Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Runnin' Down a Dream


The Run

As I’m hoping that putting my feet up will reduce blood flow or increase blood flow or just do something, a face floats into my range of vision. A medical person, concerned.

Her: “Are you okay? Are you dizzy? What’s the square root of Pi out to 20 decimal places?”
Me, cheerfully: “Oh, I’m fine, I just can’t walk. Yet. My feet hurt – I’ll be okay. 1.7728105.....”

As I'm reciting numbers, another woman comes along, a volunteer, who also asks me if I’m okay, as I’m simultaneously rummaging through my bag and getting what I need: run visor, race number, chapstick, etc. She asks me if I think it might help if she massaged my feet; I ponder that for a second, figure it can’t hurt. So she massages, we chat, and I tell her about my temporary delusions of grandeur, where I envisioned a better finishing time, and she tells me my feet feel cold and asks me if I’ve done any centuries before. Sigh. A few, I say. Is there anything you’d like to know about Wisconsin’s corn crop this year? It’s odd that my feet are cold, since it’s just windy outside, but not really cold. Maybe it’s the poor circulation thing? Who knows. All I know is that my feet are feeling less numb and painful, and finally, I think I’m ready to go, or as ready as I’ll be anytime soon. I change, get my stuff, look for a name badge or something on this wonderful woman, don’t see it, thank her profusely while forgetting the quaint custom of asking a person what their name is, and off I go. Nothing like a marathon to cap off the day.

It’s now not quite 4:30, and even my non-mathy self can see that I have 7:30 in which to finish. I run, slowly at first, and then picking up the pace when my feet start to feel better. Almost immediately, I see Robyn – I’m not sure how I picked her out of the crowd, but I think the big pink bunny head she was toting had something to do with it. She’s going to call Deanna to alert her and my mom that I’m out and about, and to meet up with them. Meanwhile, the streets are packed with people: runners, their fans, Madisonites, as if the whole town has turned out to cheer people on. My plan is to run, but to walk the aid stations and any big hills. Since the aid stations are about a mile apart, it’s not like this is a big hardship, but I know from experience that I can’t run and drink at the same time. My main goal for today was, simply and purely, to have fun, to make it be a good day, and not an endless and painful death march. And, I am. My cowbell shirt is a hit with the crowd and the volunteers, and if there are cowbells out there, they’re ringing as I go by.

At mile 7, I see Robyn, Deanna, and my mom. Deanna runs next to me and asks how I’m doing.

Me: “I feel like shit!” I say happily, smiling. “Though at least my feet are no longer killing me.”
Deanna: “Well, you look great!”
Me: “Hey, and that’s all that counts! Cool!”

After I run through the stadium, I make one huge error: I try to stretch. As I’m pulling my leg back to do a quad stretch, my entire hamstring cramps up in a hugely sharp pain, and I vow to not try anything that silly again. This does make me wonder if I’m low on electrolytes, and I start worrying about random muscles cramping up unexpectedly, especially since I’m starting to exude ammonia, which happens when I run and am low on carbs, etc. I get to Observatory Hill and run partway up, then say “fuck it” and walk, as I do, chatting with the guy next to me.

Me: “I’m trying to remember why I thought doing this was a good idea.”
Him: “Me too.”
Me: “Are you signing up for next year?”
Him: “Of course. You?”
Me: “Oh, definitely.”

We’re all insane. But I must look sporty and athletic in my insanity, because as I’m running, a few of my fellow triathletes say things like “man, only 4 more miles to go, thank god, huh?” and “Hey, good job, we’re almost there!” This amuses me, as I have to tell them that while they might be almost done, I’m just on my first loop. One girl seems to think she’s committed some mortal error, because she apologizes many times over and then tries to put some distance between us. “Hey, it’s okay,” I yell after her. “Really! No biggie – I’m just slow! Uhh....rock on?” Ah well.

I see some of my fellow CTCers out on the course, giving Angela a shout-out as she zooms by in the other direction, then saying hi to Quinn as he too goes by the other way. I kept missing Randy, JP is too busy chopping 2 whole hours off his last IM time, and as for Bryan, well, by the time I was out on the run course, I believe Bryan had already gone back to his hotel, showered, changed, eaten, helped out at a local soup kitchen for a while, reconstructed the Eiffel Tower out of toothpicks, and reenacted the IMOO swim course using interpretive dance, to the delight of small children everywhere. Ah, Bryan, if you weren’t such a nice, funny, genuine guy, we’d all have to hate you.

When I get back to the start of the loop, where the turnaround is, I realize the true sadistic nature of whoever thought up the IMOO course. I had heard that the turnaround is fiendishly close to the end – I hadn’t realized that after you turn the LAST CORNER and are running down a straightaway, you either go left to the turnaround, or right and straight to the finish, which is about 20 feet away. This amuses me to no end, and as I go past the volunteer standing by the sign that says “2nd loop turnaround here”, I tell him, “this is cruel!”, but am laughing as I say it. I stop by Special Needs, change to the long-sleeved cowbell shirt, and pick up my drugs. After popping some endurolytes, I make it my mission to offer said drugs to anyone else who looks like they need them. The guy with back cramps doesn’t think anything will help, the guy limping along who had crashed on the bike, ditto. I didn’t have an ace bandage for the guy with the hurting knee, but told him he should stop at the fire department we were going past, which he did. Finally, success, a guy with back pain who I gave some Tylenol to. I don’t know if it helped, but I hope so.

As I’m running back through the square, I see Dan Lee, who at just that moment is getting OFF out of his bag to fend off the killer mosquitoes. I see two tots up ahead who, in their zeal to highfive runners, have wandered onto the cobblestone street and are being shepherded back to the curb by their dad, who’s explaining the need to stay out of the way. Sa-wheet, I’m just in time to highfive their tiny little hands as I go by. Then my little fan base of Robyn, Deanna, and my mom appears, always easy to spot because of Happy Bunny Head. This time Robyn runs with me.

Robyn: “How are you doing?”
Me, still smiling: “Well, I guess I could be better, but I could also be worse. My knees hurt, feet hurt, overall I can’t complain though.”
Robyn: “You look great though!”
Me: Hey, that’s all that matters!”

Later, the girls tell me that they had to explain to my mom that a) I really was fine, that’s just how I run, since apparently my mom didn’t think I looked very good; and b) No, they’re not punishing the Ukrainians by making us run more, since my mom was wondering why everyone else “got to finish, and my daughter has to turn around and keep going.” I think the whole loop thing was a bit confusing for her. Hmm, maybe that’s it – I wasn’t slow, there was a whole extra run section, just for me. Maybe?

By now it’s about to get dark, so I get a glowstick to wear. Since these things don’t actually emanate any light, I think they’re just to make it easier to find our bodies if we take a wrong turn and wind up in the lake. Which is a possibility, since the stretch along the lake is on a gravel trail, and is pitch black. Someone else referred to being out there alone at night as being dark and lonely, but I think it’s kind of tranquil, just the sound of my footsteps and the waves lapping at the shore. I think of a line from one of my favorite poems: “I want to know if you can be alone 
with yourself,
 and if you truly like the company you keep
in the empty moments.” And I’m okay with this.

Just when I’m thinking I’ll negative split the run, because I’m booking along, I get the dreaded have-to-pee-constantly syndrome. Yep, same thing that happened at Steelhead, where as soon as I went to the bathroom, I had to go again. My inner Charlie Brown thinks, AAAAAAAAAAGGGGGHHHHHHHHH! Not again!! But much like good ol’ Chuck, resigned to his fate, so am I, so I stop at every aid station, very thankful that at least I’m not having any stomach or GI issues. I don’t know where this “look on the bright side of life” attitude is coming from, but it’s a good day for it, maybe the best.

When I get to the stadium again, I run down the ramp with my arms overhead, yelling “Go Wisconsin! Go Badgers!” This amuses the volunteer standing there, who, after I run around the stadium and am headed back out, says “Way to go, almost done!”

Me, with a laugh: “Uh, sure! Just 10 more miles!”
Him, having the grace to look sheepish: “Well, what’s that when you’ve already gone over 100?”

Hmm, he does have a point. By now the streets are much quieter, but everyone who goes by, even students on their way to the library, everyone, has a word of encouragement. And the volunteers are still faithfully manning the aid stations. It’s funny, but as a volunteer, even in miserable weather like last year, I think how great it is to be out there, that it almost feels like a privilege to be able to help in some small way those who are doing the hard stuff, gutting it out hour after hour. Yet as the person in the race, I’m always amazed at the tenacity of these folks, staying out there with the same level of enthusiasm, even for the last people on the course.

By now, I’m the only one running, as literally everyone else is walking, often in groups of 2 or 3. Again, a Rich Straussism is in my head: walking as a strategy is okay; otherwise, are you here to race, or are you here to socialize? I’m here to race. As I pass people and tell them “good job” or “keep it up,” they tell me the same, or “nice run!” or “I only wish I could still run.” This makes me wonder if I’ve done something wrong, not left it all out on the course, and for some reason I feel compelled to say things like “walking is just as painful so I figured I might as well run” or “I’m sure this won’t last” or “I’m just running to get to the bathroom!” Okay, that part is kind of true, but I don’t know if I’m trying to make them feel better, or me. I’ve assessed walk vs. run, and yes, walking is easier, but while my feet hurt, my knees hurt, my legs feel stiff and heavy.......the bottom line is, there’s no reason NOT to run. I actually feel pretty damn good. For me, level of pain is measured against the Goofy Challenge, when I trudged on for mile after agonizing mile, on feet with blisters and calves that afterwards would look like someone had been beating me with a crowbar, with one thought in my head: “This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.” This is no Goofy, and it’s not because of the toughness of the endeavor – it’s because this time I was ready.

Finally just over 2 miles to go. I make one last bathroom stop, then decide to keep running the rest of the way in. There’s one other guy running a little ahead of me, and we dodge the walkers. Then, as I’m about to turn the final corner, 2 big guys come thundering up on either side of me, and this peeves me to no end. What, you’ve been walking the whole way and NOW you’re deciding to muscle me aside? Putting my hockey training to good use, I check first one and then the other into the crowd, to loud cheering. Okay, maybe I don’t, but I did contemplate it for a second. As I’m running up, I try to remember to enjoy the moment, so I slap hands with all the people lined up on the right, and then run across the finish line, with the bright lights, the noise, the cheering ringing in my head.....and it’s all so chaotic that, to tell you the truth, I don’t even really recall hearing Mike Reilly say my name. This then turns into a Ginsu knife commercial, as they start heaping things on me – here, a finisher’s shirt! Your medal! But wait, there’s more – a cap! I then hear Kevin say “I know her” and I get hustled aside by Ruth and Kevin, familiar faces that are great to see, especially since Ruth has been a great source of encouragement and a voice of sanity all along. Thanks Ruth!

After some pizza, we stick around to watch the rest of the finishers, and I feel truly fortunate to be there. I wonder, who are all these people out here until midnight, so loud and enthusiastic? But I’m here too, and I guess there’s something about the Ironman spirit that compels people to want to be a witness to it. At 11:31, they announce that Frank Farrar is 2.2 miles from the finish line, and has been averaging 15 minute miles. It doesn’t look good. We cheer others who come across, and then I see people on the other side running along the sidewalk, as if they’re tracking someone who’s coming in. Sure enough, with 4 minutes to spare, Frank comes down the finish chute, looking like hell, but strong at the same time. After he finishes, he’s even able to banter with Reilly, making jokes, for god’s sake. Now THIS is a man with a heart of iron.

In this past week, when friends have asked about the race, the thing I’m most proud of telling them is not my time, but rather, the fact that I don’t have any blisters, no black toenails. My feet are just fine, thank you very much. It seems a silly thing to anyone else, but to me, this symbolizes all my hard work, that I did put in the time, in spades. Am I happy with my race? Unequivocally, yes. People will often say “if such-and-such hadn’t happened, I’d have finished 2 hours sooner” – but with an Ironman, that such-and-such IS the race. You’re out there for such a long time, anything can happen, so your race is about taking what this particular day hands you and making the best of it. So my back and feet and everything else, that was what this day handed me, and I did the best I could with that. While I know I can bike faster, I couldn’t have gone any faster on this particular day, that’s how it is, and that’s okay.

And while some say that triathlon is a solitary sport, in some ways it is, but I know that on all my long rides I carried with me my friends and their support, be it while riding Bridget’s bike, that she loaned to me without a second’s thought, or riding in a small circle before going up a hill, and hearing Colleen’s voice telling me “so, to pick up speed, you do a few of these Shriners’ circles.” Yes, Shriners, as in the old guys with the fez hats. As an added bonus, while out there on those solo rides and runs, hours before the rest of the world was even thinking of awaking from their slumber, I came across some amazing things that still put a smile on my face when I think about them. Okay, so the turkey vultures that swooped over my head so close that they fanned my hair might not evoke a smile, exactly, but the baby foxes barking their gruff little Chihuahua barks as they chased each other right past me certainly do.

So while some of us may not have any natural talent at some of these things and have to work really hard just to tread water, so to speak, we just bumble on ahead through all the frustration and disappointment, naysayers be damned, even if something seems impossible, because in the end, it’s the heart that really matters. A lot of people talk about how the “journey” to Ironman teaches them more about themselves than anything else, but I don’t think I learned anything new about who I am or became a different person – I just happened to find myself somewhere along the way – the me I once was and still see myself as, even if few others do. It’s not even leaving your heart and guts and every last shred of pride out on some rural countryside road that makes you see who you are – it’s the act of choosing to do so, day in and day out, when doing nothing would be so much easier – that, to me, reflects that part of your soul that says I do have what it takes, dammit, yes I do, and screw anyone who believes otherwise.

And if any of you have for years thought “I can’t, that’s impossible” about something that deep down in your heart, you really wanted to can. Really, you can. Not because I did, but because I’m no different than anyone else who sees who and what they would be and does what they have to do to make it happen.

So if you see me and Dino and Precious toodling along somewhere on one of our beloved country roads, looking like we’re having a blast, we probably are. Feel free to join us. It’s a fun ride, you never know where the road may take you.....and getting to Ironman is a pretty great place to stop along the way.

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