royal and unforeseeable
I started the race day by engaging in a no-no. Never do before a race something not rehearsed and tried out beforehand. I thought about it, and decided to do it anyhow, a calculated risk.
The weather forecast robbed me of delusions even before we left. No crisp autumn day – it was going to rain. Light showers on Saturday, real rain during race day. I assessed my quasi-inability to ingest any kind of fuel while running, and concluded no way I could uphold a race in rainy cold without having food on board. That is, for the first time ever I had a full breakfast one hour and a half before gun time. On the spot, it felt good. The strategy paid off during the second half of the race, but made me uncomfortable during the first part, so in the end I am not sure how beneficial it was.
With a loose understanding of space coordinates gleamed from rough pdf maps, I had made the most inspired hotel reservations ever. The start line was situated a half a block away from our backdoor, and we could see the finish line from our balcony. The day ensued overcast, but when my boyfriend walked me over to the start, the sky lit up and the sun broke forth. The crowd was fretting on the spot, exuberant, happy, impatient. I took the redundant gear off and lined up.
It started off much too fast. I must have been too far ahead for my pace, since for a half an hour everybody passed me, a furious wave parting around me and closing up ahead. We left behind the boats in the inner harbor, speeded up along the waterfront, breezed through quaint streets, outlined downtown Victoria, and turned south to the bay again.
The course was beautiful. It meandered through green parks and residential areas where everybody was up and about, coffee cups in hand, stereos blasting, lounge chairs on the lawn, signs hanging from trees. I am so used to running in the desert, I gaped at that. They have trees in British Columbia, you know. I have not seen in any race before, not even in the Phoenix Rock’n’Roll half-marathon, such an involved, enthusiastic audience. We followed the contour of the bays, running through the gray-golden glitter wafting up from the inland extensions of the Pacific Ocean. The air smelled of salt and iodine and energy.
I could not find my comfort zone. I had barely gotten into the rhythm whan I was already exhausted. I knew I could run much more, much faster, on any given day, but today was not that day. At km 10 (I realized with horror I was not even a quarter through) I was spent. At mile 10 it started raining, and I understood why so many runners had kept their gear on. By the halfway point I gave up on making good time. A bit further, at the turnaround, the rain was coming down in sheets. With nothing left in me, I felt hopeless, inadequate, trapped.
A couple of times I cried with exhaustion, striving blindly forward, tears mingling in my eyes with rain. I was walking when a volunteer in a reflective vest approached me on bicycle and asked me how I was doing. “No matter what I do from now on,” I said, “I still have to get back somehow.”
He offered me a garbage bag. “To ward of hypothermia,” he said. I was cold, of course, I had long running tights on, but the same top I used in NM in 70 degrees weather. Still, hypothermia? I searched his face trying to see what he was seeing, but I could not detect anything besides hidden concern. Duly I slipped into the black plastic, and went on.
He circled back to me several times over the next couple of hours. I always knew kilometers to be shorter than miles, and can adequately handle the conversion, but on this day kms were much longer. Sometime after acquiring my new designer marathon wear, I fell into a resolve that resembled stoicism and trudged on forward, steady, relentless, resigned.
Returning along the course of the bay I had a schizophrenic moment. In spite of rain and wind, volunteers and onlookers protected by hoods and umbrellas and tents still lined the road, but here the street was deserted. Nobody ran in front of me, the turbulent expanse of the bay was the only witness of ordeal, and I looked down on my bare arms to feel estranged, as if somehow, by an erroneous shift in the gears of the universe, I had fallen into someone else’s slot of life – a seafarer on a wild shore, an adventurer on a remote island. I was living their experience. There was no discernable reason for me being here, my mind full of novels and art, running along the sea, lost and exposed to the elements.
At mile 18, against my better judgment, I swallowed a half cup of Gatorade that instantly made me nauseous, the only intake besides water I indulged in along the course. I learned something from this race. You do not have to break down at mile 20. The last six miles were no different than the six miles before. No letdown intervened. I kept pushing ahead, before and after, on automatic pilot, with the same thought-free advance. I registered the accrual of space without passion, one more km, one more mile, one more hour, one more load of rain, whatever.
I had about one mile to go, I cannot be sure of detail, when something unscrambled at my center, and broke loose, and sprinted forward in a long stride. I took the next curve flying ahead, and I heard the awed exclamation of a spectator, “oh my god, look at her,” as I spurned forward. The end was so close I could almost sense it, although every turn of the street still disappointed me – I wasn’t there yet. My knight in reflecting armor showed up on his bicycle (“you are sprinting!” he said) and rode along me in silence until close to the finish line. By then the impulse had deserted me, and I was on my own, breathing the last breath out of my body. Somehow I would make it.
A stranger embraced me beyond the mat. “You are hypothermic,” she said, “have something hot.” I stumbled around in search of my boyfriend. I had given him a much too early estimated arrival time, and had agonized over the last hour and a half about him waiting in the cold, straining his bad back. The hot stuff in the refreshment area was all gone, and we wobbled to the hotel entrance. In the mirror next to the elevator I saw my face, drained of all color. Upstairs, I got out of the running shoes and pulled off the wet socks – my feet were blue. Oh, so this was hypothermia.
I attempted a cold bath, but had to step out of it after a few minutes, the feet hurt too much. I had a hot shower instead. We cranked the heat up, I crawled under the covers, and sipped as much as I could on a hot tea. It took me about three hours to stop shivering. We cancelled dinner, and waited until I was halfway whole again to order room service. My choice was a tiny bowl of hot Pacific seafood chowder, so good I wish I knew the recipe.
I was too mindless to register my time on the electronic display while crossing the finish line, but I heard the announcer say that I gave my best in Shiprock. How true. Roughly 30 runners were still behind me, out of close to 1900. The longest marathon I have ever run, at sea level of all places. It should have been easy. It should have been easier, at least. It was brutal.
But I do not mind. It was a good marathon. Thinking back at the stubborn advance of the last 10 miles in frigid rain, I cannot believe it was me. At custom control in the Vancouver airport the officer asked what I had brought back from Canada. I was still musing about missed shopping opportunities when my boyfriend pointed to the medal hanging around my neck and said, “She brought this.”
And there was this moment, transcendental… Oh, how can I explain it? The best moment of the marathon. Around km five or six, too early for the endorphins to have kicked in, not that I felt the endorphins kicking in at any time during this race, not that endorphins kicked in ever during my love-hate relationship with running. We were in that green park with overlapping loops, I reached the top of a soft incline, and took it all in: strings of runners streaming by in opposite directions at a three-way crossroads, in a six-way unfolding of energy. A band was playing at the intersection on some tremendous wooden instrument I could not identify, a wistful sound between flute and drum, an alert rhythm between primeval upbeat and French nostalgia. It was not raining yet, but the pavement still wet from the downpour of the night glittered in the pale sunlight breaking through layers of clouds.
Time and place fell away. We were runners of the 21st century, in technical shirts, identified by a number, running a race in British Columbia, Canada. But the specifics were incidental. This could have been a medieval fair, with the sound of mandolins rising in the background. This could have been an oasis in the Saharan desert, where Berbers on their camels stopped during pilgrimage. This could have been the bustle of trade routes intersecting in the dark core of Asia. The concept of alocality emerged in place, and timelessness settled in my heart. This was anywhere, anytime, the unfolding of human fervor as a single constant dimension – the striving of the body to surpass itself and reach its soul.
It lasted only for an instant, but out of the 5 h 21 min 25 sec, this is the second I best remember.