Words and photos by Maine runner, Sarah Emerson.
I wasn’t always a runner, in fact, I quit my college soccer team because it involved too much running. I found every way to get out of running because it was too hard, uncomfortable and more often than not, it hurt. Why people did this for fun, I would never understand. Or so I thought.
I came into the sport of running in my late 20s. I was a gym rat that was longing for the feeling that being part of a soccer team gave me. I missed the competition and the family-like atmosphere that playing soccer provided. One cold Superbowl Sunday in 2009 I attended a local 10 miler to support a friend of mine. One by one I watched the runners cross the finish line and I began to think to myself that this running thing actually looked like fun. There was the competition that I was missing and the running community appeared to be an amazing social connection that I lacked once I stopped playing and coaching soccer.
I ran as a middle of the pack runner for about 8 years for myself, running every distance from the 5k through the 50 miler. It was always about running stronger, faster, farther, for me. I wanted to push myself to the limits of what my body could do. It was about the PRs in time and distance. It wasn’t until I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017 at the age of 33 that running became about something much more than myself.
I was recently asked what running means to me. Had I been posed with this question prior to March 8, 2017, my answer likely would have been centered around me and how it makes me feel better. Today though, my immediate thought was community. Since my diagnosis, I have been very open with my story. The good, bad and ugly. I started to share a lot on social media, taking a risk and becoming really vulnerable to a world of strangers. I did this mostly because it helped me to manage my emotions through cancer. I wrote my thoughts down and immediately felt better. The response was positive and people encouraged me to keep writing. I didn’t really understand why someone would want to read about the trials and tribulations of a middle of the pack runner, mom, wife and professional battling with cancer but they did and so I wrote. It wasn’t until a trail run on a hot and humid Sunday morning with friends that I realized the power of sharing my story. I was in the middle of chemotherapy treatments. I was bald, 15 pounds heavier with scabs all over my hands and arms from the chemo and feeling awful. But for some reason, I showed up to the run that day.
I was running with a new friend who I didn’t really know too well at this point. We had been showing up to the same workout groups and runs for several weeks but had not spent too much time talking. She told me she wasn’t feeling well and was going to be taking it slow. I assured her I also was in no shape to run fast or far and prepared her that I would likely have to walk, which we did. I had been very open with my cancer story and struggles online and in the running community but it was here out on these trails that she opened up about her eating disorder and her recent struggles. She told me later, that this was really the first time she had talked about it to anyone and it was because she found my vulnerability with my story so inspiring that she felt safe to let her guard down with me. The trails allow us to let our guard down and be vulnerable. It’s a safe space that’s shared with others who get it and understand. It’s here on the trails that strangers pick us up when we are sitting on a rock thinking we can’t make it another step or when you are at the front of the pack running side by side with someone, pushing your limits but no words are shared. There is power and strength in just running silently stride for stride with someone. And then from here, friendships are born, nourished and strengthened. These friendships are what I have needed to keep getting up some days. There were and still are days I don’t want to run but I want to spend time with my friends and so I show up, end up running, and feel better for it.
Being active during my treatment wasn’t just about keeping my mind and body moving, it was also about the social connection and the community it provided for me. Being part of a workout group or run club helped me to get off the couch. Even though I couldn’t run as far or as fast as normal, or workout at the intensity that I was used to, it felt so good to sweat and be with my friends. For that moment in time, it took my mind off everything I was going through and gave me a sense of normalcy in my life. I was truly embraced by my community like I have never felt before.
It’s so easy to isolate and pull away when you have cancer for fear of not being able to “hang with the group,” but if you aren’t afraid to show up some really wonderful things can happen. Not only did running and working out help me stay connected with my friends, but getting a good sweat on helped my mental state as well and likely helped to keep me from getting too depressed. My friends embraced me and ran with me in the back of the pack, took walk breaks when I needed to, and never once made me feel bad for the state of my fitness. I also believe that exercise has been extremely beneficial to my recovery from treatments and that I was able to get through treatments and subsequent surgeries with much more ease because I was staying active.
From here I knew I needed to turn my running into something that would benefit the community, the ones who lifted me up when I needed it the most. I really became more invested in giving back to my community since my diagnosis. Whether that was spectating at races (when I was going through chemo I would bring a sign that said “I had chemo on Friday, you can do this!), fundraising for various cancer related organizations (Maine Cancer Foundation, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Brave Like Gabe and Maine Children’s Cancer Program being my favorites) or sharing my story in hopes it provides hope and comfort to someone else. Running is no longer about me, my times, how far and how hard I can go. It’s now about providing a safe place for a community to grow and support one another. It’s hard to fall down when you have an army to catch you.
Shortly before I was diagnosed, I had registered for the TD Beach 2 Beacon 10K, a local but well-known road race in Cape Elizabeth, ME founded by Joan Benoit Samuelson. The course follows the coast of Maine on some of Joanie’s old training routes. The 2017 race fell the day after my 14th chemotherapy. In the back of my mind all summer, I knew I had a bib for this race. I felt like if I could string together a 4 mile run before the race, then I would attempt to line up on race day. Although it sounded crazy, it’s what kept me going. This race got me off the couch on days when I didn’t want to.
As race day approached I knew I would be lining up. On Friday afternoon I went to the treatment center for chemotherapy and on Saturday morning I pinned a sign on my back reading “I had chemo yesterday, you can do this” and lined up in the back of the pack. Right, left, right, repeat for 6.2 miles and I finished the race alongside 3 of my dear friends. Cancer had already taken so much from me, but I refused to let it take my passions and my spirit. The Beach 2 Beacon weekend is an event I look forward to every year. The crowds, the views, the elite field, and the community. The streets are shut down and lined with spectators ringing cowbells, blasting music and showering us with water from their garden hoses. It’s a true community event through and through. I wasn’t going to let cancer keep me in bed for this.
I’m really excited to be lining up again this year for my 9th Beach 2 Beacon and my first one as a cancer survivor. I’ll be lining up among the best of the best, although way behind them. Hometown hero Ben True will return along with newbies to the race but not the sport, Molly Huddle and Gwen Jorgenson. As always, Joanie will be at the finish line handing out high fives to every finisher. With a new perspective on life and what running means to me, I can’t wait to tackle the hills of Shore Road and make the hard right hand turn into Fort Williams for one of the most beautiful finish lines you’ll ever see.
Right, Left, Right, Repeat… Keep moving forward and you will always get to where you need to be no matter how hard the task at hand or how long it takes. Keep getting up, keep showing up, keep moving forward.