The Ottawa Sun
May 21, 2003
Kenyan Joseph Nderitu won the 42-km 2003 National Capital Marathon 10 days ago by running it in two hours and 15 minutes.
When he crossed the finish line, amidst loud cheers and camera flashes, 28-year-old Angela Stiles, a flight attendant from Dartmouth, N.S., was still 45 minutes from the halfway mark.
Stiles started running during a 5K clinic in the fall of 2001 and finished the half-marathon in Ottawa last year with no problem. But she knew her first marathon wouldn't be easy, or quick. A cold which had plagued her for weeks meant she hadn't been able to complete a training run longer than 24 km. When she and her husband Craig left the starting gate, she'd simply been hoping to finish in under six hours.
By the halfway mark of Ottawa's strange double-loop race course, when she hit that awful psychological hump of retracing every step she'd made since the gun fired, Stiles could only walk. She noticed the chip detector and much of the race equipment had already been taken down. She knew she was last and realized her six-hour goal was shot.
The first tears came a little later, when a race volunteer asked how she was doing. She couldn't imagine finishing.
In despair, Stiles ran into one-half of the couple that accompanied her and her husband to Ottawa for the race weekend. They walked together for about 4 km until her spirits had lifted a little. Her friend asked if Stiles would forgive herself if she quit. Stiles said no, and promised to meet her on the other side of the canal.
At 26K, with several blisters on both feet making each step excruciating, Stiles had to stop at a medical station. After that, one of the race's medical personnel, Heidi, started biking slowly beside her. She never left.
When driving rain kicked in at 31K, Heidi pulled out her rain gear. Someone in a car stopped to give Angela a poncho.
As they started closing in on 42K, Heidi radioed ahead with Angela's finish-line wishes -- because by now she knew she would cross it, no matter how long it took -- that everyone could go home except the person with her medal and someone to tend to her blisters.
At 41K, Stiles started joking with her bike escorts -- now not just Heidi, but Andrew, John and Nick -- that she was going to pack it in. They replied they'd all drag her across the finish line, if they had to.
By now a police cruiser was travelling behind her, followed by a long line of cars. Stiles worried about holding up traffic; Heidi told her not to.
The race crew had taken down the finish line but left the overhead clock up for Stiles. Her bike-riding entourage and a few officials started cheering. When Stiles finally finished, six hours, 42 minutes and 50 seconds after she started, she collapsed into tears. She hugged Heidi. And she couldn't believe it was over.
Her husband -- who'd finished more than two hours earlier -- and her friends weren't there because someone said she'd been pulled off the course and they'd gone back to the hotel to look for her.
But Stiles, an energetic, bubbly dynamo who is a licenced pilot in addition to her job as an Air Canada Jazz flight attendant, said she wouldn't have had it any other way. Heidi was the one who helped her finish the race, she explained over the phone, still recovering at home a few days later, providing silent strength and companionship when she needed it most. It was fitting she be there when it was over.
And though Stiles says she had some hard times in the days since the marathon too -- after all, someone has to be last but no one wants ever wants to be -- she'd clearly put the experience in perspective.
"I got the same medal as the Kenyan guy who came first and I crossed the finish line on my own," she said.
I asked her why she didn't just back out or quit. Lots of people did, considering more than 3,000 registered and Stiles finished in 2,576th place.
She talked about her dad, Bill Heighton, who at 52 bounced back from losing his leg to vascular problems last summer.
She mentioned her and Craig's dream of running the Walt Disney World Marathon next January -- yes, Stiles, who is obsessed with all things Disney, is already planning another marathon -- and then about one of her favourite quotes by running guru John "The Penguin" Bingham: "Through running I've come to understand that my life, like my marathon, is for me to get through any way I can."
Then, at the end of our conversation, Stiles worried only that she might sound like a whiner. Impossible, I told her.
Angela Stiles remains my favourite interview and one of the most positive people I have ever met, followed closely by the comic actor Will Ferrell and a farmer outside of Ottawa who, when I asked if that was his house engulfed in flames, looked over at it, paused nonchalantly, and said "it was".