My half marathon weekend is over. Kenley Ran! My official time was 3 hours, 22 minutes, 48 seconds. I have already signed up for a 10 mile race in two weeks to help me qualify for a higher corral next year because I am apparently a runner now. Who knew?
Friday, February 24
Our weekend started Friday morning. Mike got home from work (ah...the joys of working nights!) and we headed to Orlando around 8:30. We arrived at Port Orleans Riverside Resort and found my parents' room so Mike could sleep since we couldn't officially check in until 3. Even though I am fairly local, I love staying on Disney property. Disney does such an excellent job maintaining a sense of relaxation and fantasy in their resorts. Our building looked just like the mansions in the New Orleans Garden District.
While Mike slept, we went to the Expo to register and look around.
Arriving at the Expo, I was immediately overwhelmed. It was enormous and full of people - not to mention this was the first official moment of Kenley Running. I teared up several times before we even got inside a building. In order to register, we entered gymnasium sized room where the entire length of a wall consisted of registration booths divided by bib number. I was 13655, which put me in corral 0 - two corrals from the end, unsurprising for a first race.
To get to the vendors, we had to walk out of the giant registration building and into an even more giant building next door.
The place was swarming with people and there was a literal buzz in the air. Booths snaked up and down the expansive room. There were vendors selling compression socks, hairbands, protein snacks, earbuds, running skirts, shoe inserts, race tiaras - you name it. If it was associated with either running or princesses, it was there. And it was amazing!
As we walked down one aisle, my mom pointed to a booth to my left and said "There's Jeff Galloway." I looked over and there he was - the man in my ear for the last eleven months. We walked over to meet him. I told him about Kenley - about why I run and about how he has helped me accomplish what I always thought to be impossible. He told me how running really helps with hard emotions like grief and he said he was proud of me for persisting. "You're doing it!" he said with a smile and a hug. Really, he is the nicest man.
I left the expo with a green sparkly headband, some new earbuds for my strangely small earholes, and a new grasp on just how close I really was to my goal.
The rest of the afternoon was spent getting settled in to the hotel and getting organized for my sister's Florida baby shower that evening.
Saturday, February 25: Kenley's Birthday
We all wore our specially made Mickey ears to commemorate the occasion.
We woke up bright and early to start our day at the Be Our Guest restaurant at the Magic Kingdom. Knowing how coveted and hard to get these reservations are, my sister made them in October. Because of them, we were allowed to enter the park before opening, which was pretty awesome. There's nothing quite like having Main Street mostly to yourself. We ate a hearty breakfast of meats, cheese, and pastries and headed off to try to ride the Seven Dwarves Mine Train before the crowd. As we were walking to the entrance of the coaster, what looked like a giant tour group came racing around the corner and slid into the line before we could get there. It was a giant snake of people that seemed to have no end - and we immediately realized we had missed our window. The park had opened and the crowd had arrived. The wait time jumped from 5 minutes to 90 in a matter of seconds. So, we hopped across to the Adventures of Winnie the Pooh instead.
Our day was full of family, food, and fun - mostly because of my sister's meticulous planning skills. We ate lunch at the Crystal Palace and Piper had a blast meeting her favorite characters from the Hundred Acre Woods.
Towards the end of the day, I felt the familiar twinges around my eyes that signaled a migraine. I am prone to them anyway, but I always get one the day after Kenley's birthday. I suppose my body must have known I couldn't have one on race day, so my yearly migraine came early. I didn't get to go to dinner with everyone else. I tried, but the restaurant was too loud and I knew I wouldn't make it. So, while my family ate dinner, I laid in my hotel bed, trying to keep myself from spinning into oblivion. Around 10pm, I had slept enough of it off in order to stand upright and I gathered my things together for the race. I laid everything out in the bathroom so when I started getting ready at 3:15, I wouldn't wake up Mike and Piper, and I went back to bed, hoping the last traces of it would be gone in time.
Sunday, February 26: Race Day!
In case you didn't know, 3:15 isn't even the butt-crack of dawn. It's more like the small of the back of dawn. It's early! I woke up feeling a little fuzzy headed with some migraine residue still clinging to the back of my eyes, but I could tell it would fade away as I got myself moving. I put on my race outfit and laced up my shoes. I straightened my lace charms with Kenley's pictures on them, grabbed the oatmeal I had made myself with the coffee maker, took a puff of my inhaler, and out the door I went.
My mom and brother-in-law were running too, so I met them at their rooms to walk to the bus. My sister was supposed to run, but got pregnant almost immediately after registering in July, so that was a no-go. Instead, she and her belly headed to Main Street to cheer us on.
There were over 24,000 runners registered for the Princess Half, so the traffic to get everyone there was pretty intense. Our resort is almost directly next door to EPCOT, yet the bus ride took a good 30 minutes. Stepping off the bus, I could immediately see just how popular this race is.
We found our corral - and wouldn't you know it - it was marked with a pink balloon. Well, hello there, little one!
Corral A was released first, followed by all the rest. With each corral release, they shot off fireworks, which served their purpose of jazzing everyone up even more. As each corral was released, the crowd moved up, and we inched closer to the start line. Finally, it was time for Corral O to go. My heart beat frantically in my chest. I fumbled around to get my music started and my phone into my flipbelt in time. It had been an hour since the first corral left the gate, so the sun was starting to rise and the sky was changing from purple to pink to blue. It was just after 6:30 when the announcer screamed to Corral O, "Rrrruuuunnnners get rrrrreeeaaadyyyy!". Fireworks exploded over the glowing pink start line and we were off. Kenley was running!
The size of the crowd was enormous. Tutus were everywhere - and everyone was within elbow distance of everyone else. As we got further from the start, it thinned out a little in places, but not entirely. There were times when I was supposed to be running, but couldn't because the crowd around me was too thick. Although that was frustrating, it was still an amazing race. Each mile marker consisted of a rectangle about 8 feet high and 3 feet wide with a Disney character on the front. Inside, there must have been a speaker because all of them played songs related to the character. Mile Marker 4 was Peter Pan, so I made sure to stop and get a photo.
All along the course were character stops and photo ops. From Jack Sparrow to Malificent to the Genie from Aladdin, there were plenty of opportunities to interact with a Disney icon. I didn't stop at any of them. The lines weren't super long, but I also knew I wasn't super fast and I wanted to finish on time. (maybe next year though).
The course ran from EPCOT up to the Magic Kingdom, through the park and around the castle, and back to EPCOT. My sister was on the corner of Main Street just as we entered Magic Kindgom, holding up a #RunKenleyRun sign and ringing a cowbell.
My mom and I got a few quick photos in front of the castle before we were on our way out of the park and back down to EPCOT.
I had expected the race to be extremely emotional. I was worried I wouldn't be able to run because I'd be crying so hard. But, honestly, I was just in the zone. I listened to my music. I talked to my mom. I walked. I ran. I took in everything around the course. I had a great time. There's so much going on at a Disney race, you can't help but have fun. Sure, there were moments when the magnitude of what I was doing hit me right in the face, when my heart swelled to wrap itself around the place she is missing, and when my love for her was so great, I felt like she was radiating out of me. But, the amazing part was - none of it was sad. I wasn't sad once - at least not in the sense of what I have been. Clearly, sadness comes with loss - but in the three hours and twenty two minutes I was running for her, I felt so many more emotions than sadness. I felt the joy of being her mother, the pride in accomplishing a goal in her memory, the excitement of running my very first half marathon, the support of those I knew were tracking me. I felt the most complete I have felt in four years. I almost felt whole again.
The last mile or so was hard. I had to walk more intervals than I ran. As we looped back into EPCOT and passed Mile Marker 12, I felt so much relief I was almost there. We circled around Spaceship Earth, down to the World Showcase, and back again. At 13 miles, we passed a gospel choir. Almost there! I turned the final corner and there it was - the finish line flanked by grandstands full of cheering friends and family.
A year of training - a year of taking my non-runner self out on runs 3 times a week - a year of researching interval training and running nutrition - a year of shelling out hundreds of dollars for workout clothes, shoes, arch support inserts - a year of focusing on challenging myself in the name of my little girl - had all come down to this moment. My moment. Her moment. OUR moment. I crossed the finish line with my hands in the air and tears in my eyes.
I looked over to the stands to see a small crowd of people in green #runkenleyrun shirts and I waved at my family. Following the crowd, I walked over to collect my medal - a gold bell with a rose in the middle to go along with the Beauty and the Beast theme - and a box of post-race snacks. My mom and I walked around through the runner's section and into the area to meet family where we met up with Mike and Piper, my dad, my sister and her husband, and my friend Nanci who had come to watch me cross the finish line. I felt victorious. And exhausted.
We all went back to the hotel for baths and naps. Once we were clean and rested, we spent the afternoon at EPCOT. I wore my t-shirt and medal with pride - as did many other runners.
For a lot of people, this weekend was a fun-run, something they do every year with their friends. For me, this weekend was both the start of a new tradition and the end of a way to think about my daughter. Since the day she was born, an emptiness surrounded her memory. I carried her for her entire life and I left the hospital without her. It often felt like I left her there. For four years, that hospital was where I held her memory. I only knew her outside of me inside those walls, where she was still and silent in my arms - and so it's been so hard to separate Kenley from her death. Thoughts of her were memories of me holding her in that hospital, of me crying and empty and broken. Even in my writing and actions in the months and years after have been focused on stillbirth - on death. For four years, the focus has been on the fact my baby died. And, oh, how that is so very draining.
This weekend (and the year leading up to it) changed that focus. I worked hard for a year to push my body to do something amazing. I worked hard for a year to transition Kenley's memory from a hospital room to a finish line. And I did it. She isn't still and cold in a bassinet. She is alive in my beating heart. She flows in and out of me with my breath. She travels miles and miles on the soles of my shoes. She is no longer something my body failed to do - but something it achieved. She is an accomplishment, a victory.
I will always struggle with grief because this is the journey child loss sends you on. I will always miss her and I will always love her. I will always, always wonder who she should have been. But, I will no longer let her memory be encased in death. As long as I'm living, my triumph she'll be.