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The Hardest Thing I have Ever Done

It is quiet.  The air is still. I hear a soft pounding in my chest and my feet on the asphalt.  My heart reminds me of the task at hand: kee...

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Half a Marathon Later, or The Way To Cross The Finish Line, Part 2

Well, it wasn’t over at mile 9.  For those of you following along at home, we still had a few miles to go—4.1, as a matter of fact.  Now, I reserve the right to describe these last 4.1 miles with all the clichés I can muster.  This is partly due to the fact that I am feeling nostalgic tonight, but also because the experience remains (in my thoughts) wholly indescribable.  What a wonderful thing to have indescribable experiences.  Mostly, we get up, shower, eat, dress, dress children, feed pets/ourselves/each other, go to work, honk at squirrels in the street, call loved ones on the cell phone—all of these experiences are common and translatable through words, because they are typical.  Even the more exciting, extraordinary things that occur from time to time are usually something we can set to a similar example so that people will know our experiences if we wish to convey them.  The last 4.1 miles of the Eugene Half Marathon was not that.  Not at all.  No, the last 4.1 miles were both extraordinary and indescribable.  Therefore I can (and will) resort to clichés in my retelling of this experience.  It is my hope to convey some insight into the lesser known.

Once we crossed over Franklin, we set ourselves to an easy pace.  The crowds thinned to a few people on random street corners clapping with less enthusiasm than they might have had an hour earlier.  I remember that I felt good.  I was warm, but the sun was welcome after a month of rain.  We passed another water station and a small voice in my mind told me it would be okay to walk, but my body did not agree.  I was grateful for the conflict, because it brought my thoughts to my task at hand—run.

We had been reminding each other of our Chi training along the way, saying things our coach would have said: “Square your shoulders,” “Head up,” “Midfoot strike,” “Steady, calm breathing.”  Presently, I had taken up saying a few of these things out loud to myself, and to Stephanie and Jeanette but only because they were within ear-shot.  “Use your arms' backswing,” “Gentle lean,” “Like a Needle in Cotton.”  Then it occurred to me, as we bottle-necked down a narrow path with several other runners that my chatter might be a little obnoxious to those around, not to mention Stephanie and Jeanette who have already heard my external coaching for over an hour and a half.  So, I polled the crowd.  “If anyone wants me to stop, just say so and I can shut up.”  A woman near us asked me to keep going.  It had a counter effect, because I don’t think I really expected an answer.  It is funny now to think that permission to continue actually made me stop talking.  It’s the same with clichés, I guess.

We neared Knickerbocker Bridge, which is the actual name of the bridge, and always makes me giggle.  We crossed over the Willamette River on said bridge and then the half marathoners split off from the whole marathoners.  Our route led us up Day Island, on a treeless stretch of asphalt.  At this point, my legs were a little rubbery.  I didn’t feel bad, though, just thirsty.  The last water station seemed to be years earlier and I regretted not having Gatorade at that stop.  I watched a man in front of me slow to a walk and then start to hobble.  I passed him and ran strong up to the Mile 11 marker.  I shouted out to the people behind me “11 miles!”  Finally, there was another water station.  I fueled up and also had a few jelly beans.  Jelly Belly makes a sport bean now that has carbs and electrolytes.  They suggest eating an entire package, but I find that a few will do the job. Besides that, we were almost to our last mile.

“The first mile and the last mile,” a friend of mine used to say when he and I ran.  He would remind me as I complained about the first ten 10 minutes of each run that it is the first mile and the last mile that are the hardest. Back then, I was only—at best—running two miles so I couldn’t possibly understand what he meant.  Things were different now.

The path turned back toward the river.  The trees returned to line our route; they brought welcomed shade.  Stephanie remarked that she felt good.  I felt good, too.  I was not fatigued, nor was I winded.  My arms and legs felt alive and sparkly. Yes, that is the word I am resigned to using here.

See, this is where I really cannot describe the sensation.  I have heard people talk about a ‘Runner’s High.’  I have also experienced a more euphoric high, based on events and situations.  And, there were those times in my younger days when I smoked to get high, days now long gone for much healthier choices.  This was not like any of those things.  My limbs were, for all intents and purposes, sparkly and light.  My core was warm and glowing, like I had eaten a hot pie, only without a heavy after-feeling.  I was floating along then, my feet hitting down mid-foot, my breathing tempered and slow.  The dappled sunlight through the trees danced on the path and all around me.  I could feel my heart beating in my chest strong and sure; it moved my blood to each corner of my being and lighted my senses.  I felt alive, as alive as I had ever felt.  I mean that and I have no other way of saying it: as alive as I had ever felt.

How like a child I am sometimes, barely able to keep my emotions just below the surface.  That was how I felt then, ready to burst with laughter or weep from beauty or impossibility.  As we crossed back over the river and made our way toward Hayward Field and the finish, I was reminded of all of my friends with MS.  John in his wheelchair and Ticky leaning on her cane, and young MacKenzie barely diagnosed and trying to not look frightened—and all images of them were smiling.  They are the most smiling group of people I have ever known.  Maybe it is because they have to smile to ward off other expression, or maybe it is because I do not take their smiles for granted, and thus I seem to notice them more.  Still, there they were in my thoughts, smiling and laughing and happy to have their quality of life. 

The day before the Eugene Marathon, a group of friends and family, spear-headed by my dear friend Emily Huntoon, had gathered in San Diego and there walked the MS Walk in my name.  They were called the MS Stingers and they all wore bee masks.  They had done this because I love bees.  And I love bees, especially bumblebees because bumblebees defy physics—their large bodies are too big for their tiny wings and they are not supposed to be able to fly.  Still, they fly regardless.  I was so touched by the MS Stingers that I told them I would dedicate my half marathon to them.  So, too, was I a bumblebee that morning, flying with wings kept tiny by my disease, yet flying!  The emotions just below the surface came welling up then, just as they do now as I try to recreate the indescribable.  

Emotions alter my breathing, something I have focused on with my Chi training.  As a result, I nearly balked at 12.5.  I was emotional and hot and had begun to succumb to the feelings that were welling up from deep within.  I said as much to Stephanie, that I needed to slow down.  She said we could pace ourselves and so we slowed up.  But, just then, just as I thought I might finally have to walk, the course marshals started yelling “Make way for the lead runners!”  They were telling all of the half-marathoners to stay left and the let the lead runners pass on the right.  All of the Halfers merged and stopped running and we stood grounded, no concern for our finishing time, rooted to our spots.  We had all turned back like sunflowers facing the sunshine as it rose around the path's bend, full speed at us.  There he was, the first of the leaders!  He had run 26.2 miles in the same time it took those of us on his left to run half that distance.  He was awesome to behold.  We yelled and screamed and clapped and cheered as he passed. Then we turned and followed him, as if swept up by the energy of the trough he plowed through the air, his current moving us into Hayward Field.  There, the crowd had swelled to its feet and they emitted such a noise as I have never before heard.

Suddenly I remembered how afraid I was when I started out months earlier.  I thought about how I felt when I heard my tendons snap in my ankle 14 weeks ago.  I thought about running my first 5K after I had just started the MS drug injections and how I cried because I couldn’t run without feeling so very sick and so very tired.  All of this happened at once in my thoughts and I caught my breath in my throat feebly trying to assuage the sensation.  I could hold back my feeling no longer.  I knew that I was either going to wretch them out all at once and fall to the track crying like a new mourner, or else I would have to run faster.  And I said as much to Stephanie.  I had to go.  I said something like, “I have to run.”  Immediately, my stride grew wide and I bounded with each step, my heart pounding within me and my feet flying up behind me.  I passed people as the track turned toward the finish line.  I smiled as best as I could, because I was mere seconds away from earning my bumblebee wings.

It is still unreal as I recall it now, in words that I cannot find.  But I have photos and a medal that remind me that I was there.  My sweet husband and darling children were in the stands filming the crossing.  And I now have new training for a full marathon in the fall.  I figure as long as I have the wings, I should see what I can do with them.  As long as I am not sick with my MS, I can and should and do and will … run.

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