Thursday, April 12, 2018

Prelude: The Path Thus Far

       The Boston Marathon.

       Me?  ME??
       The Marathon has been in my thoughts for much longer than I have ever acknowledged. In Nova Scotia, we are reminded of the race each spring due to its proximity and the legacy of Johnny Miles, a Halifax runner who won Boston twice in the 1920's and whose legacy adorns one of the most significant marathons on the Nova Scotian racing calendar. Those annual reminders, replete with the legend of his father shaving down his shoes to keep them light for one his Boston efforts, were lore embedded in my imagination from my pre-teens on.
        The mythology of Boston would find me regularly. During the second season of the 1980s medical drama St. Elsewhere, Denzel Washington's character took on the course, albeit solo on an overcast low-key day. When he came to the bottom of Heartbreak Hill and stopped to assess it before tackling the ascent, another page of race lore was embedded in my imagination. This is a tough bugger.
        I have never considered myself an athlete. I played sports yes, but in hockey it was only in my last game of organized hockey that, given a yawning open net, I slid a puck across the abyss from the blueline to the faintest tink of the vulcanized rubber against the back of the net. The goalie was out of position, not on the bench, and the puck moved fast enough to cross the line before he could reposition himself.
        Running, though, had long been in the background. During my adult years, I had run intermittently to fend off the accumulation of brownies and sundry other temptations. For the most part, running has been motivated by maintaining fitness, not improving it. When a change of employers meant that I would have to abandon the mechanized tedium of cardio machines for another means of fitness, running - outdoors, pounding my joints and exposed to the elements - was the quiet classmate who never really bonded with me until we, surrounded by strangers in a new locale, decided to strike up a conversation on the basis of relative familiarity. Runs had their rewards, but more often it was the scenery rather than the runner's high. When I lived in Kyoto for example, I regularly ran through the city's photogenic bamboo grove and one run was crowned with the cinematic solitude of a lone shakuhachi echoing through the river valley on a misty Sunday morning.
      Racing and training, though, never entered my mind until my 40s. The elementary school experience of being the slowest of a group that played tag or raced each day to assess ourselves and -- as my eight-year-old self-worth -- made me reluctant to compete as a runner, even with myself. My first race, in 2005, was an 11K trail run which I finished in an embarrassing 93 minutes; a light year from a Boston Qualifying (BQ) time. It was not a matter of being unfit or having another few stones of fat that I would shed before I got to this particular weekend in 2018. I just went out too hard and lost to inexperience. It would be four years before I raced again. A change of employer had just occurred and exiled me from the fitness centre I relied on for my brownie-burning turns on ellipticals.
      Oddly enough, I gravitated to the half-marathon rather than taking baby steps through a 5- or 10K. Was it just the m-word luring me? The shorter distances were available at this race, but my running commute home was about 11K so I felt comfortable pushing myself to the longer distance. The admission would likely be, that yes a marathon was ... THE marathon was always in the distant back of my mind.  The muted memory of Johnny Miles and Denzel Washington, that hill and that neighbouring city, Boston had leaked into my consciousness as early as age 9 or 10 and loomed as a possibility even before my youngest brother attained the goal as he quietly racked up his sterling results in the marathon.
     After a few half marathons, I indulged in looking up the BQ time for my age group and did the calculations. I was daunted and decided I would only attempt a full marathon if i could do it in in under four hours.  After another four years, in May 2013, I felt confident that my sub-4 hour goal was in range and registered for the Big Sur International Marathon. Those who know that race, are  likely snickering at how oblivious I was to making things easy on myself. Goal accomplished, however. And... I was hooked.
     From then on, I hoped to improve from one race to the next, but more enjoyed the transformational experience that each race proved to be. at this point, I want to circle back to that word that I wear so hesitantly, "athlete," and suggest that the accomplishments come not from gifts of agility, flexibility or the strength that we cite when thinking of basketball, soccer or hockey. Yes there is cardio capacity and endurance in my version of athlete, but much more of my training and racing has been about the journey within.
       For the scenery that I have seen in jogging Kyoto, racing at Big Sur, hobbling through Stanley Park or racing along the foggy shorelines in Nova Scotia, there has been an examination of the scenery in my mind. Whether my darkest, loneliest thoughts are haunting me or luring me with the option of quitting and walking away or my most poignant, palpable anticipation of a joy that is 58 minutes away, replete with the kind wishes of the people who inspire me, the marathons and the training have been more spiritual than athletic. Crossing a finish line is an occasion to reflect on what those particular 42.2K -- good or bad -- indelibly inflect in my voice, smile or posture.
      Boston has been a goal longer than I've admitted before but race day will not entirely about the clock. The zone that I found myself in when running on a beautiful day in Nashville is a hard to articulate but even more of a treasure because it is so personal. When the passage of time leeches into my capacity to outrun younger selves, it will be that zone and contentment that I aspire to.
       Ah... to outrun.
       The goal, getting there, was attained seven months ago and the question that has lingered for several years was whether it was better to qualify for Boston or to run it
       A few days from now I'm going to figure out what shoes to put on -- no, I haven't figured that out yet -- and join the queue for my next deep journey within.  The hopes and the unknowns are still wallflowers at a junior high dance but on Monday morning, they will pair up and find the music and rhythm they want to move to. They will break off with one another and re-pair throughout the race as I follow a route that I have heard about for 40-odd years. I will grapple with darkness, remind myself of inspiration, cling to it dearly and grant myself a moment to acknowledge that tenacity, not numbed habit, got me there, and put one foot in front of the other until I cross the line, my distance put in and another chapter of commitment, perseverance and reflection written.
      There will be a small fist pump, handshakes with the people I shared the last few miles with, and hugs with my brothers when I find them. I might get exuberant, especially if a personal best or a long stretch in the zone define the day. Ultimately, there will be the unknown that follows attaining something that not so long ago seemed unrealistic. From this perspective, with the race days way, the first steps beyond the finish line with the medal around my neck and a banana in my hand seem mysterious, charmed and full of promise.

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