This am, as I usually do most mornings, I went outside and talked to God, with my dog nearby, and I spoke of my struggles and my gratitude for what I have.
Next, I go inside, get a cup of hot tea, and go to the reading chair. It is a recliner in the house that has a light, a table full of books and magazines that are works in process. The books on the bottom are the ones least likely to keep my attention, but they sit there, as a reminder that I feel like I am supposed to read them, someday.
On the top was an issue of Runners World. I don’t read this magazine that often…it is one of about five periodicals that I just started showing up this year that I have never ordered. This issue had a story about “accidental mentors” and it reminded me of mine. When I first moved to New York City after two years in Nepal, I was in culture shock. The Big Apple was and remains an overwhelming experience. NYC was too much humanity for me, and I found solace, like many others, just hanging out in Central Park during my downtime. Occasionally, I would use my Saturday am to go to Central Park to go running with the New York City Road Runners Club. Once or twice, I would hook up with the father of a friend of mine who went to the Peace Corps and whom I knew in Nepal. He was a member of the New York City Road Runners Club. At that time, I was perhaps 26 or 27. He was in his mid 50s, and he went running around the reservoirs in Central Park at predictable times on Saturdays. And, more than once, we ran together. he would tell me stories about how his son was doing, and I would tell him stories about life in Nepal. It was more than a mile around the water, if I remember, and we did a lot of chatting. I was impressed that an old guy could tell so many stories while running at a nice clip, but that was his shtick, and was good at it.
One day he told me to sign up and run “the Marathon.” Not the New York City Marathon…just the Marathon. He sais it will change my life.
So, without ever running even half of a marathon, I decided to try a full marathon. I remember the weekend before, I went to the Park to run a 10 mile loop, on back to back days. That was my training. Yup. All of it. During the week that lead up to the Marathon, I talked to folks who had either tried of completed the event in the past, and they all had stories of extremes…extreme weather, extreme fatigue, extreme joy upon completion, etc.
The night before the race, I stayed at my sister’s house in Staten Island, and the morning of the event, she drove me to Verrazano Narrows Bridge and dropped me off, with a “good luck” message. I knew that luck wasn’t going to play a role that day, but perhaps my ability to overcome adversity would. I wore my old college sweatshirt, a Sony Walkman, with a single cassette tape in it, shoes, shorts and a T-Shirt. It was cold…that was easy to remember, yet before I reach the half way point, I took off my sweatshirt and dropped it. Dumb move….I liked that sweatshirt. But I was sweating and didn’t want the baggage anymore. there were still 10+ miles of running left, and I didn’t need it.
The most memorable experience was the different tones of all the neighborhoods we ran through.. As a ghost runner, I showed up at the end of the pack, and I didn’t even move from the starting area until perhaps 15 or 20 minutes had elapsed since the Mayor of New York officially sounded the starting gun. I didn’t hit the starting line itself for another 2 minutes, as there were who knows how many tens of thousands of people in the race, all of whom started in front of me. Yet, each community we ran through had a trademark theme that they would offer to us to see, hear, smell and taste. I remember running around a Led Zeppelin cover band that had set up right in the middle of the road. I remember the quietness of the Hasidic Jewish neighborhood we hit in Brooklyn. I remember how loud it was in the Latino community we ran through in the Bronx. There was a non-ending party in Manhattan with people all drinking and eating on the sides of road was we ran up the east side of the island. And, I remember the sign that said, “26 miles complete…only 385 yards to go.”
Crossing the finish line required my mind more than it did my body. By the time we reach back to Manhattan, we have run ~ 20 miles, and we know that the next 6 miles are going to hurt. I stopped at a port-a-potty and remember that it hurt just as much to stand there, waiting for the seat to open up as it did to be running. I remember getting water at each hydration station and feeling water slosh in my stomach as I took in more fluids than I needed. I remember getting an orange slick from someone on the side of the road and putting it between my teeth and running with it for 5 minutes before spitting out it. I remember seeing some people fighting on the side of the course, for reasons that will never known…they were actually swinging punches.
Right after crossing the finish line, my body’s issues became top priority. One of my roommates came to pick me up after the race, and I was so depleted of energy and cold that I asked to wear her coat….it was a full length woman’s jacket…like the kind that a flasher might wear. Eek! One of the people who I had spent much of the race running with was also a teacher. One of his friends was also in our group. One of the two of them was placed immediately on a stretcher and loaded onto an ambulance after crossing the finish. He was dehydrated and needed an IV to recover. My friend ran up to the stretcher with the rest of us looking on, and we heard him ask not, “Are you OK? Do you want me to go the hospital with you?” Instead, he asked, “Dude, what was your time?” as he was ahead of us. Wow.
We were able to flag down a NYC public bus as if it were a taxi and he agreed as part of his contribution to the race to take us directly to our apartment. The driver had to lean the bus over, as I couldn’t light my legs up high enough to reach the steps. I got a taste of what I handicapped rider has to go through to board public transportation.
As soon as I got back to our apartment on the upper west side, I took a nap. You might wonder why taking a shower or getting something to eat wasn’t more important. At the time, it seemed like what I need the most was rest, not food nor a clean body. I remember getting my big yellow sleeping bag out from my closet and climbing in it, as I was so cold. After waking up, I told my roommates stories about the sightings during the race and how glad I was that I had done it.
The next day, I couldn’t walk down stairs without just killer pain in my quads. One of the teachers where I worked told me to try walking backwards down stairs or stepping backwards off of curbs. I gave it a try, and it worked. The motion made the painful feel painless. I just looked funny. Oddly enough, I saw others doing this throughout the city, for the next few days. In each case, there was this short moment of magic when I would see someone, who, just like me, had run the marathon, and had to change some of the more subtle things in their life, to get by. All of us wounded veterans would often make eye contact, and exchange brief comments about the Marathon, and we would both always smile. Always, just like all comrades do when they see each other after gong through an intense experience together. Strangers in the nation’s biggest city, were now my brothers and sisters.
Although I have never ran another marathon, it hooked me to the joy of running and the silent union that happens when a group of people gather in adverse circumstances to push our bodies out of their comfort zone.
Perhaps that it was draws me to Pilates and Yoga at this stage in my life. They both take me out of my comfort zone of heavy cardio, metal weights, and quietness of the mouth sort of exercise. In Yoga and Pilates, someone is always talking, and there is no winner, no loser, no place to end up that is greater than a previous place. There are no personal bests.
I still run. I still find a certain motor that gives me a burst and reminds me of that Sunday am in November of 1991, when I ran across one of the New York City bridges while hearing the theme from the movie “Rocky” playing over the loudspeakers after the battery on my Walkman had died. When it is really hot outside, and my run is nearly complete, I remember how difficult those last 385 unexpected yards were during the Marathon. It motivates me.
Had the Marathon been easy or had it been readily replicable, I might not place it so high up on a pedestal. But was special, and I will never forget it. Now that I have written this, perhaps I will do another one, one day.
I never saw that old man again…our paths never crossed on future Saturday am runs in the park. I didn’t know his name, so I couldn’t really ask others about him. But, his idea to throw my hat in the ring changed me, forever. He motivated me and was my unexpected mentor. As Neil Young said, “Old man…take a look at my life. I am a lot like you were.”
That is what keeps me running.