Friday, February 25, 2011

Halfway There (original draft 9-27-07)

My stomach does a flip-flop, and my veins pulse with adrenaline as I stand among 600 + runners ready to take a 13.1 mile trek through the Montour Trail in Robinson, Pennsylvania. I bounce a few times on the balls of my feet in an attempt to calm myself down and then stretch my ankles and calves one more time. I do it really just to pass the moments before the race starts. I am anxious for it to get underway.

I do not hear a starter’s gunshot, but the pack in front of me starts moving. The race has begun. My belly does another flip-flop as I take my first steps. “I’m doing it; I’m really doing this,” I think to myself. I must be crazy. Who in their right mind would elect to run 13.1 miles for no other reason than to see if they can make it to the other end? Legend has it that the first person who ran a full marathon (26.2 miles) dropped dead when he reached his destination. In his book, Olympic Marathon: A Centennial History of the Games’ Most Storied Race, Charlie Lovett asserts that although it may be debatable, a messenger by the name of Philippedes (who in later texts is sometimes referred to as Pheidippides) ran from Marathon to Athens, Greece in 490 B.C. to give a message to the king (“Niki!”) that the Greeks had won the war against the Persians, and then immediately collapsed to his death. And thus begat the “modern marathon.” Yes, let’s run a race that resulted in the death of the first person ever to attempt it. It’s only a half-marathon, so I must only be half-crazy.

The pavement is still wet from the previous night’s rain, and the air is heavy and thick, difficult to breathe. Not exactly ideal for running a half-marathon. As I find my pace, I hear the random splat-smuck of shoes running on wet pavement. Splat, smuck, splat, smuck. Runners who have partnered up with others chit-chat amongst themselves as they find a comfortable pace. Down the hill from the IKEA in Robinson Town Center, we enter the Montour Trail. The splat-smuck changes to pit-pat as the terrain changes from wet pavement to hard-packed sand. I suddenly find myself in kindergarten again, slapping my lap, imitating the sound of footsteps through a jungle...Going on a lion hunt...pit-pat, pit-pat...gonna catch a lion...pit-pat, pit-pat. The words reverberate in my head. The hypnotizing effect helps me momentarily forget the endeavor before me. Only 12 more miles to go.

The lion-hunt chant continues to repeat rhythmically over and over in my head as I watch and try to keep pace with the runner’s shoes in front of me. The chatter among the participants surrenders to the true sounds of running. As our feet hit the ground (pit-pat, pit-pat) we all start to clear our throats, cough, and grunt with a forced “ahem!” anything to make it easier to breathe, to get as much oxygen to our lungs and bodies as possible. The occasional hockh-thoo of spit and mucus is heard catapulting through the air, landing with a splat on the sandy path. All of us are now intent and focused on our performance. Amidst the music of cicadas, waking birds, and rain drops that sprinkle softly on the creek that trickles alongside the trail, the only other sounds are the sounds of running.

I encounter a slight grade on the Montour Trail. “Short and quick, short and quick!” My sister’s words are ingrained in my memory from 20 years ago...

“Short and quick, short and quick!” my sister hollers to me, as she balances on her crutches atop the steep yet short hill at the Palmerton Invitational. After breaking her ankle earlier in the season, she can no longer compete during her senior year. Instead, she offers encouragement, support, and training to the rest of our high school cross-country team. Short, quick steps while pumping your arms, I learn, is the best way to get up a steep hill without expending too much energy. I am just a freshman in high school, and this is my first year running varsity cross-country. It is also the only opportunity I will have to be on the same team as my graduating sister.

Short and quick, short and quick. I ascend the small grade on the Montour Trail with ease, and continue on my way, reminiscing of my high school cross-country days. I remember the day when Heather broke her ankle at an away meet back in high school. She was ahead of me by about a quarter mile or so, but I could see that she was running off to the side in a small crevice. What are you doing? I mentally asked her. Why wasn’t she running on the grass like everyone else? She’s going to hurt herself. Seconds later, she slipped and fell. Coach DiPasquale is by her side by the time I catch up. I slow down, ready to quit so I could be by my sister’s side.

“Keep running!” Coach Dee yells to me.

“But she’s my sister!!” I yell back.

“Don’t worry about her, we’ve got her, just keep running!” I do as I am told, although I feel guilty. I should have stayed with her.


“Water!” I hear someone yell up ahead, and I am jarred back to the present; the 20-year old memory of my sister breaking her ankle lingers like a waking dream in my mind. I grab the first cup thrust out at me and as I go to take a sip, I notice that the liquid inside the cup is not water. It is bright blue, the color of something unnatural. “PowerAde! Water!” I hear the volunteer yell again to the runners behind me. The bright blue liquid splashes all over my face and runs down my chin as I attempt to take a swig while still at a slow jog. I hastily throw the empty cup to the side, annoyed that I’m wearing most of it. Not only am I still thirsty, but now I’m all sticky. It is a mistake I make only once on my 13.1 mile adventure.

By mile five, I can no longer feel the pain shooting into my hip with every step as it has done since the start of the race. My body starts to buzz as if electricity is running through my veins. The pain in my joints is gone, along with the pain in my shins, as my brain starts to release its endorphins, making me feel lightheaded, and even a bit nauseous. Once again, my thoughts escape to another reality...

“I’ve always wanted to run the New York City Marathon,” my sister says, while we sit and drink bad wine and look at old pictures. I am taken aback a bit by this at first, but then I’m not really all that surprised afterall. Heather started running track and cross-country in 7th grade and although it’s been awhile, it’s always been a part of her. Growing up, her true loves were drawing, playing piano, and running. After she got married and started a family, she seems to have forgotten about these things that she once loved. She was once an individual with vision and potential, offering a myriad of talents that somehow faded into the mundane routine of cooking dinners, doing laundry, and getting the kids to soccer practice. She once was so much more than just a housewife and mother. She was an athlete, a musician, an artist. She rarely talks about herself anymore and I am thankful that she has shared her dream with me.

“Why don’t you?” I ask.

She shrugs, “I don’t know. I guess I’m just not motivated.” By this she means “why bother?” and seems to dismiss the idea that she could do it if she really wanted to.

“I’ll do it with you,” I offer. If I do it with her, perhaps she’ll be more inclined to actually give it a try. It will give her something of her own to look forward to, something for herself. Running had once given her purpose, a goal to achieve. It was something she could do well that made her feel good about herself. It would make me happy, too, to have something this special to share with her. Not everyone can say they’ve run a marathon with their sister, let alone the New York City Marathon.

“Really?” Her eyebrows furrow with a look of incredulity.

Yes. Really. I love my sister. She was the one who paid attention to me and took care of me when I was little. She’s all the family I have, and if her dream is to run the New York City Marathon, then it is my dream to do it with her.


Two men on bicycles whiz past in the opposite direction, yelling something completely incomprehensible. There are runners are behind them. The turnaround must be near! I’m almost to the halfway mark. A few spectators line the trail, clapping and yelling words of encouragement. “Good job! You can do it!” they shout. As I run past, I search the faces for someone I recognize. Maybe my husband is there to root me on. I am not surprised when I don’t see his face, but the spectators’ encouragement, although likely intended for someone else, still gives me a boost. Even though they are complete strangers, I almost feel like they are there only for me. Pit-pat, pit-pat!

As I started my training earlier this year, I envisioned myself running the New York City Marathon with my sister. We are together through the entire race, but then towards the end, she wants to quit with only a few miles to go. Feeding off of the melodrama, I imagine myself holding her up and I carry her with me. Her arm is slung over my shoulder, and mine supports her waist. It is a way for me to give back to her for holding me up and supporting me, advocating for me, and for simply being there when I needed her. There is no way I will allow her not to finish this race, and I will not finish without her. In my daydream, we cross the finish line together, arm in arm. On the days that I feel sluggish or unmotivated, these fantasies play like a movie in my head, and I am empowered. I stand taller, shoulders back and relaxed, and I take longer strides. My arms pump and I feel invincible. I can do this. I can run the New York City Marathon.

During the course of my training, I send her emails and often leave messages informing her of my progress and asking about hers. She rarely responds to the emails, and seldom returns my calls. Despite my inquiries, she hasn’t mentioned the marathon in months. I fear that she never really intended to do it, that it was all just bravado. Perhaps that is the reason I haven't heard from her. I can’t let her give up. If she gives up on her dream, then I will be forced to give up on mine. My dream is to do it with her. It wouldn’t be nearly as meaningful if I had to do it without her.


How long has it been since those bikes went by? It seems like hundreds of people have run past in the opposite direction. Am I really that far back in the pack? Where is this goddamn turnaround? How much farther is it? Just get to the halfway point, I tell myself. If I can make it that far, I can make it to the finish. Pit--pat, pit--pat…

I hear voices up ahead in the distance, more clapping and cheering. More spectators, I presume. A man with an orange vest directs me around an orange cone with a flag pole sticking out of it. He claps and tells me I’ve done a good job. I’ve finally made it to the turnaround. The uphill climb is over and it’s literally all downhill from here. Making it to this point gives me a much-needed boost of energy. My pace quickens, and I somehow I feel lighter. A runner I met in the parking lot is heading toward the turnaround as I run down the hill in the other direction. We yell “Good job!” to each other and give the “thumbs-up” sign, neither of us missing a stride. She is a complete stranger, but today, we have a connection. She is not upset that I am in front of her, neither angry nor jealous. Instead, she is happy to see that I am doing well, and offers encouragement and support in the brief time that we have as we pass each other on the trail. I offer the same support and encouragement to her, and hope that she is able to reach her goal.

Pit-pat, pit-pat. Time once again is elusive. Water stations have come and gone, and the mile markers seem to take longer and longer to appear. The excitement of the turnaround is far behind me. The runner in front of me has started to slow, and I am just able to catch up to him. My eyes fall on his shoes. Pit-pat, pit-pat, they say as we fall into a rhythm with each other. I watch, mesmerized by the cadence of his shoes. The trail is no longer beneath me, and the trees are no longer beside. There is only me, and the rhythmic, disembodied shoes floating to and fro before me, coercing me to go on like the cliché of a donkey and a carrot stick. He loses momentum and I am able to pass, energized that I still have strength when other runners start to fail. Not long after, I am humbled as someone else passes me. The jabbing pain in my hip has returned and the fatigue in my legs and body is relentless. I run as if on autopilot, and although I have never been more exhausted, my legs carry me as if something ungoverned by me is forcing them to move.

Up ahead I see the 10 mile marker. Three point one miles to go. Just let me walk for a minute. No! You can’t quit now, my ego shouts. You’ve already come this far, and you didn’t come this far to quit. Do. Not. Stop. I fight myself to keep going if only to stave off the incredible disappointment I will feel if I stop to walk, even though my body tells me there just isn’t anything left. My legs feel like tree trunks, and the effort it takes to put one foot in front of the other is enormous. Somehow, my mental will and determination wins over my physical exhaustion. Another water station appears in the distance up ahead. “Don’t stop,” I coach myself. Don’t even slow down. My throat is as dry as the cracked and scorched Savannah in the middle of the arid season. Gooey white paste from dried-out saliva has formed on the corners of my mouth. As dehydrated as I am, I fear that if I slow down even the slightest bit, my legs will crumple beneath me and I will not have the gumption to finish. I clear my throat, and cough, creating just enough saliva to swallow, and expel the mucus from my burning lungs. Two and a half miles to go.

A voice behind me says, “It’s been me and you this entire race.” The voice’s body catches up and the runner says, “Come on. Let’s go; we can kick it together.” I try to keep stride with him, but I just can’t go any faster. My heavy legs rage as they are pushed to their maximum. “I just don’t have it in me to go any faster,” I tell him, as I cough. “Go for it, dude.” We high-five each other, and he takes off. His body shrinks as he gets further away. Good for him; he’s done well. I wish I could have kept up, but I do not begrudge him his performance.

Fuck! My right side feels as though someone just shoved a red-hot poker under my ribcage. What did Bonnie tell me to do to get rid of a side-stitch? Bonnie Boyer, who placed 3rd in her division in the Iron Man triathlon through Death Valley, California back in the early 80s, was my cross-country coach at Penn State in 1991. “Take a deep breath and make your belly as fat as you can by pushing it out. Blow out all the air as hard as you can while still pushing your belly out. And don’t stop running, no matter what!” I remember now. I don’t stop, knowing that the cramp will get incredibly worse if I do. Another mistake I only ever had to make once. Heeding the memory’s advice, the pain eventually begins to subside.

The sky threatens to rain again with a rumble of thunder in the distance. It sounds far enough away, thankfully, that I don’t think I will get rained on, and I’m already soaking wet as it is. A few raindrops, however, splashing my hot face and body would be quite refreshing, perhaps giving me a lift both physically and spiritually, but alas, the rain holds off. The 12 mile marker is up ahead. A little more than a mile to go. I’ll be done in 10 minutes. I hope. Pit-pat, pit-pat. My legs don’t want to go any faster, but I just want to get this crazy endeavor over with. Whose stupid idea was this, anyway? Oh, right. Mine. “Ok. The faster you go, the sooner you will be done.” I fool myself with logic that makes it sound easier than it is. I try to gain momentum by pumping my arms, and instead of going faster, I take longer strides. Another little “Bonnie” trick I learned from running cross-country for Penn State. You don’t have to go faster, just cover more distance with bigger steps. It seems to work. I continue taking longer strides, but I’ve also started moving faster. The 13 mile mark! I have a tenth of a mile to go! I see the finish line. Sitting in the middle of the trail is the carpeted red mat that will record my time from the electronic chip attached to my shoelace. I’ll be done as soon as I step across that mat. The giant digital clock poised next to the mat ticks away the hours, minutes and seconds; its numbers blurred from the drizzle, and the fact that I’m not wearing my glasses. Spectators and the runners who have finished before me line both sides of the trail, clapping and cheering as I approach the finish. Pick it up, pick it up! You’re almost done! It’s time to kick, come on, come on!!

“Hurry up! You can do it in under 2!” My husband’s voice reaches my ears, and not a moment too soon. I look up and see that the clock says “1:59:45.” I have 15 seconds to make it to the finish mat before the clock reaches 2:00:00. It is all I need to hear. I pump my arms and legs with what little power remains in my exhausted body. I cross the finish mat as the clock reads “1:59:51.” Holy fuck, I did it. My body shakes as my rubbery legs can barely keep me standing. I suck in the air hard and fast as I try to catch my breath. A young girl asks if she can remove the chip-timer from my shoelace as another young woman thrusts a cup of water into my hand and asks if I’m ok. I have just finished my first half-marathon in less than two hours, something even many seasoned runners can’t do. I am fan-freakin’-tastic! I have finally done something noteworthy. I have finally found something I am good at. I hope that my triumph will make Heather proud of me, that it will help to motivate and even inspire her. If I can do it, there’s no doubt in my mind that she can do it, too. I can’t stop smiling as I realize that I am halfway to the New York City Marathon, hopefully, with my big sister by my side.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Up and Coming Posts

In the upcoming weeks, I plan to share some of my older running stories that I wrote a few years back. They are mainly journal entries that include my inspiration to start running with my sister, being chased by dogs, and other stories that I hope you find helpful, insightful, and if nothing else, entertaining and inspirational. Please stay tuned.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Busted for Boston

My coworker stood poised behind me, waiting in just as much anticipation as me. It was 9:00am on October 1, 2010, and I was ready to register for the Boson Marathon. I had qualified in Columbus the previous fall with a time of 3:36:01. It was the only time I had been able to qualify and hadn’t been able to do it since. I was bound and determined to get a spot in Boston because there was a good chance I’d never get the opportunity to do it again. I kept clicking the refresh button on the website wondering why the link wouldn’t activate.

“Oh, good grief,” I said, stifling a small giggle. In big, block-typed letters the website indicated that “Registration will open at 9am on October 18, 2010.” My coworker and I shared a good laugh at my expense and she insisted that I come get her on the 18th when it was actually time for me to register. At 9:00AM on October 18th, I was logged on and ready to register. The race closed in a record eight hours, and lucky for me I was able to get in. I was registered to run the most elite race in the world; I was registered for the Boston Marathon.

Earlier that April, I had tweaked my knee while on a 15-miler. With each step of my left leg, I felt a sharp stab of pain on surface of my knee cap. I was fine, I told myself. I shook it off, figuring it was nothing. I’d been through worse. The Pittsburgh Marathon was only weeks away, which I planned to run with my sister. It would be her third marathon and my fifth. She’d yet to have a successful marathon and needed a cheerleader to help her get her through it, and I’d promised to stay with her through the end. After Columbus in 2009, I’d sustained a stress fracture in my heel and doctor’s orders insisted that I didn’t run for four months. I’d had little time to train for Pittsburgh, but somehow I managed to build up enough mileage that I got in at least one 20-miler, and a few good long runs under my belt before my taper. Knowing that my sister ran a slower pace than me, I knew it wouldn’t be a big deal. It’d just be another training run for me. I was actually using it to prepare for the Seattle Rock ‘N Roll Marathon at the end of June. I was pretty sure I would rock it. If only I could get my knee to stop aching. A faulty “child’s pose” two weeks prior to the Pittsburgh Marathon had exacerbated the issue, causing some fairly serious pain in my left knee. But like most runners, I ignored the pain and assumed it would go away with a little rest, ice, compression, begging, praying, and finally denying its existence. I’d be fine come race day, I kept telling myself. It didn’t really hurt “that bad.”

The rain fell in sheets. A constant downpour drenched us and the other ten thousand runners throughout the entire race. Soaked to the bones, there was not a stich of dry clothing on us, and my feet were literally swimming inside my shoes. Some sources say that it is only sunny approximately 80 days out of the year in the ‘Burgh; it's where the world’s worst weather comes to die. We finally crossed the finish line at 5:03:57. My sister didn’t make her sub-five-hour goal, but she did beat her last two marathons by more than 90 minutes each. It was a success for her in my book. My knee gave me little trouble throughout the run, likely due to the easy 12 minute/mile pace. I figured I’d only need a day or so to recover and then I’d get back to my training for Seattle. I continued to run on schedule, although the ache in my left knee was a constant reminder that maybe I was overdoing it. I knew if I went to my doctor, he’d tell me I wouldn’t be able to run, and I just couldn’t have that. I needed Seattle to be a success, because I needed to make sure that my time in Columbus wasn’t a fluke. I ignored the fact that I could only go down stairs one at a time, leaning on the wall or a handrail. It’s only a little ache, I’d say. It’s fine, just your typical achy runner’s knee. It’s normal, right?

Race day in Seattle turned out to be a fine day. Overcast and chilly. A perfect day for a marathon. I felt good. My knee felt good. Or at least I convinced myself that it did. I met other runners in front of the hotel to catch the shuttle that would take us to the starting line. We all piled into the van, anticipating that we’d be dropped off after a short five minute ride. The starting line was only two miles away. Due to the influx of travellers and road closures, we ended up sitting in traffic. The shuttle driver took a short cut and had gotten us lost. Getting to the starting line late and missing my corral was not how I had planned this day to go. No time to stretch or warm up, since my corral had already started. I jumped in at number 17, 13 corrals behind the one I was seated to start in. It didn’t take long for my evil green monster to take up residence in my thoughts and determine that today wouldn’t be a good day. I believed the nagging voice in my head, allowing my negative thoughts to create my reality.

26.2 miles later, ignoring the dull ache in my knee and the horrific stomach cramps I was experiencing, I crossed the finish line with a time of 3:49:53. Less than four minutes over what I needed to qualify for Boston again. Damn. I tried to convince myself that it was ok, that it was because of the late shuttle, the bathroom break I took when I couldn’t “go” while I watched the time tick by on my Garmin. But still, I felt like a failure, and I was disgusted with myself. Shake it off, I told myself. I still have Chicago, a race I had been aspiring to run for over two years.

“Isn’t that a little excessive?” my friends and family had asked. “You’re crazy,” they said. My reply was always, “We marathoners have to be a little crazy.” I never denied that they were right. Yes, it was excessive. And yes, I am crazy and perhaps a bit arrogant as well. But it was the only thing keeping me sane at the time. My job was going down the toilet, many friends had dropped out sight, and I felt like I had nothing else to keep me going. Running was all I had and I was obsessed.

After the race in Seattle, I finally came to my senses and took time off to recuperate. It was time to go see my favorite orthopedist, although I knew he would yell at me for overdoing it. We’d been through a lot together in only three years: ITB Syndrome in both knees, stress edema, stress fractures, sprained ankles, shin splints and Lord only knows what else. An X-ray indicated absolutely nothing. His poking and prodding didn’t offer much of a solution either. It was a complete conundrum. It was unbearable to walk up or down stairs. Sitting in a moving vehicle was excruciating. But as I lay back on the table, nothing he did could elicit the pain I had been experiencing. I simply couldn’t explain it. Physical therapy seemed to be the only logical answer even if it didn’t come with an explanation. Six weeks of therapy yielded little result. Granted, I was still training for Chicago, but had scaled back my runs to two short and one long per week, resting and icing in between. 10-10-10 was approaching quickly and I was feeling less and less confident. I’d be ok if I could just get over this infuriating, nagging injury. Once I run Chicago, I told myself, I’m taking a break. I needed to be healthy for Boston because there was no way I was giving that up. Chicago came with 80 degree weather, and cloudless skies. Surprisingly, my knee held up during the run, simply because I willed it to, but the rest of me just couldn’t do it. The sun sapped my energy, my legs cramped with Charlie horses in my calves and quads, and the horrific stomach pains returned to greet me with a vengeance at mile 20. It was one of the few races that I simply just wanted to quit. Rookie mistakes cost me; I had gone out too fast and overhydrated. I was done before I even hit the half. Struggling by mile seven, bonking at fourteen, it was another heartbreaking disappointment. Frustration and depression quickly followed. I was failing at something I loved and could be proud of, something I had been so good at in such a short amount of time and it was slipping right through my laces on my Sauconys.

Back at my doctor’s office in Pittsburgh the following week, we had decided that physical therapy was useless and quite possibly making things worse. An MRI indicated a stress fracture across my kneecap, Patellar Tendonitis, and a few other really scary, really big words like Osteoarthritis and Chondromalacia. "No weight-bearing, or lower extremity exercise of any kind for two to three months," he said as he handed me a pair of stainless steel crutches. My heart sank like a brick as I realized what I had just given up.

With Boston only eight weeks away, I am still suffering from knee pain. I have undergone Supartz® injections, the medieval torture of Graston therapy, and I haven’t run in over four months. All this because I ignored a simple, little injury that could have been remedied had I simply had it checked. Instead, my arrogance, denial, and obsession busted me for Boston.