Life Throws Curves, But ‘When You Cross That Finish Line, It’s Yours’

Gretchen Schoenstein finds balance in running half marathons, including Rock ‘n’ Roll Seattle this weekend.

Physically, Gretchen Schoenstein’s half-marathon journey began in February 2010 with 20-minute workouts on a recumbent bike. In the aftermath of a debilitating inflammatory disease—accompanied with the doubt that filled her mind—that’s all Schoenstein could handle at the time.

But those sprawling, seated, sweat sessions begat walking, which begat jogging, which begat running, which begat knocking off her first half marathon in April 2010, the U.S. Half Marathon in San Francisco.

It was supposed to be a one-off. Cross it off life’s bucket list. But …

“The first time I crossed that finish line was incredibly empowering,” said Schoenstein, 44, who lives in Sonoma, Calif. “It felt purposeful, like I accomplished a lot more than a run.”

She said to herself, “I’ve got to get that again.”

So she did, again and again and again.

On Saturday, at the Alaska Airlines Rock ‘n’ Roll Seattle Half Marathon, Schoenstein will run her 48th half marathon. Number 49 will come at another Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series event, either Chicago in July or Philadelphia in September.

Then will come No. 50, on Oct. 8 at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Brooklyn Half Marathon. Schoenstein will strap her timing chip to one shoe lace. To the other shoe lace she’ll attach the hospital bracelet from her eight-day stint at UC-San Francisco Hospital in October 2006.

All eight days were spent on a morphine drip. And that’s the real genesis of Schoenstein’s half-marathon journey.

The pain began with swelling in the wrists, elbows and shoulders. Then the pain moved south to the joints in her legs.

“I tried to push my way through it, pretend it wasn’t any big deal,” she said.

But when you wake up in the morning crying from the pain, and it takes you 20 minutes to walk 20 steps, sometimes you just can’t push any more. On Schoenstein’s third trip to the emergency room in a span of three weeks, doctors finally diagnosed that she was suffering from Sarcoidosis, an auto-immune disease that attacks the joints and lungs.

Initially, she was put on steroids and pain medication. A doctor said she’d never run again. For the better part of the next three years, Schoenstein led what she calls “a fear-based life.”

“Total fear,” she said. “That I had to live cautiously. Fear that it would come back. Fear that I was damaged goods.”

She exercised some—the elliptical trainer, maybe some jogging—but if the swelling returned, Schoenstein retreated.

All that changed in 2010 when she was dealt a one-two emotional punch. First, she voluntarily left her job. Then, thinking she had the support of her male partner, he broke off the relationship after 10 years.

“It was very imbalancing, to put it lightly,” Schoenstein said. “It was really crazy. I didn’t have anything to focus on. I really felt like I was in a freefall.”

She remembered training for a couple 10Ks in the past.

“There was something very grounding about training for a race,” she said. “It’s about the goal. It’s about working backward from the goal, something you do every day to guide you to that goal.”

She ran five half marathons in 2010.

“How was it?” friends asked.

“Better than expected,” she said.

“If you could do that, why not double it?” the friends asked.

So she did, running 11 half marathons in 2011. Now the count approaches 50. She’s 5-foot-10 inches tall and weighs a sinewy, rock-hard 120 pounds. When your body has betrayed you in the past, you strengthen it, guard it. So Schoenstein doesn’t limit her fitness to running. She jumps rope, lifts weight, hikes, practices yoga.

Her diet is gluten free, heavy on lean protein. She limits her sugar intake. She’s not big on pre- and post-race parties. She naps the afternoon after races. Another thing she does is share her story.

In corrals, she might meet a nervous first-time half marathoner and Schoenstein will provide the Cliffs Notes version of her tale, along with a message.

“I often say, ‘If I can do this, you can do this,’” said Schoenstein, whose half-marathon personal best is 1 hour, 44 minutes.

And regarding the feeling when you cross the finish line, Schoenstein added, “You can’t get fired from the finish line. You can’t get divorced from the finish line. You can’t go into debt from the finish line. When you cross that finish line, it’s yours. You can tap into that feeling at any time. You can feel that sense of accomplishment, that feeling of resilience.

“I know every single run I do there are moments I can’t believe I’m doing this. It’s so cool. That’s a big reason I keep going.”

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