Monday, May 6, 2013

#451: 2013 Flying Pig Marathon, Part 2

When we last saw Pennsy, he had just kissed Mrs P goodbye and was heading down the stairs of the parking structure, toward what he remembered to be the starting area of the Flying Pig Marathon. He was travelling without his hydration pack because the weather and his physical condition could both be described as 'sloshy." But what our hero had forgotten was that in addition to 2 liters of sports drink, his pack also contained

  • Drivers license, Debit card, and insurance card
  • Cell phone in case of emergency
  • Interval timer to chirp out when to walk and when to run
The first was not missed. There was no need to pay EMT's or Emergency room doctors, or to prove my identity to any of the ubiquitous and heavily armed security personnel. On the other hand, I did have to borrow a phone to find Mrs P after the race, and not having my interval timer just may have cost me a couple hundred dollars in Buck-a-Minute donations. I decided I would just insert a walk break at every mile marker, but by mile 16, it was clear that that hadn't been enough. But we'll cross that bridge a few miles don the road. 

I made my way around Paul Brown Stadium. You might have to be a Steeler fan to appreciate the humor, but there was an enormous logo for Heinz on the flashing billboard outside. I passed the starting gate, and began jogging the long walk back toward "Pigpen H," the last corral for people who estimated their finishing time to be over 6 hours. I was somewhere around Pigpen C when they had a moment of silence, then a piper played to honor the wounded and dead of Boston. Somewhere near Pigpen F, an accapella group from the University of Kentucky, of all places, sang a really lovely rendition of the national anthem. I had just reached the big flag that said "G" when the horn sounded to start the race. We were on a sort of side spur road, so I knew that the slow pokes would have to wait a long time while the quicker runners passed. I made it all the way to the end of the line, and decided to use the traffic to control my speed for the first few miles. Then the wait started. We smiled at one another. Chatted. Stretched. Then I noticed someone pointing up in the sky. They had search lights ballyhooing around the starting line like a Hollywood opening. I figured that's what people were seeing. When I looked up, I saw a miracle instead. At 6:40 in the morning, with the sky steely blue with cloud cover, reaching from Kentucky to Ohio, hung an enormous rainbow. I've never seen anything like it in my life. I stood with my jaw slack, amazed at this wonderful sign from heaven. It felt like God was blessing our run. It was a good thing. I was going to need it. 

I hit the starting line at 6:51, 21 minutes after the gun. I had prepared a very clear pacing plan with the goal of bettering my previous Marathon time by an hour. 10 miles at 13:00/mile, 12 at 12:00/mile, then the last 4 miles somewhere between 11:00/mile and "go like hell."  I had calculated my run/walk pace based on 60 second intervals. had to throw that out the window when I discovered I didn't have my timer. My first 10 miles were actually pretty good: Between 13:32 (the first and most traffic laden) and 12:22 (an ego pace because I knew that the Striders would be cheering during that stretch, and didn't want to get caught walking.) One big surprise in the early part of the race was mile 9. I was expecting "the Climb." it pokes up out of the elevation chart like the Matterhorn. It's a 300+ foot climb, most of which occurs during miles 7 and 8. I took it nice and smoothly, comforted with the knowledge that once this one was done, the rest of the course was a long, gradual down hill roll. Mile 9 disabused me of that belief. The hills along the rest of the course are only small in comparison to "the Climb." On their own merit, they are little assasins, one and all. Not enough to kill you, but enough to just make you want to throw up your hands and cry out, "Dear God. ANOTHER one?" I held my pace through 16 miles, but after that, the 1 miles splits start to slow back down into the 13:00/mile range again. By mile 18, I knew two things. I was not going to hit the wall, I felt almost no pain or cramping in my legs. but I also knew that I was fading. I would not be dropping an hour from last year's time.

One other thing about "the Climb" When you get to the top, you run around a really dramatic overlook called Eden Park. The valley spreads out around you and it feels as if you are looking down from the clouds. It reminds me a little of Mount Washington in Pittsburgh. I would like to go back there someday when I have a little more time to stop and look around.

Mile 21 was the first and only time I went over 14:00/mile all day. It was also right around the time that my 1 minute per mile walk breaks fell apart. I tried several solutions, and finally settled on counting. 10 strides running, 10 strides walking. My mind was turning to mush at this point, too. I would count out loud, and laugh at the idea of runing a marathon 10 steps at a time. I cursed at the devil. I called out to lost friends and LIVESTRONG warriors. I tried to avoid thinking of the things and people who made me cry. It was easy. When some unwanted thought would rise up from the deep, I would just point my consciousness back toward the sound of my feet and my breath. At Mile 23, with just 5K left to run, I started going hard. No more walk breaks. I was going to go for broke. All I could think of was the Buck-a-Minute team. If I could knock an extra minute or two off my time, another kid could take swimming lessons or a trainer could spend an extra hour with a survivor who wanted to learn how to swing a kettlebell or perform a deadlift. I wasn't going to hit my personal goal, but I wasn't going to let those people down, either. 

One by one, I started to pass the walkers. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't blazing by any means, but I refused to let up. I thought about Becky in her nursing home bed, waiting to get sick enough that they would take her back to the hospital. I remembered all of them, then. I heard Carrie saying "Don't quit on me, Bob." I heard Mrs P, "I believe in you, Bobbo." Hardest of all was Coach Melissa. "Remember who you are. You are that same Bob Johnson that I saw that first day at the Y." I ran, partly to honor them, and partly to escape the tears that I felt threatening to choke me. When the finish line finally came into view, about a quarter mile down Main Street, I hauled up onto my toes and sprinted for all I was worth. I sprinted the way I do when Carrie has me run hill sprints. My arms pumped. My breath rushed in and out with each stride. I gritted my teeth. My eyes flashed. I was running angry. I was racing cancer. Mine. Becky's, Everybody's. When I hit the finish line, I threw up my hands and praised God, just as my nephew the preacher had asked me to do. I don't know how many people saw me. There aren't many spectators left after 5 hours of a Marathon. But God saw me. I knew who had given me the tools to do what I had done. I was humbled, but also proud. I was the one who had to choose what to do with those tools. God had let me choose, and I had chosen to try to be my best self. 

I was spent. A worried little volunteer took my arm and walked me, first to the mylar blankets, then to the water bottles. I realized that I had no way of reaching Mrs P, so asked a volunteer to let me use her phone. Security was  much too tight for us to meet at the finish line, so we decided to meet back at the parking garage. I made my way through the gauntlet of bananas and fruit cups and water bottles until I left the post race area, I looked down and realized that at some point, someone had hung a finisher's medal around my neck. I had just run my second marathon. I checked my Garmin. 39 minutes. I beat my old time by 39 minutes. Pretty impressive, if not the miracle I was hoping for. About 40 bucks per pledge. Not a bad day's work.

It started to rain, and as I tried to climb the stairs from the river to the walk way around the stadium, I felt the first crippling cramps of the day. Here at last was the wall. I had pushed it back to 27 miles. But there was still a long way to go to the car and my legs hurt so badly that I cried out each time I climbed another step. Limping, bellowing, and soon soaking and shivering, I walked up into the city. Mrs P had given me an intersection to find. I could not remember what she had said, nor could I have remembered how to find it if I did remember. I was far from the handful of blocks we had seen on Saturday. Nothing looked familiar because everything looked the same. A panhandler with a cardboard sign considered me carefully as I wandered by in a daze. I wouldn't have been surprised if he had offered me a buck. 

Finally, I met another pair of runners who looked as lost and stupid as I was. "We just went all the way around in a circle. We can't remember where we parked." "Did you see the Millennium Hotel on your walk?" "Yes," she shouted, as if she had finally gotten an answer right on Jeopardy. "It's a block that way!" We parted, and I assumed we would probably see one another again as we spent the rest of our lives wandering like Flying Dutch Pigs around the canyons of Cincinnati. Instead, as I approached the hotel, a woman with a plastic bag full of clothes approached me, smiling. No crying, No, it was not a stranger. It was Mrs P. "How in the hell did you find me?" I asked, amazed and squinting through my bifocal-less eyes. "I told you to meet me here. I've been standing on the corner watching people limp."

She led me to the car where I put on a dry shirt and some warm pants. We rode back to Kentucky, and stopped somewhere for lasagna and a bowl of minestrone. Then I went to sleep and woke up a few minutes from our house. 

It should have been a great day. Dropped 10% from my Marathon time. Doubled my fundraiser total. Finished 26 miles at a full gallop. But bipolar disorder can blunt even great days. By the time I got back to Lexington and opened up the race website to confirm my official time, it was as if it had all happened to someone else... as if I had watched a Marathon, instead of running one. The tears I had been hoping for... the cathartic bursting of the dam at the finish line that would let all the pain and grief out once and for all... they did not come. Instead, there was just exhausted numbness. At night, in our bed, I sobbed while Mrs P held me. No longer crying for my lost friend, but for the fear of losing the Y itself. 

I am terrified. As frightened as I have ever been of anything. If I can't get well, if this thing doesn't go away, then I will never be able to go back to work at the Y... back to the best job I have ever had, and the only one I have ever really loved... 

Yes, I am humbled by the generosity of my God and my friends. Yes, I am proud of the things we have achieved together. I am proud that there will be so much more money in the purse of LIVESTRONG at the YMCA. But I am so afraid that I won't be able to be there to see the good it will do. God, help me. God, heal me. Please. I am so very very afraid.


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