dry, there was beautiful countryside to absorb. Eventually we would separate, each running her own pace in the solitude of her thoughts.
Then, almost like a physical reaction to passing the halfway mark, the pain started. My feet began to hurt, ankles became tired, shins and hip began to whine. I swallowed medication and periodically stopped to stretch out the sore areas, but the pain remained.
But the visions of dirty, exhausted, homesick soldiers, barely awake, barely alive, trudging through mud, devastation, and death – some in their bare feet – also stayed with me, as vivid as if they marched alongside. My discomfort was negligible.
Throughout the course, Arthritis Society cheer teams waved Canadian flags and shouted encouragement. At the 25 km mark, the course paralleled an idyllic canal where Flemish fishermen dozed with their rods, seemingly unaware of the runners lumbering by only a few feet away.
Periodically, team trainer Daryl Steeves peddled by on bicycle, offering first aid, food, candy, water and encouragement. I was elated when he advised me only 12 km remained, but 6 km later, I was seriously fatigued and losing ground. It was the time to dig deep.
Approaching the medieval town of Ieper (Ypres), volunteers called out the distance to the end . . . 800 meters, 600 meters . . . That last kilometre stretched endlessly, like pulled taffy. Finally, I rounded a corner and saw the Menin Gate. Tears threatened to overflow, but I held them back as I ran through its cool shadow, then down the last cobblestone street to the finish line.
As I crossed the line, N.B. coordinator Bonnie Hayes was there to hug me, give me my medal, then hold me close while I sobbed.
My moment of glory was quickly over and as I sat down to rest, an overwhelming feeling of peace and accomplishment washed over me. I had done it. I had succeeded. I was a marathon runner. It was surreal, sitting quietly alone in the midst of the crush of people, witnessing the emotion and drama of other lives, knowing each of us travelled a similar path to get here.
The lessons I learned about myself, about life, about sacrifice, about human nature, about running, about goal setting, about achievement, about discipline are to be treasured. I didn’t break any records, but I finished this marathon because of the support and encouragement of many, the inspiration of those who died for the sake of freedom, the fitness achieved from almost a thousand training kilometres, and the grit I found when I dug deep.
I straightened my shoulders and stood tall, ready to welcome my teammates as they, too, crossed the line and changed forever.
A worthwhile hero, each one.