I could never train on a treadmill. It reminds me too much of an assembly line where they put cars together. It’s the Industrial Revolution for bodies. And it’s boring. But pump me full of music and send me out on to the street and I’m ready to risk running into the neighborhood dog whose master feels the same way about his pets. Or deal with the changing weather. I was walking one day when the heavens opened up. It was during an August heat wave so no problem there but when your eyes fill up with rain water they sting and you cannot see. But it is still preferable to running like a caged hamster. You learn how to avoid disasters. Carry a small set of goggles and some dog biscuits.
I started walking four months ago after realizing that my sedentary lifestyle came with certain “rewards”. Weight gain was apparent and other things as well. I imagined that I was surrounded by a transparent plastic bag. It was far away enough that I couldn’t feel it. But it was shrinking just a tiny bit every day and there was no doubt I would be shrink wrapped and ready for the tomb in not too many years.
You have to figure that at age 60 something is going to happen in the not too distant future! Disease or death are no longer props for the imagination. So how do you want to deal with this fact?
I couldn’t stop thinking about an elderly lady in her nineties we knew who was busy every day until her last. She went to bed one night and arrived in Heaven before dawn. She hardly thought about herself at all and in the end many others thought about her.
She spent much of her time doing for others. And she reminds me of many of the folks I ran into yesterday out on the course. Because months of walking led, naturally, to an attempt to run/walk in a half marathon. And so on a beautiful, fall day we headed out from downtown Richmond in the general direction of Bryant Park.
The park is hilly, has a rough surface and is miles from a comfortable chair but there was an angel there handing out small mint chocolates. Time seemed to stop for a moment as I looked into her smiling face and tasted something that was so good. You cannot experience this goodness sitting at home. Walk seven miles and chocolate explodes in your mouth!
Soon after leaving the park we approached a stone archway where the half and full marathons merged. Suddenly there were brilliant blue lights reflecting on the sunlit foliage as police motorcycles approached followed by the elite runners who had already run twenty miles! We all ran through the solid stonework together.
We “run in the footsteps” of the great ones as one runner says in the inspirational movie, The Spirit of the Marathon. It’s exciting being out on the golf course watching the pros play. But you don’t generally get to play along with them. Is there any other sport where this happens?
Much later in the race I was very tired and walking down East Broad Street on the right side while the full marathon runners were running past us a few feet away. I decided to run again after an old guy in blue jeans and a shirt hanging out passed me. Maybe he was just crossing the street on a diagonal to get to his favorite bar but I wasn’t taking any chances. This was one guy who was not going to beat me. Then, somehow I fell into step with a young man who had just run about 24 miles. So we ran together without a word for three or four blocks. I don’t know how he felt about it but I felt a kinship with him. And then I needed to stop. Or die.
Alarm bells were starting to go off in my brain. It was telling me in no uncertain terms that passing out was not out of the question. And I still wanted to run down the hill to the finish line in a very few minutes.
There is a long stretch at the end with many people on each side who are watching you, cheering and (possibly) waiting for you to fall down. I took off at the top of the hill but did not calculate correctly and ran completely out of gas about one hundred yards from the finish.
It was not the moment I had imagined. It was not the “old guy flies across the finish line in front of cheering crowd” finish. It was the “old guy has tunnel vision and cannot see the crowd, doesn’t care much but wants this adventure to end” finish. But you just can’t stand there! And so I took off again after sucking enough oxygen to see the finish line and get there.
I have wondered for several months what it would be like to cross that line. One of the runners in The Spirit of the Marathon says “It will change your life”. Forever. I think that what will change your life is deciding in no uncertain terms you will walk or run on a regular basis and not stop. You will go long distances until you hurt and then walk some more. But you will do it with joy in your heart. And, when you have an opportunity to join others who have made the same decision you will do it. The most natural thing then becomes to share their joy and watch it spread like a contagion to the volunteers and the spectators. The finish line is the spark you can witness of a much greater, but invisible flame that burns in the heart. When I watch runners finish the marathon with the last ounce of their strength and courage I often cry. Because something inside of me has been fired up. And it literally blows that clear, plastic bag in a million directions. It sends me towards the road, the girl with the chocolate and the 92 year old lady who did something for someone every day. It allows me to smile and feel love for the world and its inhabitants. I have seen something that is real. . . people who are just like me in my worst moments, struggling mightily to reach a goal without their street clothes, their possessions or positions in the world. And they volunteer to do this! Bless them. In these moments they are all saints. I am reminded of paintings of St. Sebastian, arrows pointing in all directions looking towards the heavens.
So I didn’t feel anything amazing when I finished the race. I was very happy it was over and , frankly, felt fear about pushing things to the ultimate limit. Perhaps there are two kinds of natural highs in this world. There are the ones that you experience briefly. And then there are the ones you become. If this is the case then I vote for the second type. And hope to find it someday.
This was my first running experience and I am very grateful to all the folks who made it possible. If a volunteer opportunity comes along in the next few months it will be an opportunity to change places and serve. Because I see more clearly how it all works now. Walking becomes running and running becomes serving. It’s all about positive actions and activity. It’s a way to push out of that transparent, plastic bag and become someone who is not just taking up space on the planet.
It’s great to see that folks in their senior years can do this.