daily preciousness

Thursday, January 09, 2003

race day

“How do you put a day into words?” That’s an everyday writing problem. But what if the day is extraordinary? What if the day presents a spectrum of experience – memories that surpass the commonplace? That’s the time when I’m beating on tin cans when I need timpani!

David, Alejandro and I were gathered around the window seat table of St. Elmo’s Coffee Pub. (If you’re not keeping score at home, that just happens to be my favorite coffee shop.)

Outside, the Clay Queen Pottery store had a crown of autumn leaves in pumpkin orange and persimmon pink.

We sipped on our drinks. On the commercial classical station, Vee Der Been Der Miner was playing. “I hope they have a chorus singing on this version so I can join in,” David mused. “And I’ll play the timpani,” I added. Alejandro just smiled and drummed with me. Dave demonstrated the proper tuning method for the imaginary drums. That was the day before the race.

But October 27th was the real timpani day; my legs and feet took a beating! But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I woke around 5:30 to Asian Massive, my Indian drum ‘n’ bass CD in the alarm clock. The first sounds in my ear that morning was the melodic pounding of tablas.

After a quick drive to Ale’s house, I empty my pockets of keys, wallet and other detritus then jump onto the nearly packed Metro. Aboard, there are only runners and their fans. Ale and I grab the last two seats.

I’m the least dressed – will the little polyester gloves that I bought at the marathon packet pickup going to be enough? Everyone else is in warm-ups and long pants. One woman even has ear warmers!

***

Some of my fellow runners… An Air Force woman from Alexandria only wanted to finish the race. To her pleasant surprise, she did so. First. She was the top female runner! My neighbor did so well.

Another woman, Hilary, was running with AIDS Marathon. Hilary wasn’t so lucky. She’d trained at the Chevy Chase run site, so I’d never met her. But she was in the same program and had trained for the past six months just like I had. She’d raised her money for the Whitman-Walker Clinic, just like I had. But on race day, around mile 18, she suffered a brain aneurism. Medical personnel rushed her to the hospital, but she died later that night. I felt so sorry for her.

Even though I didn’t know her, I knew that she died doing something she loved. How do I know this? Well, to be involved with a marathon, you have to be pretty crazy about running. If you didn’t, you’d have to be just plain crazy. So, I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and just assume that she was doing that she really loved. And of all the ways to leave this life, that’s one of the best ones.

On a heroic note, another woman was running the marathon that day for her Dad. He’d fallen down and died of a heart attack the previous year. She was running in his memory this year. That’s a lot of love: “My Dad ran this race to his death, so I’m going to finish it for him!” Impressive, eh?

Another guy who loves to run is Wes. Wes is my pace group leader. He’s run five previous Marine Corps Marathons, so he’s a veteran at this. At Capitol Hill, he felt a sharp pain stinging his left quadriceps. So he had to stop, stand in line at the nearest medical tent to get a leg wrap to help with the pain. He made it through the gate shortly after I finished.

But before I can tell you about finishing the race, I have to tell you about the starting line first. That’s what I did after I met up with the rest of my pace group at the bright white tent just beside the Iwo Jima Memorial at 6:45 AM on October 27th, 2002.

It was a perfect day for running that day: in the low to mid-60s with partly cloudy skies.

Marines stood in their fatigues watching the runners line up and get into place. We were corralled about half a mile before the start line “Who let the dogs out” started playing on the 15-foot high speakers and the crowd immediately around me reacted immediately.

The housewives running for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospitals shook their wide-load hips and wiggled so much that their overly hair-sprayed hair quivered. They had matching sports jackets with their names stitched in two-inch high letters. In script. One had eye shadow that matched the blue-green of her jacket. They were looking pretty crucial.

Elliot, our 50-something most senior pace group member, laughed at “Who let the dogs out” along with those brightly painted ladies. He put his hands in the air energetically and started whooping it up at the frenetic and silly song. I had to laugh at that. A singing Army sergeant, introduced with the mischievous and highly creative nickname “The Singing Sergeant,” sang the National Anthem. It was fun to watch the Marines transform from their laid back, friendly languor to stiffly formal attention. They resembled wooden toy soldiers. But kinda taller and less plastic. (Granted, I did have to fight the urge to hold them in my hands and act out various scenes with them. But that’s a story for another day….)

The music stopped and the announcements started. The race began after a releasing of doves (who were official Marine peace doves, apparently) and a cap gun shot.

Even though this was technically a military exercise, no actual guns were used to start us off.

Nope.

Too much liability, I guess, to have live ammunition. So after the tinny, high-pitched ping of a gunshot and a “They’re off!” by the announcer, we felt a sudden burst of energy. The adult contemporary “crowd-appeal” style of music was blaring. Fluffy clouds seemed to scrape the nearby Dutch bell tower.

And we stood around and waited. And waited. And waited a little bit more. After 10 minutes, I realized that my pace group members hadn’t been kidding when they said it took a while to start moving. There were about 20,000 people ahead of us. Much like traffic on Interstate 95, people took a little time to get going after being at a dead stand-still.

So we talked and joked, spoke of our six months of training. We made polite conversation with the caricature suburban housewives walking for St. Jude’s behind us. I glanced at Elliot’s map. (He was carrying enough gear to go camping for a week! Cellphone, camera, course map, thermos, pup tent…. Jeesh! No. I’m kidding. He didn’t have a thermos or a pup tent. But he came close.

We waited another 10 minutes in starting position. I started to get antsy. Finally, after about 20 minutes, we sluggishly inched forward. Down the hill we marched, feeling elated to be moving, finally. With the giant half-donut shaped inflated scarlet crescent (tacky, yes, but visible from a distance) just 50 feet ahead, we broke into a canter. I pounced and bounced on the bristly red mat that held the magic timing technology.

The tiny little chip in my shoelace held my race bib number deep inside of it. The giant Marine Corps Marathon Mega-puter (don’t question the name) used the chip input from my sneaker to calculate my race times at the 5K, 10K, 23.1 mile and 26.2 mile mark.

The crowd stood, knelt, jumped, and straddled along both sides of the route. They were four and five people deep at the first part of the race. They hooped and hollered at us, chanting, cheering, ringing cowbells and shaking their homemade signs.

My favorite signs proclaimed, “You have nice buns!” “Look at those sexy legs!” and my fave, “Sports bar: $2. Running shoes: $50. Finishing: Priceless.” Talk about course support! There were AIDS Marathon supporters scattered like confetti throughout the course. They were yelling until their voices were hoarse. It felt nice to be on the receiving end of so much unconditional love. That’s what I kept yelling back, “Give me some Unconditional!” And they responded in kind.

Sarah, my running partner for most of the race, kept me entertained. And I thank her for that. I’m so glad that I had a friend to run with for 90% of the race. Her Aunt even came out to support her. Just after we passed the Air and Space museum, she saw her Aunt, who gave us pretzels and drinks. Good fuel. Other people in the crowd handed out M&Ms, beer, orange slices and some power drink that Wes pronounced “tastes like ass; But don’t ask how I know.”

When my right foot gave me troubles around mile 23, I had to slow down a lot, so I let Sarah go on ahead.

It felt like liquid fire had been injected into the ligaments that spread out on the top of my right foot. Out along the 14th Street Bridge, all we could hear was the sound of the wind and the sound of people running their bodies ragged.

The miles were wearing on us. Hard. But I knew I could make it at that point. There was no question. It was just a matter of smart, careful pacing and focus. Precise focus: remembering why I’m here and recalling how I felt on my practice runs. And it was in the bag. It was so in the bag.

Random kindness from nearby runners astounded me. On my walk breaks (when I was looking particularly rough, I suppose) I had fellow runners – competitors, really – that would offer encouragements. “Go, Jblend! You can make it,” they’d shout. The words were like sweet melodies. Outward focus was essential – it helped me to forget the screams of my body as it slowly tore itself apart.

The more I could focus on the external, the better I was able to tune out the warning signals my body was producing. Cease and desist was the basic message I was getting from my soles to my fingertips.

So I took an extended walk break. That was from mile 23 to 24. By 25, I had started running again at my usual pace. The central corridor of the race, just a mile from the finish line, had several thousand people lining it. They rang their cowbells, clapped as I passed and called out my name. Salt from my perspiration had caked up on my face, especially around my eyes. I could feel little roads of salt in the creases from my eyes to my ears. It was coarse, like sea salt.

In a quick leap of free association, I pictured the single-celled organism evolving into more complex systems, into fish and salamander, out of the life-giving sea and onto land. And I was another link in that great chain. Running here today, crossing a personal barrier, I reflected on the biological barriers of my forebears. They made it. And so would I.

Mile 26 seemed like it was all uphill. Wes had warned us about this. “It’s the final punishment of the course.” He was right. But I began to hear the loudspeakers. The annoyingly hip ‘n’ happenin’ announcer was calling out people’s names as they passed, identifying them by age and hometown. Alaska, Oklahoma, Texas, California, Australia and England all had runners finishing just minutes before me.

As I was circling the memorial, I saw Adam, my friend from Richmond, who’d come to cheer me on. He took a picture or two and gave me a hug.

Turning around the final bend, I could see the finish line and the giant green clock. The tenths of seconds flickered by, spurring me onward from a canter to a sprint. I picked ‘em up and put ‘em down. I charged. I pumped my arms and focused my breathing. I was barreling down the course, passing four or five runners on both sides. The blood was really pumping. I stomp, stomp, stomped on the big sensor mats that recorded my time. I didn’t any mistakes. I wanted that mega-puter to know that I’d made it. I MADE IT! I actually made it, I thought to myself as I reached up in the air and coasted. At that point, I saw the last six months of training flash before my eyes. I think it was also around this point when I realized that I couldn’t really feel my legs. They were numb! But I was giggling like a child as a marine put the gold and scarlet medal around my neck. “Finisher” it read.

I couldn’t really string very many words together, so I just whispered “thank you” to my medal presenter. Another marine wrapped a shiny metallic space blanket around me. It certainly helped with the chills. My body was sort of shocked to no longer be running, I think.

They corralled me into a line for a picture in front of a jumbo old glory. I held my medal triumphantly and posed. Next the marines led us toward the food and drink tent. I grabbed a few things and realized that I was having trouble walking. The muscles in my legs were extremely sore. So sore that they basically refused to work. And below my calves, I had only a vague sensation of my feet. It was kind of creepy.

Taking baby steps, I made my way to the big tent where AIDS Marathon staff were handing out food and drink. I shoveled peanut butter and jelly sandwiches into my mouth then guzzled hot chocolate and sports drink. My space blanket was warm and cozy, even though I felt like a giant pop tart.

Matthew had four or five friends circling him. They kept themselves busy fetching food for him and me. I was grateful, because walking wasn’t something that I was really anticipating. My body had to re-learn the concept of resting, after a little over 5 hours of staying in motion.

I met with Laurie, Patty, Wes, Jenn, Sarah and Robert outside the tent. I needed a little sunlight with my sports drink and bananas. So we sat and talked in winded voices on the wet grass. Spouses held hands and glanced lovingly at their other halves. And those of us who were single made up for it by having mates fetch us still more snacks and drinks.

After half an hour, Robert and I hobbled toward the metro station and made our way home.

On the train, I ran into Maude, an elderly volunteer from the library. Her son-in-law had just finished running the marathon.

I went home, declining Maude’s invitation to join them at the Crystal City movie theatre. A warm bath and foot massage helped matters some. I slept like a triumphant warrior, slightly wounded, but content.

About four hours just vanished at that point. My body really needed that nap to recover.

By 7, I was feeling much better. The stiffness had almost left my legs. I dressed and combed my hair, then went to Henry’s for a dinner party. And the bragging began. As you can plainly see, it hasn’t stopped since.

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