Tuesday, April 9, 2013

#423: Running Long, Falling Short

"I went to the doctor. I went to the mountains..." My soul has always found healing in the mountains. This Sunday, the Great Physician led me to northern Kentucky where I got a generous dose of just the right medicine.

I had time for two long runs before my Marathon in May. The plan was to do 26 this weekend, take two weeks for recovery, then go longer than 26 one last time before the race. When a friend invited me on a run through the serious hills north of Lexington, I decided that the climbing would more than make up for the lost miles, and plotted a 20 mile course from Millersburg to my friend Sandy's house, deep in the hollers of Nicholas county. Before the day was over, I was to learn just how much I had under-estimated those hills. I would also experience one of the most gratifying failures of my life.

A Mountain Locker Room
We met after church. The weather was lovely. At 72 partly cloudy degrees, the Bluegrass finally felt like spring had arrived. Mrs P dropped me off in Millersburg where I joined my friend Jeri and some fellow runners. It was great to be in shorts and a singlet after the long months of tights and treadmills.

Jeri and I started down the road out of town and we were soon climbing. She set a pace that was a little quicker than I would have liked, and chose 5:00 run/1:00 walk intervals. I planned to run the first 5 or 6 miles with her, then she would turn back while I continued on for my long run. I figured I could take the challenge of keeping up with her stronger legs for a little while, but the pace and the hills soon told me otherwise. "I can't keep up with you, Jeri. I'll slow down and you go on ahead." She seemed mystified. "What? I thought I was trying to keep up with YOU." She had interpreted my attempts to follow her as an effort to push her. We switched to shorter run intervals, and the trip became much less of a trial.

Take me to the River
Bridge Over Peaceful Waters
Blood and Sweat, but
No Tears... Yet
We talked about running and grandkids and dogs and our marriages. We puffed up the hills and gasped at the beautiful views from their tops. When my teeth popped out of my mouth (again...) we laughed at the silliness of it, and when a misstep off the edge of the black-top sent me tumbling, we joked about other great falls we had suffered on the roads. When we rounded the bend that led us to the covered bridge at Colville, our time together seemed much too short. Jeri's husband was there waiting with water, and Jeri snapped some pictures of my gory looking leg before I trotted off down the road toward the remainder of my journey. The hills were brutal and beautiful. There were long, steep climbs followed by descents that always seemed too short. Sometimes the roads led me along a ridge where I could see for what seemed like miles. Other times I followed along beside creeks in deep valleys where ancient houses, trailers, and barns lined the road sides. Occasionally I would pass someone feeding horses or just relaxing on their porch. They would stare in puzzled amusement as I jogged along.

I encountered lots of other critters on my way. This isn't thoroughbred country. No million-dollar farms out here. These horses work hard for a living, and it shows. Their pastures and their coats are both a lot rougher than their cousins at Keeneland, but they are no less beautiful. Cattle knelt by roadside fences as if in prayer, and lumbered warily to their feet as I passed. An occasional snort from a muddy pen let me know that next winter's hams were rooting contentedly in the shade. And of course, there were the dogs. Working dogs are like working horses. No carefully bathed sissies out here. There were the big old shepherds patrolling fenced in yards. Shaggy giants roaring from barns. And then there were the Pits.

There is a certain amount of... how to put this?.. home-style chemical manufacturing going on in these woods. Years ago, that might have meant white lightening. Probably still does in some places. But things being how they are in the mountains nowadays, the products are more sinister. Meth labs are scattered among the shacks and abandoned out-buildings in the hills, and they take a terrible toll on our people. Of course, whether you're cooking meth or moonshine, you need a security system, and that often means dogs that are meant to keep strangers far away. A couple of bruisers charged at me as I ran, but I just raised myself up tall, didn't change my pace, and acted for all the world like the biggest dog in the woods. Once they saw that I was not weak or wounded, and had no intention of stopping to sniff around, they always settled down. One even sidled in beside me and trotted down the road quietly for a couple hundred yards. I'm not sure if he was  being a partner or just escorting me off the property, but it was funny having such a fierce looking monster on my heel for a while.

The terrain had been rough all day, but around mile 10, I started wondering if I hadn't bitten off more than I could chew. By mile 13, I was pretty certain that I had. I switched my run/walk intervals to 30 seconds. Soon I was walking 30 and shuffling 30 with an occasional break to sit on a roadside rock where I contemplated the insanity of a 50 year-old-cancer survivor trying to raise money by running marathons. Somewhere during mile 14 I said it out loud: "I'm in trouble here." Cell phone signals are few and far between out in the hills. I had to wait to get to the top of one before I could see any bars on my screen. "I'm about five miles from you, and I'm out of gas," I gasped to Mrs P. "I need you to come and get me." After she had dropped me off in Millersburg, she had gone on to Sandy's house for some R&R. She had a detailed map of my route in case I needed rescuing. The two of them hopped in Sandy's truck and headed toward me.

As Far As I Was Going to Go
Knowing help was on the way gave me heart and I tried jogging a little. I was in a very pretty valley and the road was as flat as I had seen all day, so the going was pretty smooth. I knew from plotting my route online that there was a mile long hill, the steepest of the day, waiting at mile 17. Around 16.8, I came to a pretty little crossroads with a beautiful country church standing silently by. I saw a large concrete pad that I knew must be the sceptic tank, and limped to it. This was as far as I was going to go.

I don't remember what I thought about as I sat there on that cement sewer. I'm not sure I thought of anything at all. I was well past the "stupid zone" where my brain shuts off and my legs take over. Both were exhausted now, and I sat quietly in that contemplative state like a soggy monk, waiting for deliverance.

Just a Little Road Rash
Sandy almost drove right past me. She expected me to be back around mile 15, where I was when I made my SOS call. When she and Mrs P pulled to a stop in the gravel beside the church. I wasn't sure if I would be able to walk to the truck or not. My wife got out to help me, and fret over the blood that was caked down my right calf. My fall with Jeri had left me pretty well scratched up and the blood thinners I take had done their work.

As we turned onto the ironically named "Johnson Road," I finally learned just how badly I had underestimated this run. The mile long climb was as steep a road as I have seen anywhere this side of Colorado. I couldn't have run it. I couldn't have crawled it. As Sandy swung the big crew-cab across the bridge and up the long drive that leads to her house, I knew that they had saved me as surely as if they had rowed up beside me in a lifeboat on a stormy sea.

At Last, a Friendly Dog
No joke: this was the toughest run of my life. Not even my marathon left me as drained and helpless at this trip through the mountains. Along the way, I had questioned everything from my attempts to raise money to my dreams of running another Marathon. I had doubted myself and my own strength. I had doubted my own intelligence! After only 15 miles I had decided to just give up. I sent up a flare. I sat by the side of the road and thought about what it felt like to surrender.

Then I thought about the reason I was running. I thought about Becky, fighting for her life against the chemo that was trying to kill her second bout of cancer. I thought of Raynee and the tumor in her brain that threatened to steal her from her husband and little children. I thought of the scar on James' scalp and the fire in Jaspal's eyes and always, always Coach Carrie's voice. "You can't do this, Bob." And Melissa. "I see you running a Marathon someday." And Mrs P. "I believe in you, Bobbo." I got up off my ass when I didn't have a drop of energy left and no hope in the world of finishing this course, and I by-God ran. I ran two more miles after I was sure I couldn't go another step.

How? Courage? Determination? Stubbornness? Stupidity? God? Yes, I think it was God. God, who created me to be a runner. God, who let the cancer almost kill me so I could discover my own strength. God, who appears in the eyes of every survivor, every caregiver, every doctor and nurse and kind friend I meet in my battle against a disease I hate.

The View from Sandy's Porch
The two great seasons of the church year are Christmas and Easter. Incarnation and Resurrection. God with us, and God redeeming us. The spirit of God is alive in the people I serve. They are my inspiration and my strength. Whatever courage I have, I learned from the warriors I have met in the gym and on the road. That's why I run. That's why I'm always begging for money. And that's why I will run that crazy race in May.

Not because I can't let them down.

But because they won't let me fall.


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