Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Cheerleaders Don't Always Have Pom-Poms

A sign made by my cousins before my 4th Marine Corps Marathon in 2014

A few years ago while out on my very first 18 mile training run on the Columbia Trail in High Bridge New Jersey, I stepped off to the side of the trail to collect myself. I was beginning to chafe everywhere (this was before I was aware of high quality tech fabric and BODY GLIDE.) There was substantially more weight on my body than there is now and I felt extra heavy and in pain, everywhere. I was wearing the wrong kind of shoes. It was hot, and unbearably humid. I wanted so badly to stop and lie down in the poison ivy at the side of the trail.

I didn't even have a chance to throw in the towel. Just as these negative thoughts began floating around me like the filth does around that dirty kid in Charlie Brown cartoons, an angel in the form of a man named Ralph Abramowitz ran by me, and then stopped when he realized there was a person standing, half hidden behind a tree at the side of the trail. I can only imagine how I must have looked.

"Hey! Are you okay?" he asked, smiling.
"Um, I think so. Just taking a break."
"How much ya' doing today?"
"Eighteen" I said, incredulously. Did that number just come out of my mouth?
"Wow! Whatcha training for?"
"The Marine Corps Marathon." Did I just say that? Holy shit, I'm really training for a marathon.
"That's great! You're gonna LOVE IT!"
I bet I am, said that negative voice of mine that loves to present itself when I least need it to. I. Bet. I. Am. But I smiled and said, "I hope so. I'm trying to figure out how I'm going to run for 9 more miles."
Ralph smiled his big, radiant smile. "You got this far, you can do it again. Take a break. Drink your water. Have a gel. And then get started again. YOU GOT THIS."
Who was this overly chipper guy and why was he trying to convince me of the impossible?
"I'm Ralph by the way, and I've got a group called Ralph's Runners, and we're out here every weekend. I've got my runners doing 22 today. They're also doing MCM. Listen, I gotta go but we have a group on Facebook. I'd love for you to join. Look us up! What's your name by the way?"
"Mirna, it was nice to meet you. Remember, you got this far..."
And then he ran off.
TWENTY-TWO miles? I couldn't even wrap my head around 18. Wow.
I did exactly what Ralph said and managed to finish the second half of my run, albeit with tremendous foot pain from plantar fasciitis, back soreness, brain fatigue. But I completed it. This was because of two things--I had to (my car was 9 miles away) and because this stranger had encouraged me to finish it, even though he didn't KNOW me from a poison-ivy covered tree or a menacing looking black bear on the prowl. He was cheering me on, encouraging me, transferring his energy and positivity to me.
In sports as in life, the purpose of cheerleaders, whether they are the pom-pom wielding ones in brightly colored ribbons and short skirts or the super-acrobats catapulting themselves into thin air, is to "energize the team and the crowd." I would take it a step further and say that the most important aspect of cheerleading is to SUPPORT the team, loudly and energetically so that that any negative thinking or juju from the other team is drowned out in positivity and er, cheer. 
As a non-traditional runner and fitness enthusiast, it has become increasingly clear how much support and encouragement I needed and still need in order to be able to do the things I am able to do, like complete an ultramarathon, backpack in the Appalachian Mountains for few days with a 60 Lb pack on my back while being responsible for myself and ten students, or to keep it real, just to be able to run whenever and wherever I want to. 
After about 6 hours of switchbacks in Pisgah National Forest heading toward Pinnacle Mountain.

The running and fitness communities are incredible, as are those who are spectators. Everyone who has ever said, GET IT!, YOU GO GIRL!, YOU GOT THIS!, FINISH STRONG!, SMILE! ONLY 26 MILES LEFT!, OMG YOU ARE OUT HERE!, JUST A FEW YARDS TO GO!, LOOKING GOOD, UM, THAT SEXY MARINE JUST SMILED AT YOU!.....is a cheerleader. Anyone who has ever made a sign to hold up for hours and hours at a marathon is a cheerleader. Anyone who helps you get up in the morning so that you can workout like you promised yourself you would is a cheerleader. Anyone who gives you that encouraging smile or a simple thumbs up is a cheerleader.
Surround yourself with cheerleaders so that they help to drown out the internal and external saboteurs that loudly question your ability or commitment to your body. Be a cheerleader for those on the path to fitness and for those who need a smile or acknowledgement that yeah, this is hard. Finally, thank your cheerleaders and acknowledge them. They deserve it.

I'm seven marathon distances and 2 ultramarathon distances in since my encounter with Coach Abramowitz. Thank you, Ralph.


  1. I started reading your blog last week and I must say, you are very inspiring. I am currently on a weight loss journey and I'm hoping to start running next month with the Running Room. Were you scared when you first started running? What made you want to run long distances as opposed to starting off small? Or did you start off small? Sorry for all the questions!

    Feel free to read my blog when you have the chance :)

  2. Thanks for your kudos, Kayla! I had been running off and on for a few years after graduating from college. After I moved from home (NYC) to Maryland I gained an enormous amount of weight. My doctor suggested that I would die and not be able to see my son grow up. I recommitted to running, starting with 5ks as goal races. I had done up to 10k previously in NY so I was working myself back up. 5k is a great distance to challenge yourself with but I prefer being able to run slowly and long. I really enjoy slogging out a bunch of miles at my own pace as opposed to doing shorter and faster mileage. But that's me. I enjoy being outside for HOURS! DO you, girl!

  3. I love your blog...just started training for Duncan Ridge 30k...it's been really tough. But I want you to know you have been a tremendous inspiration for me....