Back in another life, I used to take our large, powerful dog, a malemute (Alaskan sled dog) out for evening walks. With Juno’s long legs and body built for pulling, it quickly turned into a trot (for me), and then a run. Once I came home breathless and told my son, Alex, “I just ran a mile!”
An outrageous statement for me. I grew up in a house completely filled with cigar and cigarette smoke. Anything more energetic than sitting, and I was breathless.
His reply: “If you can do one, then you can do one and a half.” Shrug.
His logic was irrefutable.
Several evenings later, I came home and announced, “Juno and I just ran a mile and a half!”
“Cool.” Another shrug. “If you can do a mile and a half, you can do two.”
You get the rhythm.
My daughter is a runner. She’s crazy about it, and gets crazy if she can’t do it for a while. But she and her brother were in their twenties then. I wasn’t.
When I reached three miles, I started exploring on line. What did runners really do? I knew they closed down streets now and then. That was about all I knew.
Then I saw an ad for the Run to Feed the Hungry, to help the local food bank for Thanksgiving. Wow. 6.2 miles (10K) sounded outrageous! Sure, I ran around the neighborhood with the dog, occasionally slowing to a walk, but 6 miles? Six miles!!
But it was for a good cause. So I signed up.
Juno and I ran every evening, and once in a while, I’d go running and leave her home (she stopped a lot). I ran in jeans and sweats; I knew nothing yet about ‘real’ runners. I worked more than full time, and was dealing with very messy estate work from two different estates. That’s more than a full-time job right there. Every moment of my day was spoken for. Running became my escape.
Alex was going to Spain for a climbing competition, and returning the evening before the run. But when I mentioned that I’d signed up for it, he said “Sign me up, too.”
Really? The morning after a 12-hour transatlantic flight? I would have been a zombie. But he seemed sure, so I signed him up.
Thanksgiving morning. I put on my jeans, my T-shirt, flannel shirt and big white sneakers (I really didn’t know anything about running!). I woke Alex, who had slept in his clothes after his late-night arrival, and off we went to my very first road race!
I had grave misgivings when I saw the huge crowd assembled at the Start. Thousands of people! High-energy, running types, in their Spandex and turkey costumes — all clearly better informed than I was!
Trepidation battled with excitement as the gun went off! It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. All those people, just trying to be better! Out there to help people, by the thousands, single-minded and having a blast.
For me, it was anything but fun. I gasped, I struggled to breathe. It was all new — the jostling crowd, the bands playing to cheer us on, the crowds of onlookers, the Porta-Potties — I’d never done anything physically competitive in my life. I was out of my element.
Alex ran alongside me, and told me about Spain. As I gasped for air, trying to ignore the pain, he talked about his adventures. I couldn’t imagine how he could breathe enough to talk while running! His tales were fascinating. He entertained me with descriptions and anecdotes as he ran backwards in front of me, alongside me, in circles around me, occasionally zigging or zagging up someone’s lawn.
He became my single focus as I forced myself to keep going. When I knew I couldn’t manage one more step, I’d look at Alex and try to picture him having the adventures he was relating. When I needed to stop, he stopped with me, carried my sweaty shirt, kept up his recounting of the week before. I made myself focus on his words.
When we passed the halfway mark, I still didn’t think I’d finish. I can’t count how many times I might have stopped, had my attention not been on something besides my physical misery. I couldn’t breathe. My feet hurt. My knee hurt. I was too hot. The waistband of my jeans was digging into me. My sunglasses kept sliding down my nose. This wasn’t fun.
Somewhere between the fourth and fifth mile, something changed. I still followed his voice, still couldn’t breathe. But my own footfall began to replace his voice. I listened to it instead of my ragged breath. Suddenly, with a clarity I’d never felt before, I knew I’d finish.
When I glimpsed the finish line, several blocks ahead, I realized my life had just taken a sudden turn. I had no idea where it was going to lead, but I knew there was no going back. I was a runner. I’d have to buy some real runner’s clothes, some good shoes. There was probably — certainly! — lots more I needed to know. But I’d just learned the really important stuff — I could do this.
Who knew what else I could do?
I’ll never know for sure whether I would have finished if I hadn’t had Alex’s voice to follow the whole 6.2 miles. Maybe the stubbornness — or is it tenacity? — I’ve since discovered as a rock climber would have surfaced then and saved the day? I’ll never know.
But I’ll always be grateful for that voice.