Back in March, having shed a couple dozen pounds of lard (on the way to a nearly 50-pound total weight loss), I asked my brother a question that would have seemed absurd even a month earlier.
“They’re holding the Maine Half Marathon on my birthday this year,” I said. “Do you think I’m biting off more than I can chew if I enter it now so that I’ll actually train all summer and not slack off?”
My brother, just so you know, is not just any personal fitness advisor. He’s… well… one of them.
You know what I mean. He’s one of the skinny guys. One of the guys whose ribs stick out, even though he sometimes eats like a hog. One of those guys you see out running, miles from home, on the snowiest day of the winter… smiling.
He is, simply put, a runner. Has been for 35 years or so. He even coaches young runners at the school where he teaches. He was my expert. Or something like that. And his semi-expert opinion on my proposed quest?
“We can get you there,” he said. “If you can run five miles on the treadmill today, I think it’s a goal you can reach.”
Now, if you’re not a runner, and haven’t had one inflict himself upon you before (they… we… can be an odd bunch, I’ll admit), I ought to cover some basics: A marathon is 26.2 miles. A half marathon, therefore, is 13.1 miles.
And though I reckoned that 13.1 miles was equal to the total miles I ran between 2008 and 2010, I woke up the next morning, bought a new pair of running shoes and registered for the Portland race.
I was in. Committed.
From March on, I trained. I wore out one pair of running shoes. I ran five-milers. Six-milers. Eventually, a 10-miler… and a 12.
It would seem that everything was going great. And really, it was. Almost.
The problem: My legs, newly liberated after lugging around 50 extra pounds of lard for a decade or two, decided to rebel. One calf went on strike for three days. Then the opposite knee followed suit. Then the other calf. And a foot. Each week, some new ailment cropped up.
But remember? I was committed. My battle cry was simple. I used it as punctuation on Facebook status updates. That word: Onward.
Onward I ran. In the heat. On the treadmill at the gym. Out at camp. On Prince Edward Island and in Cape Elizabeth. Out the Kenduskeag Stream footpath, where an unsavory gent eyed my gaudy (but comfy) purple-and-electric-green Nikes and said, ominously, “Nice shoes.”
I bought running magazines and bought running shirts and running shorts and running-specific socks. Yes, they make them. I was surprised, too. I even bought a little belt to carry water bottles and my energy-replacement gel packets on long runs.
I was beyond committed. I had morphed into a running shopaholic. Onward.
Eventually, I was virtually certain that I’d be able to complete the half marathon. Heck, I even thought I might be in good enough shape to enjoy it. (If you’d told me that back in February, when running at a 10-minute-mile pace for 10 minutes had nearly killed me, I’d have laughed).
My only concerns, as the leg ailments ceased and I ran pain-free for the final month of training, were that either my legs were playing possum and were waiting to spring their final trick on me on race day, or that I’d step in a pothole a few days before the race and really hurt myself.
Seven days before the race, I awoke in a cold sweat. I’d had a dream. A nightmare. The nightmare.
It had been race day. I had an hour to get ready. I was at the starting line, chatting with people. And suddenly, they all started running away without me. I looked down at my feet and found that instead of those nifty, form-fitting running socks, I was wearing wool winter socks. My shoes were no longer gaudy and comfy. They belonged to someone else and wouldn’t fit. I was wearing the wrong shirt. And shorts. And I couldn’t find the handy belt that I was going to use to carry my water and energy gels.
Bad dream. But it got worse. After a lengthy delay (during which all 3,500 runners vanished into the distance), I started running. After covering just 200 yards, I saw that the winners of the half marathon were already in sight, approaching the finish line. Yikes.
The dream got worse. At five miles, I looked to my side and saw Gordon and Georgia, my girlfriend’s twin 8-year-olds. Neither are runners, but both were in the race, trotting comfortably, chatting with each other. “Gordon,” I panted. “I didn’t know you could run five miles.”
“I didn’t either,” he said, cheerfully. “But you’re running really slow.”
That’s when I woke up. And that’s the image that haunted me for the next seven days.
In Portland, race day was not what I had expected, nor what I had feared. My socks fit. My shoes were my own. My legs felt great. And it wasn’t hot.
Instead, it rained. And rained. And rained some more.
A mile into the race, a runner who was passing me clipped his heel on another, slower runner and sailed through the air, landing on his belly and legs. He slid on the pavement, not two feet away from me. I escaped the resulting logjam and counted my blessings: Could have been me.
At three miles, my left calf decided that a month of remaining silent had to end. It reminded me that it was there… just a little tightness… a tiny bit of pain… its way of saying, “I’m here. And I may or may not join you for the rest of your silly quest.”
Onward, I ran. The calf got no better, but got no worse. I plunged through puddles, concentrated on my breathing, and tried to smile at spectators who’d come out in the rain to cheer us on. One played bagpipes. Others had cowbells and signs. All were appreciated.
And eventually (2 hours, 2 minutes and 58 seconds) after I had left the starting line, I completed the quest. Before the race, I figured I could maintain a pace between 9:09 per mile (finishing time: 2 hours) and 9:30 per mile (2:04:27). Slow? Sure. But nearly 30 years after completing my last half marathon, finishing comfortably was the sole goal.
Of course, that’s not the end of the story. Two hours later, that nagging calf finally went on strike. It swelled up. It turned pink. On Monday I listened to concerned co-workers and saw a doctor. After some tests, we determined that nothing serious was amiss: I’d just have to rest for five to seven days.
Seven months ago, a larger, more sedentary me would have welcomed that prescription: Rest? I was good at that.
Oddly, though, the past few days have been more difficult than I expected. Those gaudy (but comfy) running shoes are sitting in a sad heap in the corner, serving as a reminder of what I’m missing.
The calf hurts. The swelling is going down and my foot is turning purple. But I want to run. Oddly, it feels like I need to run.
And I clearly need another quest. Another goal. Another long-range project to keep me moving forward. Maybe a full marathon? Same time next year?
Perhaps. First, I’ve got to consult with my semi-expert brother and get his professional opinion.