from mile to marathon

The journey of a thousand leagues begins from beneath your feet.

Friday, October 25, 2013

duke city

The day before the Duke City marathon I had a match in Colorado. We left Colorado Springs sometime mid-afternoon, after the match was over, and took turns driving, so I got some sleep in the car. There was no pasta dinner or other meaningful carb loading, just some fast food on the road. We made it back in time for a good sleep, and in the morning I had half of the banana we had picked up in a gas station and two shortbread cookies from the Starbucks where we had bought black coffee to stay awake the night before. We drove to the start line minutes before the start, right up to the roadblock, where I jumped out of the car, and lined up just in time for that particular frisson of anticipation that comes at the start of the race, when you feel excited and humble and fortunate and alive - you are going to run a marathon.

This is the 30th year for Duke City, and I have read in the local newspaper about someone who has run this marathon every one of these 30 years. I don't think I would like that - part of the charm of a new marathon is the novelty of the course. Nevertheless this was the third time I did Duke City - knowing the layout and the dynamics made for a stress-less start, not to mention how convenient the whole race was as a training run.

I spotted a walker very soon after we took off. I am not familiar with the technical aspects of speed-walking, but he didn't seem to be doing that. He just walked very fast. I asked him about his projected time (5.5 hours), and decided to take him as a guide. His would be an even pace, and if I stayed behind him at least during the first half I would hold back at the beginning, as I am supposed to do in the 50-miler and didn't do last year.

I learned something very precious by staying behind him - holding back means running much slower than I thought. I must have been about to pass him at least twenty times; each time I realized that I was mindlessly pushing forward, although it didn't feel like pushing. It was simply that I could go much faster than I was going, and I would have been unable to achieve the same restraint on my own.

Those early hours of patience paid off, since during the last miles I was still fresh, with none of that peculiar rigid movement that you see toward the end of a long marathon, when the limbs look disjointed and runners advance by willpower alone. I also came as close as you can come to a negative split without being sure of having achieved it: I ran the first half of the race in the same amount of time as the second, at least when it comes to minutes. If the seconds count, then it can be either way. I thought Portland was a smooth race at an even pace. Duke City was even smoother.

I wore the Portland finisher shirt, to a great extent because it is a glamorous piece of running gear - in Portland we saw runners, until late at night, wearing their shirt all over town, and the airport next day was full of them. Maybe also because it commemorated the Boston marathon, and I had been in Boston when they bombed it. I knew Portland would be a nice marathon to run when I signed up, but it must have a mystique I am not aware of, not even after I ran it - I was surprised at how many runners during Duke City noticed the shirt, cheered me on, waived, or went into stories about how they ran Portland in prior years, and how cool the Portland race is, and how great are their shirts.

That was okay, until it started to bother me that no one noticed the "Free Leonard Peltier" sign I wore over the shirt, which must have been much more conspicuous than the stretch of fabric, Portland-issued or not.

The finish was literally around the corner, and Central Avenue, closed to traffic, was deserted. I was running alone, right in the middle of the street, as if Route 66 belonged to me. Suddenly, the muscles lost their tightness, the pain and the fatigue vanished, and I felt free to sprint, as if a great vise had just opened to set me loose.

A man stretching on the side of the road resumed his run. I had already passed him when he said, "Cool shirt."

I raised my hand in acknowledgement, tired of hearing about Portland.

"Cool sign," he added.

I turned around and ran backwards for a while. "You are the only one in the whole race who mentioned it."

He nodded. "Are you native?"

I know I am not, but I thought about it for a moment. Would it make a difference if I were? Would I be more likely, more justified, more motivated to run for Leonard Peltier if my skin would be a shade darker? If I would have grown up on a reservation, instead of a dictatorship? "Does it matter?" I asked.

What he said at the very end surprised me: "America is ignorant." I didn't know what to respond to that, and I was already turning around and running forward once more. What came to mind was prosecutorial misconduct - how widespread it is, and how little the public knows about it, and how what happened to Leonard Peltier is not so rare after all. I wasn't really aware of it either, not until I started looking things up because of Leonard Peltier.

Then I took off. I reached the finish line in seconds, or so it seemed. Slow as I am, I have finished strong almost every time, putting everything I had left in that last stretch, for no compelling reason. This time, too, that ending sprint required focus, but it was still one of my most elegant finishes, almost effortless, as close to nonchalant I ever came. When I received the medal - a lovely thing in turquoise and teal, an inspired choice of colors - I wasn't even breathing hard.

Not a luxury, but a necessity. 26 miles, after all, is the halfway point.


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