April 21 2017
One runner had a memorable first race and learned a lot of important lessons that day. Here's how she saw the light through the tears.
“Not every run should cause pain. Some should just be to celebrate your working limbs,
breathing lungs and beating heart.” —Lawrence Hill, The Illegal
On September 25, I completed my first half marathon. Over the years, I had participated in several 10K events, so the natural next step was the half marathon.
I’ve always been drawn to running. Not just for the physical challenge and health benefits, but also for the peace and clarity. As my feet pelt the pavement and the road unfurls quietly in front of me, my thoughts, at first jagged and erratic, become lulled by the steady cadence of inhales and exhales until the run becomes this beautiful meditation on the open road.
Prior to the event, I had been visiting Bosnia which comes with its own set of joys and heartaches. After Bosnia, I stayed in Rome for a week and experienced the awe-inspiring sights, delicious pasta and gelato, and friendly Roman people in a way that I had always dreamed about. So by the time I arrived home, jet-legged and well-fed, it felt like the perfect time to dive into training. I had two weeks to steadily increase the length of my runs, and to fundraise for the Humane Society. I chose a local animal shelter because animals have always meant a great deal to me.
In 1995, I escaped the war and moved to America. My host family had a dog named Oscar. I must admit I wasn’t enthralled by Oscar right away. In Sarajevo, none of my friends or relatives had a dog. People in the city lived in small apartments, so dog-owning was more common in the suburbs and villages with larger homes and backyards. My first few hours in America were emotional to say the least: I didn’t know my host family, I didn’t speak English well and I had just narrowly escaped the war and left my family behind, uncertain of whether I’d see them again.
At the airport, I was greeted by smiling strangers who tucked my bags into their minivan and drove me to my new home. It was late at night and I kept dozing in and out of sleep in the backseat. My host parents asked a few sheepish questions about my harrowing journey. Tired and jet-lagged, I managed a few choppy sentences. As the van pulled into the driveway and the garage door began to open, I was jarred awake by loud, vicious-sounding barking. Having never been around a dog, I panicked and yelped. My host family quickly assured me that Oscar was really friendly. They held him firmly by the collar to prevent him from jumping on me. Little did I know that this rowdy, brown-speckled mutt would become my closest confidant.
Over the next year, my main focus was school and learning English. In the hours spent away from books and my well-worn dictionary, I worried about my family, whose lives were still in great danger. Oscar was always close by, either lazing about contently or attempting to yank my shoulder out of its socket as I walked him. On especially gray and lonely days when I’d buckle under the worry and sadness, I’d wait until my host family was out running errands and then I’d call Oscar and sit on the floor next to him. I’d talk to him in Bosnian, words just pouring out of me, and then I’d drape my arms around him and cry. I would cry until his flank was sopping wet and the warm smell of his fur made me feel a little less homesick. The entire time, Oscar hardly moved. He’d adjust a paw here and there, but otherwise he sat perfectly still. He understood.
I said earlier that I’ve always loved running. It feels so empowering to look down on my thighs, to see them hard at work, contracting and flexing, propelling me forward at whatever speed I choose. Sometimes, while running, I think to myself, This is amazing! That statement has a poignant meaning for me considering that some 20 years ago, when I was wounded by a mortar shell at 13, I could have lost my legs. The proximity of the explosion (a mere few feet away) meant that nothing short of a miracle and God’s grace saved my life and limbs that day.
Just before starting university in the States, I had a surgery on my legs. The doctors removed a small piece of shrapnel from my left calf. The piece was leaning on a nerve causing me to have sudden, painful spasms in the middle of the night. They would yank me out of sleep and I’d spend much of the night massaging my calf crying in pain. The doctors suggested that the other pea-sized metal pieces be left alone. They had already cocooned themselves deep within the connective tissue and muscles of my legs and rather than digging them out, it was wiser to leave them. I would not only have to learn to accept my pock-marked legs, but also learn to coexist with seven jagged pieces inside of them.
Fortunately, over the past two decades they have not caused me any pain. I still can’t feel a part of my left calf when I touch it because the shrapnel which was removed caused permanent nerve damage. The emotional and mental scars have taken much longer to heal. It’s still a process. Perhaps vainly, I’ve struggled with having scars on my legs. There were some years when I was uncomfortable wearing shorts and short dresses, but gradually, the scars have slightly faded and I’ve managed to get over myself and almost not notice them.
Emotionally, I’ve always teetered between looking at my legs and feeling this intense sense of victimhood, loss and at times, even anger and on the other hand, feeling lucky and grateful to have legs in the first place. It has been an ever-evolving journey—the intricate relationship with my legs. I’ve tried to navigate it with a sense of gratitude and a speck of grace.
During my recent visit to Bosnia, a well-meaning cousin who is a doctor inquired about the shrapnel in my legs. I am always caught-off-guard by questions regarding my wounds. It is as though I spend my whole adult life trying to forget that I have scars on my legs, trying to be unaffected by the fact that I was seriously wounded, so when someone mentions it, it sorts of jars me back to reality. My cousin warned me not to ever have an MRI scan because the powerful magnetic field of the machine could cause the shrapnel to move and tear my flesh. She said the MRI could be potentially fatal in my case. I admit I was shaken by our conversation. Since then I’ve had to repeatedly slay the well-known dragons of fear, worry and hyper-vigilance which have ruled a great deal of my life since the war. Although I’ve known for some time that MRI machines are not advisable in my case, the truth is I had put that bit of information out of my mind. Now, being reminded of it again, I felt the full weight of being a victim, being injured and feeling powerless.
Fortunately, training for my half marathon was a way of regaining my power, feeling more like a doer instead of someone to whom something hurtful had been done. I ached to feel strong and powerful again, instead of feeling fearful and wounded. I counted the hours before the marathon day. I woke up at 4 a.m., had a smoothie and thought about what this day meant to me. I had decided that my first half marathon would be an occasion of unfettered joy and celebration of my working limbs. By 6 a.m., I was practically bursting with energy and eagerness to run. At 7:40 a.m. I lined up in the chute with the other runners and at 7:45 a.m. the horn finally signaled the start of the event.
My cheeks already felt sore from smiling so much in anticipation. And so it began…the first mile and the sound of hundreds of running shoes hitting the cold morning pavement. The sun had just burst out of the horizon, shimmering all over Lake Ontario. I turned my face towards it. I told myself that just finishing the 13.1-mile event would be a great personal accomplishment no matter how long it takes. The nagging, over-achiever in me wanted to finish under 2 hours and 30 minutes, but I gave myself the permission to enjoy the event instead of putting a time limit on it.
Several friends who are seasoned runners had given me sound advice days before and I was replaying it in my head; Have fun! No matter when you finish it will be your personal best. Start slow and smart. Make sure you have energy for the second part of the race.
The miles slowly strung on. I felt relieved and happy when I reached the halfway mark. I was still feeling strong, confident I could finish the race. There were times when I’d chat with a fellow runner (“How long have you trained? What charity are you running for?”) but still, I mostly ran alone, at my own pace, listening to the soft taps of my sneakers on the pavement. For all my love of words, I actually find it difficult to properly describe those 13 miles. It was everything I thought it would be, but also more than I could have ever predicted.
Around the 9-mile mark, the longest distance I had trained, I started feeling tightness in my hamstrings and some soreness in my ankles. Still, there was never a moment when I worried if I’d finish the race. I just focused on one mile at a time, making sure to take short walking breaks and to hydrate at numerous water stations. A few times I looked down on my legs. They looked strong and sinewy, intent on taking me all the way. As most women in this world, the thoughts of wanting them to be leaner weren’t entirely absent, but on this day, those petty wishes were swiftly drowned out by my silent song of gratitude and self-praise. You go girl. You have strong and healthy survivor-legs.
In the final stretch, the onlookers shouted, “Keep going! You are almost there!” I got teary-eyed and discovered a whole new level of energy I didn’t know I had. I increased my speed. It felt like I was barely skimming the pavement. I could see the finish line. I sped up some more and spread a huge smile across my face. This was the moment! The cheers and the applause from the onlookers and my family, the first delicious taste of a banana and the weight of my participation medal against my chest—that is the stuff of memories, which I will treasure always.
The following couple of days, as I nursed my sore joints and unapologetically dove into a jar of Nutella and a tub of hazelnut/pistachio gelato, I kept thinking of my lifelong teetering between feeling a victim and feeling strong and unaffected. After some reflection, I arrived at this: There is simply no chance of anyone feeling unaffected. You don’t have to be a victim of war or have shrapnel in your legs to bear scars of your own life somewhere on your body or deeper, hidden in the stitches of your consciousness. Being affected, scarred, torn and molded by life is an unavoidable part of human existence.
I’ve arrived at another more personal truth as well: On any given day when I, Nadja, despite my past wounds and scars, manage to be happy, kind and grateful; when I offer some kindness to a stranger or a friend, I claim a personal victory over the hurt and ugliness. I create beauty from the damage I have sustained. This sense of empowerment was all the more thunderous on half marathon day!