This morning, I crawled. It was all I could do to manage 11:00 pace around the campus of University of Minnesota, Duluth. The fog off Lake Superior pressed around me, heavy and cold. Before I left the dormitory, the 20-something at the front desk looked up as I waddled down the hall. “You get hit by a bus or something?” he chuckled, pleased with his own joke. I smiled warily, no jackass, I ran a race yesterday, like every other soul in the building.
Pete asked me to stay off pavement for my 50-minute morning run. No problem, boss. The dew soaked my shoes in seconds but felt cool and welcome against aching feet. Through the mist, the low, sad growl of a foghorn came every few minutes. I love that sound. This was a perfect morning, a Minnesota morning. I don’t know why it took me all weekend to notice the tall purple flowers clustered here and there, the intoxicating scent of sweet lilac mixing with the spicy freshness of ferns, making me feel almost drunk. Sometimes I think that the intense pain of a long distance race has the same affect of a near-death experience. When it is over, and the pain and panic are gone, only then are we truly alive, aware of the world around us.
During the race, I saw nothing but the bodies around me. I heard only their breathing and footfalls, testing each for weakness, including my own. In all honesty, the first 10k frightened me. Running at 1:10:40 pace with a group of women I would once have considered “out of my league” was disconcerting to say the least. I caught the doubter inside me trying to talk me out of the race, telling me to let the group go, surrender to the panic and pain, settle for “safe” running rather than risky racing. Then the other half of me told the doubter to can it. This was my chance. This was my job.
8 miles found me in desperation, the familiar tightening of the diaphragm that I’d experienced at mile 8 the previous year attacked my body, slicing into my confidence and leaving me gasping audibly as I prayed “God please, don’t let this happen again. I’m not strong enough.” Last year, the squeezing of my diaphragm worsened from mile 8 through the finish, never relenting, slowing my pace and accompanying me across the finish line in 1:13:33, far from my goal time. I prayed and pleaded and as I began to shift my focus away from the pain and on to the turnover of my legs and the ground I was covering, I began to feel better.
One by one, our group lost bodies like beads slipping from a broken string until I found myself in the final 5k with only Olympian Blake Russell by my side. We were running in 4th and 5th. I surged and surged again. Twice I thought I’d lost her. Twice she returned. We tore through the streets of Duluth as one, both fighting for the same goal, a personal best in the 1:11s. In the end, there was no chink in her armor. In the end, she simply had more to give. But I didn’t see her as an enemy; she was a fellow soldier in the same battle as me. Besides, Blake is one of the nicest runners I’ve ever met, a true, first-class lady, and though I lost the battle against her, I won the war against myself.
One hour and twelve minutes is an eternity. There were thoughts that appeared and stuck like phantoms. An old joke Pete once told me scrolled by at mile 4. The 23rd Psalm played on repeat as I gritted my teeth at mile 8 running through my own “valley of the shadow of death” and the sweet, sad strains of Jupiter carried me through the final miles.
Gustav Holst has been a favorite composer of mine for some time. Between 1914 and 1916, he wrote a revolutionary orchestral suite unlike any before it. The Planets was a 7-piece work dedicated to our neighbors in the solar system. The piece Jupiter is one of my favorites to run to. After a few minutes, a brisk, up-tempo beginning of flutes and bassoons abruptly transforms into a hauntingly beautiful, rich melody of dark horns and soft strings, filled with both mourning and majesty. This brief, ethereal section of the piece is, in my opinion, the most exquisite score of music ever written by Holst. I feel that as Michelangelo claimed the statue of David was always inside the block of marble waiting to be carved out, so too was the ebb and flow of this particular melody pre-existent, waiting for Holst to put ink to paper and place it in front of an orchestra.
I don’t believe I will ever again be able to listen to Jupiter without attaching it to both the pain and personal triumph of my race yesterday. No, I didn’t break 1:12, but I didn’t give an inch more than I had to and I gave myself the permission to fight. After all, I need to hurt. How else do I know I’m alive?