The Loneliness Inside of 30,000 Runners

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November 23, 2014 by scratchtype1

I stand with my back against some temporary fence. Darkness is giving way. It’s not terribly cold, but chilly enough when wearing a thin tech tee shirt, a kilt, a knit cap, tube socks converted into arm warmers, 2 pairs of cheap Dollar Store gloves, compression sleeves over the calf muscles, toe socks and a worn-out pair of Xeros. The Xeros in fact have some duct tape patches in order to protect the toe socks from unnecessary friction. 5 more minutes and I will remove the Xeros and toe socks.

I look around behind me. The Philadelphia Art Museum is impressive, maybe because I’m too close, having been herded into the purple corral. When registering for the half at the Philadelphia Marathon, I was conservative and gave an anticipated finishing time of 2:05:00. Had I put down 1:59:59, I would have been one more corral ahead and farther away from the museum and its famous Rocky Steps. I ran those steps myself on Friday after picking up my race packet. No plans for that today, today will be about condensing the last 1550 or so miles of running into an expression of 13.1 miles.

I had a similar sort of feeling once before at this race, in 2007, when I ran it for the first time as an expression of defiance and victory over type 1 diabetes. Then I only had around 420 miles of training in, but all things considered, I ran very well that day. Not terribly fast, but I ran every step. As I don’t have too much imagination, I did not foresee the events to come in 2008, 2009, or 2010 that would see me become progressively slower instead of the faster that might be expected. 2008 was because of injury that took me down for 3 weeks in October and then on race day cramps took over my legs during the 7th mile. I ran, walked and cramped the last miles in. 2009 was because the race wasn’t about being an individual runner, I ran that day with someone and there was no way that I would leave her behind to run my own race. Then came the nightmare year of 2010, when finally the broken heart broke me. I only raced that day in 2010 because I had paid to do so. I can barely remember that race now, the memories I didn’t want to lose wouldn’t allow new ones to form. Then I stopped running.

Now it’s time. I pull off the Xeros and then pull the lace out of the sandals, as they could be used to lace up other pairs of Xeros. I twist up the laces and stuff them down in the pockets along with the toe socks. The ground is cold to the bare feet. I flex the feet, hop a bit. I shiver some. The shiver reminds me of a thought I’ve had, “I will make the world tremble today.” Grandiose and fairly delusional, the idea that my feet will strike the earth and make it shake. Perhaps those quivers will be felt far away by those that I’ll remember and think of while running. Perhaps the ashes of my father buried in a tiny graveyard in North Dakots will shift lightly. Perhaps there will be a faint tremor in Canada. Perhaps the ground will lightly move in Brazil where resides a friend I’ve made through the language of Esperanto. Maybe I’ll make the world tremble or in Esperanto, Eble mi tremetigos la mondon.

I know no one around me. The speakers blare with the announcer starting the elites. Soon my corral begins to shift forward and I begin stepping along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. I want to run. Some because I’m cold and running will warm me up. Some because I feel impatient. Some because I’m frustrated by the thickness of the crowd around me. I want space to develop.

The starting line approaches. I give some high 5s to the volunteers that are left of me and then when I move away from them, I cross the starting line and push start on the Timex Ironman. In spite of the fact that I’ve used the Garmin for every run this year, I figure it’ll be better to run more by feel and not having the opportunity to look down and see what the Garmin assesses my pace at. So it’s the Timex and now I won’t know how fast I’m going until I see the mile 1 sign. My hopes are that I’ll see something between 9:15 and 10 minutes. I don’t want to bolt out too fast, this first mile is meant to get me warmed up. It won’t be as full of a warmup as I often do on my own solitary runs, but this is a race. It’s not just a question of physical ability, it’s a question of the desires of my strange heart. There is one goal today that if I fail to achieve will be hard. Less than 2 hours. I believe it can be done, but have some doubts because I’ve not raced much and don’t know how well I’ll handle the rigors. I also had a period of little running from late July to mid-September. Because of that I lost some weeks of being able to do tempo runs.

Soon I realize the course is insanely crowded, maybe especially so for someone who usually runs alone along some small country roads or in mostly quiet parks on trails. I’m going at a good clip, but not too much yet. Still I can see that I’m already catching up to some of the people on the back end of the corral that had been in front of mine. You can’t run straight. You have to zig-zag about and measure the separations between people or how runners in front of you are closing in one another. A little surge here to get by, slow down, surge again, slow down.

I can already tell some that the legs don’t have full spring to them. Truth be told, I screwed up some and ran too many miles this week. I would have been better off running this the prior Sunday, my legs had freshened up nicely by then. Mental note, if I maintain consistent running like I did this year, don’t do a 2-week taper for half-marathons. Just cut back the miles good for 5 or 6 days and race that weekend.

The mile 1 sign shows up. It feels earlier than expected, but when I look down at the split time, I see 9:35. Okay, it’s obvious that I won’t have correctly rested legs. But I still believe there’s enough in them that I can achieve the goal. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m going to run like I can do it. There’ll be no giving up. So I accelerate and begin to comprehend the biggest challenge before me — the sheer numbers of runners. I’m generally outpacing people, and again, it’s a difficult task to navigate. While I’ve become fairly unconscious about scanning road conditions while running barefoot and do so throughout this race, I am not accustomed to this challenge, this crazy moving jigsaw puzzle of pieces with shifting shapes. Can I fit through? Yes, but I have to surge. Just make it. Back off some. Over and over the strange fluid pattern repeats itself.

I learn what the water stops will be like when rounding a corner and finding that the organizers had set up a water stop almost right after it. Bad decision. I was on the inside of that corner and suddenly now people are veering in front of me to get to water. It’s a crazy crazy dance. Still I don’t trip over anyone and no one trips over me. The mile 2 sign shows up and the split comes in at 9:05. Okay, good, but I’m going to need to pick it up some more.

I miss the mile 3 sign. It’d be nice if the organizers hung signs up higher. In this crazy crowd of people, it can be hard to see the timers and signs. I remain calm and work on the constant stress of navigating the crowd. When I catch the mile 4 sign with the split button, I see 17:55 for a split time. Very good! Under 9 minutes per mile pace, if I can run that, I can make it. So I begin to focus on that guiding thought, although it’s hard with the constant need for surges and then slowing down at times when temporarily trapped by circumstance. Mile 5, 8:57. I’m coming into Center City and running down Chestnut Street. In years past by this time the runners have thinned. Not this year, not now, not with 30,000 runners.

The legs are beginning to feel it. I tell myself at one point, “Just 7 and a half miles to go, you’ve run this so many times, you can hold this.” I know that the first of the two uphills looms during mile 8.

Mile 6, 8:58. During the 7th mile I remember 2008 and the cramps. They hit just shortly after being halfway done. As I run this stretch of road that first saw me cramp up that year, I feel trepidation and fear. What if it happens again? If it happens now, I may still beat that old 2007 PR, but there’s no chance of sub-2. That thought is so dark I become almost grateful for the nightmare of navigation through the slower runners. I grab my one cup of water shortly after what had probably been the mile 7 marker, but where I didn’t hit the split button. My mouth is in an awful way some. The blood sugar had been up near 200 before the race start, that tends to make me thirsty. I had drunk water before the race to counteract that, but the blood sugar was slightly high of what I would like and I wasn’t comfortable about adding anymore rapid-acting insulin to the mix of a diabetic’s metabolism.

The 2 uphills of mile 8 are underway. It’s funny, not so many people ever talk about the mile 8 uphill nature. Maybe it’s because it’s 2 parts and spread over the whole mile. But it’s there and when I finally see the mile 8 marker, the split button reveals the last 2 miles have needed 18:12 to complete. I don’t exactly calculate, but instinctively know that this makes my decision for mile 9. Go hard there. Then go hard mile 10. And guess what? Go hard after that. Mile 9 gives some downhill, but also has some uphill to it. I handle its undulations in 8:41. But now here it is: the uphill of mile 10. Only in 2007 did I run every step up it. I remember in 2007 it seemed pretty steep and huge. Now this year I see it again. It’s not fun, but it’s not so huge, not so steep anymore. Maybe I lucked out with that last long run where there was an uphill that lasted for 1 and a half miles. This is just a baby hill and I sense that if I get up without walking, my chances are good to beat 2 hours.

Finally I reach the top where it’s nearly level. I feel the stride lengthen again and I work my way around. I’m feeling pretty good, in spite of how my legs are definitely on the tired side now. I run through the center of the water stop, which has tables on both sides, making the center the least likely place to have a collision. But shortly after it, then comes an uncomfortable stretch before the steep downhill that remains. The road narrows and all the runners funnel into one another. I find myself having to run nearly on the heels of people in front of me and searching out chances to get around. There is one instance where a woman’s arm thumps me in the chest as I go by. “Sorry,” I say. I don’t add that you’ve been passed by a crazy barefoot man in a kilt trying to beat 2 hours.

The mile 10 marker had been somewhere on the top and I had completed it in 9:21. I calculate in my head and realize my chances are good at sub-2, but there’s still the chance of misfortune. The ghosts of cramps haunt me. Please no cramps. I’ve only taken a little water. Please don’t cramp.

I bomb down the downhill as best as possible. My form is breaking down some and I’m braking a bit with every stride. But then it’s over and now for the final 2.5 miles or so. How much longer? Can I hold this? Yes, I tell myself, over and over. Don’t think about it too much. Just run. Dodge the slow runners. Pass them. Be relentless. On and on it goes. The pavement of Martin Luther King Boulevard is the roughest yet and I feel it. I feel its roughness and it’s telling me how my form is not so good anymore. Too bad. There’s no giving up here. The Art Museum slowly comes into view. Soon we cross the Schuylkill and a last little tiny uphill to get to the homestretch. The road narrows some and it’s a bit of confusion as marathoners need to get left and half-marathoners to the right.

I crest the hill. The legs are beginning to feel rough. Then as we approach the area in front of the Art Museum, spasms hit in both calf muscles. I try to ignore the first ones, but then a couple of seconds later, the cramps nearly lock up my legs. I take a few walking strides. I try to run again. Again the legs spasm. I walk again, the legs still twitching. Oh crap. Not now, not now. I let myself walk slowly for a bit, try to let the legs relax. I look at where I am and the curve approaching. I resume running, a few light twitches flicker through the calves, but the cramps don’t fully trigger. I stretch out the legs again, pass a runner who passed me while I walked, and come around the curve to the final straight.

I look at the watch. I smile some. I look to the buildings of far-off Center City and then for the first glimpse of the finish line. On the speakers, due to the timing of things, the announcer is getting excited because the 1st place men’s finisher has come into sight. I don’t really care too much. I’m just running, running on nearly done legs, but I’m running and finally enjoying some open space in front of me and around me.

I smile some again, then cry briefly too. Crazy, so fucking crazy. This has been my race, I’ve owned it.

There it is and over the finish I go, pumping my fist into the air and then dropping it to hit the stop button of the watch. I miss. I try again and stop it.

1:58:22. And more. 13.1 miles and more. Because here’s one amazing truth about running. Every run adds to the run before. Every run you or I do is a sum of the influences of prior runs. The ones where you flew light and quick, the ones where your legs were iron posts and almost unworthy of being legs. The ones where you ran by yourself, the ones where you had company, friendship or love alongside you. The runs that you failed, the runs that you succeeded. All those runs I’ve done, from back in 2007 and its success, to those forgotten ones of 2010, from those first barefoot runs of 2013 to those last ones the week before today. They were all there today. So while the actual world may not have trembled, I did. My world shook and shuddered and near the end I couldn’t help but cry and smile and look around me in wonder.

—-

Later I would find out that the official chip time is 1:58:18.

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