This is how it was supposed to end.
One hundred yards standing between me and the marathon finishing line Sunday - and off to the right on the sidewalk I see my little 7-year-old rule-follower Lucy holding her "Run, Daddy, Run!" (perfect comma placement) sign. Then, leaping off the sidewalk and onto the course comes the wild, polka-dot-raincoat-wearing, 4-year-old Paige in a full sprint toward my exhausted body.
I'm running on fumes but Paige and I are in lock-step toward the finish line. If there had been any fluids left in my body, I'm sure they would have been pouring out of my eyeballs. Instead, we push to the end. Paige peels off before the official finish line. I cross, stare blankly at a lady congratulating me while slipping a medal over my neck, then receive my commemorative inaugural Iris Marathon finisher T-shirt. Perfect.
Five weeks earlier I never dreamed this was possible. Lying on a couch as my calves continued to twitch hours after my 23-mile failure, I had no plans to run another marathon...and seriously debated the purpose of lacing up the bright orange Sauconys again. Why train for four months if the race director is just going to screw up the bus transportation to the starting line and it's going to be a blistering (to a runner) 75 degrees on race day? Why give up my Saturday mornings to do long runs in the rain? Why forgo family hikes because I was too exhausted from the previous day's training run?
Within 24 hours of crashing and burning in Banks five weeks ago, I received an outpouring of support I never expected. Social media comments, texts, calls - it started the healing process. Two people (Deana in Mass. and Tom in Wisc.) suggested I sign up for another marathon in the near future to maximize my training. I wanted to punch them both in the face.
Five days later, unprompted, Paige looked at me and said, "Daddy, let's go running." I buckled her into our faded-red jogging stroller and off we went. It was five miles of her pointing at "landmarks" in our town (the cow mailbox, the highway bridge we cross, the excavators tearing up the road) and cackling with laughter while I ran with no timer, no watch and no cares. It was perfect.
Then, my mind started turning. Maybe I could do another marathon if one fell within 4-6 weeks of this one. Maybe I could double-down on my training. Maybe Allison wouldn't divorce me on the spot when I suggest doing another marathon after she was the only adult witness to how truly awful I looked after my last. Maybe I was a horrible person for wanting to punch my friends in their respective faces.
The plan was to tell as few people as possible figuring this would keep my nerves down and limit who I had to inform if I failed again (although I did consult a couple more marathon runners, Rich and Jerry, who immediately said to go for it), monitor the weather at the Iris Marathon (home of my fastest half-marathon ever, 1:37, in last year's race), and if it looked promising, I'd sign up a couple days ahead of time.
Sure enough, the forecast called for light rain and low-50s for race morning - perfect again. I signed up and did not receive divorce papers, so knew I was clear to run Sunday. Of course, the marathon is a unrelenting beast, so it's no surprise the skies opened with a hard downpour at Mile 20 (it stopped three miles later). But, it didn't matter. By that point I was determined - my stomach was fine, my hydration was solid and if I had to crawl the final six miles...so be it.
Turns out I didn't have to crawl. My pace slowed slightly down the stretch and I finished in 4:01, my best time ever. Six-weeks-ago Mike would have lamented missing breaking the completely arbitrary round number of 4:00 but today's Mike could not have cared less.
I finished. I got my medal. I took pictures with the kids at the finish line. I had a free beer afterward. 4:01. 4:21. 5:01. I didn't care - it wasn't a DNF - and I proved to myself and the girls that just because you fail once, doesn't mean you don't try again. Do they get this lesson at 7 and 4 years old? I have no idea. Considering Paige wanted to fist-fight Lucy and I when it appeared she was going to lose at Candyland later that day, no, she probably doesn't get it yet.
But, it's what kept me focused, determined and moving one foot in front of the other as I passed mile markers 23, 24, 25 and 26. It's what got me across that finish line. I hope that moment stays with them for a long time because it's something I'll never forget.