Just a short while ago I was out running in the dark, down one of the sidewalks on Lake St. I was hopping over piles of brown ice, and an old muffler, and someone’s lost (and late) cat. Normally I run in the street during a “pre-melt” period because, no matter how dangerous cars might be, it seems like my chances of breaking bones are still less than if I slipped on an icy sidewalk.
Lake Street changes the odds though.
Lake Street includes a 200 yard stretch of State Route 42, as it dog-legs through Delaware. You have probably been on this piece of road all of the times that you have had occasion to drive from Plain City to Ashley. Lake Street contains three bars, a pizza shop, and a tattoo parlor. One of the bars has been in business since 1888 and they have never once, in all of that time, cleaned the bathroom. That bar used to have a very beautiful barmaid named Terrii. She ran off with a man with a small heart and a large Harley and no one has seen her since. I asked her once why she spelled her name with two i’s. She told me “Well, because I have two eyes silly!” It made perfect sense to me at the time.
I still miss her.
Running on a sidewalk on Lake Street is a good idea because the patrons typically own awesome motorcycles but bad cars. There’s no reason to invest in windshield wipers when spring will be here eventually, you know. Late February means that car seats fill with dead skin, half used matchbooks, and the scrap of paper with the number of a faith-healer you’ve been meaning to call. Sometimes floorboards have chocolate milk cartons and bottles rolling around. As I ran down Lake Street’s sidewalk I imagined a bottle lodging under a brake pedal. And then I imagined me and my new pet cat going to meet Jesus. I looked at the shadows slouched in the front seats of the vehicles and ciphered that about half of them were drunk. I imagine that more than half of them thought that I was stupid. Since I believe that being stupid is generally more dangerous than being drunk, I wasn’t casting the first stone. But I wasn’t taking any chances either. I hopped fluffy and took a left on Central Avenue. Soon I would be at the river, then over the bridge and back to the safety of my 600 square foot apartment. My apartment smells like the guy that lived here before me. But he smelled better than Kintz Liquor’s bathroom so it was my destination of choice.
To get there though, I had to battle the wind roaring along the frozen surface of the Olentangy River. As roaring winds go it wasn’t all that bad. But it signaled that more snow is on the way and, on February 25th, snow has lost most of its charm for me. I love to run but I was glad that this run was only going to be four miles. I was running easily because I am tapering.
I am tapering because I want to throw a final punch at February. February and I don’t get along. This year I have fought my opponent with all that I have in me. If this was a 28 mile trail race February and I would run the last three miles together, give a manly fist-bump at the finish, and figure it had been a battle well-fought. But February isn’t giving in until the final round and so neither am I. The other day, while on a 13 mile run, I argued aloud with February. “Screw You February!” said I, “In 5 days you will be gone and I will live on”. February is hurtful though and responded “Go ahead and beat me. We both know that you lost the only thing that is important in life.”
February is a mean motherfucker. But I know that I could have filled the hole that was blown through me with drugs, or booze, or hatred. But instead I filled it with children and work and running. Lots and lots of running. And that is why this Sunday I will try to create a silver lining on the last day of the worst month of the worst season of the year, and of my life.
This Sunday I am going to try to qualify for the Boston Marathon. I’m going to go to Dublin, Ohio and run around an office park, on a one mile loop, 26.2 times. I’m not making that up. Such a race actually exists and, of course, it could only exist in February. February is nasty and so it will, of course, serve up another snowstorm tomorrow. I hope the City of Dublin has some road salt left. It seems like Delaware ran out weeks ago.
Boston intrigues me. My hometown used to hold a road race each spring in association with a large Sports Exposition hosted by Baldwin-Wallace College. Each year they would bring in a star runner and in 1978 they brought in Bill Rogers. At the expo Bill sat at an autograph table and, despite the fact that he was in the middle of a year in which he would win 50 of the 53 races he entered, he was ignored, while Bingo Smith, of the Cleveland Cavaliers, sat at a table next to him and had a line of autograph seekers 100 yards long. I was a shy 13 year old and, after I worked up the courage to approach Bill, we chatted for a while. He asked me about my running. He asked me what my favorite subject was in school. After a few minutes he looked around and said “You know Mark, I’m not needed here right now so lets take a break”. And that’s when I went for a 20 minute walk with Boston Billy. I asked him what it was like to win the Boston marathon and he told me that it was fun. That’s the word he used. Fun. He told me not to worry if my cross country times were slower than my track times. He told me they were supposed to be. Then he bought me an ice cream cone. Two weeks later he beat Jeff Wells by two seconds in a frantic lunge for the finish line in Beantown. Boston and its race have always seemed magical to me since that time.
I qualified for Boston 12 times when I was younger. I never actually ran the race though because I never had the money. I also never went because my “competitive” (I’m using the word loosely) marathon days coincided with the days before timing chips were invented and so I figured that losing 10 minutes at the start would wreck my race. Mainly though, I never went because I figured that I would always be able to. Youth makes you think that things will always remain constant. I was 23 years old when I ran my best marathon time. I was still gaining things in life and had never lost anything. My leg speed was intact, I grew stronger each year. Everyone I loved was still alive. All relationships were intact. Everything was growing and improving. Life’s stripping away process didn’t exist yet.
Twenty three year olds don’t write life’s scripts, however. Hip injuries, weight gain, and family health concerns took my running away and, several years later, when it returned, I could only run slowly. I could run long and so I did. But it was slow. Too slow for Boston. I was in Boston for a conference 12 years ago and jogged across Boston’s finish line. I teared up because I thought my last chance to run the race had passed.
The race on Sunday is called the “Last Chance for Boston” Marathon. It is traditionally held on the last day on which an individual can achieve a qualifying time. This year the Boston Marathon filled up very early. This caused the race directors to post a statement on their website stating that this year’s race would be a qualifier for Boston in 2011. They stated that “…because of this, our marathon is the ‘Last Chance for Boston’ in name only”.
I don’t know though. This one might be it for me. I run trails fairly well but I am very arthritic. Long runs require several days of recovery. Fast runs take even longer. Pavement just kills me. I am a physical therapist and, despite my ability to constantly shore up a weak area or shift pressure on one part of a joint to another location, I am running out of healthy places to lean. I am also 45 years old. Forty-five year olds get a ten-minute time increase rather than the typical “five-minute-per-five-year correction” offered at Boston. I feel certain that I am in my final years as a runner. It might be now or never for me. I am fit, I am relatively thin, I have no injuries and, most amazing of all…I am kind of fast in a relative sense for the first time in a long time. My main goal for the year is a Mohican finish. I will be doing heavy mileage on trails as soon as the weather breaks. That will be the end of my speed, however modest it may be at the moment. And, as I have learned so very many times lately, life offers just so many chances.
The day that I set my marathon personal best in 1986 I was trying to qualify for a marathon. It wasn’t Boston but it was a very prestigious race nonetheless. I lost my will at 24 miles and narrowly missed what I thought was an opportunity of a lifetime. I was wrong though. I guess I never thought that life could be so long. I don't regret missing the qualifying time for that race, but I have always regretted not running Boston. In the final minutes before the start of that race in 1986 my mother, who was in the late stages of lung disease, held my sweats while my Dad tied my shoes. I couldn’t tie them myself because my hands were shaking with fear and excitement. On that day I thought the race I was trying for was the most important thing in life.
This Sunday I will stand calmly at the start knowing that there is absolutely nothing important about running the Boston Marathon. The important thing is that in the middle of life’s coldest and loneliest times, and along its ugliest paths, we are given gifts. It is beautiful that the worst times can produce strength and the greatest challenges can be (if you believe Bill Rogers—and I do) “Fun”. I’m happy because for the first time in a long time I can try. And I’m grateful that I have come to believe that failing to celebrate, when given an opportunity to do so, might be a sin.