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|| Part I: Big Idea |||| Part II: Swim |||| Part III: Bike |||| Part IV: Run |||| Part V: Done ||
"I grabbed a pack of gel. With my knee in excruciating pain, that sounded perfect. I opened it, and thinking it was some sort of soothing sports crème, rubbed it all over my knee. Boy was it sticky..."
|Run. Putting Ms. Moss' words to the test at dusk with four miles to go. The race number actually looked right-side up to me when I pinned it on (just one more sign I had lost my mind...)|
LEG #3: 26.2-MILE RUN
The pros have to spend a few minutes switching shoes when they finish the bike leg. Well, I was already wearing my running gear, so here was a chance to actually make up some time! As I slowed down to park the bike, I had to remind myself to loosen the toe straps around my running shoes. A fall at this point would have been the end of me, but even just the slight motion of leaning over to loosen the straps sent jolts of pain through my knee; unfortunately, I was getting a preview of the rest of my evening.
I got off the bike to set it in the rack, but I couldn't put any weight on my bad knee. I sat down on a curb to tighten my shoelaces and tried to think of something I would rather do less than run a marathon. I couldn't come up with anything. I went through the list of things Weird Al would rather do in his song One More Minute: slow, self-inflicted paper cuts; diving into a pool full of double-edged razor blades; licking out all the toilet bowls in Grand Central Station... Sure enough, each sounded more appealing to me than standing up and running a marathon.
I started into a slow jog and hoped that maybe my knee just needed some time and a good consistent pace to work out the trouble. Not a chance! Again, I tried not to think of the distance ahead of me, and again, I did an incredibly poor job of it. I had run 10K races in the past, and each time I had sworn I’d never run another race as long as I lived. Yet here I was setting off on not one, but four 10K races in a row…plus a couple of extra kilometers at the end just in case the four 10K’s hadn’t completely done me in. And to top it off I was nearly dead before I had taken a single step…What was I thinking?
As I left town and headed into the hills, I could hear cheers behind me. Though I didn’t want to think about it, I knew that I had just spent longer on the bike alone than some people take to do an entire Ironman.
With a few miles behind me, I came to an aid station. When you think of an aid station during a race, you might picture volunteer workers running a few steps alongside the competitors to reduce spillage and smooth the handoff as the runners zip past. As I approached, an eight-year old helper saw me, grabbed some fruit, and started running with me in anticipation of the handoff. She ran right past me and had to turn around. I wasn’t zipping past anyone.
“Water!” I heard someone yell; I reached out and gulped down a paper cub full of water. Only a few measly drops made it past my parched lips.
“Banana!” I grabbed a halved banana, tried clumsily to peel it while stumbling along, and – having been unsuccessful – ended up squeezing it into my mouth like an animal.
“Gel!” Still trying to keep moving, I grabbed a packet from the volunteer. I wasn’t having much luck with the food, but with my knee in complete pain, some gel actually sounded perfect. I opened it, and – thinking it was some sort of soothing sports crème – rubbed it in all over my knee. Boy was it sticky. Boy was I stupid.
It turned out to be Power Gel, which is basically a liquid candy bar. It gradually hardened around the sweat on my leg, and I must say the pain, though fierce, wasn’t quite strong enough to overcome the discomfort of sticky leg hairs. If only I had shaved my legs like the real athletes… If only I hadn’t become delirious in the meantime… If only I were running fast enough to have been out of view of the now hysterical aid workers before my faux pas.
At the next aid station I grabbed two water bottles: one to drink and one to rinse off my knee. It didn’t help much, but I was far too miserable to stay embarrassed for long. Later on as I recounted this story to a cousin of mine – who apparently suffers from the same genetic disorders as I do – I found out that it could have been much worse. She actually reversed the situation and ate the sports crème during a race, mistaking it for PowerGel! I guess I’d rather run with a sticky knee than spit out Dicocoyl Pentaerythrity and other enigmatic ingredients for twenty-six miles.
As I struggled over the hills with my sticky stride, gravity began to tag-team with a late afternoon breeze. It was nature’s joint fight against every step I tried to take.
“Against the wind,” I started singing in my head every time I rounded the top of a hill and faced the full force of the wind. My consolation was that I’d at least have the wind at my back for the return trip – or so I thought. Miraculously (as in the plague kind of miracle…), the wind actually changed direction right along with me at the turnaround point.
“I’m still running against the wind…”
I’ve always had an annoying tendency to get songs stuck in my head with the rhythm of the pace when I’m out on long runs and have too much time to think. Trying to replace one repetitive eighties tune with another, I started into the chorus:
“Ain’t nothin’ gonna break-a-my stride… nobody gonna slow me down…Oh no, oh no, I’ve got to keep on moving!”
Trying to remember the verse, I started singing – or rather grunting – out loud: “The road is rocky, you’re feeling cocky, is that the reason why you’re rrrunnin’ so fast?” I rolled my “r” like Matthew Wilder in the original song and broke back into the chorus. My stride was certainly broken, so I tried changing it up a bit.
“Ain’t nothin’ gonna break-a-my pride…”
Except this…this race had definitely broken my pride right along with my stride, and, despite the lyrics, I wasn’t feeling cocky in the least. Any remaining shred of dignity had long since disintegrated in the disfigured expression of pain on my face. My grimaced, contorted lips joined every other muscle in my body in an attempt to bail out my legs by pulling one in front of the other.
Gritting my teeth got every bone drafted into the battle as well, and somehow this joint effort got me back toward the finish line. It wasn’t my finish line, of course, but I had to pretend I was on the home stretch just to keep myself going.
Though the fittest athletes had already finished, there were still plenty of people around me who were wrapping up their second loop, so at least I had some company. I started hearing the cheers from over a mile away. As I got closer, I saw that the finish line was just a few hundred yards past the turnaround point. Who would know if I just ran to the finish without heading out again? Sure, these guys with their electronic tickers might suspect something fishy when they realized I had clocked twenty sub-four-minute miles back to back. But I didn’t know a soul there, and even if they did disqualify me, no one I knew would ever find out... My mind was playing games with me, but ego and its evil twin, stupidity, overcame and I headed back out, practically alone.
Behind me now, I kept hearing the cheers, realizing that the pain was over for everyone else. I cursed the race organizers for the double loop, which could only have been a deliberate act of torture on the part of the race organizers – aimed, of course, directly at me and the other stragglers. A few hours earlier I had thought there was nothing I would have rather done less than to head out on the road after the painful bike ride. I had been wrong; heading out a second time after watching people finish was much, much worse.
I needed to draw on strength I didn’t have, so I thought about a documentary I had recently seen about the Bataan death march. I pictured myself as a POW surrounded by guards who would bayonet me if I stopped my march. I’ve always wondered if I could survive something like that – well here was my chance to test myself. That thought got me going for a few minutes, but pretty soon I was back to feeling like I couldn’t take another step.
I thought about my pioneer ancestors, stranded for the winter half-way through their thousand-mile walk across the plains. I pictured myself in the relief party, running to save them. I tried imagining any scene that might add some incentive to keep going. If I couldn’t do it for myself, could I do it for others? This added perspective – mixed with a little coercion – helped me manage to dig deeply enough into my soul to shrink my own problem and keep me going just a little further.
I was pretty much alone for the rest of the race, since there were few enough of us left out on the road that the rolling hills blocked my view of any other runners. Some people say endurance races get you closer to God; well, the combination of pain and solitude definitely had me praying out there. I only needed forty lousy kilometers! As I recalled from Sunday school, Moses dragged the Israelites around the wilderness for forty years. I only needed to make it through a day, but I knew it was going to require some divine intervention, so I started making deals with God. If he’d just get me through this, I’d never, ever get upset with anyone again; I’d spend the rest of my life doing charity work; I’d give away everything I owned and live on locusts and wild honey.
I thought of the Bible story where Jesus spent forty days wandering around alone in the desert without any food. Well that might be pushing it a bit. How about twenty days, four PowerBars, and a canteen? I didn’t sense any divine approval of my barter. “No? OK, fine,” I said to myself, “I’ll take on the full forty.” Then I remembered that Jesus' reward at the end of his walkabout was seeing the devil himself…I might have to draw the line there. “Oh what the hell,” I found myself saying a few deranged steps later, “I’ll deal with the devil, too. Just get me through this race!”
I tried shuflling the jukebox in my head to help distract me from the pain. Peter, Paul and Mary seemed to fit my Biblical theme, and their tune “500 Miles” sure seemed appropriate for the moment; I tried to replace it with the more upbeat version by the Proclaimers, huffing out, “I would walk five hundred miles” over and over again – one syllable for each step – but that soon gave way to the drawn-out, lamenting folk tune that unfortunately shares the same title. “Lord I'm one, Lord I'm two, Lord I'm three...” and so on. The numbered mileposts kept stacking up in my head all the way to infinity and whatever lies beyond; I was seriously considering just quitting right then and there, but like a broken record, I got stuck on the lyrics, “Lord I can't go a-home this a-way.”
I needed something a bit less depressing if I was going to avoid going a-home a-failure. So I cast that song 500 miles away and tried giving something more sinister a chance: Black Sabbath! I started wheezing out that lick “I am Ironman,” imagining what it would feel like to cross the finish line. Again, I tried to get the syllables in sync with each painful step, but my parched lips stuck together, and it came out as “I am Moronman!” Perhaps that was more fitting after all.
I tried to convince myself that the pain I was feeling was nothing more than neurons in my head. I kept messing with the lyrics for more distraction: “Die, damn neuron, man! da da da da da, da da da da…” From there it turned into anything that rhymed, from “I’m a Mormon, man" to “I can iron, man.”
I was cracking myself up again with these Weirdalian parodies, but this time it hurt too badly to laugh. Since I was on the topic of irons, I started wondering if having a hot iron pressed against my ear would be preferable to the pain I was in. I seriously couldn’t decide. On a weirder tangent, I was fascinated by the realization that if you say iron really slowly, it almost sounds like I run, which was precisely what I was doing right then. How ironic, or rather homonymic... Or is that oxymoronic? Or just plain moronic? I had officially lost my mind. How hard would I have to get hit by an iron for it to knock me out completely and put an end to the misery?
Time to do some math for more attempts at pain distraction. The previous night I had taken my clueless guess at a completion time, added an hour or two as a buffer, and scheduled a late dinner with Michael and some old friends in Berkeley. Gauging by my last split time, estimated time elapsed, and distance remaining, I figured out that I would have to run 45 miles per hour for the remaining 8 miles to make it for dinner. Even though I had told myself I wouldn't stop for anything, I didn't want them waiting for me all night, so when I spotted a cheering family outside their house (these were pity cheers for the stragglers), I justified my first and only stop along the way.
“Mind if I use your phone?” I asked hopefully.
They brought me a cordless, and I called Michael to say I wouldn't be making it for dinner.
“Maybe we'll make it later?” he asked.
“No,” I replied, “at this rate I might not even make breakfast!”
I limped back to the point on the road where I had left off. Man, had it felt good to stop! And man, was it tough to make myself start running again! Left foot, “move!” Right foot, “move!” Left foot… Focus, focus. More mind games, more pain.
The brief stop had caused my bad knee to swell up even worse – so much so, that it wouldn’t bend any more. I wondered if I was irreparably injuring my knee. Common sense should have told me that even winning the race wouldn’t have been worth chancing permanent damage, but at that point I was ready to sacrifice my knee to the ego gods. I hobbled ahead like I was lugging a ball and chain, swinging my stiff, straightened leg around to the outside with each step in an incredibly awkward and inefficient gait. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see my cheerleading family making their way back inside, shaking their heads at the ridiculous sight.
The hills seemed to be getting steeper, and my slow pace was slowing even further. Wasn’t I entitled to some sort of second wind? The concept seemed foreign, and my mind went off on another tangent. Wasn’t there some song back in the eighties about second wind? “Don’t forget your second wind” or something like that? Once I remembered the melody, I realized it was a Billy Joel song I didn’t even like back in the eighties – but now it was stuck in my head for miles on end.
“You’re only human,” the song says over and over again, “You’re supposed to make mistakes!”
“Sure, Billy,” I countered, “but unfortunately human just won’t cut it today.”
I knew that finishing this race would require a superhuman effort; a mere human would just roll over and die on the spot. As for life’s mistakes, this one sure was a doosie, and I didn’t feel in the least like this was a mistake I was supposed to have made; rather, I was tempting fate to bump me off.
Each painful step jostled my brain with an ever louder, internal drum beat as I tried to occupy my thoughts with enough absurdities to keep going. The light was fading fast, and a chilling fog rolled in to replace it. I was eventually distracted by a strange, green glow coming from within the fog. Now I don’t have any genuine trips to use as a comparison, but I would venture that the psychedelic hallucinations playing out in my brain at that point would rival anything that Jimi Hendrix, Jerry Garcia, or John Lennon could have mustered with chemical assistance.
The strange little firefly soon transformed itself into a light saber, wielded by a spooky figure gradually emerging from the mist. On my mind’s movie screen, the figure quickly became an amalgamation of the grim reaper, Sauron of Mordor, and Vader the Sith Lord. I pressed forward toward the light; it could have been space aliens in the sky with diamonds for all I cared, as long as they’d beam me straight to the finish line.
As I approached the figure and returned to reality from my magical mystery tour, it turned out to be simply a benign aid worker handing out glow sticks.
“So you don’t get run over,” he said to me on the handoff.
I grabbed it and dove back through the veil of fog into oblivion. The glow was inadequately dim. “It’s broken!” I shouted back to the Darth Vader stand-in.
Sure enough, a good shake got its luminescence going, and I now had another eighties tune in my head to oust Billy Joel and keep me company out to the last turnaround.
At this point I could really tell where I stood, because any glow lamps still approaching from the other direction would mean someone was still behind me. After running a mile or two back toward the finish line, I had counted four other stragglers like myself. So I wasn't quite the saddest of sacks, but I was darn close.
This was the last leg of the last leg, and it was finally starting to
feel like I was nearing the end. With four miles to go, a set of
headlights emerged on the horizon. I debated tossing my pet glow worm to
increase my chances of getting run over by a farm truck, which, in turn
would give me an excuse not to have to finish the race. My new little
friend’s fluorescent glow was so mesmerizing, though, that I couldn’t
bring myself to part with him. I started a dialogue instead that quickly
morphed into the nonsensical lyrics of the tune
Birdhouse in Your
I’m your only friend
I’m not your only friend
But I’m a little glowing friend
But really I’m not actually your friend
But I am
As the slow-moving headlights approached ever closer, I figured I ought to stop talking to myself to avoid being mistaken for criminally insane by the vehicle’s passengers. Given my slow, stiff-legged motion and the green glow lighting my face from below, I could just imagine some frightened child glued to the window of the passing vehicle – forever claiming to have encountered the living dead in Guerneville. Blinded by the headlights, I smiled and waved as the vehicle passed, trying to look as sane and docile as possible. I was met with a piercing horror scene of my own that prompted me to pick up the pace with a sudden burst of energy; it was a vanload of zombies – the dreaded lawsuit-prevention device that they send out at dusk to pick up those who have no hope of finishing in time: The straggler bus!
When the race organizers warned all of the participants about the cutoff time that morning, I had dismissed the admonition as not applicable to myself, who would surely finish the race in less than sixteen hours. Now the bus only had to make it the short distance to the turnaround point before it would be in hot pursuit.
Some more quick calculations based on my (so-called) speed relative to the bus told me that my current pace would get me picked up a mile from the finish line. One lousy mile! If I wanted to finish, I'd have to shave fourteen minutes off my time. Yes, by the way, it is possible to “run” a fourteen-minute mile. It's kind of like when kids try to see who can ride their bike the slowest without falling. Technically, in order to run, you don't necessarily have to move more quickly than a walker; one foot just has to leave the ground before the other hits the ground. Over 22 miles, I had proved that a fourteen-minute mile pace is the absolute slowest possible pace at which you can run. Any slower and you're pretty much just hopping in place.
I did my best to pull it together and pick up the pace. After running that long, though, changing your pace even slightly forces you to use a whole different set of muscles. Prolonged pain gets you intimately familiar with every single muscle in your body, and now there was a whole new set of muscles talking back to me as I tried to make my case with more mind-over-matter exercises; I counted off the final mile markers with the bus in hot pursuit.
The dim lights of Guerneville came into view as I emerged from the woods and made my way down the final hill. I kept looking back to make sure there was still somebody behind me for the bus to pick up. I caught an occasional glimpse of the headlights coming over the hills along with a few hopeless figures still stumbling along behind me. As I made the last turn with a half mile or so to go, though, I looked back and saw that there was nothing but bugs between me and the headlights. The thought of this much investment only to get picked up a few hundred yards from the finish line...
With the help of a chill breeze and a soaked T-shirt, it felt like the bus was literally breathing down my sweaty neck. The temperature dropped in an instant as I passed a depression with ponds on either side of the road. A mist was rising from the water's surface, and the headlights were approaching close enough behind me to cast my shadow through the fog all the way to the banner at the finish line. As I pressed ahead, something rustled in the bushes right next to me. The shadows took on frightening shapes in my mind, and from somewhere ingrained deep in my DNA, a primal fear arose. Goose bumps spread, shudders moved up and down my spine, and an instinctive alarm gripped my body thanks to countless primordial ancestors who had spent eons of time evading their predators.Did I possess the genetic mutation that would allow my originating species to survive as the fittest, while my less fit competitor was tranquilized and devoured up by the voracious van? Or would it be the other way around? I imagined that this ravenous creature was seeking to prevent my DNA from reaching the next generation and that all of humanity depended on my race toward refuge. Raw instinct took over and I made one final, panicked dash for the safety of the finish line.
A slow-moving shadow of a figure appeared in front of me; and what do you know – with this final kick I actually passed somebody! I prayed that this poor wretch would somehow block for me, perhaps by collapsing in front of the bus so they'd have to break out the stretcher. Would this victim stall them long enough to let me finish?
Thankfully, the hunter stayed put; I heard official voices emerging from within the van’s jowls, trying to coax the prey off the course. Sure enough, he was snatched up and – as if by divinely decreed intercession – the sorry sucker I had passed ultimately became the last casualty of the straggler bus.
I only had to make it a few more steps, but even that required me to squeeze out every fume of energy left in my body’s reserve tank. Perhaps the incentive to stay on my feet for these final steps came not so much from my own determination, but more out of the fear that if I didn’t actually finish, I might be stupid enough to try the whole thing again someday just to “knock the bastard off” my list, as Hilary so humbly put it when he finally summited Everest. No way was I going to go through this again!
Aided by this unthinkable thought, I left the snarling bus in the dust and realized that I was actually going to finish this thing! Seriously? I had been going for so long; would my body even know what to do when I stopped? I thought of that Greek guy Philippides who ran the first marathon ever. Well he finished his race, too, but died on the spot when he stopped. And his day didn't include swimming and biking. So maybe this last-ditch kick wasn't such a smart idea after all; maybe my heart was on its last beat; maybe “summit fever” is a human trait that nature – in an act of self-preservation – prefers to do without, in which case the Darwin Award would go to me instead of the busload of stragglers (who, after all, would live to pass along their genes while I might go ahead and join the frozen corpses on Everest by permanently removing myself from the pool).
By the time I had convinced myself that I was about to follow Philippides to my own doom, it was too late for any reservations; I crossed that finish line in disbelief, crusty knee and all. In one final act of exuberance, my fists shot into the air, with index fingers pointing to the sky. My joints turned to jelly as I stumbled to a gradual stop; with zero remaining lung capacity, the accompanying shout came out somewhere between a whisper and a wheeze:
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