Tuesday, July 2, 2013

What the Marathon Taught Me

 
 


Marathons are storytelling gold. Here I am, posing next to my baby daughter Sarah (she's under the blanket in the stroller) just before my first marathon, The Potteries in Stoke-on-Trent, Father's Day, 1989:
And here's the after shot, again with Sarah, one of her blankets covering my badly sunburned shoulders, my aching feet clad only in socks, me barely conscious, she sleeping in my arms:

 
I had no idea what I was getting into when I signed up for that marathon. It was still early in my running career--I'd been doing it for less than five years, and had only run in one other race, a 5K--and I was still gauging the lengths of my runs (and the speed with which I ran them) by counting steps. In 1985, I had taken a few loops on the track at Willamette, and decided I was taking 700 steps to run a mile. I had no notion at all of the variability of stride length, and my experience in the 5K bore it out. Of course, running all out for twenty minutes, my strides were longer than they would normally be, especially compared to the shuffle necessary to sustain hours, rather than minutes, of running. I ran without stopping for the first thirteen miles (another mistake), then ran out of steam and spent a good portion of the second half walking. The Potteries course was endlessly rolling, one hill after another. Only the too-fast pace of the first few miles enabled me to finish in a remarkable time of 4:23, one I would not best until my final marathon, twelve years later, in Logan, Utah.
 
I thought many times during that race about quitting. I could feel my skin baking in the sun. My feet were turning into two mobile masses of bruises. Every step was agony. And yet I knew I had a wife and a baby and a family friend waiting for me at the finish line, and I didn't want to let them down with a DNF. Worse still, I was supposed to preach that night in our church--I'd only taken the morning off--and I'd be hanged if I was going to step up in the pulpit and tell them I'd failed.
 
Runners are not supposed to be embarrassed by dropping out. There's an old saw runners toss around that the real miracle is getting to the starting line. So many of us came late to this sport, after decades of eating, smoking, drinking, and using ourselves right to the brink of the grave. I took up running because I had family history of heart disease, and was already in my early 20s plagued by high blood pressure. I also had led a sedentary life up to that point. When I was 23, a doctor told me I'd better start exercising if I wanted to see 40, so I took up walking. About a month into the program, I climbed the trail to the top of Multnomah Falls, and had to stop at every switchback to catch my breath. I transitioned to running when I realized I just didn't have the time to walk two hours a day. It grew on me, and now, almost thirty years later, it is integral to my identity.
 
But really, it is amazing that so many of us ever make it to the starting line of a race. Competitive runners are a minority of all runners, who are themselves a very small minority of the general population. It's a crazy pastime, a hobby that seems so unpleasant to those who've only dabbled in it. Only by sticking with it through many months of discomfort can a beginning runner find the joy that is hidden beneath the sweat, the heavy breathing, the twisted ankles and bone spurs and shin splints and skinned knees and being jeered by rude teenagers who don't know any better. But to those who hold on, who keep lacing up their shoes day after day, pushing themselves out into the sun and rain and wind and even snow, there are pleasures beyond number.
 
I never knew what I could do until I did it. That may seem obvious to many of you, but you have to understand how terribly timid I was as a young man. It took only one or two failed attempts to convinced me I was incapable of doing something. This included dating: one rejection would set my confidence back months. I didn't go on a real date until I was 23. It wasn't for lack of desire; I desperately wanted a girlfriend. It was simply that I'd finally summon up the courage to ask, be told "no thank you," and spend months nursing my wounds before I summoned up that courage once more, only to be rejected again and...you see the pattern.
 
Running gave me the grit I needed to overcome that timidity. It also toned my legs so that I was far less self-conscious about my appearance. Now I could recreate outdoors as I had never felt able or inclined, and one of those first dates I took with my new, toned legs was to Silver Falls.
 
Running in harsh conditions increased my grit. I chickened out of my first chance at winter running, in LaGrande, Oregon. I lacked the gear, and the slippery roads made me far too nervous; so I abandoned running until the following spring, when the trails of Bush Park, right next to my apartment in Salem, beckoned me. Living in Texas, I had to acclimate to running in intense heat and humidity, but by now, I was loath to give it up. The only thing that put a kink in my running schedule was coming down with mononucleosis, and as soon as I was over it, I was back on the streets.
 
I married, went to Illinois for a year, again took a winter off, started back on training as soon as the weather improved. Then it was off to England, where I explored many a suburb of Manchester in my running shoes. The farther afield I ran, the more confident I became in my ability to find my way home, even though British roads made little sense to my American grid-oriented sense of direction. Often I carried an A-to-Z (pronounced "zed") street atlas with me. I ran without water, occasionally sipping from drinking fountains, mostly waiting until I got home to rehydrate. I finished the Potteries Marathon, and a year later did it again:

I completed five more marathons over the next eleven years, for a total of seven, and I have fond memories of every one of them--though most of those memories are seasoned with the possibility, again and again, of a Did Not Finish. In fact, the second time I did Portland, in 2000, I was nearly pulled out of the race by an official at an aid station, just a few miles from the finish line, who didn't like the way I looked. I insisted I could make it, though, and I did.
 
After the first two, marathons often marked new chapters in my life. Toward the end of my first marriage, I was running less and less, but still eating like a runner, and putting on more weight than I ever have. At one point I found myself in a cardiologist's office with chest pains. The divorce tore me apart, but it also did two things for my health: for three months, I had no appetite at all; and for those same three months, I ran like a demon. I spent hours on the track in Estacada, running increasingly long intervals. I ran in the middle of the night, when it beat the alternative of lying in bed, unable to sleep, my mind trapped in the endless cycle of shock and self-recrimination. I ran my first Portland Marathon two weeks after the divorce was final, and felt a powerful sense of victory over myself and my situation.
 
I did not run another marathon until my second marriage had ended. This time it was Seattle, 1999. It was a cool, misty day in November. There was a woman I had been seeing in Olympia who I was hoping to visit on my way home from the race, but on that day, I was on my own, though my parents were waiting for me at the finish line. It was a longer, slower race than I had planned, the first (and so far, only) I ran in long sleeves and tights, but it was a good race. Preparing for it had helped me survive the end of that marriage and the impending end of my career in ministry. The post-race date didn't happen--in fact, she broke it off with me (we'd been out maybe half a dozen times) over the phone when I called from a rest area near Olympia. That hurt more than the normal aches and pains of post-marathon recovery; I got to dwell on it all the way home, driving by myself.
 
My second Portland came after I'd moved into the Peace House. I have very few memories of it other than almost being pulled out of the race--though I do remember there were, this time, more than enough porta-potties, a great improvement over the 1995 race. I followed it with the Avenue of the Giants, in the redwoods of northern California, the next May. Again, I hoped to see someone I was sweet on on the way home--and again, she broke it off with me, though she waited a few more days before making the call.
 
That brings me to my final marathon. It was ten days after the towers fell, September 21, 2001. There were flags everywhere, including entire groups of runners trading off carrying full-sized flags for the entire race. I saw, and ran along with, one runner wearing a sign that read "Give the Hague a Chance," a plea to make this a matter for the International Court of Justice, rather than responding as we ultimately did, with trillions in wasted dollars, thousands of wasted young lives, many thousands more maimed, and countless hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghanis missing and dead. As with all races, I finished in tears, startled to find that I had set a personal record of 4:17, in awe and gratitude at being able to finish.
 
And I never did it again. My body just couldn't take it anymore. I developed a stress fracture that took years to heal, and when it finally did, was replaced by my old enemies, a weak ankle and plantar fasciitis. Barefoot running banished both of those, but replaced them with a tendon issue that only permits me to run twice a week. My marathoning days are over, though I might manage a half sometime in the near future.
 
I've accomplished other extreme physical feats since then, many of them in the company of my mountain wife, Amy. We've been up dozens of mountains, hugest of which was the South Sister. We've also hiked in 100+ desert heat. We've snowshoed and skied, were thrown out of a raft going over a waterfall, and have weathered personal and family crises together. All of this has been made possible by the lesson I learned in that first marathon: with resolve, the most difficult tasks can be accomplished.
 
More important than the physical challenges I've overcome have been the heightened sense that I can overcome whatever life sends my way. And there have been some doozies over the years: nearly losing a baby, losing two marriages, having that baby grow into epilepsy, overcoming that epilepsy with a rigorous diet that would be unbearable to most people, surviving a lost career, reentering a previously abandoned one, surviving a 700 mile separation from my children, being laid off from my new/old career, piecing together a new livelihood, and sharing in my partner's own struggles. Marathoning taught me grit, and it has seen me through hell and high water.
 
This may not speak to you. I've met many people over the years who hear what I do with my free time and shake their heads in disbelief. "Sounds like way too much effort for me" is a common refrain. But when I consider the alternative--a life spent on the couch, glued to one screen or another from dinnertime until bedtime or, when one does leave the house, only seeing what's visible from the road, discovering the world from behind a wheel--it's nearly impossible for me to imagine living the way I did before I began running. The world is so much bigger to me now, and the life I share with Amy is so much happier than it could ever be if I was that same timid lump of atrophied muscles I was in May 1983, the day I walked into a doctor's office and had my life turned upside down by a warning.
 
I've lived well past 40. Far more important, though: I've really lived.

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