51: Texas To-Do List

51: Texas To-Do List

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Just Us Girls

Texas To-Do List

The nice thing about teamwork is that you always have others on your side.

~Margaret Carty

Promptly at 6:00 a.m., I stepped out of my car and into one of the hottest July days ever recorded in Houston, Texas. My thick cotton T-shirt was soon drenched in sweat as I waited in the local church parking lot. Experienced runners surrounded me, all wearing appropriate attire for intense heat and humidity. At the age of fifty-three, I was about to train for my first half-marathon with the assistance of an organized program. This was my plan for building friendships in an unknown city!

Houston was quite a change from Southern California, where I grew up, went to college, married, and raised two daughters. It’s home to the world’s richest rodeo, glorious barbecue, and bedazzled wardrobes. I had bravely faced my husband’s job transfer, at a time when many couples were contemplating retirement. However, the last checkmark on my Texas “to-do” list was daunting: “Find friends.” My future no longer consisted of PTA meetings, team mom activities and my children’s’ high school social functions. What would each day look like? Would two aging Labrador Retrievers be my sole companions?

The answer arrived one week after a moving van spilled musty cardboard boxes throughout our new suburban house. Annie, the real estate agent, phoned. “Dana, would you be interested in joining the local chapter of USA Fit here in town?” Honestly, I had no idea what she was talking about. What I did know was that Annie was a runner. I had even heard her mention marathons. I felt anxious already.

“What does it involve? I mean, is this about running? Because that’s just not my thing.” I was hoping she would hear the disinterest in my voice. Not Annie! She didn’t give up easily.

“Come on! You’ll love it! It’s a group of both runners and walkers who meet for six months, training for the Houston Marathon and Half-Marathon. I think you would meet some nice friends. I’ll be there!”

Excuses filled my head. “Annie, I am a walker, but who in their right mind walks a marathon? I’ve never heard of such a thing.” It didn’t matter. I was about to get schooled in the brilliant ways of USA Fit!

That day in the church lot, the beauty of Annie’s plan came to light. We were divided into groups according to marathon or half-marathon, and pace. I decided to stand amongst the “purple people.” That’s code-speak for half-marathon walkers. I had a group. I had friends!

From the first day, four women with experience took me on as their personal project. Diane, Karen, Jill, and Betsy walked every step with me that initial Saturday. When we returned from the steaming three-mile course, my face was an unusual shade of red. Diane noticed immediately. She sat with me in the shade and covered the basics of proper clothing and hydration. I marveled at her kindness as I sipped a thick, green sports drink.

For the next six months, those four women never left my side. When fall arrived, we rejoiced in the beauty of the changing leaves and inhaled the scent of crackling fires as families rose and prepared breakfast. By now, our Saturday morning chats had become more personal. Kids, jobs, houses, dogs — no subject was off limits as we raced past the tranquil lakes surrounding our town. The sun rose, great blue herons soared, and deer wandered on the edge of the woods. I came to believe I could actually walk the half-marathon at the rapid pace required by the sponsors. My confidence grew not only from strict preparation, but also from a collective courage.

The USA Fit training schedule was taped to my kitchen wall. Every day for six months was recorded, with the required activity listed. I diligently crossed off each square until only the final week remained. With that realization, panic set in.

That was also when I understood just how supportive my purple friends were. On the Monday before the race, I saw Diane in the busy produce aisle of the grocery store. “I’m so happy to see you!” I gave her a massive hug and, without warning, the tears started. They came from a place deep inside, from insecurity and the realization that I might not be up to the challenge ahead.

Diane steered me toward the racks of bread. The air smelled delicious, and a soothing calm enveloped me. “You are going to be just fine. You’re ready! I’ll be waiting for you inside the convention center first thing that morning. I’ll help you through the whole process.” Another hug and I was on to cereal and canned goods.

Then came a piece of bad news. Karen was experiencing knee problems. On Wednesday, she made the tough decision. “I just can’t walk the course. Look for me at mile seven. That’s when you’ll need a cheering section the most. I’ll be there.” I wasn’t certain I could accomplish the enormous task ahead without the full team; each woman added a different component to the group’s success. Karen was steadfast. “Do not let this take away any of your joy.”

Race day was exciting. Spectators lined the streets with noise-makers, banners, and loudspeakers. I found my purple friends at the designated meeting place without any problem. A group photo was taken, and then we clung to each other as 24,000 racers made their way to the starting line. The four of us huddled in the early morning chill, pep talks were given all around, and then the gun sounded. Finally, I would face the challenge Annie had invited into my life.

Back in July, my target had simply been to finish the half-marathon. At some crazy point, I decided to complete the race in less than three hours. In order to meet that goal, Jill and I kept constant watch on the time. “Dana, I have a plan. We need to walk for five minutes, then jog for one. That should keep our finish time to three hours.” We grinned at each other, knowing that this rather large detail should have been worked out in advance!

The last mile was nearly intolerable. Our pace had been much quicker than during training. Luckily, the final stretch was bursting with enthusiasm from the crowded sidewalks. I sped along to cheers from Elvis impersonators, sumo wrestlers and a youth group dressed as chickens. Diane yelled from far ahead, “It doesn’t get any better than this!”

Six months of preparation finished with one step over a thin black line. An aquamarine spiral of balloons reached into the cloudless sky. Confetti blanketed the road. On the other side of the line, my friends waited, patient as always. Enthusiastic volunteers, who had been so generous with their time, placed heavily inscribed medals around our necks. I fingered the shiny, grosgrain ribbon with an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. At that moment, I realized I had become part of my new community. A town where strength is a team effort and a dear friend will dry your tears in the grocery store.

~Dana Sexton

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