running in Baxter Village

The Importance of Running a Fast Race

Today is Global Running Day. And in about four weeks, I’ll run my 20th half marathon in Missoula, Montana, where I’ll aim to break 1:40 for the first time.

I’ve only run sub-1:45 three times while battling injuries for the past seven years. But the Missoula Half Marathon is a flat, fast course, and I might be in the best shape of my life. When I entered my first 13.1-mile race on a cold December day in 2009, I could outrun almost anyone on a soccer field, but I didn’t know the first thing about training or pacing. And when I crossed the finish line in Charlotte at the 2:37 mark, I was gasping for air.

half marathon finish line 2009

Now, I’ll try to run the same distance almost a full hour more quickly, even though I’m eight years older and have picked up more than a few new battle scars.

I’m calling it Project 140.

half marathon training plan

I’ve always been a good athlete and played soccer for more than 20 years, but I’d never run a race when my little sister, Taylor, crossed the finish line of her first 5K in December 2008. She was already blind and in the early stages of a fatal brain disorder called Batten disease. She fell and skinned her knees a couple of times, and she and her guide took more than an hour to finish. But she finished. And when she did, she was smiling.
Taylor's 5K finish line

I’m an ordinary runner, so much like my sister’s on that 5K course a lifetime ago, my athletic performance on race day doesn’t mean anything to anyone else. But Taylor taught me that it’s important to push your own limits. And while running a sub-1:40 half marathon might not have a major impact on my own life or anyone else’s, the work I put in to get there will.

Running Blind

This isn’t the first time I’ve celebrated Global Running Day with a commitment to an audacious running goal. In 2013, I ran blind for the first time (to be fair, I wasn’t actually blind; I squeezed my eyes shut and, with my friend Andrew on the other end of a short bungee cord, got to know what it’s like to run in a dark world).

learning to run blind

Five months later, I ran the Thunder Road Half Marathon (now the Charlotte Half Marathon) while wearing a blindfold.

running blindfolded

Running in all 50 States

In 2014, I kicked off another running goal – to run a race in all 50 states for my sister.

I started with the 13-mile Crater Lake Rim Run in a remote part of Oregon two months later. Oregon marked the first of 50 states, but it was also the most beautiful, even more than Hawaii (my eighth). I still remember the smell of the coniferous forest and high-altitude Oregon air, and how the famous caldera lake changed colors as the sun climbed higher in the sky. I kept stopping to take pictures; I found myself wanting to remember certain moments of the race and scenes on the course. I took pictures because I didn’t trust my mind, racing with emotion, to capture it all. My time in that race – 2:17 – was by far my slowest since I’d started running half marathons. And I didn’t care.

Crater Lake

Running blind in 2013 changed my life forever. Running in all 50 states is life-changing, too. For normal humans, running a marathon isn’t really about speed. For most of us, running a long race is about physical and mental endurance and strategy and attitude. It’s about the experiences we have and the people we share them with along the way.

What’s Next

This journey is like a marathon, too. When I cross the finish line in Missoula next month, I’ll still have 32 states to go. And if I sprint the first 10K of this figurative race to 50, I won’t make it to the end.

I might not beat 1:40 on July 9. But until then, I’ll put in the miles on the track and the road and the trails and the stadium stairs. Each week, I’ll log an average of 29 miles in speed work and long runs and easy runs and tempo runs. I’ll pay my runner dues in time and blood and sweat and tears.

running stadium stairs

I might not be able to make myself four minutes faster in four weeks. While my Project 140 is designed for speed, it’s not magical, and I’m still a mortal runner. But I’ll channel my sister’s courage the whole way. And for that, I’ll be stronger.

Charlottesville TV interview

How I Overcame My Fear of Public Speaking

If you’re afraid of speaking in public, you’re not alone. In fact, Forbes contributor Nick Morgan says a whopping 10 percent of people enjoy public speaking. For the rest of us, talking in front of others induces hair-raising fear or butterflies or lost sleep or a general feeling that we’d rather be anywhere else.

For most of my life, I suffered from a genuine case of glossophobia, the medical term for a fear of public speaking. I knew most of the answers in class but didn’t dare raise my hand. I dreaded group presentations. I didn’t participate at youth group meetings. My fear extended to nonverbal activities, too. My hands shook on the piano keys during recitals in front of a room full of students and parents, even though I could play the pieces to perfection for the stern judges at music competitions. Early in my soccer career, I played so stiff on the field that the ball sometimes bounced off my foot, right to a defender.
I learned to speak up in school and honed my first touch on the field, but I never quite conquered my fear of speaking in front of a crowd.

Practice makes public speaking easier, but passion is even more important. I’ve spent most of the last 10 years telling parts of the same story, adding bits here and there to reflect our little organization’s ascension and my sister’s physical decline. I’ve spoken at large and small events, to groups of friends and complete strangers, on live radio and TV, from chilly hotel ballrooms in North Carolina to an emerald lawn overlooking Shipwreck Beach on Kauai. I’m still a strong I on the Myers-Briggs scale, but as I once told a friend, Taylor helped me find my inner E. And this fall, I’ll do something I never imagined possible: I’ll deliver a talk on the TED stage.

In a lot of ways, I’m still the girl whose face turned beet red whenever a teacher called her name in class. But my sister taught me that it’s important to push your own limits. Now, I channel her strength, whether I’m pushing my body to run a fast race or write one more paragraph long after midnight or speak in front of 500 strangers. And when I step onto that stage this October to talk about my sister’s life and the impact of rare disease and strategies to fix it, I’ll take a piece of her with me.

TEDxCharlotte 2017 is Friday, October 13. Tickets go on sale in early June. I hope to see you there!