Sunday, January 22, 2012

Standing near the START banner in the cold and dark last Sunday morning, it occurred to me just how embattled a pursuit it all was. There we were, all 1,193 of us, stretching nervously, sipping water, bending over to tighten the laces on our shoes, tinkering with our gear and adjusting the many parts of our uniforms. No one had dared yet approach the actual start line, for some reason, and there was a good hundred feet of empty asphalt between the crowd and the beginning marker of the race. I got a photo of it, and in the frame the banner hangs there in the dark with no one under it. In the picture it appears no one had arrived for the race, and that, in all of its austerity, participants had spontaneously declined the event. The sun hadn't made itself known yet, and we quieted when a local marine sergeant began to sing the national anthem. A man behind me was holding a full-size American flag, and I presume he carried it with him for the duration of the race, as some are moved to do. The sergeant kept singing, echoing out of the public address, while the generators hummed along in the background, and when he finished a cheer went out, and the group of us solemnly moved up to the mark.

It seemed serious. We tossed aside our water bottles and put in our headphones. We high-fived each other and wished "Good luck", not really believing that it would come, exactly, but saying it to one another in place of everything else we wanted to say, everything we couldn't say, everything we didn't have time for: You and I have made it! And here we are together, about to embark on this great challenge! We are all kith and kin, and swear to spare our blood for one another this morning!

Or something heavy like that. There is no current war in this peaceful country, but this was a moment intense enough to remind you of it, and rouse emotion and anxiety enough to want to defeat any unseen foe. Then we heard the man shout, "Runners! On your marks!"and my body went into a lockdown that barred out all fear. And then... a gun shot.

There was a big cheer, a prolonged cry, and we all charged forward into the eerie darkness. The first mile took us along the banks of a mist-covered lagoon, but few noticed its beauty as we hustled to find our comfortable mojo. For the first several minutes, no one is running at their proper pace. You hear some beeping of electronic tracking devices being set and calibrated, you hear the pulling of straps and zippers, and you hear a few quiet apologies of everyone tripping over one another. And then finally, alone in our thoughts there in the pre-dawn hours, we spread out. I looked back and the START banner had disappeared around the trees in the distance, and the horizon was slowly becoming visible in the cerulean twilight. Soon, all that was exchanged with one another was the sound of a thousand footsteps, pressing forward into the marathon.

It's five miles or so before your heart is beating in time with your breathing and your footsteps, and your comfortable pace comes out. You recall all those miles you beat out in the training, and where it was once an accomplishment just to make it five miles, now it takes five miles to get in the rhythm of things. Here you look around and take it all in. At this early hour there are paltry few spectators, and the city is just unrolling the sidewalks. Storefronts are closed, but shadows move behind the counters, behind the locked glass. Coffee shops are firing up the cappuccino machines, and early risers are out with their dogs, surprised at the streetwise hubub. A few police officers have just finished coning off the main thoroughfare, and are leaning up against their squad cars with a cup of joe, and a sideways glance. Another thing you take in is a few deep breaths, and you realize the truth of the circumstance: that you are running. And you don't feel a thing.

At seven miles we're about an hour into it, out of the cityscape, and sunlight is dressing the clouds about a mile up. The day is somewhere, and it's above you. I knew that on this course, seven miles is where the big hill begins and I braced myself for the slog upwards, but it was early enough in the race that I felt confident about it -so confident that I stopped to take a picture of the sunrise. Everyone on the course was equally awed, staring up at the clouds, so my stopping in the middle of the street created the inevitable hazard and I had to shuffle out of the way before people began tumbling over me.

Something similar happens inside of you, when you stop suddenly after an hour of running. It's as if all your faculties are running in a line, with your legs out in front, and when they stop, all else -unprepared for the move- go piling over like a gag in a silent film: your heart keeps beating fast, nothing stops the sweat glands from opening full bore, and blood in every limb surges to the extremities. You get a rush to the head, and when you stare up at the clouds, you swear you see the Face of God.

But there's no time for that. Forward, keep forward, you tell yourself. It's an "out-and-back" up the hill, which means that runners go up on one side of the street and return on the other side, so you can see the leaders on their return down, running at full speed and using the power of gravity and inertia to propel them into the second half of the race.

One can't help but simultaneously be impressed by their speed and yet be somewhat mocked by it, since they are using the downhill to gain some ground and here you are still trudging up, with each step closer to the soul than the last. At some point you don't want to think about it anymore until you see a hand-drawn sign that says "USE THE FORCE". I was thinking, What force? The force of gravity? The force of inertia? The force of will? and I rounded a corner to see two Darth Vaders standing side by side at a water stop. Oh. That Force.

Volunteers at the water stops were in a friendly competition for the most spirited display, and I had found myself at the "Star Wars" themed stop -easily in the running for securing the cash prize offered by the race organizers. What possesses people to come out for stuff like this? Dressing up as a Tusken Raider at the crack of dawn to go down and pass out Power Gel and hydration fluid to air-headed runners in the local event seems as crazy to me as actually running the race, but I was appreciative of it nonetheless. I'm a Star Wars fan, and when Boba Fett gave me a high five at the tenth mile, it was just the escapism I needed to take my mind off the consuming task at hand, which was to keep running.

I rounded the corner and nearly tripped over my own support crew, friends and family who rose early and braved the elements, swearing to arrive rain-or-shine, to cheer you on in your crazy obsession. They don't exactly understand it -why you would attempt something so difficult, so painful, so ultimately juvenile and irrelevant, but they see how it's important to you, and how it's made you stronger, somehow. It's what we all want: strong friends, strong spouses, strong fathers, and if this crazy  footrace is the thing that is going to get you there, then you have our unequivocal support. But you're still crazy.

I tossed them my hat and gloves, since I was beginning to feel the heat at a mere 50 degrees, and got kisses from the family. I took a moment and let the head rush and sweat wash over me, and admired the inspirational poster my five-year-old had drawn the day before. She'd spent a proud portion of the afternoon on it, hiding it with her arms and body when I entered the room, so I wouldn't see it until race day. It was an impassioned multi-colored penwork of curlicues and flowers, hearts and fireworks, and there in the middle of it was our smiling stick-figure family, with me running, and her holding the poster she had drawn, as if in some curious multi-dimensional introspection. And also, in large letters above us, the words: GO DAD GO.

I made it to the top of the big hill soon after that, and the crew had been no small assistance. To see the smiles and cheers of your loved ones in the midst of the race is like a cocktail of fresh feathers and warm clean air. It buoys you in no comparable way, like a love letter at the battlefront. And it is impossible to respond with any due appreciation, and yet no love is lost. They have made their way through crowds and street closures, and waited patiently as a stream of strangers hastens past, just to see you for an instant, a few seconds really, looking tired and worn, and far from your wedding day best. But you get a bit of a glow out of it, and it lasts for a mile or so. It's a warm noticeable glow, and it's what they came to see.

The downhill. I knew this was when I was going to use the gravity-assist and put each foot forward a little quicker, so I gave it a little gas. You hope that the laws of physics act as some other-worldly propulsion, the way spaceships slingshot around the earth on their way to Mars, but it doesn't quite work that way. Runners in front and behind you are thinking the same thing, and though you might feel a bit heavier in the heel and knee, you gain ground on no one.

Keeping an eye on the warriors coming uphill to my left, I moved to the center divider on the lookout for my running buddy, who I knew was a minute or two behind me. We caught each other's eye and shouted out, slapping palms as we ran past each other, and it felt good to have a brother out there in the battlefield. There is no greater help than the spectator, but a shout of encouragement from a mate in the race is something different. It's the shared knowledge of comrades-in-arms. Though of different speed, we are runners nonetheless, and we know what non-runners do not, the way presidents, despite their party, share a singular experience, unknown to their constituents. But he is gone before I can absorb the passing, and as he approached his turnaround at the summit, I continued down to the base of the hill, the sight of the ocean in the distance, and the halfway point at 13 miles.

I feel good at 13 miles. So good, in fact, that I feel I can take on another 13 in no more time than it took to arrive here. But I have to remind myself of this fatal flaw of human pride. I have run enough races to know that it gets rough after the next few miles, that I am in good shape enough to smile and run painlessly a race into the teens, but that from there the real battle begins.

It's not long before the gain in speed from the downhill peters out, and I begin to feel a gradual diminishing of my pace. It's not just that. Over the next ten miles, pieces of my body are beginning to swell and hurt. Small parts of my knees have stretched thin, and cartilage between bones feels as if it is wearing through. My back is sore from holding my arms in that pulled-punch running position, and I find myself periodically dropping and dangling them to loosen myself up. I feel my toes sliding against the asphalt, which means I'm not lifting my feet as high as I was an hour back. More running like this and I will, at best, trip over the smallest crack, and, at worst, tumble over a painted line. I have to consciously remind myself to lift my legs now, which hurt from the endless repetition of it.

The old sweat on the back of my neck and on my temples has dried to a salty grit, and when I wipe my face I feel something like fine sand scrape and then dissolve into the fresh, wet sweat. I feel a slight sunburn on my nose and forehead. I feel some parts of my body rubbing raw from the chafing against the clothes: my armpits, my nipples, my groin. Volunteers hold tongue depressors with Vaseline smeared on them, and there's no shame for a runner to grab a stick, reach into their shorts, and wipe it betwixt their intimate areas.

I have blisters on my toes.

Near the twenty mile mark I see my family again. I am smiling, but less so. My wife sees it in my gait, that I am seriously tiring. She tries to encourage me as I press past, slightly embarrassed. I'm shaking my head at this point. I have about an hour to go, and I don't think I can keep it up.

Somewhere in the next mile, it happens.

I don't know exactly what triggers it, but it comes on long runs, when you are just about at your limit. You see another runner, struggling. And you see one doing well, striding by at an easy tempo. You see the faces of bystanders and you look into their eyes. Some clearly admire you, and others are shaking their heads in a forlorn jealous contempt. You see a child, facing the other way, distracted by something else entirely, and bored with it all. And you think of your own children, and how you saw them back there, so happy. Their life flashes before your eyes, back to them as babies, their births. And then, your life. Your marriage, your work, your passion. All the things you've done wrong before this, and all the joys, and the beauty of the grace you've been inordinately blessed with, in this life. And suddenly you are so proud, so happy, so filled with wonder that your throat begins to constrict and your eyes well up with tears. Emotion floods in and you can barely catch your breath to take another step, and you find yourself on the outside of your body, in the moment, and feeling everything at once.

And a heartbeat later you have collected back to the street, with the noisemakers and the clapping, the cheering and yelling, the paper cups half-filled with water that you need, desperately. You are passing some runners and others are passing you, a thousand dry leaves in a river, moving and swirling downstream, hitting rocks and rapids, spinning out of control all at once, but all swept in the same direction, in similar, senseless purpose.

I see the ground moving beneath me and I keep looking up, searching for the next mile marker. It seems to take so much longer to come, and when it does it's "Mile 22", and not Mile 23 -you swore you already passed Mile 22. So it's four more miles. Four more miles, you tell yourself. Almost a 5K, which is just over three miles. Which you run nearly every day, and which only takes 25 minutes or so. A 5K. Mile 23 should be coming up somewhere... Mile 23... Where the hell is Mile 23? Just gotta make it to Mile 23...

When you get past it, you insist to yourself that these last few miles are at least doable. That the finish is within your grasp, and if you had not been keeping pace for a personal record time, then simply finishing is all that matters anymore. Finishing. Head held high, if you can hold it up at all.

But your legs cramp up. The muscles above the knees, the big ones called the quadriceps, are pushing back. They are knotting up and fighting you, refusing to go on. Even at a walking pace they stab with pain, and I find myself kneeling down at the curb and stretching them out. I stretch them flat out, until they are wringed clean of all bad elements, and then I stand back up, order myself and all attentive muscles, back into the race. Just a few more minutes.

There is no longer mile than the Mile 25, which also stretches out, as you look up. It is an interminable mile, one that goes on as if it intended to outlive you and laugh with your descendants. And then, after that, no longer quarter mile than the torturous .2 that is lobbed onto the end of the race for a full, denaturing effect. But in that last .2 of a mile is a thoroughfare with barriers on either sides. A throng, piled high up against the rail, cheering and screaming. Yelling, if not for you, then for the whole event and the overwhelming spirit of the scene. You feel for a few minutes in your life that all those youthful dreams of being center stage in the packed arena are finally coming to light. Whatever pain you've felt in the past hours, whatever cruel torture you've brought on yourself, whatever wild endeavor you've lobbed at your ego, it all quietly falls away. You take those last few steps toward the FINISH banner, and you swell up like a giant god. A friendly, noble god who has fulfilled Olympian dreams without malice or destruction, and performed good deeds unto himself. And then, looking around at all the other qualified and commendable finishers, you feel to be a more smallish god, with no purpose outside of the fulfillment of his own simple pride. But you feel a god, nonetheless.

You glance up at the large, digital finish clock which ticks off the time without care, and it doesn't really matter what it says, at least for a few minutes. You made it. And you stagger into the finishers' corral lunging for water, or a pretzel. A banana. A coke. Anything to fix yourself, since you are finished, to be sure.

Eventually, I find my family and friends, my running mates, and they seem as alive and animated as they've ever been, where it's a taxing chore for me to do anything; walk, speak, lift my head... In time, I recoup my faculties and make my way across the parking lot to the car. Traffic waits as I stumble in front of it, and I'm surprised at my newfangled handicap and physical ineptitude. In the shuffle to get out of the way, I feel the thud of metal on my chest. The medal. The traditional award for every finisher in the marathon, placed around your neck in that staggering moment of such exhaustion, that it's almost an afterthought, that you are almost annoyed by the tradition. But the medal is draped there, on you.

And you own it.