“What do you think about when you go out and run for three hours?”
What distance runner hasn’t been asked this question by non-runners? I don’t know about anyone else, but I don’t have a clue what I think about during a long run. Mostly, it’s a lot of fleeting stream-of-consciousness mumbo-jumbo mixed in with some tedious math equations involving dividing miles by minutes. Sometimes there’s the intermittent mental diatribe about speeding cars, 5-across-walkers, fat crabby cyclists, or leashless dogs, but mostly it’s blah blah blah blah. Near the end of a 20-miler, however, it’s blah blah blah beer blah blah beer blah.
The final miles of an actual marathon, however, are a different story. When I ran my first marathon in ’92, I found that I had to have something focused and simple to wedge into my brain from miles 24-26.2. Otherwise, lots of extraneous instructions and announcements bounced randomly around in my head. (Examples: “Stop. Now.” or “Don’t hurl. Everyone’s watching.” or “This proves nothing and you look like death on wheels.” or “Your body has now transitioned to eating its own muscle.”) So, from ’92 to ’97 I tried to focus on a mantra, a song, or even a visual to get me through the final 25-30 minutes.
Then everything changed in 1997.
My dad was diagnosed with leukemia a week before Father’s Day. It was a terrifying, heartbreaking, and surreal time, of course, for the whole family. But, as everyone knows who’s been through something like this, the worst thing you can do is do nothing at all. So, one of the things I did was to raise money through Team in Training while training for and running marathons for a patient—my dad. Over the course of the year, I raised $10,000 (thanks to generous people, not my stellar fundraising skills), and signed up for both the Disney and Inaugural San Diego Rock-n-Roll marathons. Four weeks before Disney, I gallantly tripped over my own foot, so that marathon was out.
Next, I set my sights on San Diego in June of ’98. During this whole time, I had watched my dad struggle through chemo, transfusions, bone marrow transplants, endless drugs and visits to specialists. He rarely complained. He lost his hair, his eyebrows, and even his whiskers. He felt like throwing up about 50% of the time. He knew his chances of surviving for more than a couple years were really slim. Still, he pushed forward with everything he had, never even hinting at giving up. He continued to make plans and notes for his classes (an English professor) and cut back only slightly on his endearingly horrible puns and jokes. There was honestly never anything in his demeanor that suggested that he didn’t believe he could overcome this obstacle, this struggle.
Eight weeks before San Diego, though, my dad died. In the haze and sadness that followed, I completely lost track of when the marathon was, though I kept running. Only a week before leaving for San Diego, I realized that this marathon would be held on Father’s Day.
Most of that marathon was a blur. I remember that it was way too sunny (everyone had insisted there would be fog. Not.) and that a man in a red dress handed me a beer at mile 16 and that even though the beer was totally flat, it was oddly refreshing. (Trying to think of when a beer hasn’t been refreshing. Not coming up with any specific memory.) I also recalled overhearing an inane conversation between two men who were debating whether or not running makes your feet bigger. One man insisted that running spreads your feet out about an eighth of an inch a year. I clearly recollect calculating that my feet, then, should have grown nearly three inches since I started running and will be roughly 22 inches long if I run until I’m 65.
However, as I entered the final miles, I thought of my dad. At mile 24, when my legs were logs and I was feeling that pre-wall queasiness, I considered my dad’s struggle. Mine, obviously, was nearly nothing in comparison. I was not in the best of shape for this marathon, and when mile 25 descended upon me, I wanted to stop and walk more than any other time in any other race. Then I thought of the walk my dad took with me a few months before he died and how he walked up the hill by the Congaree River and didn’t complain even though I know it was hard, very hard, for him. I kept on through mile 25. And when I could see the finish, I had the distinct feeling that my dad had been with me for the final miles.
As any runner knows, it’s very hard to run and cry. Still, I have continued to think of my father during miles 24-26.2 of every marathon I’ve run in the past decade as a way to carry me to the end. And I’ve been crying in every freaking finish line photo since 1998. It doesn’t make for a pretty picture, but it always makes for a memorable finish.