A Race in Memory of My Mom… – Katherine Plichta (April 20, 2009)

I ran my first marathon in January 2008, in Disney World of all places. As I was running, I overhead another runner say, “Keep this pace, and we’ll qualify for Boston!” I had never thought about Boston, and I hadn’t been paying attention to my time in the least.

I was just running as fast as I could without running out of steam. I wondered what the qualifying time was, and whether I could actually make it. But I couldn’t think about that now. I needed to finish before I could think.

I was twenty-two miles in, and my legs started feeling heavy.

Another mile and they felt like bricks, as they had during my first twenty-miler. I had gotten through that, though, and I would get through this as well. “If my mom could take on cancer,” I thought, “I can finish a marathon.” This had become my mantra. Whenever I doubted myself or found myself in a painful situation, I would remember that what I was going through was comparatively a piece of cake. Another mile passed. “Just keep running, Katie. Nothing else matters. Just keep running.” The same people kept passing me. They would stop and walk, and then sprint, while I just kept a steady pace. When I saw the finish line, though, I started sprinting. It was a quarter-mile away, but I sprinted the whole way in. I saw my mom on the sidelines, grinning from ear to ear and holding a sign that said, “Go, Katie, Go!”

I crossed the finish line and the clock read 3:40:23. My actual time was 3:37:13, because it had taken me three minutes to pass the start line after the gun went off. I’d been hoping to break four hours, but I didn’t expect to break it by so much. I was thrilled, but it involved pain. My legs were paying for the glory. As soon as I stopped, my muscles seized up and I could hardly walk forward to receive my medal. That night, though, I found out that I had qualified for Boston. It was only a few months away, but I signed up without hesitation. “I guess Disney wasn’t a one time event after all,” I thought.

By the time the race rolled around, my life had changed dramatically. It turned out Boston was the same weekend as my mom’s funeral. At Disney, we hadn’t even known she was sick. Three years before, she had a stem cell transplant to treat her for leukemia, but we thought she was in the clear. We were wrong, though, and she relapsed. Within a month, she had passed on. I deferred my entry, vowing to run the next year in her memory.

Time passed and April rolled around again. I’d been training, and I’d completed the Nike Women’s Marathon in the fall and the Kilimanjaro Marathon just the month before, so I wasn’t worried about finishing the actual race. I was preoccupied with what it stood for, a whole year without my mom. I’d struggled through Thanksgiving, Christmas, and her birthday, but I knew the anniversary and Boston would be a challenge in its own class.

As the race drew nearer, I started growing anxious. The night before the race, I could hardly sleep. I sensed I was turning another chapter in my life. I had somehow tied Boston to my mom’s passing, like Boston being in my future meant my mom was not so far in my past. But Boston was here. I was taking another step away from her, another step towards a world where she would not be waiting for me at the finish line. The feeling was melancholy, but it mixed with contentment. I couldn’t change my reality, so at least I was doing the best I could with it. By the next morning, race day adrenaline took over. I ate my pre-race bagel, threw on my running gear, and started getting excited. I was about to experience the most legendary marathon in the world!

I met up with my friend Kenneth Williams from the Kilimanjaro marathon, and he introduced me to his friends, Sandy and “Bigfoot.” Bigfoot’s name comes from the fact that he sports size fifteen running shoes! We had an hour-long bus ride to the start line, and then a two-hour wait before the race. The time went by in a flash, though, and I even found myself running to get to the right corral before the gun went off. Five seconds to the start, I thought. Get ready. Three, two, one . . . I took off with a burst of speed, intent on at least breaking four hours. Within minutes of the start, I caught up to Bill Rogers, the famed four time Boston winner. Running behind him for a while, I realized why Boston is so special. Participants run through history, in history, and alongside history. They even, as I found out, pass history.

I ran strong for about nine miles, but then my lack of preparation caught up to me. I was worried about my ankle, but my stomach was actually the first to rebel. I needed a bathroom break, and it was far too early in the race to hold it. I was in no mood to wait at one of the port-a-johns along the route. I began searching for a discreet place to enter the woods. The problem, however, is that one of the joys of Boston is its ubiquitous spectators, who line almost every foot of the route. By mile eleven, I was desperate, but also unwilling to sacrifice some minimal amount of privacy and decency. I finally found a suitable place. The stop was quick, but with so many runners, several hundred passed me. Eager to make up my losses, I started out again, only to find my stomach was still unsettled. I gave in and waited at a port-a-john. Ten minutes later, an eternity in a marathon, I was on my way again.

But the trouble wasn’t over. I went on to suffer a four-mile cramp, and then 13 miles of pain in my hip flexor, a by-product of the Achilles problem. All of this was in the face of a continuous headwind. My emotions began to fray nearly to a breaking point. My first three marathons had been relatively easy, so I hadn’t expected too many problems. This one was brutal in comparison.

By the end of the race, I was limping and near tears. Then I thought about my mom, and a sense of accomplishment shot through me as I envisioned myself crossing the finish line. She had been so happy to see me finish Disney. I could only think that she’d be overjoyed to see me complete Boston, and to know that I had survived my first year without her without losing myself. A couple more miles and I crossed the finish line, in 3 hours and 58 minutes.

I had dinner that night with Kenneth, his friends, and Bart Yasso, a famous running coach, whose training techniques I had used for my first marathon. Bart not only personally called Ryan Hall to console him for finishing third, but he also gave me a signed copy of his book! He wrote in it, “Never underestimate where running can take you.” As I rode home on a plane the next morning, I thought of how fortunate it had been to have such a characteristic Boston experience. While I still don’t know what chasing the elusive unicorn means, somehow I think I caught it.

Katherine Plichta
New York

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