It’s always the next damn race. Such tests of endurance are supposed to be over by now, but racing has morphed me into a monster. Now I am training to die.
Back in February, Helen, my daughter living up north near the tundra, called from her creepy college and suggested that I sign up for the Chicago Marathon. Last fall she participated as a volunteer in the marathon, handing out water and Gatorade near the 21st mile marker, and she loved cheering on the thousands of runners passing by in all shapes and colors.
“Dad,” she said, “As bad as most of them looked, you easily could have been one of them.”
Or worse, I thought, given the longest I had run in the past twenty years was a 10K back in November.
“I think you’re trying to kill me.” I responded.
A runner friend of mine, who I saw from time to time at our gym, told me everyone he knew who ran a marathon after they turned sixty had had a heart attack. Shaun experienced his in his fifties climbing mountains in Europe, so I figured he must know.
“Forget it, Helen,” I said over the phone. “I have no money. Your inheritance will be puny.”
Okay, but on the other hand, since Helen will be a senior in the fall and given the strong possibility this will be her last year living in the tundra, I agreed with my wife Karen that this could be the one year where I actually would do it, run in a major city’s marathon and experience all the pomp-and-circumstances that such an event has to offer. Karen would come with me, of course, and Helen, too, would join her to watch, and it would become a full-fledged family event, one for the ages.
“You little weirdo,” I said to my daughter over the phone a week or so later. “If I die, I’m holding you accountable.”
“Don’t worry, dad,” she replied. “They have tracking devices now that fit on your shoes. If you die, we’ll know where to get you.”
Okay, okay, just so it is abundantly clear, I suffer no allusions of grandeur; I am not trying to return to my lost youth, and I know from all the way down to the depth of my soul (which isn’t that far down), I am not the runner I was in my late-thirties; just check the mileage on my car, my years of running are long over.
Still, back then, when I was there, back in my thirties, wasn’t I totally there, at least, briefly? Didn’t I run a couple of marathons and half-marathons before turning forty? Hey, and you can’t forget all of the 5Ks and 10Ks that came with the territory, can you?
None of this craziness, back then, destroyed my knees or put me under a heart surgeon’s knife, did it? Didn’t I survive to get fat and happy throughout my forties and fifties, didn’t I?
Karen said I should treat the marathon as the final test to prove to myself I had, in fact, worked my way all the way back to where I was in my late thirties.
Ha! What was she thinking? (There’s something about that woman that’s strange, I swear.)
Okay, okay, okay, I agree, from the vantage point of two years ago and being seventy pounds over-weight, I decided, looking back, running was pretty easy for me. So why shouldn’t I do it again? Why couldn’t I start over?
Obviously, if you looked at me at that time, you would have wondered if I was suffering from dementia or debilitating delusions.
Things had gotten that bad.
In fact, when I showed up at the gym that first summer my daughter came home from college, I couldn’t even run a lap on their indoor track without huffing and puffing and gasping for air. Even then, though, the idea of running was like a large brown seedpod in the back of my brain, waiting to burst open.
If I could handle nightly aerobics classes, like “step,” “circuit,” “spin,” and “zumba,” why couldn’t I run? Besides, “zumba,” I realized after a few sessions was too much of a “shuffling-around-to-pounding-Latin-music” thing for me. Running soon replaced “zumba” and, just like that, became an integral part of my cardio-weight-loss program.
It wasn’t long after that before I was contemplating a return to “racing.”
One incident, in particular, stands out. Karen and I were with a bunch of over-weight friends participating in a walk-a-thon as part of a 5K race, and, as we stood waiting for the runners to take off before us, I felt this incredible urge to jump in and join them, a longing to be part of the pack, once again; I knew instantly where I belonged, and it wasn’t as an pudge-man ponderously padding along with a bunch of fat people, pathetic grandparents, and pear-shaped moms with squirmy babies sucking on chewed up pacifiers in their juice-stained joggers!
I told my wife that too!
Later that winter, in a moment of bravado during a New Year’s Eve party, I announced that I would attempt a 5K race in the spring and a 10K in the fall. Something to shoot for, I said, while drinking my fifth glass of champagne and watching the ball drop on the TV. (Or was it going up?) My wife, writing down our resolutions, looked at me with surprise, but only smiled. Subsequently, Karen taped my entries to the inside door of our kitchen pantry. Thereafter, every time I opened the door to get a cookie or a piece of chocolate, my goals screamed at me:
OH NO YOU DON’T!
In late spring, ten pounds lighter than I was at the beginning of the year and having lost twenty-five pounds altogether, I realized that with the heat of summer fast approaching, I needed to sign up for a 5K race before I melted into a glob of saturated fat. Quickly I found a local race a town or so away, and, with an inner thrill during a moment of madness, signed myself up.
The morning of the race, it was bright and sunny. I insisted with Karen on going by myself and, consequently, that decision proved to be my best move of the day. She rolled over and went back to sleep, while I ran what turned out to be a devastating debacle. Shortly thereafter, I slunk back home with my tail between my legs, totally depressed over my performance.
By then my wife was on the couch watching television with a cup of coffee.
“Don’t even ask,” I said before she could say a word. “I don’t want to talk about it. Whose fucking idea was this, anyway…”
Even now, I recall vividly how embarrassing it was to slog along with so much weight wrapped around my waist, with so much fat oozing off my bones. I hated being heavy, out of shape, and totally winded by the time I reached the finish line. I even smelled fat, like deep fryer fat, like you could smell french fries on my belly.
During the race, at one point I was running, maybe, ten yards behind a young, female runner in her late 20s or early 30s. She had a long, red ponytail that bounced on the back of her blue t-shirt. Tight butt. Black leggings. Bright orange running shoes. She was maintaining a good pace and running with a strong stride. Still, I felt I could catch her.
Finally, when we encountered a significant hill on the course, I passed her.
Let the games begin, I thought.
To my surprise, on the downward slope, she passed me right back and, just like that, my race with her was over.
I never caught up to the red-haired, ponytail runner again. As the three-mile run progressed, I fell further and further behind her. By the end, she was totally out of my sight, like she had been an illusion, and not someone I had tried to overtake and put permanently behind me.
Later, I recognized her in the recovery area looking happy, laughing with friends. I saw she had a pretty face. Red hair, for sure. Highlights. Nice complexion.
I was standing a short ways from her. Hands on my hips, dog-tired, thighs sore, and breathing too heavy to be comfortable – none of the symptoms she seemed to be showing in her demeanor.
I knew, twenty years ago I would have left her behind on that hill. She never would have passed me back, yet alone pulled away so completely as to vanish in the throng of runners. I knew, back then, I could have eaten her for lunch. Knowing that, knowing the situation now, it sucked.
How could this have happened?
I would have thrown out the whole thing altogether, except that it angered me into focusing on the 10K that fall. “Pissed off” is perhaps a better expression.
Let’s see, some of the notes I took from my 5K:
· Die, die, die.
· Someone kill me, please.
· Who is that fucking girl?
· When do they hand out barf bags?
· What crazy person measured the distance for this race?
You get the point. It was bad, very bad.
In September I began training in earnest for a 10K scheduled the first week of November. This would be a much bigger race, I realized, with many participants running either a half- or full marathon at the same time.
In fact, as I discovered, no one seemed to be running the 10K but me. Why was that? The local paper said there were supposed to be 900 of us running the shorter 10K that day, but why was it that I the only one standing there? Could they have left early without me?
“No, that hasn’t happened,” said one of the race officials at the starting line. “They’re in this mass of runners somewhere.”
(Then he said added, in confidence, just to me. “We only hold the 10K for former fat people. Don’t say anything to anyone, or they’ll know what you were.”)
In the throng of humanity bunched together like peanuts in a sack, waiting for the race to begin, I remember standing, by chance, next to a man in a beat-up, old t-shirt and tight elastic shorts that hugged against his thighs. He looked to be twenty years younger and twenty pounds heavier. Even he – an overweight and out-of-shape weekend-jogger – said he was running the half-marathon.
“What race are you running?” he asked me if only to test me into admitting my true self.
“Oh me? Ah… the… jeez… the ultra-marathon,” I lied, oh-so matter-of-factly, shrugging my shoulders. “Once the race begins I won’t stop until three days from now.”
“Wow!” He said. “I didn’t know that was scheduled too.”
I smiled, grimacing at my supposed misfortune, and ducked back into the pack, looking for the 900, the elusive 10Kers hiding in an incredible mass of marathon- and half-marathon weekend-assholers.
Listen, back in September, way before that ominous, race day in November, I was determined that this would be a better experience than the 5K debacle. Clearly, I needed to lose more weight, get in better shape, and, trust myself completely to the gods of racing. My wife also advised, just in case the gods were off handling other races, learn to be happy no matter your performance. (What was she implying?)
On the chilly, pre-dawn morning of the 10K, that early November day, Karen actually got up before I left the house. Earlier in the week I had asked her not to watch, not yet. Even though I had lost a total forty pounds, fifteen pounds since the 5K in the spring, and, even though, I was in much better shape, I was still too heavy and too slow for her to treat this race as anything other than me satisfying my New Year’s resolution.
She had agreed finally, so I was surprised to see her downstairs as I was getting ready to go. She gave me a quick hug, and wished me the best, (“Go get ‘em, Tiger!”), and went right back to bed!
Go get ‘em, Tiger?
Leaving the parking lot where all the participants had parked their cars, I was in a sea of runners slowly moving to where the race would start. I soon realized I was walking beside a short and heavy-set Chicano woman. She was wearing a running belt with four small plastic containers full of Gatorade, or something like that.
As we walked along, I asked her why she was wearing that belt, assuming she was running the 10K along with me.
“No,” she said with a heavy Mexican accent. “I need the juice for the marathon.”
She, then, asked me what race I was doing as I had no belt, no containers, no gel packs, nothing but my t-shirt, shorts, a hat, and a watch.
I realized for the first time, this would be a long day of swallowing my pride.
“Oh, you know,” I said, “the 10K,” and smiled weakly at her.
She said, “Oh,” and started to push away from me, realizing, of all people, she was walking next to a mega-loser, an amateur, or worse: someone whose very air would infect her with self-doubt, that, like a cancer, would spread through her body and keep her from reaching her 26-mile goal.
“—But, at each K, I am doing 50 push-ups!” I said, realizing my mistake. (So there! What do you think about that!)
“That’s tough!” she said, slowing down to walk with me after all.
“Yep,” I said, holding my head up. Feeling my arms. “I’m ready.”
Adding to myself, I may look like a pathetic, pudgy peon, but no wimpy 10K for me. I am, in fact, Thor, and he’s one tough hombre!
Shortly after that, I jumped into a long line at the port-o-johns.
Why are short, stocky Chicano women running marathons anyway?
When the horn sounded at the start of the race, I was reminded of so many other races I had experienced in my life; the sense of effort needed to get going, to push my body forward with hundreds of other runners clogging the road; the mass of humanity standing behind ropes, cheering all the runners; the desire inside my gut to speed up, to run faster, to push harder to get ahead of the crowd. But there is no getting ahead of the crowd. When the gun goes off, like a toilet lever flushed, I am always part of the mass that swirls around and around and around before disappearing.
Okay. Let me say up front, not knowing the course didn’t help, and, though I had studied the street map of the route, in my defense, I didn’t have any sense at all of elevation. I was running blind in a way, and, over the 6.2-mile race, this proved to be tremendously difficult, as each climb was a total surprise. (What! Not another hill!)
In fact, the 10K finished at the tippy-top of a mammoth mountain taken temporarily from the Alps. (What the hell!)
Needless-to-say, I never prepared for a pseudo-Pike’s Peak in my six weeks of training, where my focus had been on losing weight and just getting my distance up to six miles. I simply was not ready to master that last, long, son-of-a-bitch-of-a-monster-mile that refused to end and would not even dip down one fucking inch. Who designs such courses and where the hell are sinks holes when you need them?
Suddenly, near the top, running through swirling winds, snow and ice, even cave men throwing boulders at me, I heard my name! I think it was my name. I looked into the crowd – all those hateful people who didn’t want any of us to conquer Mount Kilimanjaro-on-loan – and in a surprise move, there was Karen and two friends cheering me on near the finish line!
“Why,” I mumbled between large gasps of arctic air, “why aren’t you in bed?”
However, immediately Karen was concerned.
She told me, after I crossed the finish line, I appeared to be listing too far to the left for it to be healthy. She said, “You looked awful!”
I felt awful! I had lost my upright, classic, running posture somewhere back on K2 along with my ice-pick, rope, pitons, and metal spikes.
I could see in her eyes, Karen envisioned I would be the runner I was back in my thirties: young, strong, virile – the man who kicked ass and ate up other runners and spit them out just as easily. Not the soon-to-be-sixty-year-old who still looked flabby and sickly and was struggling to find his breath!
I knew the truth. I knew I was exactly where I was for a reason. The facts, in racing, never lie. I knew, it was all Karen’s fault. For twenty years she allowed me to get fat and lazy. It wasn’t me at all. I was innocent. She was the reason I was listing to the left, taking on water, and sinking by the second.
Later, at breakfast, I decided I was okay with what she had done to me (she is my wife after all), and I was happy enough with my performance – that is, until I listened to my friends. How depressing…
“You’re fifty-nine years old,” they said. “So what if you didn’t finish strong, so what if you were crunched-over and leaning so far to the left you looked like the Leaning Tower of Pisa – you finished without puking and you kept anyone from passing you!” they said. “Heck of a strategy! Besides, we didn’t have to cart you to the hospital either. Be happy! – Say, do you smell French fries?”
Right then and there, I decided I would enter one more race, and, rather than run a stupid 10K, I could run a half-marathon instead. I would train all winter and be ready to run it in the spring. I would lose even more weight, strengthen my upper body and my “core” stomach muscles so I didn’t list to the left, and I would finish that last damn race strong. In a blaze of glory!
– And the Pudge Man would be on the attack. Bring on the Chicano woman, the weekend warrior, the red-haired girl I should have eaten for lunch. Enough of this old-age, blown tire, Leaning Tower of Pisa crap. I would be ready.
Let the games begin!
Of course, then my daughter called. Now I am training to die.
Categories: History of Running