Photo courtesy of Heather Free: Heather Free at the end of the 2018 Boston Marathon.
Photo courtesy of Heather Free: Heather Free at the end of the 2018 Boston Marathon.

Heather Free accepts that at some point in a race she will hit “The Wall.”

The dreaded moment when every part of her wants to quit may come at any leg along the 26-mile route. For the 40-year-old Monroe woman, this year it hit at about four miles away from the 2018 Boston Marathon finish line. Free and close to 30,000 other runners were met with fierce headwinds and rain for most of the course.

Her gloves were constantly soaked through. She rang them out when she could, and had to pump her hands regularly to keep the circulation going, worried about the real risk of hypothermia.

“You just go to your happy place and just grind it out and try to finish,” she said.

Free didn’t cry until afterward, when she reached the hotel. A training injury that developed last fall caused some uncertainty that she would pass the start line. Then in February her high school friend Scott Creamer died. She decided to run, no matter what, and dedicate the race to him.

The wave of emotion was also the result of learning an American woman, Desiree Linden, won for the first time in 33 years. Linden’s was also the slowest winning time in 40 years — everyone was impacted by the same harsh conditions.

It was in 2012 that Free ran her first long-distance race, Seattle’s Rock ‘n’ Roll half marathon. In that time her course has been peppered with loss and new life; more walls to overcome. She figured out how to push past and grow from each obstacle.

After Seattle, which she ran 6 1/2 months pregnant, Free felt she might be capable of more. She and her friend, Patricia Anderson, ran the Portland Marathon the next year, which is a Boston Marathon qualifier. She did well, and started to consider the East Coast, “the Super Bowl for runners,” might make a good next move.

A few years passed, and then Free’s father, Gregory Henderson, died in 2015. His death was months after she ran with him in his first 5K.

The day after he died, she and Anderson had planned to race in the annual Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota. Her family agreed it’s what Henderson would have wanted for her. Free felt guilty after. She took a break from running. The sport had taken valuable time away from their relationship.

The Light at The End of The Tunnel Marathon, which goes from North Bend to Snoqualmie Pass, was also on her mind around that time. The race was another qualifier, and one she’d had her eye on.

While clearing out her dad’s car, she found a headlamp, and took it as a sign. She and Anderson crossed the Tunnel finish line in September, and both made the cut for Boston. She said she doesn’t remember the start or finish of that run.

“It meant something to me up there,” she said.

It was the first time she completed a course in less than 3 1/2 hours. Seeing that number is almost unbelievable, she said. Free became more serious with training and her diet after that.

Anderson and Free ran in Boston in April 2016. She dedicated her run to her father.

Free went on to run in Chicago later that year. She also ran Tunnel again, and went back to Boston the following spring.

On the way out, her family had to change their flight at the last minute to Colorado. Free’s grandfather, Larry Thompson, wasn’t doing well. He was in hospice, and ended up dying the day after the race.

That race she dedicated to him, as well as Lily, her daughter, with whom she was more than 6 months pregnant.

Many people told Free she wouldn’t be able to run that far along in her pregnancy. She said she worked with a doctor, and took that race easier — she still finished.

Lily was born a few months later, and Free headed to New York shortly after. She said she ramped up training too quickly this time, and was balancing little sleep and breast-feeding. She worked for months trying to heal and rehabilitate after that marathon. 

Free said she couldn’t have gotten this far alone. Her husband, Tyler, who she used to run with until he tore his meniscus, has always been a huge supporter. He takes the kids while she runs on the weekends.

The Monroe and Sky Valley YMCA cares for her children, so she can workout in the gym and go running outside at Lake Tye Park almost every day. Friends babysit when she needs the extra help. She has also met other moms who run, including Anderson.

“It takes a huge support system,” Free said. “It takes a village to make it happen.”

As Free continued to meet her goals, she was also looking for the next opportunity to test herself. A plan to complete the Abbott Marathon World Majors, six of the top marathons in the world, began to crystalize. Only a few thousand of the world’s elite runners have done every one.

By finishing the TCS New York City and Bank of America Chicago marathons, along with Boston, she is already halfway there. This fall she will run in Berlin, and after that she will try for Tokyo and London, which will be the hardest in which to get accepted.

In the meantime, Free is focusing on a blog, Runner Mama. On the website she writes about what has helped her grow as a racer, while balancing raising a family. She said she doesn’t want to say her way is best, but offers tips to other moms who may want extra encouragement and support.

The sport boosts her mood and provides time for self-reflection.

In turn, it helps her be a better mom, friend and person, she said.

When she hits “The Wall,” she keeps her family in mind, and often dedicates her races to someone she has lost, Free said. She also tries to stay focused on where she is in the moment.  

“I always say, ‘Just think about that mile that you are in,’” she said.