Brave

This post could have been dubbed “MIA,” but that’s already been done. I have indeed been MIA from blogging, but not from writing. Below is a personal essay I submitted to the final round of the Yeah Write Super Challenge, which, to my astonishment, earned first place. And I say astonishment after reading a few of the other contenders. Well done, all.

 

“Peas patha napins,” my husband said, the back of his hand covering his mouth.

“What?” I asked.

He swallowed hard. A lump of bacon cheeseburger trailed down his throat like a snake swallowing a mouse. “The napkins,” he said. “Could you please pass them?”

We sat in a booth at a restaurant renowned for onion rings the size of platters and outrageous cheeseburgers—peanut butter, jelly, and bacon, for one. Twenty-four hours ago I also would have ordered something that required extra napkins, but not tonight. Tonight I ate a salad of sliced pears and an extra order of grilled chicken, hold the dressing, because tonight, as we’d waited for a table, I’d made a decision. Perhaps it was the lingering headiness of a successful 5K three months previous, or perhaps it was low blood sugar, but I’d decided to run a marathon.

1968

Marathons were more commonplace than ever thanks to running’s surge in popularity. But I wasn’t a runner. That 5K was the farthest I’d run in my entire life. Still, how far could a marathon be? Probably not more than a few 5Ks strung together. More or less.

We got home from the restaurant that night, me hungry but virtuous, and after Googling “marathons,” I clicked on the first site that popped up. Then I clicked on the second site. Twenty-six-plus miles? Were they serious? Is that what I’d committed to, running a length greater than the distance I typically drive in a week? And I had committed to it. Maybe not to anyone else, but to myself.

I researched training plans the way a pregnant woman researches pediatricians, and learned that it conservatively takes five months to train properly. Now I needed to find a race. What about the Long Beach Marathon next October, nine months from now? That was the race the 5K had been affiliated with, so why not run something a year to the day of my first 5K? Plus, the marathon was hosted by the nonprofit our daughter did volunteer work for. It was serendipity. In four months, I’d start training.

Those four months sailed by and soon I was headlong into prescribed running: X miles on X day at X pace. I came to crave the predictability of my runs, the comfort of having at least one stable aspect of my day. Because for the past ten years, my days had been anything but stable.

Our oldest daughter, the one who volunteered for the nonprofit organization hosting the Long Beach Marathon, contracted viral encephalitis when she was 14 years old. She survived despite dismal odds, but after a life of perfect health she is now nonverbal and wheelchair bound. She cannot dress herself, feed herself, or roll over in bed. She cannot scratch an itch. But she is able to think, and she is able to tap on her Mac’s keyboard with a single weak finger, and she has tapped out speeches read on her behalf to benefit that nonprofit, one that provides low-cost wheelchairs at no cost to the disabled in developing countries. Serendipity.

The miles piled up impressively, eleven one week, thirteen the next, and soon I was logging upward of twenty-five miles per week. Training for a marathon isn’t a sprint but, well, a marathon, and the gradual five-month progression allows important physiologic adaptations to occur safely. And since I followed my program explicitly, I ignored the toothache-like soreness in my right thigh until it progressed from vague discomfort to pronounced pain.

“Why don’t you see a doctor?” my husband asked. I wanted to say, “Because I don’t want to know what’s wrong.” But what I said was, “Okay.”

A week later, after a detour through Radiology, I sat in an orthopedic surgeon’s office.

“I don’t see anything wrong,” he said, squinting at my x-ray. “No reason to stop running. Come back if the pain doesn’t go away.”

The pain didn’t go away, so I went back. This time he ordered an MRI. This time I was scared.

Meanwhile our friends had invited us to go camping with them at the beach. Running along a sandy path instead of asphalt, salt air replacing exhaust fumes? I couldn’t wait. My running shoes sat at the bottom of the suitcase because they were the first things I’d packed. The day before we were scheduled to leave, the doctor called with the results of the MRI.

“It’s a femoral stress fracture,” he said.

I imagine there was a bemused expression on my face because I was certain he was kidding. Or looking at the wrong MRI. Or something. But judging from his silence, he was neither kidding nor mistaken. “Oh,” I finally replied. “Wow. What caused that?” But I knew.

“Running,” he said. “So no running for eight weeks.”

Eight weeks? We were leaving for the beach tomorrow. I hung up, walked into the bedroom, and stared at the splayed suitcase on the bed. A hint of purple peaked from beneath T-shirts and shorts. My running shoes. Should I pretend the doctor’s phone call came after our trip? No one would know differently. I’d already run with pain for two months—how much worse could it be in three days?

And then I thought of our daughter. I thought of sometimes not getting what we want, and of living through it gracefully and authentically, if not always contentedly, and of how she had shown nothing but support as she bravely watched me run when she herself could no longer walk. And I returned my running shoes to the closet.

I completed the Long Beach Marathon injury free 30 days after my eight-week hiatus, and from the finish line ran straight into the arms of my biggest supporter. And that peanut butter, jelly, and bacon cheeseburger, the one served at the restaurant where I made the decision to run a marathon? That’s my biggest supporter’s favorite. Maybe next time we’re at that restaurant I’ll share one with her.

Advertisements

The 13.1-Mile Sweet Spot

Running requires decisions achieved by trial and error; sort of a physically fit version of Goldilocks, if you substitute GU flavors, shoes, and running surfaces for gruel, chairs, and beds.

Had Goldilocks experienced the illusions of grandeur we many runners have, she might have fancied entering a race. But what distance would she have chosen?

Would it be a 5K, the most popular distance for beginners?

Maybe a 13.1-mile half marathon, with its concomitant bragging rights to the other beginning runners in her village?

Or would she make the rookie mistake of assuming a 26.2-mile full marathon is “only” double a half, not realizing the exponentially increased physical stressors awaiting her?

(I doubt she’d yet subscribe to Runner’s World so she’d have no knowledge of ultramarathons, which—at any distance over 50 miles—aren’t so much races as endurance experiments starring you as the lab rat.)

My guess is Goldilocks would be an overachiever—I mean, she was pretty bold to enter a vacant house and take over like that in the first place—so she’d sign up for a full marathon.

She’d pooh-pooh the ugly rumor about month-long training plans, believing a few weekly miles and a hideous fuel belt buckled around the waist of her tutu (yes, she would run in a tutu—she’s a diva that way) would be enough. But this was no fairy tale.

An unfortunate part of many runners' wardrobes.

An unfortunate part of many runners’ wardrobes.

Oh, the shame of it as she’d limp across the finish line just under the six-hour time limit and just before the walkers pushing strollers. She’d peel off her shoes, afraid her toenails would come sprinkling out, examine the blisters that grew before her eyes like August corn in Nebraska, catch a ride to her car on the back of a volunteer’s golf cart, and mutter, never again.

Months later Goldi would remember the disgrace of that day and vow never again. She would sign up for another race, only this time it would be a 5K.

In time she would rue a distance that took longer to find a parking spot for than to run. She’d get a medal (sort of) and a T-shirt (100% cotton, not wicking tech material), but she’d want more.

She’d want a half marathon.

This time Goldi followed a training plan recommended by someone in her running group who subscribed to Runner’s World. She took no chances with the all-important fueling issue and tried PowerBars and Clif Shot Bloks and Honey Stingers, ultimately deciding on Clif Shots. She tried these options on her out-and-back long runs: far enough that she needed to refuel, but close enough to home in case of any unfortunate digestive issues. She taped her toes, and bought shoes based on fit rather than fashion.

She arrived race morning prepared. She’d ditched the scratchy tutu in favor of compression shorts (she was still somewhat ruled by vanity and refused to use BodyGlide) and decided stopping at Krispy Kreme on the way to the marathon hadn’t been her best idea. The starter’s horn left her nonplussed, and she kept to her training pace despite the adrenaline. She took water at every station, and swallowed her Mocha Clif Shots like pudding (because you really have to talk yourself into a lot for this to work).

The race wasn’t easy. But just when Goldi felt like she couldn’t possibly propel herself another inch, she hit the 12-mile marker. Ten minutes later (she’d fallen off her pace) she was at the 13-mile marker and had 528 feet to go. This time she honored the distance and told herself 528 feet left; not, only 528 feet left. She ran across the finish line because she couldn’t—no, she wouldn’t—walk. A surly teenager receiving community service credit handed her a medal and said, “Good job” with as much enthusiasm as Goldi had for marathons.

She’d done it: Goldilocks had found her distance. She lived happily ever after, but perhaps most importantly she had a newfound respect for BodyGlide.

The End

Image: Michael Thom for CC/Flickr

Funkytown

153I checked my email early this morning and read the Daily Post. It asked if you’re good at what you do, and what you’d like to do better.

Perfect timing.

The last two or three days I’ve written exactly one six-line paragraph for a synopsis I’ve been working on. And the paragraph stinks. It sounds stilted. Insincere. Forced.

I’ve hit a wall. Not a what’s-a-better-word? wall. A mile-22-in-a-marathon wall. And the harder I try, the more elusive the perfect words become.

Answering the question, “Are you good at what you do?” is easier if your skillset yields concrete results: if your risotto is perpetually undercooked, you’re probably not going to be the next Master Chef.

But how do you gauge subjective results? Do you rely on others’ input? Or is self-satisfaction enough?

I wish I knew.

Today we’re attending an outdoor wedding on a brilliant 85-degree afternoon, and tomorrow we’re having lunch with friends we haven’t seen in over a year, along with their daughter, son-in-law, and new baby girl. I’m counting on changes in scenery and smiling faces (not that my husband hasn’t been smiling—he’s been great through my blah-ness) to wrestle me from this writing funk.

Wish me luck.