On May 27, Laura Sosalla sent a message to Rachael Bentley through United in Stride, an organization that matches visually impaired runners with guides.
Sosalla, who was declared legally blind earlier this year in the wake of a battle with COVID-19, wanted to run a marathon. To prove to herself that “I can still do the same things. I can still be the same person.”
She and Bentley soon started running together, along with Bentley's sister Natalie Elmore and Sosalla's neighbor Laura Brennan. The four women would sometimes run from Sosalla's parents' home in Bloomington, Minnesota, other times around Lake Harriet, where they would use the bandshell as a meeting point to switch out who was guiding Sosalla along the route.
And on Sunday afternoon, Oct. 3, after those months of training, all four ran the last mile of the Twin Cities Marathon together — exactly how Sosalla wanted her marathon experience to end.
On the back of Sosalla’s shirt — ironed on the day before with help from her mother — were the names of the people she wanted to thank, a devotion for each mile of the marathon to remind her of the past year and how she made it through. Her mother and stepfather, for taking her into their home. Her sister and brother, for helping her finish graduate school and adapt to new technology. All those who donated to her CaringBridge site while she recovered from COVID.
“I know I’m extremely lucky,” said Sosalla, 38, of St. Paul. “The outpouring of support, the outpouring of love was overwhelming. Like even to this moment, I can’t fully grasp the level of generosity and kindness.”
Before the race
After leaving her home at 6 a.m. to get to the start line in downtown Minneapolis, a chance encounter with Andrea St. Sauver of Chaska left Sosalla inspired even before stepping foot on the marathon course.
St. Sauver ran the 2019 Twin Cities Marathon and said she couldn’t wait to do it again. An inoperable tumor and chemotherapy treatment almost derailed her plans — but she persevered through the fatigue to keep training for the marathon. And the 36-year-old, who had ‘Chemo couldn’t stop me’ written on her bib, finished Sunday’s race in 4 hours, 54 minutes.
Elmore was Sosalla’s guide for the first half of the race, and the smaller field for this year’s marathon — a deliberate move by race officials, as a precaution amid the ongoing pandemic — made getting onto the course easier than Sosalla and Elmore had expected.
Their long training runs around Minneapolis’ Chain of Lakes, where they were consistently having to move around obstacles on the running paths, also helped both runners as they established themselves on the course. They held a tether to stay connected, with Elmore communicating what was ahead.
Both guides — Bentley took over for the second half — wore neon tags on the backs of their shirts that identified them as running guides, to help notify approaching runners so they could give adequate space.
There was no stopping when it came time to swap guides at mile 13. Bentley ran up and took the tether, and Elmore ran off the course.
The transition was so quick, there wasn’t enough time for Sosalla to connect with the course marshal at that spot — Christine Bonnes of Minneapolis. The two connected earlier this year through the Basilica of St. Mary and Bonnes was one of the people Sosalla was honoring on the back of her shirt.
But there was plenty of other support for Sosalla along the way, as she headed from Minneapolis into St. Paul: Her mother on a bicycle with bells in hand; her friends with a bullhorn set up just past the halfway mark; her stepfather convincing a group of college students to stick around for five more minutes so they could cheer for Sosalla as she passed by on Summit Avenue.
Shortly after mile 20, Sosalla took an unexpected break and happened to stop right next to Bentley’s former college track coach, Kimberly Horner — who was able to provide Sosalla with a protein bar for the final 6 miles of the course.
Then it was the last push to the finish line outside the State Capitol, with Elmore and Brennan joining Sosalla and Bentley for the final stretch to finish in about 5 hours, 38 minutes.
After the race
While Sosalla was disappointed she didn’t hit her marathon goal time, she reflected afterward that the race was “oddly parallel to what life has been. And maybe that's what it was supposed to be, you know? Maybe instead of breaking five (hours) and having this eloquent, graceful race, maybe it was supposed to be all that other stuff because that's kind of the reality of what life is.”
She said she was very happy with how her training turned out and what she has learned over these last few months.
“Something I've noticed when I run is that my eyes improve and they start to feel better,” Sosalla said. “My guess is it's because there's more blood flow getting to them.”
Running doesn’t fix the photophobia — sensitivity to light — but it has been giving her relief from the pressure and pain she has been feeling in her eyes since she had COVID last year.
Sosalla said it’s unlikely she’ll attempt another marathon anytime soon, but is looking forward to signing up for shorter races and hopes to get more friends and family involved in the sport.
“What I feel right now is really — it's like COVID is behind me,” she said after the race. “The marathon took on this massively huge symbol or metaphor, and I love that it's behind me. I feel a lot of relief that ... like now, I can move on. … I'm done fighting you, COVID. I'm just gonna live my life.”