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The Boston Marathon is special. I’ve never run it. But I watched it with great intensity all of my undergrad years at Tufts. I would wake up early on Patriots Day, pack myself a lunch, hop on the T, and settle myself roadside right around mile 22, at the top of the infamous Heartbreak Hill. And I would stand there hour after hour, often with tears streaming down my cheeks, cheering til my voice was gone and my hands hurt from clapping. This event is truly unlike any marathon I’ve seen, as either a runner or as a spectator. I’ve run in awesome marathons, including twice in Chicago which is a total party from start to finish. But it is nothing like Boston. Boston is special.
It’s starts at least a week early with daily human interest stories on the local news and in the Boston Globe. These are your typical tug-at-your-heartstrings,-look-at-all-the-obstacles-this-runner-has-overcome-to-be-here kind of stories. The oldest runner, the youngest runner, the disabled one, the one running for his/her dying parents/sibling/spouse/child/friend, all tinged with an Olympic hero quality, except that this is Every Man and Every Woman, strapping on their running shoes and finding glory. I love that shit.
The day itself is filled with moments, both public and personal, large and small, stories of immense personal sacrifice and triumph, all embodying the strength of the human body and the strength of the human spirit. I once saw a young man running with the words “Will You Marry Me?” scrawled on his t-shirt dropping to his knees right at mile 22 to propose to his girlfriend on the sidelines. He’d been carrying her ring in his sweaty hands for twenty-two miles. Numerous times, I’ve seen Dick and Rick Hoyt, the now famous father pushing his grown son in a wheelchair the entire length of the race. And I’ve seen thousands of ordinary men and women who have dedicated months to training and are literally on the road to their life’s greatest accomplishment.
What is most special about that day is the overwhelming feeling of camaraderie that pervades the city. People don’t come out to root for the stars like at most sporting events; this is not about cheering on overpaid professionals, who may be perfectly good at what they do but do not always earn the hero moniker. Every one is there rooting for people they don’t even know, people they’ll never know. It’s not like that at all marathons. I can tell you from experience that there are long stretches of the Cleveland Marathon where fans silently line the streets and crane their necks looking down the road for that single particular person they know, completely ignoring all the struggling runners right in front of them. The last time I ran it, in fact, I found myself shouting at the spectators, “Cheer for everyone! Cheer for everyone!” thinking, “Who raised these people?” It obviously wasn’t my mom, who instilled in us a don’t-stop-cheering-until-the-last-person-crosses-the-finish-line mentality. She had her own Boston Marathon moment, running it in 1979 when there were still relatively few women on the road. She said that as she neared the halfway mark, a veritable scream arose from the women of Wellesley College and it was a few seconds before she realized they were screaming for her. There she was, in her early thirties, with that trademark long white hair blowing in the wind behind her, keeping up with the big dogs, running with mostly men as she let the feminists of Wellesley carry her forward to her best ever finish of 3 hours and 4 minutes.
Boston is part of my lore, the state in which I was born and city in which I was educated. As it is for so many runners, it remains the single marathon I would ever allow to lure me back on the road for that kind of distance. It is special. And it will continue to be so, even when we feel helpless and vulnerable, sad and angry. Braedan and I are running in a 5K next week, his first ever road race. I like to imagine that someday he might decide to run the Boston Marathon. And if he does, I’ll be right there at the finish line, cheering him — and everyone else — on. Because that’s what we do.
Nice post for me to leave sitting out there for more than a week, huh? Hope nobody accidentally stumbled across my blog or they’d never return!
I happened to be on vacation last week. Yes, a real, super fabulous, sort of random, lucky-for-me vacation. You know how my parents go on these bike trips every year? Well, my dad had his knee replaced in the spring and then his other knee scoped in August and my mother was suffering from bike trip withdrawal and pathetically requested my company so she wouldn’t have to go an entire year without a Backroads trip and I, being the good daughter and not wanting her to suffer too much, sacrificed myself and tagged along.
Okay, well, that’s not exactly how it went. It was really my husband who sacrificed me and let me go along. Thanks to short work days for Mark and long playdates for the boys, I had the distinct pleasure of going with my mom for a week of cycling through coastal Maine. I know when people think “bike trip,” images of roughing it come to mind. But no, this is quite the opposite. We certainly worked hard on our bicycles (there are no flat parts of Maine, as far as I can tell), but these trips are quite luxurious, with leaders taking care of every detail and van support in case you want to quit (needless to say, we never did) and lovely hotels and inns and fantastic gourmet dinners each night. For me, the combination of intense exercise, quaint seaside towns and delicious food and drink could not be more perfect.
The weather was iffy (and that’s an understatement) but the scenery was beautiful. We were quite close, in fact, to where the boys and Mark and I went last fall.
Best of all, we had a great group of fourteen cyclists and two leaders, and spent a significant portion of our non-biking time just talking and sharing and laughing. We knew we were willing to get to the heart of the matter when our second night dinner conversation revolved exclusively around religion, inspired by one lapsed Mormon and many lapsed Catholics. So much for not talking religion or politics with strangers!
My favorite part was Day Two, the toughest by far, which included a climb up Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park, the highest point along the North Atlantic seaboard. As our leaders described the route, they predicted it would take us 40 to 45 minutes to bike the 3-and-a-half miles up. Forty-five minutes for three-and-a-half miles? On a bike?! That seemed crazy to me and as soon as I thought, “I could run it faster than that,” I knew how I’d be spending my afternoon.
After cycling more than thirty miles on unpaved, trafficless paths, I met our van at the base of the mountain and handed over my bike, ready to tackle a run up the mountain. “Oh-kaaaay,” my leader had said when I suggested it at lunch. “We’ve never had anyone request that before.” Which, of course, made me want to do it even more.
A few hundred yards into my run I had a brief moment of doubt — what was I thinking? — which quickly dissipated as random drivers and cyclists cheered me on. Every time I got a wave or a clap or a toot of a horn (or even a head shaking), I’d smile and just keep going. (It always helps, you know, like today as I ran down North Park and someone leaned out of a minivan window and shouted, “Run, Krissy, run!” I haven’t a clue who it was but I sure appreciated it.)
The hardest part was not knowing how far I’d gone. Because I was slower than usual (and had forgotten to look at the exact time when I started), I had no idea if I was just around the bend from the top or only halfway there. It reminded me of those final weeks of Austin’s treatment when we were never sure of how much more chemo we had ahead of us. It’s always easier when you have a clear goal, an end post, to set your sights on. The not knowing makes it so much harder, both physically and emotionally. Do I push now and finish strong or conserve for all that remains ahead?
The whole run reminded me of the cancer journey. Cancer’s like that, you know. One small step, one foot in front of the other. If you look up and try to take in the whole path ahead of you, you’d be too overwhelmed to ever even start. The summit would seem insurmountable. So instead you put your foot down and you take one step and then you take one more. Focus on the one tiny inch in front of you — that’s what my dad said before we started the second round of chemo. Just that one little inch. And before you know it, you’re there. You’ve done it.
And then it’s all downhill.
On July 31, 2007, our very first night on the pediatric oncology floor, our pediatrician came to visit with me and Mark to help prepare us for what lay ahead. He described the journey we were about to embark on as a marathon, one we had not trained for (except that we’d been training since the moment we became parents), one we didn’t sign up for, but one we had to run nonetheless.
I know a thing or two about running, having completed four full marathons and countless half marathons, including Cleveland’s half this morning. I know that no matter how well-trained you are, there is always something beyond your control, some seemingly small sore spot that can cripple your run. I know that no matter who you train with or start out with or chat with along the way, the race is yours alone and no one else can take a single step for you. I know that you have moments when you feel completely unprepared, cowed by the hill in front of you or the almost endless stretch of road still to come, when you wonder what you got yourself into and how you’ll ever get yourself out of it. And I know you have moments when you feel strong, on a slight downhill, wind at your back, like you can fly, like you can do anything.
Without question, this cancer journey has been our marathon. There’ve been twists and turns we never anticipated, there have been steady even stretches where we get into such a groove we almost forget what we’re up against. There’ve been steep uphills where continuing seemed impossible and bursts of speed to push us forward. And there’ve been fans.
Race fans may not know their impact (and judging by today’s strangely quiet crowds, they may not know how much they’re needed). But fans are a completely necessary component of a long race. Perfect strangers calling out your name and urging you onward, giving you strength and hope and courage, make a huge difference. As do the “fans” we’ve acquired along this journey. You may at times watch silently from the sidelines but we see you there and we know that when you’re really needed, you’ll speak up and cheer us on, reminding us of the strength we already have inside.
This race of ours is certainly not over. We’re due for five days of chemo starting this Thursday, pending the enormously consequential results of tomorrow’s GFR (kidney function test). And then three more rounds of chemo after that, with an estimated finish in early August. We’re more than halfway, which is a huge accomplishment, but just like in full marathons, that last half is always harder than you think.
We’re a little beat down, muscles sore and tired from overuse, chasing an ever-moving finish line. But we’ve been training for years now and we’ve learned an awful lot, and oh I do love to run, so we set our sights a little farther down the road and we dig a little deeper and we let the cheers of our fans lift us forward. And we know that we will finish strong.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering: 1h52m. Strong enough.