Last summer I challenged myself to participate in an event that would test me physically and psychologically. The road ahead was going to be long, the training would be difficult and the finish line seemed beyond the horizon.
Excited, but a little scared, I laced up my running shoes and began to train for the ING Miami half-marathon, which was to take place at the end of January 2012, in support of my friends at Yachad. Yachad is an organization dedicated to addressing the needs of all individuals with disabilities and including them in the Jewish community. Little did I know the profound impact the race would have on me.
My preparations began in the summer of 2011. I convinced my dad to train with me, so the two of us were able to share this experience together. My dad was already an avid runner, but I had never run one mile before I began the training. We started off slowly with two or three runs per week, each about two or three miles. Each week we would add another mile to the Sunday run.
Dehydration, cramps and twisted ankles were par for the course. The numerous death-defying running maneuvers, necessary to avoid getting hit by someone talking, texting and applying make-up while driving their gigantic SUVs around the Five Towns, were frightening.
Through it all, my friends were extremely supportive and many of their parents contributed generously towards my fundraising goal of $3,000. Most importantly, their special words of encouragement provided me with the drive desperately needed to continue on my journey.
I got involved with Yachad many years ago. I like spending most Sunday mornings volunteering my time with special-needs children and usually one weekend a month, I enjoy attending Yachad Shabbatons. During the summer, I worked as a Yachad job coach at Camp Lavi in Lakewood, Pa.
When the weekend of the marathon came, my adrenaline kicked into high gear. Spending Shabbat in Miami Beach with so many of my friends from Yachad was the ideal pre-race emotional boost that I carried in my heart during the lengthy 13.1-mile race.
At Camp Lavi, I had met a young woman named Chani, and on the Shabbat before the marathon I had the pleasure of rooming with her. The runners and Yachad participants davened, ate and danced together the entire weekend to celebrate what we were all there to accomplish.
Chani was a spark plug of enthusiasm the entire weekend. As I watched her interacting with everyone, I realized that there is much that we can learn from her. Chani treats everyone with such ahava — love, which is infectious. I remember that we should all strive to treat each other on a daily basis the same way that Chani treats everyone.
The morning of the race was upon us and needless to say, the night before the race few of us slept well. By 4 a.m. we gathered in the lobby of the hotel. By 5 a.m. we assembled in the pre-dawn darkness of downtown Miami with 23,000 runners from all over the world.
Just before the start of the race, I looked into the eyes of some of the runners and noticed a bit of trepidation. But when I looked into the eyes of David, Eli and Abie — three of the nicest Yachad members you can ever hope to meet — I saw pride. They didn’t know how long it was going to take them to finish the race, but they were committed to crossing the finish line, no matter what!
Raising money (yes, I reached my goal) and awareness on behalf of Yachad provided me with an incredible opportunity to educate people regarding the value of such an important organization. I never expected that while passing another runner she would ask me, what does Yachad stand for and how did we get so many people to run for one cause? While trying to maintain my pace of finishing in less than two hours and 30 minutes, I explained a little bit about Yachad, gave her a high-five and continued on my run.
As I ran over one of the many bridges in Miami, the sun was just beginning to rise. I spotted David running ahead of me. David and I spent an amazing summer on Yad B’Yad touring Israel together. So I turned on the juice and caught up to him as he was running alongside one of my friends, Rebecca Schragg.
I introduced David and Rebecca to my dad and David insisted on shaking my dad’s hand during the race and David made a real effort to have an actual conversation with him. David was beaming and smiling from ear to ear. I don’t think I have ever seen David happier.
The support from spectators along the route provided motivation to continue putting one foot in front of the other. Seeing Jewish people screaming and yelling from the sidelines, “Go team Yachad” provided the necessary encouragement that motivated me to run faster and stronger.
By mile 11 I began to really feel the pain. I was tired and my feet hurt, but I refused to quit. I knew the finish line was near, although it really seemed so far away. I thought about all the kids from Yachad that I have the privilege of calling my friends. I started to conjure up their faces and imagined them running alongside of me.
The pain was suddenly gone and with one mile to go and the finish line visible in the distance, I was suddenly running faster than at any other point during the race, much to my tired father’s dismay. The crowds were larger, the noise level was deafening and the Guns N’ Roses song, “Welcome to the Jungle,” was blaring from the loudspeakers. At exactly two hours and 22 minutes, my dad and I held our hands high and crossed the finish line together.
After a brief rest, I returned to the finish line to cheer on other Team Yachad members who were completing their races. I was tingling with excitement as I watched David, Elie and Abie cross the finish line with gigantic smiles on their faces and the admiration of thousands of people who knew the extraordinary accomplishment that they had just witnessed.
I arrived home from Miami later that night and was greeted by my younger brother, Brett. Fifteen years ago Brett was born prematurely and weighed only 1 pound, nine ounces. He was not expected to survive being born so early and being so small.
He is the most amazing little brother in the world. He has numerous developmental delays that profoundly impact his life. Yet, he and I share an unbreakable bond. I remember hugging him tightly by the front door and taking the medal that I received upon the completion of the marathon and putting it around his neck.
I realized that I was not only running for Yachad, but also for Brett. It was then that I acknowledged that my journey was over; a journey that I will never forget.