Let's start with the marathon last week. Here are the things I experienced in Richmond:
- I forgot how long and hard it is. I mean, my training went relatively smoothly and I never got sore (thanks to the ice bath!), so I sort of thought this race would be a breeze. But there's a big difference between running 22 miles and running 26.2. And that's really the most important part. I got tired and my stomach hurt and I thought I'd have to walk the last little bit. And I was fine with that. Because I'm a finisher.
- The finish line flourish. This was worth every last bit of lost strength and exhaustion and sore muscles. This was why I ran this marathon. I needed to find my innermost reserve. So when I turned the corner and saw the finish line just down the hill, I waited for that finish line flourish to kick in. And it didn't. I pushed and pushed and pushed, and then it came, from out of the marrow and sinew--I have never run so fast in my whole entire life. I ran with all my might. I crossed that line with my head up and my heart pounding and I was alive with all my being.
- It's all about the fuel. A serious marathon-crazed friend suggested I eat every 30 minutes to maintain energy, and he gave me some Carbo-Boom packs. It sounded like a good idea to me, and I tried it out. Somehow, though, the combination of my bite of banana before the race and the gel energy candies did not do me well, and my stomach hurt. It's all about finding the right fuel at the right time with the right combination. Not something to experiment with at race time. (And it was funny that people were passing out Cokes and beers and doughnuts on the sidelines along the route. Not appealing).
- The forecast called for rain all day. Even that morning on TV the newscasters laughed about the tornado warning and the serious rain and flooding. I prayed. I mean, I ran 17 miles in Hurricane Hannah, but there's a big difference between running in 70 degrees and no wind, and running in November in rain and wind and wet cold. So I just acknowledged that I knew people needed rain and were praying for rain, but if possible, if the rain could hold, just for a few hours in a very specific location, I would feel much better. And it didn't. It didn't rain one drop. I dropped my poncho at mile 6 and the clouds seriously parted and the sun even came out. Sure it was muggy, but it didn't rain.
- Spectators mean everything. I LOVED seeing my great friend Marni at mile 10 and then at mile 26 and at the finish. And my friend Sarah who saw me at mile 25, when I was sure I'd have to walk the rest of the way. She simply said, "Finish strong!" and suddenly I found an extra store of energy to run just a bit more. And the thousands of people who cheered for me, who told me I had good form at mile 20 (when I know I didn't), who told me to keep smiling, who told me how close I was. It was amazing. And I thought of all my dear running friends who I've run with in the past and I pretended they were running with me. I had my own running crowd. It was fantastic.
- There is nothing like running revelation. I love those quiet moments of clarity I often find on a run when I can finally run past my present and into a clear connection with a higher power. I also spent a lot of time imagining my oral exams, visioning myself in my zen spot with clear thoughts and smart words.
- Richmond is a great city. The route was beautiful. The leaves were still changing. We crossed the river a few times and the neighborhoods were incredible. We passed a statue of Stonewall Jackson and houses with Confederate flags.
And boy, did it come. I started strong, and looking back on some of the crazy questions posed to me, I'm so grateful they didn't faze me. I burrowed through daguerreotypes and Fawn Brodie, Reconstruction and the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, material culture and memory, Vietnam and the New Deal, Civil Rights and women's history. I was able to think and speak and communicate and listen and learn and argue and analyze. I was magnified beyond my natural ability. I participated in scholarly historical discussion with three professors. I proved myself. And I proved the power of grace and Spirit.
When it was all said and done, after over two hours of grilling and proving and thinking and talking, after they closed me out to deliberate and welcomed me back in with a warm congratulations on passing my oral exams, I felt like I had just run a marathon. Sure I took moments to walk and I didn't exactly remember in my list of things significant in 1968 that beyond the TET offensive, Martin Luther King was assassinated, and I needed help to clarify the difference between slave women in 1650 and slave women in 1750, but I (and a host of heavenly help) did it. I walked out of that building and couldn't talk. My knees almost gave out and my heart was pounding. But I had crawled over that finish line. I am now on the other side.
I really think the clouds parted and a beam of light shone down on Brian Platt's office in Robinson at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia on Friday. And that was, in part, due to you, dear friends. Thank you thank you for your support. I couldn't have done it without you. I'm eager to find ways to help YOU in your marathons and oral exams. We can do it!