Shortly before the start of Saturday’s Synchrony Financial Rock ‘n’ Roll Brooklyn Half Marathon, Gretchen Schoenstein will step into her corral. She’ll gab with the runners around her because she loves the race-morning electricity, loves hearing what motivates others to run.
She’ll recite the Serenity Prayer, the gun will sound and then she’ll take off on a 13.1-mile tour of the famed borough. And before reaching the party at Prospect Park, where she’ll celebrate with thousands, draping another stylish medal around her neck, the 44-year-old from Sonoma, Calif., almost certainly will cry. But, they will be tears of joy.
It was nearly 10 years to the day that Schoenstein was diagnosed with Sarcoidosis, an auto immune disease that attacks the joints and lungs.
To remind herself of the diagnosis she’ll look down at one of her shoes. Threaded through a shoelace will be the hospital bracelet from her eight-day stay when doctors finally discovered what was racking her body.
She’ll remember when the pain was so severe that it took her 20 minutes to get out of bed and walk to the bathroom. She’ll remember the courage it took to fight the fear of living with the disease. She stiff-armed that fear six years ago, running her first half marathon
Saturday will be her 50th half marathon, more than 40 of them Rock ‘n’ Roll races.
“It feels like a very honest sense of accomplishment and empowerment,” Schoenstein says. “The ability to come back from something and do the work. I’m not being handed this. I’ve had to put in the work physically, emotionally, and for me, spiritually.
“I’ve worked hard and I’ve earned this.”
Steroids and pain meds helped Schoenstein fight the disease. And while she was relieved when she learned about the diagnosis 10 years ago, she was also scared. Scared that if she pushed herself too hard physically her joints would swell, her lungs would become congested. So she tip-toed through life.
She’d hit the gym two, maybe three days a week and ease through workouts. Maybe 30 minutes on a treadmill or elliptical trainer. The occasional yoga class. But if the pain returned?
“I’d retreat,” Schoenstein says.
The fork in the road for her life turnaround came on New Year’s Eve, 2009. With the support of her male partner of nearly 10 years, she had decided to quit her job months earlier. Then on that New Year’s Eve, her partner broke off their relationship.
“I was in a freefall,” Schoenstein recalls.
She remembered years earlier, training for a 10K and the focus it gave her. And so in April of 2010, she ran the U.S. Half Marathon in San Francisco. Regarding the sense of accomplishment, she says, “It was, ‘Oh, my god. I can do this. I want to see if I can recapture this.’”
She ran five half marathons in 2010. A numbers fanatic, she ran 11 halves in 2011. The race to 50 was on.
“It’s not addicting,” says Schoenstein, an executive for a communications and behavioral-change company. “It’s incredibly empowering.”
The Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series is part of the lure. She raves about the organization. When talking about Rock ‘n’ Roll, she comes back to a three-letter word.
“It’s fun,” she says. “And it’s inclusive. Yes, they have elites. But I’m in tears seeing all the people running, all the shapes, sizes and abilities, giving it their all.”
She’s working on a book entitled “Finish Line Moments.”
“You can’t get fired from the finish line,” Schoenstein says. “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.”
There have been setbacks along the journey. Since July she has seen eight doctors in an effort to fight intense abdominal pain, fatigue and shortness of breath.
“I’ve been reaching for my inhaler more than I used to,” she says. But she rocks on, jogging one step at a time.
When asked what moves her, Schoenstein said, “I’m not ready to give up. I have been so low so many times. Anybody out there would have said, ‘It’s fine. Give up. You have been through the ringer. It’s OK. Stay down girl.’
“I’ve given myself that permission to just let go. But I can’t. There’s something in me that I can’t give up. I’ve got to keep going. I know there’s something better. I know there’s something more.”