I’ve always prided myself on the fact that I am not, nor have I ever been, a quitter. All my life, I’ve followed through with my commitments no matter how challenging the path to the end may be.
I started playing lacrosse in high school and loved it so much that I decided to continue playing in college. During my freshman and sophomore years, I loved every second that I spent on the field. I didn’t even mind the sprint sets, despite the fact that I’m a horrible runner.
But everything changed after I was sexually assaulted while walking home from a party. I spiraled into a deep depression that I couldn’t pull myself out of. My whole world felt like it was falling apart. I covered every mirror in my house because I was disgusted by my own reflection. I was broken and damaged and my body didn’t feel like my own anymore. I pretended to be okay for as long as I could because I didn’t want to let anybody down, especially not my teammates. In that process, I ended up letting myself down.
Then, my best friend Nikki quit the lacrosse team to pursue her dream of running marathons competitively. I wanted to be happy for her – and I was – but I was also jealous that she was going to be happy while I had to be miserable alone. I decided it was time for me to move on.
I decided that I was going to run a half marathon and found one that was close-ish to my school: the Foot Levelers Blue Ridge Half Marathon in Roanoke, Virginia. I blindly signed myself up for it. Nikki and another friend of ours signed up as well. At that point, the longest distance I’d ever run was an 8k. If I was going to nearly triple that distance, I was going to need all of the motivation I could get. Let me remind you: I’m not the biggest fan of running.
On April 21st at 7:30 a.m., the gun fired and the race began. The course was relatively flat at the start with a few manageable hills. I hadn’t looked up any of the race information beforehand so I wasn’t aware that the course consisted of two mountains and a total elevation loss/gain of 3,760 feet.
My friends pulled ahead about halfway through mile two where Mill Mountain, the first mountain of the course, began. Around mile four, I reached the Mill Mountain Star where I was informed by a fellow runner that the Blue Ridge Half Marathon is known as “America’s Toughest Road Half Marathon.”
Running down the mountain was considerably less difficult than running up it. I hit my groove and was feeling great. But, around mile eight, I started up Peakwood Mountain. It was shorter in distance than Mill Mountain, but it was a lot steeper and I was exhausted. I made friends with other runners to distract myself and was called “crazy” for choosing to run the Blue Ridge Half when I’d never run more than five miles. Like I said, whoops.
0.2 miles from the top of Peakwood, I started to feel sick and nearly collapsed. A group of people walking up the mountain helped me get to the top of the mountain where I was able to rest for a few minutes. As I started to make my way down the mountain, Nikki called me. She had just finished the half and had immediately turned around to come find me. She met back up with me as I was reaching the bottom of Peakwood.
“You have this, Kels,” Nikki said as she jogged to my side. “You’re going to finish this and I’ll be right here with you the whole time.”
The last three miles were a blur of pain and determination. The runners who had finished before me lined the street sporting their medals and cheering the rest of us on. The whole time Nikki trotted by my side, cheering. As much as I hated her at that moment for being the one who encouraged me to run this thing in the first place, I was so grateful that she was there. I remember thinking how lucky I was to have such an amazing woman in my life who believed so strongly that I could be amazing, too.
Then it was over. I crossed the finish line with my arms raised above my head. Despite the fact that every single muscle in my body was screaming in pain, I had never felt better. My body, the same one that I had spent so long after my assault hating and hiding and being too ashamed to even look at, had just taken me across the finish line of the hardest half marathon in North America.
I was covered in sweat and could barely stand up straight, but I had never felt more beautiful. I felt proud of my body and all of the incredible things that it could do. No one could take that away from me. Not anymore.
Images by Kelsey Welsh
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