Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Hulking Greatness

I completed the half-marathon and the victory has settled into my bones.  Considering those bones are nicely insulated with Christmas cookies, wine, butter almond crunch, ridiculous amounts of cheese, peanut butter balls, and the fading hum of "Auld Lang Syne", the victory is well preserved.

It was a truly great day.

I ran with my seasoned running guru, Wendy, and my newest running hero, Erin.  Both awesome women.

Wendy has been a runner for a while, but I became supremely impressed with her when she started training for her first half-marathon about 6 weeks post-C-section.  I have been known to bitch and moan about running when it interferes with my stringent Barefoot Contessa viewing schedule--not Wendy.  The half-marathon training went so well, she just went right on ahead and did the whole marathon.  All the while, tending to two small boys, a husband, and life.  Wendy runs with purpose, and allows very little room for bullshit.  When she's ready, it's best to just git out the way, take a mental picture of her, and file it under "Ass, Bad".

She flew out to Los Angeles to run my first race with me, a 5K.  She could run 3 miles in her sleep by that point, but I think she knew how important my first race was more than I did.  I said to her, "You go ahead, I'm going to take it kinda slow."
"Nope, I am here to run this race with you."
She ran a 5K the day before on the beach--sand running, hard on the body--and it didn't even faze her as we ran on the hard asphalt in downtown Los Angeles.  The last bit of the race found me dry-heaving just behind her left shoulder and praying my lungs would remain operational.  "Samantha, you've got this . . . last tenth of a mile . . . let's go."  I cried and hugged her as she handed me a banana and a cup of water at the finish line.  She gave me a knowing look of welcome--a new member of the Runners' Fold.  She is brave and bold in her running and her life.  Hers is one of the voices on my mental motivation playlist.  Stop thinking about it, Samantha, and just do it!

I met Erin in 2004 when she was one of my students at a community theater.  I saw her perform with a youth Improv group and said to a friend, "Who is that amazing and hilarious creature?"  Then, one day, I was waiting outside of the voice lessons room, listening to the strong, resonant, amazing voice of the singer that was finishing up inside.  When the door opened and Erin walked out, I immediately developed a talent crush on her.  I kinda wanted to follow her around making requests that she would sing on the spot.  When I discovered she was one of the students in my voice class, I made up games that required her to sing as much as possible.  The amount of talent this woman possesses is oodle-esque.

Wielding her guru abilities, Wendy convinced Erin--a woman who, much like me, despised running and said she would never do it--to start running.  Not only did Erin start running, she decided to train for a half marathon--our half-marathon.  It took me five years to build the gumption to train; Erin did it in less than a year.  That is Erin's greatness: she's unassumingly plucky.  She doesn't announce her best qualities and all the reasons you're going to love her.  She doesn't shout for attention and clamor for accolades.  She pulls you in with her genuineness and humor, and before you know it, you find yourself thinking I might be a little bit in love with you.  

5am on race day found us pinning numbers on our shirts and passing around a box of Triscuits.  We left D.R. and Wendy's husband, John, in the hotel room and headed to the start line in front of Mandalay Bay.  Because there were so many runners, they did a wave start based on our predicted finish times.  Erin and I dropped Wendy off and headed back to our corrals.  When the gun went off, I was ready, man! . . . 20 minutes later I still hadn't crossed the START LINE, so I took the liberty of one final bathroom stop . . . 25 minutes after that, I officially started My Race.

The course was pretty sweet.  It's hard to beat running on the Las Vegas Strip.  As I was approaching mile 3, the winner of the half-marathon was sprinting in the opposite direction towards the finish line.  Intimidating?  Umm yeah, you betcha!  I kept my pace and enjoyed the passing scenery, including the "Run-in Wedding Ceremony" in front of The Venetian.  There actually were people running into it.  Cheers to the happy couple!

I sacrificed 10 minutes waiting in line at a porta-potty at mile 5, and had to make the hard sell to get my body back in the run.  Miles 6 and 7 meandered between the Strip and Freemont Street.  There were barely any spectators, and I encountered one befuddled gentleman asking, "What are you guys doing?"

I was happy to see the Strip approaching around mile 8, and I kept my eyes on The Mirage's sign.  Perhaps I am reading too much into it, but it felt like I covered the next mile and a half without the damn thing ever getting closer!

Then, a new thing happened--a strange thing.  I got raging mad.

You know that scene in Old School when Will Ferrell shoots himself in the neck with an animal tranquilizer?  That was me, in running tights.  I wanted to shove all of the runners that were using up my air.  But, instead of a polite, "Excuse me, would you remove yourself from my path, please?", all I could muster was, "Brawwrfurrrwheeeclopyawroooolrsnark!"  My legs felt like two linebackers were hitching a ride around my ankles.  My hat was soaked to capacity, sweat droplets falling in front of my face.  My form was drooping, and I felt the anger rising.  Hello darkness, my old friend.  I've come to talk with you again . . . 

Figuring the anger was a result of depletion, I took my last gels a little after mile 9, and waited for the serenity to return.  Each mile was marked on the course and I was relieved to see a giant "10" in the distance.  My longest run before the race was 11 miles, so I had the comfort of knowing I could complete at least one more mile.  Then, the smell of garlic wafted towards me somewhere around Caesar's Palace and I felt nauseous, along with my--clearly not subsiding!--urge to bludgeon the offending chef.

But, I kept running.

I craned my neck, looking for "11", but couldn't see it.  Regardless of their encouraging intentions, the noisy spectators shouting on the sidewalks were pissing me off (how's that for gratitude?).  I regretted my decision to run without my iPod, and I really regretted the invention of the cowbell.  I still couldn't see "11" and I was doubting I would make it to the finish line. 

My chin was down and I was employing the *Inhale*--1--2--3, *Exhale*--1--2--3 trick.  I looked up praying for "11" and was surprised to see "12".  One would think I would be elated and filled with power to blaze through my last mile.  Nope.  Instead, Where the hell is the goddamn 11?!  I didn't pay a hefty entrance fee to run a mis-marked course!  This is unacceptable!  I assure you the course was marked perfectly, but logic had not been invited to this particular party.  Only rage.

A spectator on my right shouted, "Don't worry, guys, just 3 more miles to go!"  I realize he was going for sarcasm, but I wanted to forgo finishing the race, hunt the man down, and punch him in the neck.

I believe this is what the experts call "hitting the wall". 

I knew in that moment I needed help, or the rage would win.  I needed an encouraging and familiar voice to tell me everything was OK and I would finish.  I listened for the encouraging voices I had catalogued for this precise moment--Dad? Amanda? Wendy? Erin? Hell, I'll even take Oprah?  This is when I really need someone else on my side! 

Not a single voice piped up in my head . . . and I felt lonely.

There is a slogan I see quite frequently: "Running: cheaper than therapy."  Looking back at how I felt on that course, somewhere between mile 12 and 13, I understood.  My wall had stripped me of all my good qualities and left me with the juicy center of my worst--my temper, impatience, and inclination to give up when things aren't going my way (to name a few).  I was confronted with--well, myself, and it wasn't pretty.  Being so depleted physically, the only thing I could do was let the rage roll on.  I wanted to feel fast, powerful, and untouchable.  Instead, I was a pair of cut-offs away from Hulking out.

But, I kept running.

And I made a decision:  this finish is not going to be pretty, but I will finish.  I accepted every emotion--good and bad.  I accepted every thought--light and dark.  I acknowledged that my internal voice, my muscles, my heart beat, my lungs, were all working to accomplish my goal.  I let all of that fill me up like a balloon reaching capacity.  And when I crossed the finish line, I felt whole. 

It took a bit for the emotional overload to wear off as I walked around the finish area.  The race organizers decided it would be a good idea to have the finishers get their picture taken with a Vegas showgirl.  A fun idea certainly, but not when all I wanted was an effin' banana and a cup of water!  You won't like me when I'm dehydrated!  I did not participate. 

I finally found D.R., who waited for me to finish even though there was a Bronco game in progress.  Those of you that know D.R. know how much of a sacrifice that was on his part.  His face is one of the best in the world, and I was grateful it was the first I saw.  Plus, few things sound as good as the person you love saying, "I'm so proud of you! . . . and I have to go because the Broncos just scored."

Wendy, Erin, and I walked back to the hotel room with medals around our necks and salt on our faces.  We chose the Fat Tuesday mango slushie as our "recovery meal".  Later that evening, the three of us got tattoos commemorating the event.  We got dressed up.  We took ourselves out for a delicious, gourmet dinner.  More than once, each of us turned to the group and said, "This is truly a great day."

It truly was.

I hope my running gets faster and my half-marathons easier.

I hope my running shoes continue to be a place where I find myself when life makes me want to Hulk out.

I hope for more great moments . . . days . . . races . . .  friendships.  Greatness is the complex carbohydrate of life--it fuels you more, and sustains you longer.  I shall consume as much as I can.


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