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Melissa and Sonja were kind enough to share their story with us on an earlier blog, and agreed to let us follow along as they #DareTheDistance with us this season! 

Conquering Hills and 13.1 Miles

Contributing Writer: Samantha Jimenez

On Sunday morning, December 10th, Melissa and Sonja headed out to run the Decker Half Marathon with the thrill they feel heading out to every race. Melissa was thrilled to be running her first half marathon, because not many people with special needs can say that they run half marathons, or many people in general. She was also excited to run it with Sonja and Bonnie. Sonja was excited to see Melissa conquer the hills and complete her first half marathon.  

In the days leading up to the race, Melissa described the feelings as nervous excitement while Sonja was excited for the surprisingly good weather on a December morning which she described as a nice bonus for the Decker run. Throughout the race, Melissa motivated herself with phrases like “I can do this and I’m doing it”. One of her favorite moments during Decker was running past the Ship of Fools water stop and hearing all her friends and support cheer for her which gave her encouragement to keep going.

Sonja felt strong about the race, and had overall encouragement in the beginning as Melissa was doing great for the first four miles.  Then the hills really got rolling and the pace started to slow down as it started feeling like they were climbing up the hills both ways. Sonja was conscious of the time as the race became more difficult.  Melissa never quit, but at times she was struggling to get up the hills.  

At 2 hours and 45 minutes they still had two miles to go and needed to finish prior to 3 hours and 15 minutes. Sonja began calling out the time and pushing Melissa to keep going. She was struggling with the end of the race like many who are new to Decker. Sonja would yell back at her husband, Michael, who was pacing Bonnie, another special needs athlete the time to give them a sense of the time as well. When the 2 hours and 55 minute mark hit, they had just turned into the Expo parking lot for the longest 1.1 miles ever, and Sonja began starting to sweat from nerves in addition to the run. She kept telling Melissa that she would be really sad if didn’t get her finisher jacket, especially when she was so close to finishing, and Melissa would start jogging with a limp.  This continued the whole way to the finish. Melissa was able to pick it up when the finish line was finally in view at the last 400 yards. The two crossed the finish line at 3 hours 6 minutes. Less than 8 minutes to spare. Bonnie was about 20 seconds behind us and also made it.  That is the closest Sonja said she ever wants to come to the disqualifying time for the Distance Challenge.  

decker challenge finish

Melissa pretty much collapsed into Sonja’s arms with tired relief and joy after they finished, and it took both women a few minutes to feel able enough to walk. Sonja’s first Decker ended with her in at the ambulance getting checked out for exhaustion, so she credits Melissa with not being in quite as bad shape, but simply, understandably exhausted from giving it everything she had and then some.  When Melissa took her shoes off, she had blood on top of her toes on both feet, even though they had cut her toenails prior to the race. They celebrated with a big meal at Sonja’s house and then Sonja drove Melissa home.  Walking up the stairs to Melissa’s second story apartment was brutal but good for her.  Plus Melissa had to work the next day at a job that requires being on her feet and walking which meant a lot of stretching her muscles out.  She took a good hot shower and nap that Sunday afternoon like so many of those who ran the Decker and more than earned it, and like so many of us who have not done a 13 mile race involving multiple hills, but enjoy Sunday afternoon naps.

Melissa felt really proud of herself when she crossed the finish line, having accomplished her goal of completing the race in the allotted time. Sonja’s goal was to make sure Melissa was aware of the time, remind her of her running form, and remind her to use going downhill to help make up time. Sonja never doubted she could do this as long as she was very aware of these three things.  The only time Sonja stated she ever had any doubts creep into her head were when Melissa started limping and struggling towards the end, because she would not push Melissa to keep going if there was a chance she would get injured, stating that if that was a possibility, they would have stopped.

Sonja had several moments that were memorable for her. One of these moments was when Gilbert from the Gazelles yelled support back to Melissa. As she was running by his water stop she yelled, “I can do this!” and he yelled back, “Yes, You CAN!”  She hadn’t been yelling at him, but he had heard and responded. It brought a big smile to her face.  Periodically throughout the race, Sonja would have her yell out different phrases to encourage her that she is strong, that she is able, that she is a warrior, that she is a runner, and that she is completing one of her dreams. The timing for that one just happened to be one of those perfect moments.

Another one of these moments was when some people recognized her at another water stop after mile 10 and the massive hill, and started cheering her on.  She was able to pick up her step and get some energy from the crowd cheering her name. People on the sidelines rarely realize how much they motivate runners, much like crowds at a football game or a concert. The runners can draw off of their energy, because if the roads were empty, it would be easy to walk the whole thing, because running, but especially races like this, are about mental durability as much as physical endurance. It would be easier to get in their own heads about being tired, being sore, and being lonely, but there are these people waving and clapping and gosh darn they cannot walk by their audience, they just have to run and the cheering helps so much.

  As great as these moments were, the most memorable moment for Sonja was crossing the finish line, because Melissa decided they would hold hands as they crossed together, and that was a special moment. In past races, Sonja had been behind her taking video and pictures while cheering her on, but this time for her half marathon, they crossed hand in hand, arms up, legs wobbling, but together, as friends and winners.

Melissa is looking forward to receiving another magnet puzzle piece after their next race, and watching her puzzle become more complete and, everyone’s favorite thing about a race, eating breakfast tacos. Sonja is looking forward to watching Melissa improve her time on the next half marathon, because there won’t be any hills like Decker, a relief for everyone running. She is excited for Melissa to see she is even better than she realizes, and wants the same thing for Bonnie. Both of these women are stronger than they think, but are fighting the mental part of running that stops a lot of people.  

Until the next race, Sonja and Melissa will be training with Kayleigh’s Club on Sunday afternoons. and with the Ship of Fools on Tuesday evenings as well as playing basketball with Austin Parks and Recreation Warriors on Tuesday afternoons. They will also be doing the Monday/Thursday Core Class at Rogue which often leave you sorer the next day than you initially think. They are going to be getting more runs in now that the weather is supposedly going to be better and possibly do some long runs on Saturday prior to Melissa going to work.