I resolved to do everything I could to be able to run that race, and I started spending hours each day in the gym. Three days before the race, I went back to see my doctor. If he said I absolutely couldn’t run, then I was going to walk the entire 26.2-mile course, even if it took me all day. During my cross-training, I diligently kept track of how long I trained, the time of day and what my pain felt like. And for the last three days before my appointment, I hadn’t felt any pain at all.

My doctor said, “I see you’re determined to do this. Go run a few miles and see how you feel.” So that night I went for a run. It was the first time I’d run since my injury, and it really hurt. But I was committed to starting the race in two days.

Reconnected on Race Day

Fred and I are standing at the starting line in a crowd of other runners. I’m more nervous and scared than excited. How long will I be able to run before it starts to hurt? I’m determined to finish, but how long will it take me? Will Fred have to leave me behind? The starting gun sounds and we take off. As we cover the course, I remember what my doctor said: “You can run some, but make sure you walk when you need to.” I’m setting a good pace for me, but I keep waiting for the pain. It doesn’t come.

Still, I slow down to walk around mile 17. I tell Fred to go on ahead, and he runs past me. I keep walking by myself. After about a mile, I see Fred’s wife. She tells me he’s not that far ahead – I can catch up. I start to run again, and in a few minutes I reach him. We decide then that we’re going to finish the race together, side by side. The last few miles drag by. Fred and I run, then walk; run, then walk. I feel like it’s never going to be over! It’s only when I cross the finish line that I let myself feel the excitement. My childhood dream has come true!

Beyond the Finish Line

I immediately started making plans for my next race, though I knew I’d have to take some time off to truly let my body recuperate. Running before my stress fracture was fully healed meant I wound up with a much longer recovery period – but it was worth it.

I approach both running and living differently now. Before I ran this race, I had a huge chip on my shoulder and constantly felt like I had to prove myself to everyone. But instead of proving to others that I could run a marathon, I wound up showing myself that I can make my dreams come true, whatever obstacles are in my way. I’ve learned how to face setbacks without letting them define me. I’m not just a runner with arthritis. That’s only one part of my identity. I know now I can relax and be myself – and achieve anything I set my heart on.

Fred and I are planning to turn our next marathon together in November into a real race. We’ve already agreed that we won’t wait for each other – it’s going to be every man for himself.  Even if I cross the finish line by myself, though, I’m not crossing it alone. The words and encouragement of my friends, family, co-workers and running buddies will be playing through my mind for every step of the 26.2 miles, helping me push myself go farther and faster. For all these years I thought I was alone in my struggle with arthritis and my life was essentially over. Crossing the finish line of my first marathon made me realize that this is just the start.

The author of this juvenile arthritis story, Ericka Umbarger, holds a master of social work and is a counselor at the Choice Group in Richmond, Va. She has served on a local Arthritis Foundation board in Virginia.