If you’ve asked me about the Charleston Marathon next week and my face clouds with guilt or you haven’t seen me out on the trail, it’s because I got sick and won’t be running the full marathon. First it was the flu over Thanksgiving that felt like mono, leaving my weakened immune system ripe for a bout of bronchitis followed by a virus. Life’s been a haze of medicines, an effort to hydrate, and lots of sleep. I’ve focused my energy on the basics – taking care of my three-year-old son and preserving my ability to support us, i.e. work. In short, it’s been a bleak existence.

The holidays meant ten days with my parents, who encouraged sleeping and book reading by the fire, while they wore my son out on the farm cleaning out stalls and bailing hay. Once I felt better, I ventured out for a run. The cold air pierced my lungs. The wind whipped through my layers of lycra. My legs felt heavy. I wanted to turn around and settle by the fire with a hot toddy. I wanted to feel cozy and comfortable. Why run anyway? I’ll never regain enough fitness between now and the marathon – why not simply enjoy the day.

Instead of turning around, I focused on how solid the ground felt under my feet, how the earth held me up and reminded me of my own strength. My thoughts turned to dirt and I thought about my relationship to it. I thought that one day I’ll be buried in that ground or my ashes sprinkled over it, that I’ll blend with the earth, but today I’ll let the earth hold me up and propel me forward.

The running didn’t feel any easier. My lungs burned, my muscles quivered, and my mind labored over how hard running was. Again I thought about quitting. If running wasn’t fun, why was I bothering to do it anyway? There’s a lot of things I do that aren’t fun, but I keep doing them over again – instilling manners into my son and forcing him to brush his teeth, staying home to rewrite the book I started two years ago when friends invite me to go out, and grinding away in an office during the majority of my weekday-waking hours.

If someone asked, I would tell them running is fun, but that’s not really honest. The running itself is mostly miserable, for me, at least most of the time. There are miles of light, there are transcendental glimpses of flying, but for the most part it’s me versus my brain, forcing myself forward. It’s high-fiving my running partners after the run that’s fun, it’s the buzz of endorphins, it’s the way my body feels worked out and sore and ready to rest, it’s all the thoughts and emotions that moved through me during the run and the ones I left behind on the trail.

The late afternoon sun cast a shadow bigger than me. I ran side-by-side, sharing space with my own darkness. My shadow matched me stride-for-stride. There would be no outrunning it, no pulling ahead. I blinked back tears of frustration, that even after all that training, my fitness level had plummeted after being sick for so long. I had no energy left to stifle anything and so I cried. I ran and cried, cried and ran, because sometimes it seems that no matter how hard I try, the reality of life creeps up, the call from day care right before I was about to sneak in a lunchtime run, my own mortal body with what seems to be a fragile immune system these days, the pull of so many errands that need to get done right now.

I plodded along, knowing the only way to get back into a running groove was by running. I ignored the nagging voice asking me to turn around, to give up, and to get comfortable. I told myself that the only way through was forward, and that turning around was going backwards, a direction I refused to go.

Somewhere between mile ten and eleven I accepted that I could do my best, but my best was no guarantee against failure. Between miles eleven and twelve my feet felt like twenty pound weights were attached and I stumbled over my shoes. I conceded that I was in no shape to be contemplating a marathon so soon after being sick. I’d have to readjust my goals, set my sights on the half instead. Settling for the half seems like such a defeat. Six months before and I was sure I could get through the full, one way or another, but I couldn’t risk another bout of getting sick, not with my heavy workload and solo parenting.

As my parents’ house came into sight, I felt a flood of relief. It hadn’t been a glorious run, but I had put in the miles, laid down so many emotions of frustration and failure along the way, and even glimpsed my own mortality. I’d run next to my own shadow, but realized that spending time in darkness didn’t mean I’d dwell there forever.

With all that angst behind me, gratitude overcame me. I might not be running the full marathon, but I was still running the half. A wave of endorphins swelled within me. I had the things that really matter – love, health, joy. I might never get to my destination of 26.2 miles, but the journey has been oh so sweet.

The training schedule, the twisted trails, the pre-dawn runs by headlamp, the lunchtime drills of skipping and running backward along sidewalks, and meeting new running partners have been planks in the bridge of willpower and strength, a solid platform over waters of despair. The journey has allowed me to touch the divine within myself, the sacred will to take one more step.