Sunday, May 4, 2014
There is a popular saying in running that goes, “You get out of the marathon what you put in.”
Having recently completed my 100th marathon, running them in every imaginable way – racing hard to my potential, running for fun at easy pace, pacing friends, and even drinking beers each mile after 20 – I should know. Because it’s true. You get out of the marathon what you put in with your training.
As if a cup to fill, one marble for each quality training session, you add more and more to the contents of the cup right up until race day. Then on race day when you toe the starting line, you start extracting from the cup one marble per mile, assuming you have been smart on pacing and hydration and with other in-race decisions. Two or more come out at a time for each mistake you make. Push mile 10 too hard and two come out. Fail to drink enough in the first 8 miles and three come out. If you have little in the cup to begin with, you have even less to take out. These will not be there for later. They are now gone, you left with fewer marbles.
If the time comes when these withdraws from the cup are forced upon you two and three and even four marbles at time, this is when you learn the most about yourself as an athlete. These are the moments where that flight or fight survival instinct is triggered. Some runners fight on. Some shut down. If the goal is in your core, and if you are fully committed to it, you push through that pain. If the goal isn’t as clear, you will likely cave in on yourself with an avalanche of negative thoughts that, in the end, take you to your knees beside the road, your race over.
I have played witness to survival instinct in myself many times through my running career. Just last June, when I attempted my first 100 mile race, things got so tough for me after mile 83, when my knee gave out, forcing me to drag my wounded leg behind me in a quest at that goal. My emotions had spun so far out of control that I gave up on myself time and time again. I tried to drop out. I even dropped out! But somehow I got back out there, in the race, and kept going. I sat beside the trail, in complete darkness, ready to call my day done. When all I wanted was to lie down and even plotted to do it, somehow, some way, I got back up and kept going. I owe much of that to my buddy pacer who stayed with me over that last 25 miles. That night, I had a glimpse into my soul, deep into my core, to see exactly what I was made of. And you know what? I actually liked what I saw. I gave up on myself time after time, but each time I got back up and kept going. I refused to be defeated. I would not quit.
I was reminded of all of these complicated feelings this past weekend, Sunday, May 4, 2014, to be precise, at the Providence Marathon as I teamed with Randy, a runner friend with 100% blindness, to Guide him in his quest at qualifying for the Boston Marathon.
Randy and I met two months ago through Running Eyes, an organization connecting folks like me – a runner wanting to volunteer to Guide – with a Visually Impaired runner looking for a Guide. At the time, I had several races on my front, so we promised to stay in touch until my schedule freed up. We did. We connected so well that, when my schedule opened, Randy asked if I would Guide him at the Providence Marathon. Feelings were mutual, so I had no problem saying, with great enthusiasm, yes! We did a 10 mile training run together, where I guided him 10 miles on the Nashua Rail Trail, and decided to give it a go.
After that short training run with Randy, I had a good idea on his pace and what he was capable, but I was also made aware of how little training he really had. I know he knew this, that he was under-trained, so instead of harping on the negative (I’m a glass three-quarters full guy), I instead derived my energy from the fact that he was fully committed to this goal, he was driven, and he had a background hiking mountains – all 48 4000-footers in the Whites – in his pocket. If there is a will, there is always a way.
And when it comes to marathons, if the shit ever hits the fan, there is only one way through to the finish, and that’s through will. So although I had my reservations on his fitness, I knew he had what it took to do this. I saw it in his character. And since I knew the ultimate goal was to qualify for Boston, I took out a pace chart, looked at various paces and times, for both the first half of the race, when I knew we’d be running, and again for the second half, when I assumed we’d be walking a lot; then I thought about what I gathered Randy for in terms of pace and how long. Through it all, I came away with the confidence that I would get him qualified for Boston. The only question would be: how ugly would it get?
I would find this out when race day finally came, but I would also see a bit of myself in there, a confirmation that my pal and I were cut from the same cloth.
Early Sunday morning of race day I met up with Randy, his guide dog Autumn, and his wife Tracy at the convention center in downtown Providence. We moved through registration swiftly. After leading Randy to the bathroom for a last potty break, the four of us made our way over to the race start outside on the street. As we neared and the crowds of runners got bigger, Randy handed over Autumn to Tracy and we were off to the starting line, just Randy and I, connected by a tether. 5 minutes later, it was announced the national anthem was coming. Randy asked me which way the flag was. “To your right”, I said and then settled in silent prayer for our nation’s song. Within a minute, the race was started!
The race had a total of 1000 runners in the marathon. Since it was so crowded, and because I had us line up near the back of the race, near the guy holding a 4:15 finish time pace banner, it took us two minutes to cross the starting line.
Once across the timing mats – “bump for timing mat”, I called out – it was crowded but we always found space to run. In the first mile, I tried to stay on the outside so that I could guide Randy around all of the turns and zigzags. Posing more technical than I liked were cones in the road marking the line we should take so that we can share the road with cars. With so many people still near us, I made a conscious decision to stay away from those, as they came upon us very quickly due to them being so low to the ground and concealed by runners.
Randy likes to use what is known as a hard tether. A hard tether is merely a sighting stick. I hold the grip end while Randy holds more loosely the other end. This allows for Randy to shift up on the stick when he needs to get tighter behind me (command “Tight behind”) and for ebbing and flowing of running and pumping arms and normal movement with two people running together.
Because we were passing people in these early miles, and because it was still crowded, we had to stay pretty tight and on heightened awareness, something that for me would never end, not until many hours later. Coming through the crowd from behind them, people were a bit surprised to hear me call out “on your left” or “coming through,” especially when there was enough room for one person. They showed a look of surprise until they saw that I was guiding a blind person; as soon as they saw this, they realized we needed a bit more space than just single file and then showed a different look of surprise. And once this happened, the energy and applause were unmistakable and much needed for my rock star friend.
We motored along comfortably, with us chatting with each other and those around us. As a Guide, I am constantly interrupting the flow of conversation to point things out, so although it could appear rude to those around us, everybody respected us and understood what was happening, even when it was a friend of mine who came by our side to chat.
Around mile 8, as I guided Randy along a busy, bumpy and very uneven suburban street, with cones narrowing our path and cars to our left, I saw up the road, on the other side of an intersection, familiar faces. It was Tracy and Autumn, Randy’s wife and dog. I told Randy immediately, as they were still out of earshot. As we neared, I saw the emotion in Randy and heard it as his voice cracked with love. What was so special was that we were not expecting to see them until mile 18, but here we were, barely into the race, showing support. In hindsight, this was the beginning of Randy starting to falter, with the day getting hard. The display of raw emotion told me this. When the body gets fatigued, those feelings come out more readily. And Randy was just starting to get there.
Immediately after seeing Tracy and Autumn, we entered a neighborhood and squirreled through streets to an out and back section that featured a u-turn marking mile 9. I warned Randy about the turn in advance. As we went into the turn, I called, “slowing, turning in three… two… one”; I did this as I applied pressure forward and in the direction we need to go on the tether to guide him around the tight curve.
Out the other side of the u-turn, Randy suddenly stopped short. The 180 degree tight turn threw off his equilibrium. His eyes were rolling in circles, and he was wobbly. I came up beside him to help him find balance. This happens to him every once in a while. It’s par for the course for being 100% blind, even to light. Where some blind people see some light, Randy’s world is one of complete darkness. Light, as you could imagine, and especially shadows, help orientation, but Randy doesn’t have that luxury, so this is what happens. After a minute we were walking and then back to running, Randy now with a stable equilibrium.
The course was a combination of city streets, busy suburban streets on the way out of the city, neighborhood, and bike path. I learned very quickly that all of the changing surface types and navigatables made this a very technical course to guide someone through. But I was up for the task, constantly calling out potholes, uneven pavement, steering through manhole covers, pylons on the bike path, and around runners, more potholes, cyclists, cones, police cars, aid stations, and much, much more. Because I was 100% in the moment being a Guide, the day actually went very quickly. At least it was that way for me. But it didn’t appear that way for Randy. Randy was slowly sliding into the hurt box, a function of his training. He was now getting out of the marathon what he put in through training, which meant it was getting ugly and about to get uglier.
Mile 12 was when Randy took his first forced walking step, where his body said no more running, not right now. His training had taken him comfortably enough to 10 miles. After that, his breathing got erratic, and then he fought on for two more miles, where we were now. In spite me forcing us to go slow, there comes a time when there are too few marbles in the cup. To that point we had been very efficient in our forward progress, and I knew we could walk plenty from here to the finish, and still get the Boston Qualifier of sub-5 hours. I didn’t panic even when Randy kept asking how much time was left; this just told me that it was on his mind, which told me he was hurting yet more. Even so, to this point, Randy didn’t complain. He was holding strong mentally even though his body was betraying him.
By mile 15, the going got very tough. Randy was quiet more than not. He also started coaching himself out loud. “Come on, Randy,” I’d hear him say to himself. “Get with it. You can do this. Snap out.” Sensing darkness, I used this as an opportunity to take even more control. I forced him to keep his mouth shut – “no talking back; let me talk at you. You need to conserve”. Randy spoke back. “You mean I should shut up,” he asked in a joking manner that wasn’t exactly looking for a response back. “Yes, Randy,” I said, “shut the fuck up.” We both laughed, and Randy, ever the student in whatever he does, took the lead and shut the fuck up. From there we fell into a nice run-walk rhythm. I based our cadence on his breathing. I kept him focused on staying in the moment, and I kept reminding him of all of his supporters. This helped him motor on. And every once in a while, I reminded him, “Conserve… Don’t talk back. Let me talk at you. You need energy for the last 10 miles.” And Randy followed suit.
One the reasons I think Randy and I teamed so well in this endeavor is because we a keen mutual respect for each other. Randy leaned on me in the first place because of my experience in the marathon. For me, I knew what he had done to live a healthy, full life with blindness, and I had seen how he climbed whatever mountain was in front of him. Tracy, his wife, said after it was all done, that we probably worked well together because Randy does well with engineers. I don’t know the reason, but I know respect of each other drove our teamwork. And now it was Randy’s time to lean on me, and he did.
To this point, my mouth was non-stop running. Before you say, “yeah, of course it was, blabber mouth,” know that the words spewing from my mouth were nearly all Guide commands and information, such as “uneven pavement, no trip hazards”, “speed bump ahead, step high in three… two… one,” and so on. I was 100% focused on being a guide. I had to. Any relaxing of the brain could mean a trip and fall. Although I told a few stories, the truth is that playing guide, especially on this course, took all of my attention.
During our time on the road, it wasn’t uncommon for runners to talk to Randy and send him along with inspiring words and “That a boy’s!” But what also stood out was that many runners would actually come up to me to thank ME! I was a bit perplexed and always kept deferring attention to Randy, as he was the brave one, the one doing the hard work. Sometimes I don’t see things the way others do, and I only come out of this more ignorant state when someone uses certain words to get my attention, to force me to look at it differently. For me, I was out there doing something cool, giving back to the sport I have extracted so much out of, and helping somebody achieve a long standing dream. It was nothing more. It’s just what you do. I have a gift, and I am paying if forward. It’s what you’re supposed to do. It was no big deal. I thought that way until this one woman runner got my attention. She came straight up to me, ignoring even Randy, and said, “Thank you for giving your time to guiding your friend.” She went on by saying, “He,” meaning Randy, “is an inspiration to everyone out here… and it’s because of you.” She ended with, “I’ve been behind you for the last few miles and see the work you’re doing and see how awesome you’ve been calling things out. This doesn’t happen without you. Thank you.” Those words, and the sincerity of them, sunk in. I got it. It took a while. But I got it.
After the woman got her message through to me, I thought back to all of the other people and what they had said along our journey so far. That’s when I connected the dots to the realization that this, right here, was my reward for helping Randy get his Boston Qualifier. I smiled to myself — called out yet another pothole, “watch your footing” — and thought of Heather and my boy back home. For a while I have had the feeling that I am in the best part of my life. And this just further confirmed it. I don’t think I could love my life any more. And that includes my love for both of them. Perhaps this is why I am ultimately in the right place to give back in this manner. It feels so right that it is no big deal.
This boost of emotion came at a good time, because the day was getting hot, Randy was struggling even more, and my energy needed to stay high because not only was I playing normal guide duties, but I was now also playing drill commander, feeling out when to run, when to walk, and keeping him focused and motivated and moving forward. Because although I still felt confident on a Boston Qualifier, I knew that only happened – the ultimate goal achieved – if I kept us motoring forward, and that included running as much as Randy’s body would allow.
With mile 18 came a nice boost when we came upon Tracy and Autumn, Randy’s wife and dog. Since I knew to expect them at that point, starting at mile 16 I kept reminding Randy that we would soon meet them again. This proved well because it got Randy to focus on a small milestone. If he wasn’t thinking about how much farther we had left in the race, he was in the right spot. This I knew. So I broke up focus to goals we could realize within a half hour, for at that point anything farther was, simply, too far for a beat up, tired body to process.
Tracy and Autumn did not disappoint. They came at a perfect time, just when Randy was slipping further into himself.
After that boost of energy, we went back onto the bike path. The path was mostly straight, wide open from trees or brush, and running parallel to the ocean. This wasn’t ideal. As the wind swept off the water, it came blowing at a steady 25 mph or more directly into our left side. This proved challenging for Randy, because as the wind shifted him, it threw off his center of straight. I learned very quickly that to help best guide I needed to always keep pressure forward on the stick, as if I were tugging him forward. But since I did not want him to use that as a cue to speed up and thus burn him out, I told him, “Follow the stick. I will keep pressure on it forward to keep you straight. But do not speed up. Just make sure you always feel the pressure. But do not speed up. Stay light on your feet. Short strides. I got you. You are good.”
Randy, in complete trust of my guiding, forged on. And on. And on. It wasn’t pretty — in fact it was downright ugly — but he followed every single one of my commands, both in guiding and in keeping him running and forcing him to start running agai. I made sure we ran light and easy — and I forced the pace very slow so that we could last running even longer — until his breathing ran out of control. That’s when I would force him to run just a bit longer and then walk. I forced these in, all with his full support, around natural landmarks, such as hills, all of which we were now walking, to maximize his time running, and his time walking, so that we would be most efficient in moving us toward that Boston Qualifier.
Not once did I worry about getting in under the 5 hour wire. My buddy was a fighter, and I knew he’d fight through this, even now when his legs were seizing on him. You get out of the marathon what you put in, and his work was paying him back in not a good way. But with his spirit and will working overdrive, I still felt comfortable that even though his cup was losing marbles, running toward empty, what he had inside him would help him string out each marble to get him farther yet along the course. Randy stayed focused and worked through the hurt.
When we reached mile 23, I knew again it was a slam dunk, though in his tired body and mind, Randy kept asking the time. I would tell him but get him back to focusing on staying in the moment. We carried on this way, fighting into a stiff head wind, me applying a steady pressure forward on the stick so that he would know which way was forward, so that the wind would not throw off his center. Meanwhile, other runners were joining us. At times we had a small army of runners around us, each listening to my words and commands, “short stride, not fast, just short steps, slow down, short steps, breath, stay in the moment, focus only on my words and your breathing.” We did this through mile 25.
At one point Randy came out of battle armor to make an announcement. To this point I had him on a nice walk-run cadence, running when his breathing was back under control, and stopping running when his breathing started getting too deep. I said, “Randy, we’re going to run in 30 seconds,” he said, “I’m sorry, I can’t.” As I assessed when to next run to give Randy the breathing he needed, he perked up with renewed energy and said, “I lied to you. I told you before the race that I’d follow all of your orders, and I just went against that. I lied. Let’s go. I’m ready.” I laughed, told Randy that he didn’t “lie” to me, and said, “Okay, if you’re sure you can give me some run, we’ll go in 10 seconds.” In 20 seconds – I gave him a bit extra – we ran again, and again Randy dug deep within his soul to see what was there, and what he saw was that he would not quit. Even when he wanted, even when his body was shutting down and muscles seizing, Randy would not let himself quit. I smiled at his pain in a way of showing mutual respect. This right here must’ve been what it was like for my pacer, looking into my soul, when in my 100 mile race the year before I too was in a dark, dark place, giving up on myself yet still finding a way to keep going. Randy was a true warrior. He was living to fight this day – not another day!
As we moving beyond mile 25, Randy, hearing by sounds of cheers the crowd growing thicker and louder, cheers reserved especially for him in his battle — both those on this day and that of a lifetime – Randy asked “where are we?”, referring to where were we on the course. “A half a mile, tops!” I told him. He perked up, “I want to run the rest of the way.” I knew this was still a long way, but I knew he would give me his all, and I knew that all we had to do was to get a little farther and the crowd would suck him right into the finish line.
Run we did. I got Randy to stay slow, to not race himself, and then painted the picture of what I was seeing. “The course bends left up ahead. I see other runners turning and picking their heads up. The finish line is down that road. This is the final turn.” But I still needed to coach, “I want you to stay at this pace. I will tug you around the bend. The road is uneven from here until there. Pothole. More uneven pavement. Pothole. Give me a high step in three… two… one.”
Meanwhile, the crowd, seeing my Randy, was now going mad; it was deafening. To command Randy, the only way he could hear me was for me to turn my head around toward him so that my mouth was pointing at him.
“Turn coming in three… two… one… feel the stick, I’m pulling you left around the turn… feel the stick… Randy, the crowd is three deep. They see you. Feel it, brother. They see you. Those are for you. Pothole. Another pothole. Dip. Rise. Uneven pavement. I now see the finish line. There it is, Randy. You did it. There’s a big finish arch spanning above the road. That’s the finish line. You did it. Another 50 yards. You did it. Pothole. More uneven pavement.” Randy, so excited, was pushing the pace. I could feel it on the stick. “Easy,” I said, “stay easy. 40 more yards. There it is, a big arch, people everywhere. They’ll all looking at you, cheering for you. You did it.”
Just then Tracy, along with Autumn, jumped into the road. “Randy, it’s Tracy, I’m right beside you,” Tracy yelled out to Randy. “I have Autumn with me.” As this played out, I glanced back to see a joy on Randy’s face I will never, ever forget.
Guide duties called, even down a finish line chute. “Dip,” I called out as I whipped my head back to Randy again to alert him to an indentation in the road.
“Dude, I have my hand in the air.”
As soon as I said that last line, I let out a holler and looked back again to give another command. Immediately after calling out a pothole, I processed the sight of Randy, hearing from me that I had my hand in the air, thrust his fist in the air and keep it there.”
“We did it. We did it.”
Randy was aglow in victory. I was too. And so was Tracy and Autumn.
“10 yards, Randy.”
“Wide open street. Uneven pavement the rest of the way. You did it! Here it is. The finish. Coming in three… two… one!”
Randy still had his fist in the air, as did I, when we crossed the finish line. Time on the clock was 4:42. We did it. Randy qualified for the Boston Marathon.
It would be a day neither of us will ever forget.
Immediately across the finish line, Randy and I embraced in a hug at the battle just had. He fought one hell of a fight, and he won it because he believed in himself and me as a Guide. Our teamwork was unmatched in its efficiency.
After we let go, Tracy and Randy hugged. Tracy then took Randy over to the side, away from the crowds, to connect Randy back with Autumn, his guide dog. This moment struck me in a profound way for a lot of reasons. Now that Randy and I were untethered, and that the goal was now complete, I felt a strong sense of relief, even freedom, that I could now let up on that heightened awareness I had held for the previous 5 hours. Freedom was walking without looking for tripping hazards. And pride, for seeing Randy through to this goal and getting a glimpse into his soul. Like with my own glimpse, the one into my soul, I like what I saw in Randy’s. It didn’t escape me that he had this fight in his because he was the ultimate warrior to get to where he was today, a marathon finisher and an entrant in the 2015 Boston Marathon!