Racing, Part II

Immediately after my “ship-listing” 10K in November, 2012, I determined I would run religiously every Sunday until reaching the half-marathon I had set as a goal for myself the following spring, keeping my eye squarely on the race date coming up in March, while building up distance and, as always, lowering my weight.  This time, I was determined that by race-day I would be ready.  Bring on the rent-a-mountains — I would be more than ready.   

My training that winter, in fact, seemed like out of a storybook.  Indeed, it was a period of enchantment…

When I ran in the forest, cute little birds migrating south would land on my sweat-stained shoulder and chirp silvery songs of encouragement.  Spunky little squirrels would keep pace, offering me the very nuts they had tirelessly collected and stored for winter, and agile doe racing ahead, carved a sure path through the underbrush for me to follow. 

Even on the paved roads, the magic shimmered around me as country folk came out of their warm huts and offer words of encouragement: 

“Onward, oh-not-so-young, Pudgy One,” was their chant.

If I ran in snow, these simple-minded, gentle villagers would come forward and shovel the road in front of me.  If I stumbled, they would lift me above their thread-worn but colorful garments, singing “Hosanna!  Hosanna!”   

In sleet, these same devoted rustics would offer me their guest towels, or even run beside me with their golf umbrellas, handing me their Nestle, home-baked cookies to settle my stomach or a cup of warm, honey-laced tea to soothe my parched throat. 

Yes, it was a time of magic and all manner of beast and men alike were into it. 

Not like before…

Not like when I was training for the 10K back in the previous spring.  When drivers slowed down and honked their horns in irritation, like somehow my “fat-ness” interfered with their unbridled access to the street.  Like somehow I needed flagmen in orange plastic vests to work the traffic around me. 

When irritated suburbanites in bulging bathrobes threw their trash at me, thinking I oozed bad, caloric karma.  Or when they opened their screen doors and set their ravenous rat terriers on me, believing, given my pace, I must be a peeping-tom or, given my speed, they needed to teach me a lesson about stalking…

Rather, training throughout the winter, all things were beautiful. 

Even the racing gods were kind.  When it snowed, the snow tasted of fresh marshmallow.  When it rained, the rain was light and of a golden ale that boosted my energy and renewed my strength for the run.  When the wind blew, it was always at my back, pushing me gently forward, sighing “Maria” in the cool air.

Even on cloudy days, the sun always broke through and directed an inspirational ray of glittering light just before me, illuminating the way even when darkness and creatures of evil grabbed at me from all sides, trying their best to make me give up, or walk, or turn off the chosen path. 

But I never deviated that winter and, in fact, marked my progress in a special, heavenly journal that many called a wall calendar, but I called it my “golden book,” which I kept with a magnet on the refrigerator door. 

It was a time of miracles, physically and spiritually. 

I literally had gone out into the proverbial desert and forty days later returned in running-shape and close to sainthood, if not martyrdom.  

Karen could see it, I had lost another ten pounds, more than sixty total; she could see in my calm demeanor, hear it in my soft speech – when I referred to her, my sentences started with “Oh, my blessed child…”

Yes, I wouldn’t be deterred, not this time.

In addition to my heavenly runs on Sundays, I ran on a treadmill at the health and fitness center once a week and between the two training sessions, Sunday and Wednesday, soon was achieving distances of ten miles, twelve miles, fourteen miles.  

My pace, in turn, was speeding up.  I was getting stronger and faster. 

I was becoming the Thor I was meant to be: a comic book legend fully encapsulated in my body!

And like I observed at the 10K, I learned to carry a belt with containers of Gatorade electrolyte juice and chocolate gel packs, and I practiced when to drink, when to eat, and when to stay fast.   

I learned to wear band aids to keep my nipples from bleeding and trim my toenails to stop them from cutting into my toes and soaking my socks and shoes in blood.    

I even added an app to my phone that tracked my mileage with a small GPS.  Within the app I learned to long for the feminine voice that gave me my mileage.  She spoke to me ever so succinctly through my earphones, but with a lilting voice of love.

“Where are you?” I would ask. 

Her light, yet distinct response gave nothing away: “Time: eight minutes and fifty-four seconds.” 

Just the same, I knew she needed me.

“We must meet.”  I would reply, trembling, drenched in sweat.  I could tell, it was all she could do to avoid me, to ignore my urgency for intimacy. 

“Pace: seven minutes and forty-three seconds,” I would hear her retort in my ear.

“We can’t go on like this,” I would implore.  “You must let me be with you!” 

But she was adamant.  “Split pace: eight minutes and twenty-seven seconds.”

Oh, she was cold, so impartial, and yet, on those lonely roads, I knew as long as I ran, she would return time-after-time and whisper sweet mileage in my ear. 

In late January I even joined a suburban kickboxing gym to satisfy my ongoing dementia, though, ostensibly, I said to myself, to strengthen my upper body and flexibility. 

With my instructor, Albert from Hell, immediately hating me, I found I had muscles I never knew existed.  (What?  Who are you?  Where did you come from?)  Albert refused ever, ever, ever to cut me slack and only once in a while was slack asked.   

By March, the fairy tale had reached its peak, and Thor, the warrior stood ready.  Bring on the half-marathon monster if you dare!

Only… a week before the race… reality, like a cold slap to the face, woke me up.

I realized in reading the race material, rather than the half-marathon starting at noon, a sensible time for sensible runners, and, it so happens, the time I train on Sundays, some wicked cretin scheduled the event to start precisely at 7 AM. 

What?  In mid-March?  What outdoor race starts at 7AM? 

Only polar bears would be up at 7 AM.  Only minks and Eskimos going ice fishing on snowmobiles would be up before the sun in mid-March at 7 AM.      

Certainly not me, not anyone I knew, and not anyone who wasn’t from Siberia.

Not only would it be absolutely frigid outside, but it would be totally dark too.  I would need airport flashlights attached to my earphones to see anything at all in front of me! 

And I would be barely awake and not at all ready to run a 13-mile-course.  Not in mid-March!  Not in June either!  Not ever! 

Not when it was the perfect time to lie on a soft couch, snuggled under a warm blanket, watching chirpy telecasts of Sports Center.

Pudge or no pudge, in mid-March I wouldn’t – I couldn’t be going anywhere that early.

Why do I constantly do these things to myself?

I can remember hearing my wife in the shower at 5:30 AM that Sunday – she, at least, had an excuse: her job required her to work that weekend; she would never knowingly get up before dawn to participate in or even watch a sporting event. 

Only in the coal mines and hospitals in the middle of nowhere would you knowingly get up that early. 

Lucky her, I thought!  She gets to go to work where there is light and heat and, most importantly, coffee.

I was heading out the door with all my stuff: my belt, my gel packs, my band aids, my iPhone, and my app with the ever-present voice of my mileage-muffin.  Yet instead of feeling positive, I was thinking:  “This is not good.  This is not good at all.”

Too dark.   Too cold.  Too tired.  Too little coffee.  Too long a run!

Besides, I couldn’t decide what to wear to go out into that dark, pre-dawn hour.   

So I stayed with what got me through all of December, all of January, and all of February:  I dressed for winter. 

However…

Once in the pre-race area, I knew immediately something was wrong.  I saw it all around me: I was the only runner wearing a Norwegian parka with a blizzard fur-lined hood.

I was the only one with two layers of thermal LL Bean long johns. 

I was the only one in thick purple leggings, orange ski mittens, snowshoes strapped on my back, and a woolen red hat.  

I was the only one who looked like a creamsicle!

Did I mention how early warm weather comes to the Piedmont in North Carolina? 

Everyone else was in t-shirts and shorts.  Some people had on sweatshirts, but no one was wearing their one-and-only, special-designed, Norwegian-fucking-parka.

In the crowd someone in a sleeve-less tee asked me if I was cold. 

I looked at him incomprehensibly. 

“No speak, English.” I muttered, mother-fucker, “I … from Siberia.”  

If I was the only one accurately to prepare with the right clothes, who, then, would have the last laugh? 

On the other hand… 

When the starting horn blasted into the pre-dawn sky and the fleet-footed runners took off and left me behind, it was clear, with all of my layers of clothing to protect me, I was totally discombobulated. 

On top of it all, I couldn’t get my snowshoes to function properly. 

Several miles into the race, I realized I was in serious trouble.

I was unbearably hot, like close-to-blowing-my-top hot, like I was running through Hades hot.  My blood was bubbling like a pot of boiling water.  AND I still had ten miles to go!

I quickly ripped off my hat and gloves and stuffed them into my jacket – but the damage was done. 

I needed to get a handle on this before my cells burst and became Ebola-like, disrupting throughout my body and turning my very bones into a puddle of goo. 

Okay, okay, I knew what needed to happen. 

I yanked off my Peruvian-Paca-lined parka – which, by the way, was hard to do – while running in snowshoes, in total darkness (except for the flashlights tied to my head), and hundreds of runners stumbling to get around me.

THEN, once I got that damn coat off, especially without pushing my Gatorade belt down to my sweating knees, I couldn’t decide what to do with it. 

I wasn’t about to throw away my only parka (the one strategically engineered for fighting Russians at the North Pole) or toss it to the side of the road.  

What if a communist runner took it as a memento? 

This left me with no choice.  I tied the sleeves around my waist.  Now I looked like I was wearing a thick Irish kilt.  If I was running with bagpipes, I would have been perfect! 

Jeez, who knew this race was so international? 

Runners, slowing down to get by me, must have thought I was a homeless man, running with all of my belongings surrounding my belly – of all things, the very pudge that had gotten me into this.          

Just as I resolved that issue, I realized with the flood of humanity thrashing to swing around me that somewhere somehow I had forgotten to bring the one essential thing I needed for this race:  my legs! 

Where the hell were my legs? 

Just when they were required to step up and run the 13 miles and carry me and my ten-pound, dead-weight parka, they were nowhere to be found. 

Had I left them in the trunk of the car along with the spare tire and the metal jack? 

But wait, that didn’t make sense.

My old jeep didn’t have a trunk, let alone a spare jack, and, besides, why would I leave my legs in the jeep when I knew I would be running like a crazy man at the crack of dawn? 

Wait a minute.  I remember seeing my legs. 

Weren’t they squirming in the line at the Port-o-Johns when I desperately needed to empty my bowels after seeing thousands of runners milling about in t-shirts and shorts?

Weren’t they twitching nervously when I bent over to double-knot my snowshoes?

In fact, didn’t they almost bolt out from under me when I couldn’t get the GPS app on my iPhone to work?  (So much for my sweet lover, my feminine voice of love, encouraging me on the run!) 

Wait, I remember settling them down like thoroughbreds, and stretching them first to the left then to the right in the starting area, warming them up for the shock of what was about to occur. 

But that was back then.    

Maybe I tossed them in the garage container along with the sandwiches and Doritos and the plastic water bottle when the horn went off and all the runners cheered and I upchucked breakfast.  

Maybe in crossing the starting line, I stepped into a vat of thick cement and the quick-drying concoction quickly hardened into heavy blocks of concrete.  Maybe my legs were back there like twitching prongs. 

They certainly weren’t with me.

Runners were passing me by the thousands.  Some were in a huff, others casually chitchatting with each other – they didn’t even notice me as they ran by, enjoying their milk toast and playing gin rummy. 

It was so embarrassing.  I needed a giant hawk to swoop down and take me away.

What seemed like three hours, I reached the halfway point of the race and thought, finally, I had stemmed the tide.

– But, no, another thousand runners ran by me on the way back to the finish line.  I was dizzy with it all!  Afraid, even, to look behind me.  

Would the humiliation ever end?

I had worked so hard on those lonely roads through winter. 

Everyone was passing me, mothers with babies, blind people with canes, fat, frat boys with cases of beer lost and looking for the beach… 

Everyone, I should say, but one – I passed an eighty-nine-year-old-man with a broken-walker – but other than him, and only him, I simply was fodder for the other runners to easily pass by and mock on their way to the award ceremony.    

“Okay.  Okay!  Bring it on!” I shouted to the world, “Pudge man, can take it.  I can take it.  Bring it on!”

Then another thousand passed me. 

“Mother fucker!”

“If any more people run by me,” I shouted, “I swear, I’ll kill them.”

Suddenly a soft feminine voice whispered lightly into my ear.  “Time: one hour and fifty minutes.  Distance, eleven miles.” 

“Oh, fuck you!” 

“Current pace: ten minutes and twenty seconds.”

“Go away.  Leave me alone.  Can’t you see I’m wearing a fucking kilt, lost my legs, sweating like a pig, and about to murder somebody…”

“Current speed: eight minutes and thirteen seconds.”

“Arrrrr!  Not now!  Stop!  Who cares?  Where were you when I needed you?  Where are the deer and the mice to show me the way?  Why are the gods of racing doing this to me?”

“Split pace…”

“ – No, no, no, you cold, calculating bitch.  The damage is done.  I’m through.”

“Split pace: nine minutes and forty-three seconds.”

“Help!  Somebody kill me.  Kill me.  Please!”

I realized, then, I thoroughly hated her and I hate running in races. 

I hated little squirrels and white tail deer and Pacas from Peru, and I hate running in races. 

I hated port-o-johns at dawn and pulling down long johns, and I hate running in races. 

I hated packets of goo that stick to my fingers and belts with Gator Aid that seep onto my shorts, and I hate running in races. 

I hated legs that disappear and pudge that reappears, and, above all, I hate running in races.

I hate running in races.  I hate running in races.  I hate running in races.

That was the rant I used finally, successfully to cross the finish line…

…and begin preparing for the Chicago Marathon in the fall. 

 ****

 



Categories: History of Running

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