My last run was motivated by three things: 1) the fear creeping up in me reminding me that the Portland Marathon is less than 3 weeks away, 2) the shuffle option on my iPod set to all songs Lady Gaga, and 3) the enthusiastic high-five I received from a stranger somewhere during mile six. The latter carried me all the way home. No residual pain or thumping Gaga could give me the same boost as this small interaction from a stranger on my quest.
Human interaction is a biological necessity. Not only do we require social engagement with others of our kind, we actually pursue it. And while running can be a very solo endeavor, wholly contained within the individual and requiring no other counterpart to get the job done, when we run with companionship or in a pack the task becomes more fluid, easing the burden of the one by distributing it among the collective empathy of a group. I believe this is why big races are so energetic.
On occasion, I have felt a freedom during a solo run that is the equivalent of flight. My body coming along for a ride over which even my thoughts have no control. I slip into a groove and glide within a course as a slot car would, moving and bending to my constant forward momentum. A few times, I have even experienced this when I run 5Ks with a crowd. And though this may happen when I am with friends, running in a pair, I don't usually notice because I am too wrapped up in the discussion of our children, latest books we've read, politics, etc. No, it is the solo run that affords me the opportunity to really get to know my pace and stride, to study my form and correct it as necessary, and also to be alone with my fear.
Sunday last, I was alone with my fear. The distance was 21 miles--longer than I had ever run by three additional miles. It was one of those last days of summer when autumn's chill is in the air in the early morning but by the time the sun pokes its head up over the Cascades, it's hard to forget it's still summer. By mile 11 I wanted to stop running and go for a swim in the Willamette River. My music was not motivating. My shirt was too loose and trapping heat near my skin. I nearly collapsed with a cramp in my leg at mile 14 and a stitch in my side had me walk almost all of mile 16. By the time I reached our last water check point, I was ready to ask for a ride back to Eugene Running Company. I agreed to press on but only on the condition that I could cut the length by 2 miles, turning prematurely, and finishing with a total of 19 miles instead of 21. When I reported this to Tonya, one of Coach Joe Henderson's assistants, she was very reassuring, telling me that 19 was still a worthy distance. I knew it was fluff, but I needed to hear it. She got on the phone with Joe and told him I would head back early, running 19 for the day and not 21. Somehow, when she said it on the phone, I did not hear the fluff that was meant to soften the reality of my depletion.
I ran. I cursed. Longing for companionship, I prayed my running partner Stephanie would feel an overwhelming desire to come to the river and finish out the last few miles with me. I looked for sympathetic co-runners moving in the opposite direction, but they seemed to not notice me. I was alone on my path.
Then, by the time I reached Ferry Street Bridge, the site of my opportunity to turn and head toward the Running Company finishing early but being able to rest, a small cloud had moved west blocking the direct sun. Remember, I am already no friend to the heat. In a moment's notice, I ran past the turn off and headed east and into the last leg of the 21 mile course--not 19 after all. I struggled, I pushed, I dug in, I even walked.
In the end, my coach was standing there with his assistants, and also with my husband and 2 daughters. They were all clapping and waving as I neared them. At the site of the them, my lungs pushed out and I started to hyperventilate, knowing companionship was a few strides away. As I crossed the finish Joe called out the time of my run. I missed it because I had not yet thought to pull out my headphones, but I said in response "I ran 21 instead of 19." Joe was genuinely excited for me and he said "I knew you would! What'd I tell yah?!" He said to the others. Then he did the one thing that helped me to regain my breath and return me to the living: he reached out and he shook my hand vigorously. This act, so simple and pure, made all my effort and pain worth while.
And while I am not sure if Joe Henderson or the hive-five stranger on the bike path have any knowledge as to the impact of their simple gestures of support for my efforts, I am sure of one thing: I will take the memories of their actions with me to Portland. I will carry them along to others I meet. I will finish. I have no doubt now that I will.