love, one mile at a time
It was was an affair so accesible and simple, my boyfriend dropped me off right at the start line. Although participation included 37 states and seven foreign countries, only 300 marathon runners or so gathered at 5:30 am. The moon straight above, in a circle of glimmering stars, presided over the modest ceremony. A woman somewhere ahead in the group sang the anthem live, and without seeing him we clapped for Brad who set out in a wheelchair. Then, in a prolonged wave, we passed over the narrow mat, and took off ourselves.
We ran on the shoulder, counter-traffic, the city to our left, the mountains to our right, cars passing us in the darkness. Within minutes we dispersed into a long line, shadows on the road. I started out so easy, it could be barely called running.
Before the May race in Shiprock, unexpected and magical, I thought for months this would be my first marathon. Even now I was holding on to the idea of running it the way I thought I would run my first: without time goals, without heroics, without constraints. I read once about someone who dedicated each mile of his marathon to a person he loved, and I wanted to do that too. It would be easy, since I was familiar with the course, having run most of it at one point or another – the second part one year ago, when I did the half-marathon. It would also be exclusive; to do justice to everybody I would have to run an ultra.
This attention to discrete intervals of distance, of taking in mile markers and promptly switching focus to a new person, changed the dynamics of the race. I have to confess from the start: since running interferes with my ability to count, I garbled up the allocation a few times. It’s as if all the energy of my being goes into the legs, and the drained brain cannot come up with accuracy. I run mindless, without understanding of numbers, space, or time.
Thinking of the people who are important in my life, one mile at a time, forced me to pay attention to distance. As a paradoxical consequence my mind was immersed in what I wished for them, not on the consumption of miles. The apprehension about the upward incline of the first eight miles, which had endlessly concerned me before, simply vanished. I did not even notice an incline. It must have been there, but it was dark, I did not see it, I had other things on my mind. The eight-mile-marker came when I reached The County Line Restaurant, where the aroma of barbecue permeated the air (they put the brisket on the night before). Only then did I realize that the uphill part was behind me, and I switched over to Irene, my girlfriend since ninth grade, back home in Eastern Europe.
The course turned left, west, and downhill, and the cauldron of the Rio Grande valley opened in front of me in a haze of purple and peach. Due to its proximity to the mountain range, the course was still protected by shade, although the city below was already shimmering in the gold of dawn. It smelled of sage grass, and we were running on the Sandia Indian reservation. Again, I went easy downhill, concerned for my knee. I wore an elastic support band, more for the placebo effect than anything else. As long as I could feel the pressure of the band, the pain would not be too loud, and would not worry me. Runners starting passing me at high speed, as if they had little engines whirring inside. I stayed put, letting them go.
The sun rose over the crest of the mountains two hours after start. The landscape changed to poignancy, our shadows elongated El Greco-wise in front of us. I had to think about fueling, but could not stomach the thought. During the whole race I had a half a bar of trail mix and a date, and I wish I could have done without. At the half-way mark I switched over to American friends. I was still doing good.
The course was marked, here and there, with endearing blue chalk marks: “you are doing great, it’s downhill from here, only little to go, see you at the finish line.” When we turned south on 4th street, at the El Pinto restaurant, a whimsical pair of clowns, all dressed up, played nostalgic music from their parked car, blowing soap bubbles across our path.
The sun was getting to me.
When you love people, you wish all of them, more or less, the same thing: that they may be themselves, find their purpose, express their creativity, grow without too much suffering, have comfort, live in health, enjoy support, give and receive love. What amazed me was the differentiation these wishes can take for each particular person, tailored to their specific circumstances; what diverse wording you can come up with, conveying the same love; how much that can spurn you on to take the next step and forget about taking it, because you have to take the next one and the next.
At mile 19 (or somewhere there) a bird crossed my path, swirling back and forth in front of me, until I realized it was a hummingbird, and it zoomed off. We were in the Bosque, the bike path along the Rio Grande. It smelled of heat, and rotten wood, and stagnant water. I was running south, or crawling, as it may be. My face was burning. I walked for a long time behind a man in black socks, carrying an American flag on his shoulder. Each time I started to run again the body faltered, and I wondered if I would have to walk the last six miles. Until I realized we were missing some mile markers (I remembered the trail from a year go), and I took heart again. And ran, ran as much as I could under the relentless sunlight. The next mile marker was 22, and I was surprised again. Only four more miles to go?
I could do that. I splashed water on my face. I dismissed the thought of further fueling. I ran. I ran holding in my mind the few people I could still honor in the short interval of four miles. My girlfriend in Italy, lonely and sick. An old lady who died this last April, she did not need a greeting anymore, but who knows. Eventually, the marker I was awaiting, mile 25. From then on, the easiest and hardest mile plus, I ran for my boyfriend.
At the last turn before the finish, I summoned up all I still had in me – not much – and launched myself forward with composure, intent to cross the finish line in beauty. I sprinted ahead blindly, past the yellow-clad runner from Brazil who got spurned on and passed me in turn.
I stopped short of breath beyond the gate of balloons. My second marathon. Five hours 15 something minutes. I did not look at my watch, and I did not stay long enough to see results posted. What difference would it make in the long run?
Still - I had no idea how I had run Shiprock in almost one hour less.
I reserved the first mile for me, because you cannot love anyone, really, if you do not love yourself. And although I ran that first easy mile in cool darkness thinking it was “mine,” I did not articulate for myself the ardent wishes I sent to everybody else, one mile at a time. I did not realize this until the day after. I still have to work on it, next time around.
But I pampered myself, nevertheless. A bubble bath after the ice treatment. A dinner out. A good movie. On Labor Day, again, I stopped to smell the roses. I did a few loads of laundry, but I took time off from writing, and spent a few leisurely hours at the pool. And for the first time in my life, I baked a peach pie.