It’s nearly hour six of the marathon, and the crowd is dwindling in Coolidge Park. Only a few slices of pizza are left.
People are packing away sound equipment and throwing trash into bags. The fastest runners are long gone with their medals and their best times.
Rounding the final corner, Crystal Kinney can hear sounds, but she can’t see the faces.
She tells herself to stay centered. Stay straight.
She has to get into the chute and run across the finish line. On the back of her pants she carries a note.
“Today I ran 26.2 miles in memory of my friend, Todd Sumption,” it read.
For 34-year-old Kinney, this year has been one of the worst in her life. There have been sickness and struggle and death.
On Sunday, she was among 2,250 runners in several races trying to create meaning out of pain on the roads of Chattanooga. The mix between triumph and suffering was worn all over the faces of the 500 runners in the 7 Bridges Marathon, no matter how fast feet shuffled.
There was the couple who held hands. The father who was joined by his two young sons for the last leg. The man who was so drenched in sweat that his pants were dripping. The husband who biked beside his wife.
“Running is a metaphor for life,” said Kim Nash, who traveled from Northeast Georgia and ran to commemorate the end of a year of battling with debilitating postpartum depression.
In July, Kinney’s friend was killed by a drunken driver while he was on his way to Walmart. The two had planned to run his first marathon together this fall. His wife told Kinney she couldn’t believe he would never make it past the race registration.
So Kinney told her she would run for him.
In August, she started training harder. She dodged cars and outran dogs in her hometown of Clermont, Ga. And all this was a small miracle because she only has peripheral vision. She sees just blurs and shapes.
Her vision was damaged after a stroke in 1998, and since then more medical problems have followed. This year she was shot with steroids and antibiotics for ailments she said were too personal to mention.
On Sunday, she watched for the orange cones on the road because she was terrified she might lean into Amnicola Highway traffic. Then when the cones disappeared on the Tennessee Riverwalk, she said she ran by faith, not sight.
She prayed. She tried to remember Bible verses.
Just once, around mile 20, when her legs felt as if they were going to buckle and she had no idea where she was headed, she said she thought she might not go on.
“God, if you just get me through this, I promise ...” she prayed.
Her sister was running, too, and so was her high school friend. She tried to yell out to encourage them but didn’t know where they were.
She couldn’t really tell where the course ended. After she heard cheering, she felt the space around her closing in. Then, suddenly, a woman reached toward her and put a medal around her neck.
“Congratulations,” the woman said.
“Thank you so much,” she said crying, her arms lifted.
Kinney was one of the last to finish. Her time was five hours and 25 minutes.
Contact staff writer Joan Garrett at email@example.com or 423-757-6601. Follow her on Twitter at @JoanGarrettCTFP.
Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...