Saturday, April 28, 2012

#406: Living Strong at the Y Update

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

So many friends and family have contributed to Living Strong at the Y, and I want to update you on how things are going.

The race is in 8 days, and we’ve raised $2400. I am so grateful, and so is everyone at the North Lexington Family YMCA. The participants in the LIVESTRONG at the YMCA program have heard of your generosity, and are so appreciative, not only because you are helping them, but also because of the help you are providing to the survivors who will come after them. Your dollars are making a real difference!

The program is expanding in the Bluegrass. We are rolling out LIVESTRONG at the YMCA groups at all three Lexington locations this spring, and Georgetown College will be sponsoring a new group in the summer. Your dollars will make it possible for cancer survivors to be a part of this program regardless of their ability to pay.

There is still time to give.

I am very excited about the Marathon, but also about the things we might achieve together between now and then. If you have not yet joined Living Strong at the Y, I hope you will do it today. You have a chance to make a real difference in somebody’s life.

Please give at or by mailing a check made out to YMCA to

Robert Parks Johnson
North Lexington Family YMCA
381 West Loudon Ave
Lexington KY 40508

Write “Living Strong” in the memo line, and I’ll make sure your contribution gets to the people who need it.



As a special bonus, you’ll be able to run the marathon with me! Mrs P will be writing the names of everyone who contributes on my body so I can carry you along every one of the 26.2 miles! How can you pass up a chance to sleep in and STILL finish a marathon?

They're running with Pennsy...
How about you?

Monday, April 16, 2012

#405: Begging and Running, Shrinking and Thinking


Will He Ever Stop?
Mrs P says, "You can't expect people to give money every time you run a race." She's right, of course. I expect I'll be focusing my fundraising efforts and limiting the times I come begging. I worry that the constant appeals for money to support LIVESTRONG AT THE YMCA are off-putting and that people might be mentally "changing the channel," when I post or send a letter or button-hole them personally. It concerns me that I might be working in a way that actually discourages people from helping. But then I remember those people in the gym, sweating out reps, walking out miles, straining to perform abdominal crunches, or to pick themselves up off the yoga mat. If you know a better way to raise money, I'm all ears. In the meantime, I'm using the same dogged determination that I see them use. Please don't let my lame skills as a fundraiser keep you from joining a project that will help people personally and directly. 


Running the Way Kids Run
Two of my favorite things about my hometown are the YMCA, and John's Run/Walk Shop. They';re combining their resources to create a program called "Run This Town." Three times a week, about 20 kids, tweens and teens meet at Castlewood park on the north end of town and run together. There are almost that many adults running with them. We're training together to run a 10k race in May. The Y pays for their registration, and Johns gives each of them a pair of new running shoes. It's a way to help kids fall in love with running.

They come on foot, in old mini-vans, and in luxury sedans. Some of them are wearing expensive gear, some of them are in hand-me downs. It doesn't matter. We run together. On Saturday, I ran 3.5 miles with three young athletes. Since I don't wear my glasses when I run, I can't read the card the program director gives us with the directions on it, so I picked the fastest member of the team to be our navigator. We couldn't keep up with her, but she stopped at every turn to make sure we saw which direction to go before she disappeared out of sight. When the two younger runners and I started slowing down, I decided to introduce them to Fartlek: the speed-play with the funny name. They took turns picking a landmark in the distance. "We'll run to the red car." Then we would walk while the other runner chose our next goal. This is usually a training technique for advanced runners, but it also mimics the way kids actually run. They love to go like the wind, then stop and walk for a while. I was really delighted with how well it worked, and we finished strong, sprinting together to the finish. 


Fat Man Shrinking
I wanted to do about 11 miles on Sunday, so I decided to run the roads I last saw on Christmas morning. My goal was to take it easy, and run the second half faster than the first: negative splits they call it. I had to laugh as I set out. I was going to do a nice short 11 miles. I remembered this post from back in December of 2010.
Tomorrow is going to be a pretty big test for me. Will I get off my duff and go to the gym, or will I give up completely? After all, I can't lift the weight I used to. I can't run the way I used to. It's embarassing to be passed on the track by old ladies or to take all the plates off a machine before I use it. I wonder what all the young dudes who are doing 200 lb shoulder shrugs think about a fat old man who can't lift a 25 lb dumbbell over his head. I wonder if I'll ever be able to lift more than my own weight again.
I had lost just over 100 pounds, and I was dreaming of being able to run a 3k again someday. No one could have ever convinced me that I'd be running a marathon in a year and a half. 

Danny the Newton Man
As I ran yesterday, I focused on tempo and form. At the expo for the Run the Bluegrass Half Marathon, I met a man named Danny Abshire. His company makes Newton Shoes, and he's written a book called Natural Running: The Simple Path to Stronger, Healthier Running. I haven't read his book yet, but a lot of what he said to me about form made sense. Keep your stride short. Land under your hips, not out in front of your center of gravity. Strike on your mid-foot to preserve your forward momentum, not back on your heel, which is like applying the brakes with every step. Use the natural flex of your ankles, knees, and hips to absorb the shock in your muscles, not your bones and joints. I tried to apply what he showed me, and it felt pretty good. I'm not introducing any radical changes in running form three weeks before a marathon, but these are pretty small, and they seem to help me stay strong and even a little quicker on my feet. I finished the 11 miles right on schedule, just a little faster than I'd planned, and I'd learned some more about pacing. Oh, and yes, I ran the second half about 4 minutes faster than the first.


I also have my non-running life to look after. Hugging my wife. Doing the taxes, (extension filed on the 14th.) The return of lawn care season. Slowly preparing for the Great Garage Sale. It's a busy time for Mrs P and  me. We're behind schedule on a lot of things, but we keep moving forward. All things considered, times are pretty good in Pennsyltucky. 

Here's hoping things are just as good in your neighborhood.


Friday, April 13, 2012

#404: Please Give to Living Strong at the Y

This is the text of a letter I'm sending to friends and family, asking them to help a fundraising effort that I care deeply about. I hope you will add your contribution to theirs and be a part of the team.

LIVESTRONG at the YMCA is turning cancer patients into cancer victors every day. Every one of them has their own story. They might not look it, but they’re the toughest people I’ve ever met.

When they told him he had prostate cancer, he wondered if he would live; if he would ever make love again; if he could ever be a man; if he could be a father to his little girl. Now he’s teaching her to swim.

Sometimes, her breasts hurt so badly when she tried to exercise that she wanted to cry - until the day they asked her to name an achievement she was proud of: “I didn’t let the pain stop me today.”

She’s had cancer three times. She can’t afford the insurance that they offer her. She gets depressed sometimes when she thinks about what will happen if it comes back again. So she’s taking classes to become a personal trainer, so she can help other cancer survivors.

She could barely run 100 yards when they asked her what her dream was and she answered, “I’m almost embarrassed to say it out loud; I want to run a half marathon.” Seven months later, she did it: all 13.1 miles of it. On the back of her shirt she had written, “I run for those who can’t.”

The only thing harder than finding out he had cancer was finding out that his wife had it too. They fought it together. They beat it together. They come to the gym where he complains about every rep and never skips a single one, while she grinds out miles on the bike like a bulldog. Everyone who sees them knows that they are survivors, fighters, and victors.

Thanks to LIVESTRONG at the YMCA, they are learning to fight for their lives. They lift weights and run and swim and practice yoga, Pilates, and Zumba. They learn about nutrition. They meet and come to love others who are fighting the same battle. I know, because I’m one of them.

On April 16, 2010, the doctors found a three inch tumor in my neck. It had spread to my lymph nodes and left me with a 50% chance of survival. I had to choose whether to die or to fight. I decided to fight. I wanted to grow old with my wife. I wanted to act on stage again. And I wanted to run.
This May 6th, I’m returning to the city where I was born and I’m running the Pittsburgh Marathon. You only get one chance to run your first marathon, and I’m doing mine for them. I’m raising money to support LIVESTRONG at the YMCA: the program that taught me to fight. We need to raise about $13,000 to run that program at my YMCA this year. You and I can make that happen.

Please join me. Go to to learn more about my battle. Click the link to “Living Strong at the Y”. Or use the enclosed envelope to mail a check made out to the YMCA to:

Robert Parks Johnson
North Lexington Family YMCA
381 West Loudon Avenue
Lexington KY, 40508

Attention: Living Strong

Give for the fighters; for the victors; for the ones who know they are going to die, and the ones who don’t even know they have cancer yet.

Because cancer can kill us, but it can never beat us: not if we LIVESTRONG.


Robert Parks Johnson
Cancer Fighter

#403: Getting Cancer is the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me

I've only said that out loud a couple of times. Now that I've written it down for the first time, it looks even crazier than it sounds.
My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. (James 1:2-3)
Look, people go through worse than I did every day. I'd rather go through 10 years of chemo than a day of combat in Afghanistan. Every time a single mom comes into the Y, trying to get financial assistance so her kids can go to camp, or a divorced dad comes in to find a way to help the family he can no longer share a home with, I realize how much worse things could be for me. What if it had been Mrs P, and not me? What if Mum hadn't been able to come and stay with us for half a year? What if there had been no hospital that would treat us when my insurance stopped paying? What if there had been no family to help us when the bank finally foreclosed on our house? Believe me, I know how blessed I am.

But that's not what I mean when I say getting cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me. I'm talking about what happened to me because I got cancer.

Just as James' epistle promised, cancer's greatest lesson is patience. Cancer treatment is all about set-backs and changes in plan. I don't think I know anyone whose treatment has gone by the book. To overcome an elusive opponent, you have to be willing to accept the surprises and change your tactics. Cancer teaches you patience, and patience nurtures hope. That's true in the radiation clinic, and it's true in the gym. Healing takes time. You have to trust that truth, and you have to be patient enough for hope to come. Getting cancer taught me that.

There's something else, too. One of my favorite sayings is, "There are an awful lot of things that used to be important to me." 

  • How I look
  • How little money I make
  • The disrespect of strangers
  • Dreams that didn't come true
This stuff used to camp out in my head, filling my quiet hours with shame and regret. Now, when I look at my life all I can do is thank God for the chance to open my eyes; to feel the sun; to hear my wife breathing softly beside me in bed; to spend 10 minutes scouting around the yard picking up dog poop in a plastic bag. Every breath I draw is a blessing: a chance to love my life, my wife, my God, my neighbors. Nothing else is really important.
Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. (Book of Common Prayer, Holy Eucharist II)

Jesus prayed for the cup of Calvary to pass from him, and I would have prayed the same words about the cup of cancer. But I could never have imagined the strength and renewal that bitter drink would give me. I know now that there is nothing that I can't live through, no battle that I can't fight to the finish. I have seen that strength in other cancer fighters, and for the first time in my life, I can feel it in myself. It is strength that comes from inside me, but it is also the strength of all the people who love and support me. Their prayers and kindness make me stronger, and together we can endure anything. 

Renewal? Oh, yes. I don't ask, "Why am I here?" any more. I know why I'm here. I've been called to preach. My sermon? Cancer can kill us, but it can never defeat us if we live strong. Every waking moment, that story is my life's work. A day doesn't go by that I don't encounter at least one person who needs to hear it. There are probably a lot more who are sick of me going on and on about it, but there may come a time when they'll need it, and I'm going to make sure I'm here to tell it - to live it.

My prayer for you is that you won't have to get cancer to learn the things it taught me. You are blessed. You are stronger than you can imagine. You are not alone. You were created to do wonderful, amazing things. You can make the world a better place than you found it. I know those things about you, even if you don't know them about yourself yet. And knowing that about you, has changed me in more ways than I can count or recognize. 

Cancer isn't evil. It's just a blob of crazy cells fighting for their lives. Our real opponent isn't disease. Our enemy is death: not just the death that puts you in a box in the ground, but also the death that kills your spirit and leaves you walking around empty and afraid. Getting cancer gave me the antidote to death. The prescription is one part purpose and one part love. Repeat as needed.

Being a cancer fighter means fighting for life. That's why I'm here. That's what getting cancer gave me. I'm not grateful to cancer. And I won't pretend I'm grateful for the days spent puking or the nights spent shivering while I wondered what would become of Mrs P when I was gone. I don't treasure one moment that I spent with the disease in my body. 

But I'm grateful as hell for what it left behind.



You can help cancer survivors like me learn to fight for life. Give to Living Strong at the Y. Follow this link to learn how.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

#402: Running and Resurrection

The Preacher made a very intriguing point this morning. Of all the scenes portrayed in in the Gospels, the one that is conspicuously absent is the Resurrection itself. We don't get to see the stone rolling, the wounds healing, the eyes opening. There's no earthquake, no angelic entourage. It's a moment that is so sacred, so intimate, that we are not privileged to see it. We can only live with the consequences. Maybe that's what makes Easter so holy to the Church, and so unfathomable to the secular world. The event that Christians consider to be the fulcrum on which the lever of history is anchored is completely invisible to us. We can't define it, dogmatize it, or box it in. 

As one of my atheist friends posted on Facebook today, "Come on, people. Jesus is not a Zombie." He's right. Jesus didn't just come back from the dead. Jesus was transformed by death into something completely new, and his transformation was so powerful that everything else changed along with him. Another friend posted this: 
Not to pick a fight, but I'm of the opinion that the Message was more important than the Man. Idolizing the Man is easy. Living the Message is Hard. 
Be hard.
Know what? I think my friend is right. The Man was killed that Friday afternoon. The Mesage, the good, Gospel news cannot be killed. And I also agree that idolatry is easier than living that Gospel. If all Jesus' did was replace golden calves with golden crucifixes, then his life and ministry were meaningless. Resurrection calls us to more than just admiration or gratitude. Christ's victory over death calls us to action. Because of that empty tomb, and the Jesus who walked out of it, we can live our lives in fearless love. Once you've stared down death, there's nothing standing between you and the godly creature you were meant to be except your own will.

So what does all that have to do with a Fat Man running? Everything.

I've never died, but I've met people who have. I met a man who was dead for so long that the doctors were sure he could never come out of his coma. Met him before he ran a 3K road race. Cancer taught me a thing or two about resurrection, too. The scarred, toothless creature typing these words has very little left in common with that 400 pound neurotic lying unconscious on an operating table while the lab discovered cancer in his biopsy specimens. As a trainer with LIVESTRONG at the YMCA, I work every day with people who have been transformed by their victory over death. They are tougher, braver, more determined, and more compassionate than they were before cancer. And they share a special burden.

Because we have lived through cancer, and we know so many who have not, we who are left to fight have a unique vocation. We have been called to give hope back to the world. When you're overweight, and you see someone who should be dead pumping out miles on the bike or swimming lap after lap, it tells you that you can do it too. When a woman who has had most of the muscles in her chest removed is grinding her teeth and pumping out bench presses, she it telling you that you can overcome your own obstacles. When a man who knows he is going to die spends his days visiting with cancer patients, giving them an ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on, then all of us can believe we can overcome our own pain and do some good in the world with whatever time we have left. 

This vocation, this ministry hasn't been given to survivors because we're special. It's just part of what you get when you get your life back. It's hard. And it's the only meaningful purpose for anyone who accepts the gift of resurrection: the invisible miracle of the empty tomb demands that we be about the business of restoring hope to the world.

Cancer didn't kill me. My tomb is empty, too. That's why I run. That's why I fight for other cancer survivors. God didn't give me back my life so i could be the same, miserable, self-absorbed manI was before. Christ is the prototype. Resurrection turned him into a new creation. It can do the same for all of us. And in exchange, we can bring new life, love, and hope to the world around us.

Every runner is an evangelist, whether they want to be or not. People are watching us. Some of them are shrugging their shoulders and thinking, "That's nuts. I could never do that." But others are learning our stories and wondering, "If he can do that, maybe I can do it too." Maybe depression doesn't have to kill me. Maybe divorce isn't the end of the world. Maybe losing my job or my house or my savings doesn't mean my life is over. Maybe there is reason to hope. Maybe I can be a better person than I thought I was.

The Preacher finished his Easter homily with the strangest conclusion I've ever heard to a sermon. He said, "Christ is risen! DEAL with it!" And he's so right. Being a Christian means living as if the tomb is empty: as if YOUR tomb is empty. It means living the message: as if Jesus was right about loving your neighbor and your enemies and your God and yourself. It means knowing that life is a fragile thing, and can be snatched away in the most cruel and senseless ways, and that we need to treat one another accordingly.

It means that the battle against fear and death is one that's worth fighting. If  a homeless religious fanatic from Nazareth can beat them, then maybe you can do it too.

If a Fat Man can run, anyone can. You can. Believe it.

Happy Easter, y'all.


Saturday, April 7, 2012

#401: The Big One

Most sensible marathon training programs recommend a long 20 miler before your race. The theory is that if you can run 20, you can probably run 26.2. Because in the not too distant past I couldn't even run 1, I am unpersuaded by this hypothesis. Guru Galloway suggests a different approach. If you can run 26.3, then you can absolutely run 26.2. He hasn't failed me yet, so on Good Friday, I took his advice. Here's yesterday's log entry.
34°-56°. 26.55 mi/05:55:41 @ 8:04 AM. The Big One. Lime Pegasus. 2:00 run/1:00 walk. Stopped at all 3 YMCA's.  A little cold, but otherwise, a fantastic day for a run! Time to start tapering.

I realize that my enthusiasm probably gets monotonous. I'd apologize for that if it wasn't so genuine. But the truth is, I find something to love about every run. Here's what I loved about The Big One.

I was up at 5:30 with the dogs, so I spent some time on Garmin Connect revising my course for the day. The day before, I had laid out a huge circle: one that hit the biggest hill I know in Lexington at just about the same distance as the mountain climb in the Pittsburgh Marathon. That afternoon, I got in the car and drove the route, just to be sure I was familiar with all the turns. It was deadly dull. Lots of miles along Man O' War Blvd, the bypass that orbits about 3/4 of the city. There are sidewalks, which is a plus, but there are also lots of cars zooming past, and fairly new residential developments surrounded by privacy walls and other barricades. As I drove it, I noticed how uninspired I was feeling. It was like miles and miles of the same hill again and again. I did not feel eager to run this course, and I took that as a very bad sign.

Plan B was to plot a more urban course. No giant hill, but lots of rolling climbs through city streets. To keep myself interested, I chose a gimmick; I would run past all three YMCA locations in the city, starting and finishing at North: my home Y. 

I loaded the course onto the Garmin, and waited for the sun. Coffee and toast with jelly. Grease the feet and nips. Don the running togs. Hit the bathroom. Check the weather. 34... huh? 34°? What's up with that? We just went through the warmest winter in my lifetime and barely ever saw 34°! Now was  a puzzler. How should I dress? I knew it was going to take me between 5.5 and 6 hours to run this distance. By the time I was finished, the temp might be in the low 60's.  In that heat, tights and a jacket would cook me. I decided to tough out the cool morning temps in shorts, gloves, and a long sleeved tech shirt. Feed the dogs. Kiss Mrs P. Hit the road.

I tried to start out easy, but the shadows were long, the wind was cold, and running felt a lot better than walking, so I just kept going. One measure of the shock of starting was my heart rate. My pulse averaged 149 BPM that first mile, about 20 BPM faster than my average for the run. Early on it spiked at 169, which is my theoretical maximum heart rate. Consequently, I ran that first mile a minute and a half faster than my target pace. My heart soon settled down, and so did my split times, but it took me a while to really find a comfortable way to move through the chill.

The first leg was a 5 mile jog to the North Y. The Garmin quickly scolded me. In the fog of early morning, I had planned my course to go to the Beaumont Y first, on the southern end of town. By the time I realized this, I had gone about 2 miles, and did not relish the prospect of doubling back and adding 4 miles just to get back on course, so I stayed on Broadway, moving north. From here on in, I would improvise.

I reached the Y in about an hour. Way too fast. I stopped for a pee and to top off my water bottle. Said "Hi," to Coach Melissa who offered to come get me if I crashed on the road. I had one of my PowerBar gummy energy chews, scanned my card at the door, and headed off toward the High Street Y.

High Street is the downtown Y in Lexington. I moved south through neighborhoods that had seen some hard times. The houses needed repairs that no one could afford. The dogs behind chain link fenceswere tough and loud. The sidewalks were rough and perilous. I kind of liked running here. People on the street sometimes nodded at the goofy old white man jogging through the 'hood. I smiled back. It was actually a very nice leg of my trip. I reached High Street in good time, chatted with the girl at the desk. Scanned my card, used the can, and topped off my water bottles. Then it was off on the long trek to Beaumont.

"Bow to the Brow"
I jogged out Nicholasville Road, through the UK campus. The school is still hung over from Monday's NCAA men's basketball championship, and every gas station has a vendor selling over-priced tee shirts celebrating Gr-8-ness and "The Brow," Anthony Davis: an extraordinarily talented young man who is about to become a very rich one. I passed book stores and hookah lounges. Now and then, another runner passed me, sometimes smiling at the goofy old fat man jogging in the cold wearing shorts and little more than a pajama top. As I waited for the light to change at the top of the very long hill that runs from town to Pasadena Drive, I heard a car horn and someone shouted my name. It was Bob, my training buddy and fellow half-marathoner from the week before. He smiled and hooted encouragement as I trotted through the cross-walk. It was like a shot of energy for me as I started along the ridge that would lead me to the big Beaumont Y.

Beaumont Centre is an amazing facility. It's the size of a small high school, and has multiple pools, basketball courts, and more class rooms than I can count. A nice young man joked with me about all the monitors I was wearing as I scanned my card for the third time today. Along with the Garmin, I was wearing my Timex to beep the Run/Walk intervals, and the heart monitor was visible through the damp spot on the chest of my shirt. I guess I did look kind of silly. But then the boy had no idea what an odyssey I was on. I decided not to brag about it, hit the can, topped off my water bottles, and headed back toward North.

Transylvainia University
Like so many of Lexington's streets, the main north/south artery changes names several times. Harrodsburg Road becomes South Broadway, then North Broadway, then Paris Pike as it passes through town. I hit nearly all of them as I came through downtown around lunch time. Here I encountered other joggers, business people rushing to lunch, and a tourist or two in town for opening day at Keeneland, shaking their heads at the old hick running in the cold in his underwear. North Broadway passes Transylvania University, a beautiful old private college where the streets are lined with white ornamental cherry trees.   As I approached the North Y and my 20th mile, I thought about it being Good Friday. Was I doing some sort of penance run, an act of piety to remember the day? I decided that I was enjoying this far too much for that. Instead, I was running as an act of reverence, honoring the day by remembering the life I had nearly lost. I reached the Y at right around 21 miles. I was going to be a little short of my goal, so I needed to add some distance on the way home. More improvising. After topping off my water bottles and forgetting to pee, I headed for home and the hills of Versailles Road.

Pennsyltuckians say "ver-SAILS". There's one in Kentucky and one north of Pittsburgh and they are both pronounced the same way. Snobs in Lexington love to make fun of this, and I always ask them if they call Paris, KY "pear-EE." I really should work on being less of a wise guy. Versailles Road is not pretty, at least not in town. Bridges over train tracks. Old strip malls. Seedy motels. One of Lexington's toughest public housing developments. I jogged past a bus station where two guys with that rough urban redneck vibe were dancing the preliminaries of a fist fight. A friend drove by and honked. Another witness. I climbed the three big hills that lead to the last turn toward home, noting the moment when I passed 23 miles. Farther than I'd ever run before. At 25 miles, I swear I could hear crowds cheering, even if the only person around was a little Latino lady, squatting beside a table full of perfumes she was selling. We exchanged smiles and I have no idea what she made of me. I looked down and was pleased to see there was no blood on the front of my shirt. Aquaphor had done the trick. I was within a mile of my goal, and it felt like a victory lap.

How 26.2 feels
Somewhere around 25 1/2 miles, I heard a car horn and the voice I love best in the world."GO BOB! YOU CAN DO IT!" God had arranged Mrs P's schedule so she was driving home just as I was finishing my run. If I was tired after that, I didn't feel it. I watched her disappear up the hill and thanked God for such a woman. She's spent nearly 25 years saving my life in one way or another. Now, she was going to finish The Big One with me.

26 miles. 26.1. 26.2. I didn't want to stop. I wanted to go for 27. 30. 50. I understand now why some people burst into tears at the finish line of a marathon. It's a completely insane and nearly impossible goal that eliminates your fear of anything in the world. As I hit the stop button on my watch at 26.5 miles, I thought to myself that there was no challenge that could possibly frighten me. I was going to be able to run a marathon.

So that was The Big One. I won't be going that far again until race day. "The hay is in the barn," runners like to say. For the next four weeks, my runs will be about maintaining my conditioning, building my strength, and raising money for LIVESTRONG at the YMCA. A month from today, it will all be over. But then, I don't think this one will ever really be over. This experience has changed me in way I never thought would be possible. There's just no telling what other changes are waiting for me between  here and the finish line on the Boulevard of the Allies, right down the street from the newspaper where my father and his father earned their living. There's still a long way to go.

And I'm going to love every step of the way.


Sunday, April 1, 2012

#400: Run the Bluegrass Half Marathon

An unlikely cover boy
The Run the Bluegrass was my second Half Marathon. Parts of it were easy and familiar to me, others left me struck with awe, admiration, or stupor, depending on the circumstances.

My pre-race routine is getting pretty set. In the days before a race, I prep as if it were a marathon. Ease up on the the training. Focus on fruits, veggies, and whole grains at the table. I always pickup my race packet early so I don't have to figure out what to do with a plastic bag full of coupons and swag half an hour before the race. The day before, I do the sleep math, counting backwards. On site about 90 minutes early. Travel time. Two hours to dress, eat, and use the bathroom before I leave. Seven to eight hours of sleep. An hour to pack my bag. Wherever that puts me on the clock, is where I start my countdown. This weekend it was 8:00 PM, Friday night.

This little bald lady is tougher than you
We finished our LIVESTRONG at the YMCA session with a half hour walk on the Legacy. The girls zoomed on ahead while I walked behind with F, who is the toughest man I've ever met. F has had cancer three times. He also has a rare wasting disease that is slowly erasing his muscles. And he has the heart of a lion. I've watched him grimace as he squats four or five inches, the most his legs will allow. I've seen him progress from pantomime bench presses, straining to simply move his clenched fists up and down, to knocking out 12 reps with a 9 pound bar. I watched him get thrown off a treadmill, take stock of his bumps, ask for a hand back up, then get back on the thing and finish his cardio. F isn't exercising so he can fit into smaller jeans. F is fighting for his life. He's one of the reasons I keep asking you for money. (You can do that by clicking the link, by the way.)

We finished at 7:30, and I booked it on home. Mrs P had a hard day, and had stopped for pizza and beer. I was tempted for a moment, but the thought of port-a-potties somewhere around mile 10 convinced me that I'd be better off with a bowl of granola for supper. Then it was time to pack.

Locked and loaded
For me, packing is a fairly obsessive process. I empty out my whole bag onto the bed. Don't need the swim goggles. Don't need the lifting gloves. One wet sock? Seriously? Get a towel. Extra towel. Three towels. You never know. Find the expensive running socks. Both pairs, in case of puddles. Which shoes? The new shoes, of course. My favorite compression shorts? My black LIVESTRONG running shorts? They're in the washing machine. Crap. Put them in the dryer and pray not to forget where you put them in the morning. (as if I'd forget to put on pants. Garmin? Charged. Timex? Run walk interval alarm set. Tape, Body Glide, Aquaphor, Band-aids? Check. Finally, I lay out my new dri-fit YMCA tank and pin my bib on. Mrs P managed to get the blood spots out from last weeks long run, but in my mind, I know they're still there, right over my heart. Pack and repack two or three times, just to be sure I haven't forgotten anything. Trim my toenails. Take a shower. In bed by 9:00, where visions of Bluegrass hills dance in my head. 

The dogs wake me at 2:00 to go out for a pee in the rain. The alarm wakes me at 5:00 and it's race day.

Weight? 254. Excellent. Heart rate? 58. Right on. One cup of coffee. One bagel with jelly. Wait for nature's call. Swap my jammies for the royal blue compression shorts and the black shorts. Mrs P is stirring in the bedroom, so I go back there to finish dressing. Grease up the feet with Aquaphor. Pull on the good socks. Double knot the shoes. Sun block. Slather the nips. Try to put 'Iron Man" cartoon band aids on them. Mrs P points out I've done that backwards, as the band aids fall off my lubricated chest. Finally, pull on the shirt and my YMCA Staff fleece to keep warm, and let my sweet bride go back to sleep. She promises to be there at the finish line with her camera. 

Nature finally calls, but only on line 1. I finally give up on waiting for line 2 to ring and leave, hoping for the best.

 "Is this heaven?" "No, it's Kentucky."
You know the final scene from Field of Dreams where miles and miles of headlights are snaking along the road in the dark toward the baseball field? That's what I see in my rear-view mirror as I turn onto Versailles Road at 6:00 in the morning. All these people. From all over the country. All coming to run these hills that I love so much. Last night's rain has left a misty, mystical fog on the ground and the air glows with pre-dawn light.

Something cool is happening at these gatherings. I'm meeting friends. These are people I've run with. People from the Y. People I know on Facebook. Faces from other events. A guy I used to go to church with. Ladonna, my fellow cancer fighter. Bob, who swore me to secrecy about his training, who has been preparing for this day since autumn. I'm one of them, now. I'm part of the community of idiots who get up at 5:00 in the morning to run. And they're some of the most supportive, generous people I know.

LaDonna reminding me why we're here
I wander around the crowd, taking it all in. Long sleepy lines for the bathroom. Drowsy bodies in warm up clothes stretching on the floor. A few of us trotting around outside to get the blood flowing in the legs. Slowly, 2000 people gather at the starting line. The horn sounds, and we're off.

Actually, the elite runners are off. We mortals are waiting in a line four lanes wide to filter through the starting gate. It takes my group about four minutes to reach the gizmo that will read out timing chips. I start my Garmin, and we're off. 

Target pace? 13:00/min. Must have been the Gatorade...
I told you all about the course in last week's post. We flow along the curves and hills, this river of brightly colored running clothes. Runners are stopping to take pictures. We laugh to each other as each new climb starts. I tuck in behind one runner after another as I fall into my 3:00 run/1:00 walk intervals. Many who pass me early, I catch later when their legs start to tire. God bless Jeff Galloway. Every two miles or so, a crowd of cheering kids holds out paper cups. "Water? Gatorade?" I stick with water for the first half, then switch to the sweet sticky stuff at around 7 miles. The last 3 miles are a celebration for me. I follow a group of friends, much stronger runners than I, who are joking and teasing and stopping every few hundred yards to take pictures. This isn't a contest, it's a festival, it's a holiday for loving life. I run the last two miles faster than I ran the first, and as I approach the finish line, there is Mrs P, always beaming, shooting pictures through tears of pride. I feel myself choke up a little too, but I'm not sure if it's from emotion or if I'm having a heart attack. 

He's with Stupid
At the end of the finisher's corral, a person whose gender I don't even remember holds up a blue and white checked ribbon, just like the colors Secretariat wore, and slips my medal over my neck. I float through the crowd dazed until Mrs P catches up with me. My friend Bob greets me with a bottle of water and a banana in his hand. We embrace, take more pictures, smile and laugh, then drift off toward the parking lot. When I look over my shoulder, I see Bob, standing still, watching the crowd. He isn't ready to leave. He's drinking it in. 

I don't really have an ending for this. On the drive home, a thought came to me: How much better would our world be if every now and then, we all got together on a Saturday morning and ran together? I think it might make a big difference.


Hey, don't forget to make your donation to Living Strong at the Y. It's easy, it's cheap, and you'll be a much better person if you do. Promise.

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