After due deliberation, I made my decision. The BMW Dallas Marathon, if I successfully completed it, would be my 101st race of marathon distance or longer.
Of course, my mind was immediately filled with images of black and white-spotted puppy-dogs. I made an effort to clear my thoughts of such clutter because these numbers are important.
You see, for an aging marathoner like me, 100 holds this significance — that beyond it there lies no obvious next stopping point. To go past 100 marathons would be like pushing an aircraft to Mach 1 and then breaking the sound barrier — which produces an impressive bang no doubt — but that doesn’t mean you’ve reached the maximum possible speed. (OK, I confess to being fascinated with fighter jets and pilots.)
In any case, number 101 did not seem like a sure thing. I’d spent most of the summer hiking. After completing a Catskills hiking challenge and bagging a dozen peaks in New Hampshire, I’d gone on a 211-mile pilgrimage through California’s Sierra Mountains. It must have taken a million steps. Of which most were slow and painful. This kind of exercise isn’t much help with running. Nor is age.
George Sheehan wrote that when you race, you are under oath — you are testifying as to who you are. But people lie. Even under penalty of perjury. So I prefer to think of a race as a “test.” Where the results are measured and can’t be faked. Or as a “singularity.” That vanishing point in time which separates what you meant to do, from what you did.
I returned from California in September and immediately started back with training. And immediately strained a calf. Speedwork was tentative. On long runs, the results were mixed. I discovered that I’d somehow signed up for a half-marathon and a 50k on the same day. Skipped them both in favor of a 5-miler.
Suddenly it was Thanksgiving, and time for another 5-miler. In comparatively balmy conditions for late-November Chicago, where I was visiting family: heavy skies, damp cool air, shifting winds, with the lake alternating between dead fish-eye green and emerald. A slow start, a lot of weaving around other runners on a crowded lakefront trail, a faster pace toward the end – and overall, three minutes slower than last time and six minutes off my best (sadly, more evidence of age). But I ran it with my son (he beat me easily), and his smile and confidence sent my spirits soaring.
December opened with a bang – a big project afoot at work with myriad complexities. From Chicago I flew to Dallas, where after an intense week, I awoke feeling slightly off. Mild headache. A tickle in the roof of my mouth. A sag in energy. With the media blaring about the triple-demic (COVID, Flu, and RSV), I’d raised my psychic deflector shields to protect myself from inflammatory information. But I guess I’d taken some hits. Out of respect for colleagues, I stayed in my hotel room and worked remotely. Skipped my morning workout and slept in late. Did breathing exercises and visualizations to stimulate self-defense against environmental pathogens and encourage self-repair. The next day, I felt better, if not perfect.
Thursday morning an easy five miles in a local park — with the marathon now three days out, this would be my last run prior to the event – and by the end my calf had tightened up. Afterwards, I placed the calf atop bent knee, putting pressure on the sore spot, while rotating my ankle. (This procedure, called “flossing,” is recommended by author and physical therapist Jay Dicharry.)
That afternoon I was driving from office back to my hotel, when the autumnal tints of roadside foliage caught my eye. Oaks in green and red and bronze and mottled orange. Cedar elms turning tangerine. Mesquite in green and lemon. What did these colors signify? Was there a dragon studying our world from a parallel neighboring universe – and were these the colors of its eye?
I sometimes feel a sense of vertigo. Like the ground is rushing up. One night I was reading a book about a pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago who had, incidentally, at some point in her life learned to parachute. I used to be a paratrooper. I distinctly remember the instructor in U.S. Army Airborne School drilling us on procedures, including those for landing in the dark. You will sense the horizon rising up around you, he explained, even if you cannot see it. That’s when you place your feet together and flex your knees.
Friday evening, I was pulling into the driveway at the company’s holiday party – and there was that familiar vague anxiety about what to say to whom and for how long. Regarding the big project in which I was so deeply enmeshed, I told a colleague — “it’s like driving in a snowstorm without windshield wipers.” He laughed and laughed (a little nervously) in part because our boss is so demanding. For example, the boss recently challenged me on a key assumption. I explained my logic. He was quite demonstrative with his doubts. Finally, on a conference call our legal counsel confirmed my point of view. “You were remarkably patient,” a team member commented. But even so, the pressure was unremitting. Two days earlier I’d been driving from office to hotel, when he called with questions about some missing numbers. I hunted them down from another colleague, who’d left them out by mistake. Why did that happen, the boss insisted. “He was flustered by the time crunch,” I replied. Nonchalantly.
“It’s been a stressful week,” another colleague admitted, with a wry look. I nodded, thinking to myself of other pressures in my life which I’d had to manage concurrently. A disagreement with a family member. A friend who tossed out — “I don’t want to offer unsolicited advice, since that’s always taken as negative feedback.” To which I replied “please do.” And later, “thank you” as the back of my throat tightened up, and my energy sagged again.
Did I mention I’m fascinated by fighter jets? Sometimes I watch videos on YouTube. Here’s a pilot with call-sign “Rebel” settling into the cockpit of an F-16 Viper. Pulls on gloves with fingertips cut off. Rolls sleeves up to the elbow. Straps documents to both thighs (for reference while in flight). Pulls on gray helmet over a long blonde ponytail. And then she’s taking the aircraft through loops and barrel rolls. It’s hard work — I can tell from the way her respiration quickens and her breath rasps out explosively (what mountaineers call “power breathing”). From the top of a loop, she looks up (i.e., down toward the ground), reads off the altimeter, and then her chest heaves with a great deep breath, prior to the descent. She talks not with the stereotypical test-pilot’s West Virginian drawl, but with an unpretentious lilt, like a school-girl. Even as she whips the aircraft around in a high-g turn, pushing the throttle until the jet shudders and vapors condense across the wings. At which point a computer voice starts chirping, in a tone measured but insistent – “altitude…altitude.” And then, the tone still measured but now with more urgency — “pull up, pull up.”
It’s Saturday morning, the day before the race. I’m on the road to the convention center, to pick up my bib, at the same time talking to that family member who’s upset with me, while listening for instructions from Google Maps.
A little later, bib secured, I’m posing for a selfie with a bronze bull in Pioneer Plaza.
Next on the itinerary is coffee at a nearby shop, but Google Maps is unaware of race-related route closures – it’s got me going in circles. I can’t figure this out while driving — can’t study the map without my reading glasses — and there’s no place to pull over. I stifle my rage at the phone. At the traffic. At technology in general and modern humankind’s collective descent into digital-mechanical servitude. At my inability to manage this situation. At age and the gradual loss of capabilities.
Maybe the problem here is too much coffee, not enough food. As it happens I’m in the middle of an intermittent fast (a nutritional practice, with specific monthly targets for hours fasted, which are tracked in my training log). I make an Executive Decision — abort the fast at 22 hours, instead of pushing on to 30. I change course to an alternate location for food and more coffee.
Notwithstanding the sense of chaos spinning up, I make it there. As I’m sipping a cappuccino, I see an email from a friend —
Best of success at the Dallas Marathon. Hope you accomplish what you want.
Wishing you wings on your feet, the wind to your back, the sun lightly kissing your face, and the sound of music on the hills.
It was a connection from a person who shares the spark. The message calmed my spirit. My mental RPMs began to slow.
That evening, lying in bed, with two alarms set for the morning, I visualize a vast plain stretching from one horizon to the other. Through which that pilgrim (the one who took parachute lessons) is progressing. Fields of unfamiliar grasses rustle in a dancing breeze. In the distance, a dart-shaped shadow gathers itself in silence. Comes scudding through the glare. In a flash is overhead, then punches into cloudbank.
George Sheehan wrote that every mile he ran was his first. Every hour on the roads was a new beginning. A chance to see things as if for the first time.
The first alarm goes off. The second one follows. Bitter taste of hotel coffee. I realize that in terms of how I went about the preparations, I’ve as much as run the race already. Test number 101 has been taken. What happens next is merely the outcome’s revelation.
The drive to downtown Dallas, for the second time — no need for Google Maps any longer.
Sitting in the parking lot for a moment, I stare at heavy gray sky and in my mind transform the image into a pale red dome with flecks of orange and heat flashes flittering around the margin.
Car door open, the cool prickly feel of damp asphalt underfoot.
Small groups are making their way toward the wild throbbing beat of amplified music, which echoes across the plaza.