My friend Shaun is standing beside me in the weight room, and we are both staring at ourselves in the large mirror on the wall. Behind us are all sorts of weight equipment, benches and treadmills. Shaun is pumping 40-pound weights while I am struggling with 20 pounds, wondering why I am not using my normal 15s.
“You are totally and royally fucked,” Shaun says with an added “umph,” lifting one of the barbells to his chest. Shaun is a little wisp of a guy who I used to run with back in our thirties. Later in our sixties we met at the same gym by chance and he has been advising me on my running ever since.
“I know. I know.” I say. Yes, I know this all the way down to the pit of my stomach.
For the past year I have been preparing for the New York City Marathon, the second in my goal of running the six major marathons of the world, but I am struggling with the realities of what is about to unfold. Now Shaun knows it too.
In truth, the New York City Marathon is self-inflicted torture of physical fatigue and psychological madness: twenty-six miles across an ocean of mean streets, dirty brick buildings, metal bridges, and anonymous residential high rises showcasing a city I don’t even like just to get to an island called Central Park where I’ll probably be mugged soon after crossing the finish line. It dawned on me at the gym that this feat represents nothing more than a fleeting dream for dotting fools and fading dandies, especially now, especially there, especially me.
To be clear, I ran twenty-two miles a few weeks back in preparing for the marathon, but later failed miserably in my attempt to run twenty-four. My excuse: the day was too hot, my feet hurt too much, and, to be honest, I just wasn’t into it mentally, not after spending the weekend with my wife and friends at Myrtle Beach. Now, this week is the race itself. There’s no way. I am fucked.
Still, the feeling, like a gleam of excitement, has begun. Like I know. I know. Someone once said to me, life is composed of exciting moments; well, if that is the case, a new memory is gurgling within me. When my wife and I were driving home from the beach, I first felt it bubble: a tinge of anxiousness – or the thrill of the unknown, perhaps – that, or was it a rumbling of debauchery?
I look to Shaun and manage a slight smile in the mirror holding the weights at my side. Shaun, with his sandy blonde hair and muscled arms, is laughing at me. “You fool, what are you thinking?” he asks.
“I’m fucked.” I reply, lifting the weights. “I fucked up.”
Here’s the situation. Over the weekend, my wife and I went with some friends to Myrtle Beach to enjoy their company and to celebrate, in part, our 27th wedding anniversary. This is a good thing. I want to keep my wife happy and we like our friends, except one or two. The bad thing is I used the occasion to become a wanton fiend. I wholeheartedly ate everything crappy I could find and I topped it off by drinking way too much throughout the weekend and getting way too drunk Saturday night. I didn’t once workout in the exercise room while staying at our ocean side hotel nor take the opportunity to run along the beach. Not once did I get my act together, as someone in training would do, in spite of the deadline looming ahead, the trial by fire, the burning sea of New York City.
At one point my wife looked at me in horror when she realized I drank a bottle of wine by myself in a restaurant that Saturday night; she grabbed my arm when I went to order a second bottle; it was like I had returned, once again, to haunt her and our friends with my crazy antics, like she knew I would find myself, once more, sleeping against a hotel toilet for comfort later that night. Lost was the sixty-one year-old marathon-training, devoted husband and stable friend, gone was the amateur athlete entered in a serious and significant marathon that easily could kill him if he wasn’t ready, negated was the tedious summer of steady recovery from a tear in my upper hamstring tendon. Yes, on Sunday, when I returned home from the beach, the anxious thrill of the approaching marathon bubbled in the pit of my stomach, but so too a massive headache throbbed against my eyes and six pounds of additional gluttony sagged over my belt.
“Everyone I know,” Shaun says, pausing in his routine to be sure he has my attention.
I look over in the mirror at Shaun and nod my head.
Shaun is telling me his same old story so I lift the heavy barbell in my left hand as if to say, okay, okay, I’m with you, keep going, and Shaun continues, “I mean everyone, all of my friends, everyone – everyone who has run a marathon after the age of sixty has had a heart attack,” he says finally. “I mean everyone.“
Shaun has told me this before. I nod my head in agreement. I figure Shaun must be in his early fifties. I wonder how many friends he has, like me, who are in their sixties. I am barely in my sixties and none of my friends, other than Shaun, have had heart attacks. Of course, my wife would point out, given I have managed to alienate all of my friends, and, other than Shaun, who I bump into now and again, and a few other buddies I see at the gym, though I don’t know their names, technically speaking, she would remind me, I don’t have any friends at all. She would say that comparing myself to other old guys in the weight room is probably a good barometer of heart attacks, but no one has the letter “A” pinned on their chests, that’s for sure.
No, Shaun’s my authority on heart attacks. When I retired from running back in my forties, Shaun went on to climb mountains in Europe. Not the ones that get all the attention, he told me once, but all of the rest. The last time he went Euro-mountaineering a few years ago, he came home and had a massive heart attack while doing something stupid like sleeping, or watching tv, or cleaning out his garage. Now he is my expert on heart attacks, as well as the nameless mountains of Europe, and swears that oils, like peanut butter, olive oil, and caster oil, led to his cardio catastrophe.
“If you think you’re fucked now,” he adds, just to emphasize his point about the road ahead. “You better get prepared, because your heart attack is going to fuck you up.”
Death awaits me. Having turned sixty, I am resigned to the inevitable.
“What I don’t get,” he goes on, “is why the hell were you at Myrtle Beach when you should have been running?”
This speaks volumes about my will power, determination, and dedication going down the final stretch. What the hell was I doing at Myrtle Beach and not running on some back country road, sucking down goo packets and Gatorade?
“I don’t know.” I smile weakly at Shaun. “I blame my marriage. My wife is trying to kill me.”
Why else would she even suggest such an idea for our anniversary? She knows I have no will power and can quickly escape from reality.
“I don’t even like Myrtle Beach,” I say. My friends from North Carolina all spoke so highly of the famous resort town, and, it turns out, no matter whom I asked, every one growing up in North Carolina experienced Myrtle Beach as the key destination of their summer childhood lives. Their families never drove to the Outer Banks or other destinations along the coast of North Carolina, the small towns dominated by protected nature reserves, open sandy beaches, and single family homes, which, my friends said, were all so boring, but always to Myrtle Beach with it’s mammoth ferris wheel and board walk and arcade and tons of fun things to do at night as kids or with their families in the shopping centers surrounding the town.
What I saw was a tiny beach pressed by large hotels and high-rise condominiums, packed tight against each other and dominating the oceanfront. Myrtle Beach was nothing more than a box store for the masses, and I realized we were spending our anniversary being one of the millions in the cookie-cutter hotels overlooking the metallic gray ocean, staring down from our dirty balcony at thousands of fat vacationers stuffed into rickety folding chairs under faded flamingo umbrellas. Maybe this was my excuse: I was suffering from depression, a common Myrtle Beach affliction: the result of seeing the huge hotels huddled together against the beach, the endless parking lots filling the desolate spaces between the singular row of ocean-side dominos and the worn out shopping centers, like tidal cesspools stretched out into the putrid South Carolina marshland, hustling back-lot, carnival-like entertainment to the millions.
“Too much fucking Myrtle Beach,” I add, grimacing at Shaun. “and too much fucking wine.”
A week from the race and, as Shaun can see from the twitch in my face every time he mentions the words “New York City Marathon,” I am in trouble. My wife, daughter and I leave in two days on our way to the city and nowhere on our schedule is there time for last-minute training. It is too late for me to do anything but commiserate with Shaun one last time in the gym on the follies of man, the downfall of good men gone bad, and the prevalence of heart attacks in sixty-year-old marathoners.
In spite of the fact that I am not nearly in the shape I was in a year ago, heavier by ten to fifteen pounds, conditioning not close to as complete as last fall, slower by more than a minute in my runs, and not nearly as tough as I need to be – in spite of all of this, the marathon will go on and I will be in it, a bobbing head slowly sinking below the surface in an ocean of 55,000 runners.
“Hey, look at it this way,” Shaun says, putting his barbells onto the rack. He moves to the doorway of the weight room, getting ready to go home. “If you have a heart attack, New York City has some of the best hospitals in the world.”
Great,” I say, “if the cost of the hospitals are anything like the hotel on Myrtle Beach, I’ll be bankrupt in a week.”
What I don’t say, staring at myself in the mirror, is that, just maybe, this is the real me coming to the marathon party, the actual me finally showing up for the boogaloo-down-Broadway. Me: the sixty-one-year-old dude who runs weekends and struggles daily to keep his weight down, the good ol’ boy who gives up training every time to wine and dine with family and friends no matter where he is or what lies ahead. I am not the invincible warrior who ran the Chicago Marathon last year at a trim 175 pounds, the Thor-like god who completed the 26.2-mile course more than a half-an-hour faster then when I was in my thirties. In truth, I am the sorry sack from North Carolina who chose to churn up the surf at Myrtle Beach; I am the sad guy who simply wants to swim along in the eight-hour race without sinking like a stone, washed over by wave after wave of marathoners ready for the world to see on national tv. Drowning is a good word. I think I am the one that’s drowning.
Categories: History of Running