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.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for writing this. I'm very proud of you.

    ReplyDelete