If you've been following the story of my racing, you know about the experiences I've had with the number 52, my father's birth year, which has randomly appeared within my bib number three times, the marathon making it four time, since he died on June 1, 2013.
If you are unfamiliar with the story, I encourage you to read "Dad, I Won the Mount Summit Challenge For You," to fully understand what I'm about to tell you.
Now that you understand the depth of the numbers, you will see why when I opened the email that said "click here" to retrieve my bib number for the Pittsburgh Marathon about two weeks prior to the event, butterflies formed in my belly. I clicked on it. It said, "Brynn Cunningham - 2517."
Initially, for a millisecond, I was stunned and thought aloud, "well, it's not exactly 52." Finally, I became so stunned that I told myself the number was not significant, could not be significant, this time, a fourth time. Perhaps I was too busy, tired or distracted to really notice, because I received the email right after my wedding (April 16) and just a fews days before the Mount Summit Challenge (April 24) and was quickly reading it before my toddler son, who was simultaneously running, eating and singing all throughout house, noticed that I had eagerly opened the Mac Book to check my email and find out my number. When he noticed, I closed the laptop and returned my attention to him, with little time to reflect upon what had just occurred.
A few days later, as I received my Mount Summit Challenge bib on race morning, I had nearly forgotten about my marathon bib. For the Summit, my bib was 152, which you already know, because you read "Dad, I Won the Mount Summit Challenge For You." I was hit by so many emotions on the morning of the Summit that nothing was on my mind but winning first female for my dad, which, happily, I did. I was so exuberant, so grateful, so focused on one thing, so energized and eager, so deeply within in the moment, that I did not realize that my marathon bib, 2517, was my Summit bib, 152, in reverse, with my favorite number, 7, tacked on the end for good measure.
Furthermore, it was not until my husband, Eric, and I picked up our bibs the night before the Pittsburgh Half & Full Marathons at the event expo that it sunk in. When I stared at the marathon bib held in my hands, the numbers spoke to me. They reached out and gripped my heart. My chest tightened, my throat welled up, tears filled my eyes, and I stopped, dead in my tracks. Shaking my head in disbelief, I felt that same deeply moving, semi-overwhelming feeling of awe and wonder that I have felt each time my dad's spirit washed over me in this way. It is powerful beyond belief.
Finally, the meaningfulness of it all really resonated when Eric received his Half Marathon bib, and we saw that his number was 18386, something completely insignificant to either of us. Out of about 20,000 racers in the Pittsburgh Half and Full Marathons, my random combination was, indeed, personally profound.
Running a full, official marathon was something I have wanted to do since I was 13 years old. I inscribed the dream, amongst a list of many, in my journal as I lay daydreaming, belly down upon my bed, gazing out my second-story bedroom window into the streets of my hometown of Ohiopyle. Even then, as a junior high track & field sprinter who always placed in the 100 and 200 meter dashes and the 4x100 meter relay, something within me yearned to experience the marathon, a runner's badge of honor.
Running the Pittsburgh Marathon, specifically, became an aspiration when I ran a 27-mile trail race for fun in 2012. Unknowingly pregnant during the race, my dream of Pittsburgh was put on pause.
Finally, four years later, on May 1, 2016, I ran the Pittsburgh Marathon while Eric ran the Half. Spending two nights in Pittsburgh and running was our honeymoon celebration.
We became husband and wife before our closest friends and family in our sweet, small Catholic parish nestled among the mountains where we live on April 16. We enjoyed a potluck dinner at the Ohiopyle firehall, from which we had a view of my childhood home. We ended the festivities by dancing all night to our friends' band at the local riverside pub. It was, quite simply, the best day of my life. Caitlin's Living Photography so beautifully and creatively captured the pure joy of the day - to see Caitlin and her team's artistry and to have a peak into the best day of my life, check out our photos and video here!
So, what better way to enter into matrimony than to commit to a physically and mentally challenging feat? It was my first official marathon and Eric's first half, and our first race together as husband and wife. However, we did not plan ahead when signing up. We predicted dramatically different pace times, which led to being placed in different corrals. This meant that on race day I was grouped in a separate section that began running 10-20 minutes prior to Eric's group. Thus, we kissed goodbye and wished each other luck as we parted ways. So much for running the first 11 miles together!
Nonetheless, we both enjoyed our events to the fullest. I felt fantastic the entire 26.2 miles. Eric appeared as if he hadn't even run 13.1 miles when he met me at the finish. Even more, now he wants to run a full marathon! He hit his race goal of finishing under two hours with a 1:51:59.
Looking back, I felt as if I were floating on cloud nine. A smile was planted upon my face nearly the entire race, except for the steep downhill section at mile 24 (I do not like running down long hills and even tried to tackle this one by running backwards). The gratitude I felt for being healthy and strong enough to run 26.2 miles kept my spirits high. The sugar from consuming two two-ounce honey bottles and two two-ounce beet juice bottles plus many orange slices that I graciously accepted from generous spectators added to my bliss. Further, I slowed to a speed-walk pace at all 15 hydration stations to drink one to two cups of water, determined to simply feel good. I even used the facilities three times, because I didn't care about my finishing time.
"It's like taking a long hike in the woods," I told Eric the day before the marathon. I was referring to my primary goal - to go into the marathon the same way I would a long day hike. I wanted to feel relaxed, to lose track of time, to keep an easy, steady, even pace the entire race, to not fret about passing people or, even more, about racing against my watch. I had no time goal and simply wanted to focus on my breathing, keeping it relaxed and deep.
Having no goal was the challenge. Letting go of the habit of quickly glancing at my Garmin as it beeped with each mile was difficult. But I knew that with the intensity, both physically and emotionally, of the Summit race just one week prior, that I would welcome a carefree, go-with-the-flow approach to the marathon.
During the months of training, when friends asked what my goal time was, I would smile and respond that, ideally, I'd love to qualify for Boston with a 3:35 finish. Yet, I knew that setting such lofty goals for my first ever marathon, especially one taking place seven days after a winning event and two weeks after my wedding, would mentally burn me out. It wasn't until the night before the race, when my dad's lucky number lay before me, that I felt a sense of ease in not having a goal, unlike the sense of urgency to win that I felt at the Summit. His message this time was simply that he was proud that his daughter, a sprinter at heart, decided to undertake a marathon, period.
And so with my magic number, a smile and a carefree attitude, I finished in 4:11:12 with a 9:34 pace. My fastest mile was up the steepest hill and slowest was down the steepest hill. Otherwise, I maintained the same pace nearly the entire time, with mile 25 being 9:20 and mile 26 being 9:13. My time put me at 69th place out of 311 in my age group, 349th place out of 1,449 total marathon women, and 1,367th out of 3,666 total marathon runners (men and women). These places are rather insignificant, but, even without a time goal, it's still interesting to see how one ranks! I wanted to finish strong, with my head up and heart high, with a feeling of hopefulness still left, and I did.
Near the end of the race, tears welled in my eyes as the crowd encouraged runners to the finish, as I reflected upon months of training with all it's ups and downs, as I finally completed the childhood dream I wrote about 20 years ago, as I saw my husband smiling and clapping at mile 25 and as I felt my dad's spirit carrying me through. The first thought when I finished was that I could totally run another marathon!
Then confusion set it in, which began with the announcer proclaiming that those who started in Corral B, which I did, were still finishing under four hours. My Garmin told me I finished 26.3, not 26.2, miles in 4:09, and the giant red digital numbers at the finish said 4:20, but that's because Corral B started after Corral A. Later, when Eric found me, he quickly looked up my official time, 4:11:12. I couldn't help but smile, again.
Then mental confusion compounded, and my body began to react. Indeed, I was beginning to crash. And crash I did.
As I walked slowly through the finish area, I sunk into a low Buddha squat, with knees wide and butt low, and hung my head. I attempted to stretch quads and calves. My right hamstring tendon was swollen and right leg became too stiff to bend. All at once I needed water, salt and food. Anger replaced the pure joy of the race as the finish area seemed to go on forever. I began violently shaking as my body temperature dropped.
Once Eric and I found one another, we began the 30 to 40-minute trek back to our hotel. He held me upright the entire way. In hindsight, I would have called a cab, because with every step I became angrier, colder, thirstier, hungrier and ANGRIER! It was purely awful, a complete contrast to the wonderful 26.2 mile jog that I had just experienced.
It took a few hours to recover from that dreadful state, and then it took a few days of icing, lots of yoga and tiger balm, taking arnica tablets and eating healing foods to return to a state of being able to run again. By Wednesday, May 4, I was on the road running. Thus, another goal achieved - I finished injury free and did not need to take two weeks off of running to recover!
As for the bib number, I placed it on the refrigerator door along with the others. Now, 52 (from the 2015 Mount Summit Challenge), 252 (from the 15.5-mile Pyle Run & Ride Trail Race in 2015), 152 (from the 2016 Mount Summit Challenge) and 2517 (from the 2016 Pittsburgh Marathon) are on display, showing me each day that my dad is ever present, watching over me, my husband Eric and our son Avie in his powerfully strong, quiet way.
Thank you, dad, for instilling the belief in myself that I needed from you to complete my dream of running a marathon. Thank you, Eric, for being my strong, firm, supportive man, my husband, and for being open to my wild ideas. Thank you, Avie, for enjoying the fact that I love running, and for everything. And thank you, friends and family who always give me courage, love and a reason to live fully. Until next time, may our departed souls continue to be our guiding lights.