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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Born-Again Runner

Born-Again Runner
After the half-marathon at Mt. Maunganui

"I don't think I can do this anymore," said the sweaty, overweight, 50-something woman wearing a pink t-shirt. I passed the woman and her friend as I ran the Mount Joggers half-marathon. Was she walking the 21 kilometer (13 mile) course? Trying to finish the 10k (6 miles)? I couldn't tell, but I remembered the old saying that goes something like, "If you think you can or can't do something, you're right."

So much about a race – the running race, the walking race, the human race – is believing you can do it. Then mobilizing your butt (literally) behind your brain to complete the action. Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot...(or, "lift foot, raught foot" is how it sounds to my American ears here in New Zealand).
Trying, post-race, to stretch the sore back

Despite a strained, sore back (following an overzealous first attempt at squash with The Boyfriend in the week before the race) I showed up for the 25th annual Mount Joggers and Walkers Half-Marathon, held each year on the Queen's Birthday weekend (a national holiday). Yes, I considered bagging the race, but was pretty sure I could at least walk/run the entire course after a massage with Jaye, physical therapy (called "physiotherapy" in NZ) with Michelle and a healthy dose of pharmacist-only medicine called Voltaren (diclofenac potassium). Oh, and The Boyfriend, Pete, played the starring role in my pit crew, watching Fiona and Finley during the race. It took a Kiwi village to tow me to the start line. I remember reading a book about running before my first road race: the Columbus, Ohio marathon (3:40 & change finish, thank you very much), which spouted statistics for percentage of runners who crossed the starting mat and later completed the race. I can't recall the stat, but the gist of it was "Show up and you'll finish." Just show up.

I checked in at the Mount Maunganui Surf Club, along with 1,300 other entrants. The morning bloomed with white-out hazy sunshine and warm, humid air. The combination contrasted the previous 2 days' weather, when skies opened, rain bucketed and winds smacked palm trees upside their spiky, green heads. It was Mother Nature's Sweet Sunday Surprise: Mama said, "Hey, everybody – just kidding about those dress-rehearsal monsoons for this year's race. You had it bad enough last year. I'll let you run without rain splatting your face and body at a 45-degree angle. Now get out there and kick some ass."

Finley, my 5-year-old, was not race-ready. Before we'd even left the house at 8:30, he'd cranked into full-on whinge mode: "I'm HONNN-GRY! Can I have a snack?" Never mind he'd eaten a bowl of rice bubbles and Big Bugs 'N Mud a half hour ago. The whinging worsened en route. My kids have chronic, severe car-induced thirst and hunger. The moment the car door slams, they chime, "I need some water!" or "I'm STARRRR-ving!" Oh, children, are you oblivious to the effort your mom's about to undertake? Yes, completely. Of course. The ever-patient Pete tells me, "I'll drop you off at the Surf Club. You just get yourself sorted. I'll park the car and bring the kids up." Sweet Pete. Saint Pete.
Fiona and Finley snack and wait

Pete & co. find me 10 minutes before the race's start. Pete bestows a good luck kiss, and the kids loop their strong, wiry arms around my neck and shoulders. "I hope you win, Mommy. Are you gonna win?" asks 7-year-old Fiona. I reckon (Kiwis say, "I reckon," in lieu of "I figure," or "I think,") I've already won. I've been flashing back to my last half-marathon: October 11th, 2009, in Spokane: Sean lay in a hospital bed on the 5th floor of Sacred Heart Medical Center, recovering from Necrotizing Fasciitis, multiple surgeries, skin grafts, kidney failure and about 27 other catastrophes that might befall you if you're 110 years old or extremely unlucky (Sean, at age 48, fell into the latter category). We were supposed to travel to the middle of Washington state for a different race, but Sean had gotten sick and plans became something to sneer at, not make. No travel, no family overnights. But I could still run. Those miles, mostly through my neighborhood, sometimes on a treadmill in our basement, kept brain cells from shooting through the top of my head like a geyser. Every step cradled my fragile, leaden heart. I couldn't heal my husband, but I could swing one foot in front of the other. Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot.

Before the Spokane race, I hadn't run a half-marathon since shortly after Fiona was born, in 2004. Sean and I ferried our then 9-month-old to Victoria, British Columbia. Sean wheeled Fi along the course, surprising me a couple times during the event. I never knew where my husband and precious babe would pop up."Go, Mommy!" Sean would shout. The knowledge my husband and daughter were out there, somewhere, helped quicken my pace. After an hour and 41 minutes, I chugged through the finish chutes, into my waiting family's arms. Such joy. Pride. Relief. 

I flew solo among hundreds of runners at the Spokane half-marathon in 2009. A friend or sitter watched the kids somewhere – I can't recall who or where, and I'm hoping I expressed appropriate gratitude at the time. I drove myself to the start line and prayed, simply, to finish without crying. Racing can be intense – there's adrenaline, effort, sweat, endurance – a witches' brew of emotional soup, swirling inside the cauldron of your head. Add a sifter of stress and the soupcon of sorrow that accompany a critically ill husband, and running becomes a need, not a want. I needed to run that half-marathon. So, buoyed by a bevy of songs my former TV news camera guy (and comedian) Charlie had loaded onto my iPod, I ran. Up and down the hilly course. I ran. Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot. Keep going. Don't stop (while Michael Jackson, on my iPod, sings, "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough."). Whatever you do, don't start crying, because you may not stop that, either. You cannot cry during a run, especially when sobs crescendo into an angst-filled wheeze. I knew, because I'd broken down a couple times during training runs.

I held it together all 13.1 miles of Spokane's half-marathon. I emerged into sunshine and green grass of Riverfront Park, collected my finisher's medal and moved through the chutes. I walked to a hillside, away from other runners who were happily greeted by friends and family – smiling, hugging, posing for pictures. While I saw and waved to several friends, no one awaited me at the finish. I didn't ask. They didn't offer. Entering the race was something of a last-minute decision on the heels of a single 10-mile training run. Yep, I can run a half. After all, it's just a half. Not a whole.

After 13.1 miles, I was utterly alone. And now that the race was over, I could cry. I collapsed on the grass, still wearing my race number and medal, and bawled. They were the asthmatic-like sobs of someone who hasn't lost a race – but lost her life, instead. The old life. In these post-race moments, grief and anxiety supplanted joy and relief. I still had pride. I was proud of the fact I'd finished this course in respectable style (I'd later learn I placed 8th in my age group (35-39) with a time of 1:47). I would never run this particular race, at this particular time, ever again.

My post-race party took place in Sean's sea-foam green and white hospital room. He was still taking heaps of morphine for pain and told a nurse, foggily, "My wife just ran a half-marathon. She's a champ." I was pleased Sean remembered the race, since his memory had been short-circuiting, tangled in a haze of drugs and procedures. "You can watch the next race," I told him, "...when you're better. I missed seeing you there. I had no one at the finish line."

This is not 2009. This is 2011. It's like I'm running my first race ever. It's a rebirth. I'm a Born-Again runner in New Zealand. New country, places, faces. A new life. New love. Maybe most importantly, new shoes. The holy grail of running gear – flash footwear. Oh, yeah. My bright pink Adidas trail runners ($150 U.S., bought here in NZ for about one-third more than I'd normally spend on "good" running shoes) carry me through a slow start from the Surf Club, down Marine Parade in Mount Maunganui. I settle into a pace (As my last boss would say when I asked him how fast he expected to run Bloomsday in Spokane, "At a pace. My pace"). Time to find my pace. I start with a mate from the Joggers club. I wonder, initially, if I can keep up. Damn sore back. What was I thinking, playing squash for the first time, just days before the race? Maybe heavy breathing or sore legs would overtake the strain below my left ribcage as the malady du jour. Maybe Tony Soprano would send one of his mobster minions to club my kneecaps? What we need, Houston, is a distraction. Crank the volume on the iPod. Pete loaded songs last night from the mix CD he'd created containing tunes I've heard on our world tour. The Pacific Ocean's churning on my left, apartments, condos and million dollar homes sit on my right, as Katy Perry sings California Girls: "...Sipping gin and juice, laying underneath the palm trees..."
Mmmm.. gin and juice. That could make a nice post-race drink. I don't even like gin. I'm highly suggestible and getting thirsty after just a few kilometers. At 3.5 kms (about 2 miles), we reach the turn-around point. Marine Parade, while scenic, is FREAKIN' LONG. We'll pound this stretch of bitumin 4 times: out and back, out and back. Crikey! (channel Crocodile Dundee whilst you say, "Crikey" and you've got the idea).

I reach the first water station near the turn-around and slow to a trot, grabbing a precious plastic tumbler filled with ice-cold aqua. A tall, flabby, sweaty, shirtless runner did not get the memo about continuing to move while watering. He STOPS AT THE TABLE! It's like someone's shackled this guy to the aid station, so he stands, nearly motionless, drinking water. I didn't expect him to full-on stop. My lips meet chest, a la Ben Stiller in "There's Something About Mary." You know the scene? The one where Ben's playing basketball and smashes his face into some big sweaty man's naked pectorals? The act unfolds in slow motion. Now add the smell of ripe chest, armpit sweat and salt, and you can imagine the snout-full I got. Ewww. Thankfully, that rank odor is soon replaced by a pleasant, familiar smell: someone inside a house on Marine Parade is cooking bacon. I really like bacon. I wonder which kind it is – the thick, middle back slab popular in New Zealand, or the rare piece of "streaky" (American-style) bacon you can buy for twice what it costs in the States. It's hard to get decent breakfast pork around here.

My thoughts drift from bacon to black socks just after the turn-around. I spot a familiar figure ahead. He's wearing a Mt. Joggers blue t-shirt, plaid board shorts and what I can only imagine must be his lucky black socks. OMG, it's Black Sock Guy (BSG)! He's one of the few men who run with the Joggers Tuesday and Friday mornings. He always wears black socks and always sounds on the verge of hurl. Actually, I did see him spew once during hill repeats on the Mount. I try to keep my distance, but it seems BSG and I are linked in some kind of cosmic sympatico pace. I shuffle behind another runner and click through the playlist on my iPod. Here's what I need - Rihanna:

"Want you to make me feel like I'm the only girl in the world
Like I'm the only one that you'll ever love
Like I'm the only one who knows your heart
Only girl in the world"

Oh, Rihanna – I know exactly where of you sing. Only girl in the world. Got that.
Now I'm in a groove – pumping my arms a bit faster, letting the music and my flash trainers carry me past the Surf Club, towards Pilot Bay. I can feel them- the running gremlins have flooded my head. It's not often my moderate's mind and road-weary body allow the gremlins to cross the moat and invade my brain. The crazies whoosh through a narrow passageway, giggling, burbling and pinging the sides of my cerebral cortex. You go, gremlins!

Sentries of rational thought sprint from their perch: "Wait," they tell the crazies. "Calm down. You're only 5 kilometers in. You have another 16 kilometers to run, and you haven't even hit the hill yet."

Thanks, Kill Joys. No matter, I'll just relax and and enjoy the next song on my playlist:

"Yeah, we gonna ride, ride, ride
On a Saturday night
All the girls they just hating
Because they know we that type"
I saw Australian Jessica Mauboy perform that song in Melbourne, right before Oprah graced Federation Square. The kids and I squashed in with 50,000 other (mostly Aussie) folks trying to catch a glimpse of her O-ness.
"'Bout to get it poppin'
'Bout to take your spotlight
So we ride, we ride
On this Saturday night"

On this Sunday morning, walkers and runners of every stripe pound The Mall, the road parallel to Pilot Bay. They're kids as young as 10, or younger. They're adults past 80. They run and walk with earphones, poles and the occasional cane. Some of the senior runners sport sinewy legs that speak to decades of running hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometers. I notice the 73-year-old who leads the Mount Joggers beginner group, Graham, well ahead of me down The Mall. He's holding his race number. Good on you, mate.
It's a fact when you're running a race: You'll pass runners 20 years your junior. You'll get dusted by runners 20 years (or more) older. It's democracy in sport. No matter your age or size, if you got it, go for it. Just don't get in your own way, telling yourself, "I'm too old, too fat, too slow, too.... " You don't even need confidence. "Fake it 'til you make it." It's one of my mottos for life. If nothing else, it's helped propel me around the world with 2 small, whingy children.

"Cause baby tonight, the DJ got us falling in love again
Yeah, baby tonight, the DJ got us falling in love again
So dance, dance, like it’s the last, last night of your life, life
Gonna get you right..."

Usher sings the classic tale of love at a disco as we start the Mount portion of the run. The R&B singer implores me to "dance like it's the last night of my life." Substitute "run like it's the last morning of your life," or "live like it's the last year of your life," and I can relate. As I clamber onto the muddy trail for a short uphill climb, I think about how much life the kids and I have packed into our world tour. Myriad memories of our experiences coil like silly snakes into an impossibly small can. How much can we stuff into our cylinder? Fiona and Finley can't know this yet, but I do: I've lived a million lifetimes the past 9 months.

We reach the second water station of the race on the Mount, and it's bottlenecked. Dozens of runners, 2 volunteers, 1 water jug. My throat is constricting from thirst, so I force myself to run in place while waiting for liquid relief. I drain one cup, pouring its icy-coldness down my throat. I fling another cupfull down my neck. Its chill surprises me. It distracts from my ailing back. For all of 5 minutes.

You can tell, during the climb, who's trained on hills, and who has not. I'm pleased as punch (or, "happy as Larry," as they say here – apparently, clams are quite melancholy in NZ, because no one says, "happy as a clam") I'm in the former category. All the hill repeats and Mount runs have trained my rodent's brain and giant's feet to KEEP GOING. I do not break stride. I do not need to catch my breath. Not yet. I increase my speed a fraction and click up the volume on my iPod as 80's hair band Ratt belts their one-hit wonder:

"Round and round
with love we'll find a way just give it time
Round and round
What comes around goes around
I'll tell you why..."

I'm nearly at the wooden livestock gate when my head spins. Dizzy. Vertigo. Uh-oh. Maybe I should dial down the Ratt, or decrease my speed. Or both. Dropping to the grass, amongst runners, walkers and sheep shit is not the ending I'd planned for this odyssey. "Are you okay?" Yeah, fine. I just had a case of Ratt poisoning. I'll be right in a few moments.

The dizziness passes. I charge the gravel incline, then cross a grassy plateau of sheep pasture on The Mount's north face. After about a kilometer on the hill, we gingerly pick our way down a steep, muddy slope while course marshalls wearing orange reflective safety vests instruct us to "be careful, watch out..." A tall, dreadlocked dude with frizzy dirty-blonde hair and a figure like Jesus Christ (scrawny, ribs showing) ignores the warnings and jumps 2 meters (about 6 feet) to the dirt and gravel track below. I catch him a few minutes later during an ascent. Only another half-kilometer before we – RUN THE ENTIRE FREAKIN' COURSE AGAIN. That's right. Another loop around. I start running on the wrong side of the tape before several spectators set me straight: "To your lift, to your lift!" (left).

I won't bore you with the last 10.5 kilometers. I will tell you I ran (slogged, pounded, trudged) the entire course, finishing (I just logged onto the website to learn this) in 2 hours, 2 minutes. It's a tortoise pace for me, a time that raises anxieties about getting old and slow (and, this is the first time my "official" finish was slower than what I thought I'd seen on the race clock). More than 2 hours for a half? A half? Pass the porridge and prune juice. Sigh. Pity party over. I am, indeed, grateful for the ability to run, even walk. Wandering the world, untethered to a hospital, a bed, to IV's and morphine and a dozen other drugs – these facts alone are miracles. I know this, even if I don't always act as if I do.

As I steam towards the finish, I'm not thinking about old and slow. I'm radiating gratitude. I've been gifted an undeserved grace: 3 people I love await me on the other side of the chute. It's the end of the first race of my new life, and loved ones are waiting. The thought, churning, along with adrenaline and memory like waves in a choppy sea, makes me cry. The sobs are not unlike those I heaved after finishing Spokane's half-marathon. My solitary race.

A man in his 70's, who I recognize from the Joggers club, hands me a banana and small coconut chocolate bar. I gratefully accept the offerings as I pour myself water and choke on tears. For a couple minutes in the bubble of post-race delirium, I let myself grieve who and what I lost – my husband, our family, our old life. I teeter on the brink of hyperventilation, which is not what I need. I leave the Spokane half-marathon and return to present tense, back to the land of "is," not "was;" "have," not "had." I am here.

Pete is here, too, and he's taking pictures of me in the finisher's tent. Thank God for sunglasses, because I applied eye makeup this morning, and I'm pretty sure it's streaking my cheeks. I move to greet Pete and the kids, giving each a sweaty hug. "I'm glad you're here," I tell them. "I'm so glad you're here."

Me & Pete

From the corner of my watery eyes, I spy a man wearing plaid board shorts and blue Mt. Joggers' shirt: Black Sock Guy (BSG) has made it through the finish chute behind me. He's breathing hard but still walking under his own power, and mercifully, not spewing. "Good on you," I tell BSG, and I really mean it. Good on me, too, I think, even if I was slow. Born-again runner. That's me.

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