For this day, I did not pick the number; the number picked me by virtue of my birth date in 1968. As life often does, events and circumstances unfolded and evolved, ultimately blending together into my decision to run 40 miles on Sunday, December 7, 2008 in memory of my cousin Steven, who died of brain cancer (glioblastoma) in 2005. He was 35. Not having had a 40th birthday of his own, I thought I might mark the occasion for the both of us.
Thanks to a friend who owns a public relations company, I got a mini-blitz of media attention, which has helped greatly with the fundraising effort. Here's a shot that was on the front page of the state's largest newspaper last week:
Of course, as soon as the photographer set up, I could feel my running form start to go, but the shot isn't that bad. It certainly the accompanying mug shot in the online version of the story.
We had a small dinner party with a couple of friends on Friday night (my actual birthday). My wife made two delicious types of pasta, and made enough to feed a military regiment. We laughed and joked and then she unveiled my "other" birthday present (the main one being that we're taking a few days in Europe next week): a long-sleeved technical t-shirt to commemorate the 40/40 run. The front has the name of the run, my cousin's name and the date. The back has a graphic of me in caricature running "over a hill" with a sign that says "Old Fart Crossing" and a cartoon rabbit holding its nose ("old fart", get it?). The caricature - drawn by a friend who is an artist/graphic designer - is dreadful, but it's so spot-on that I can't really complain. It does make me look a bit like Dennis Kucinich, who - for all his virtues - is not generally considered leading man material. Needless to say, we laughed about the design, and we're asking for a $25.00 contribution per shirt, with half of that going to the Dana Farber fundraising effort.
The first - and perhaps greatest - unexpected blessing of the day involved the area police officer who had called me after reading an article about the run in Thursday's paper. He showed up at my house at about 7:45, and when I asked him how far he planned to run, he said quite matter-of-factly, "The entire distance . . . if that's okay with you." I was shocked, and warned him that few people have spent 7 straight hours with me, and of those who have, I'm sure no one has done it twice. He was quiet and serious and as we set off from my driveway, he took out and unfurled a large U.S. flag, which he carried in his ungloved hands for the ENTIRE day. It was the perfect touch, and - as my wife noted - the image of the flag flapping in the wind with the snow gently falling as four runners set off was very powerful.
So, with months' worth of anticipation, more media coverage than I deserved and a wonderful group of supporters, at 8:05 am EST on December 7, 2008, I started out from my house on a 40-mile odyssey through three towns and many (many!) hills.
The first few miles were free and easy, with my focus being on not going out too fast, keeping a slightly sub-10:00 pace and not getting sucked into going any faster thanks to the sense of exhilaration for the undertaking. The weather forecast was coming true, with light snow and some wind, though it was not as windy as I had feared. We passed a few dogwalkers and newspaper retrievers who asked how far we were going. They just stared when someone would answer "forty miles". Thanks to the U.S. flag-bearer, most traffic gave us respectful glances, an occasional honk of support and - most thankfully - a wide berth.
We picked up more runners at mile 6 and went along happily through some neighborhoods, by the local athletic fields and up towards the first hilly section of the day. My wife passed us just as we were approaching the designated meeting point at mile 12, though a fellow running club member was waiting just before that spot with water, Gatorade and nice poster of encouragement. We met my wife in the parking area of a local ice cream farm (closed for the season), where I tried to eat, drink and did manage to answer nature's call. All the other runners but my stalwart police escort peeled off there.
My new best friend and I climbed the biggest single hill of the day, gaining about 450 feet of elevation in less than a mile. When we got to the top, we were rewarded with a great long downhill dirt road, which was unfortunately icing up such that we had to watch our steps carefully. We reached a little country store just before the 16-mile mark, where some friends had gathered to cheer and the president of my running club - fresh from a root canal - jumped in for the next few miles. We went along one of my favorite roads, a long mostly flat segment with some little rolling hills. I've had some of my best training runs along that road.
As we got to the end of that road, we turned left, climbed another hill and picked up yet another running club member. I was feeling some fatigue, but was buoyed by the knowledge that we'd be at my house soon, for more food and a change of clothes. My Garmin registered 21.9 miles when we reached the house.
It was a treat to meet two of my fellow online posters, "Tattooed Fat Man" and "The Bearded Man". They waited patiently while I did what I had to do. I swapped clothes, gear and shoes as quickly as I could, ignoring the temptation of the guest bed in the room where I was changing. I tried to eat a pb & j sandwich, drink water and Gatorade and otherwise fuel up. Looking back, I probably should have eaten more.
At that point, my boss stopped by and ran the end of his 10-miler with us (about a mile-and-a-half as he headed home). We made our way to next hilly stretch, with a long gradual climb followed by some rolling hills. Another running club member joined us. At one point, I glanced at my watch and it read 26.20 miles covered. We gave a cheer. The gents also serenaded me with a couple of "Happy Birthday" rounds when we went up the hills. They are all better runners than singers.
We saw three people in running garb at an intersection, assuming they were waiting to meet up with us. They came towards us (uphill as we went down). Turns out, it was a trio of lovely (quite lovely) young women, and at least one of my "team" members started to turn around and run in their direction. It was a pleasant momentary distraction.
We approached mile 30, which was at the end of a dead-end street that has my favorite view in town. 360 degrees of mountainous panorama, it was the reward for all the climbing. My wife met us there (with a local reporter in tow), so some more food, drink and stretching. At this point, it was getting tough, and while "only 10 more miles to go" sounded good, I knew I was in for a struggle. The temperature dropped. I had pain in both knees (which never bother me), especially the right. Things started to feel tight and uncomfortable. My feet hurt. My shoulders were sore (and I wasn't even carrying a friggin' flag all day). While I had no real doubt that I would finish, I started to wonder just how much pain and discomfort I was willing to bear. That's where the company and camaraderie - along with all the donations and the memory of my cousin - made all the difference.
At around mile 32, I saw a huge white sign wishing me well in front of one of my fellow runner's home. He was also good enough to let me use his facilities, which was a lifesaver. Apparently, I took long enough that the guys waiting for me worried that I didn't want to get up after sitting down. "Beware the chair" say the ultra-runners. Not sure if that's what they mean.
After the bathroom break, another running club member hopped in for a few miles. He is nationally-ranked in his age-group, that being the 75-79 year-old group. Just another notch of inspiration on the running belt. Amazing. By the way, he had to slow down for me as I was hurting during that stretch.
And so, I found myself at the moment of reckoning, the point where all the talk, the joking, the training, the build-up was coming to a head, where - if you'll pardon my ending this sentence with a preposition - I was about to find out what I'm "made of". The drama of all this might be notable, except that it was all self-imposed. I chose this endeavor; I designed the course; I knew full well that the final miles would be not especially pleasurable. And that was exactly what I wanted.
So, with my right knee hurting more and more, we ran some, walked some, stretched some, averaging 11:00+ minutes per mile. We called out when we had 5 miles to go. We called out when we had 5K to go, and then happened upon a news photographer who shot all sorts of photographs from various angles, even running backwards ahead of us on a very busy road. It's nice to see such dedication in a young professional.
We took the final hill slowly but pretty smoothly, as the blinking yellow light which I've seen on so many runs served as a beacon, a harbinger that the end was near. After passing the 39-mile mark, I saw my oldest daughter on my wife's bike, then my son, then some friends. I smiled. Someone asked me if I would do something like this again. With a little less than a mile to go, I replied somewhat tersely that one wouldn't ask a woman in labor when she plans to have her next child. The questioner got the message.
One of the unfortunate quirks of the course I mapped was that it did not work out so that I could take the final turn and hit 40 miles right at home. Instead, we turned to the left for another quarter-mile or so, and then headed home. With 0.4 mile to go, I paused, took a few breaths and collected myself, trying to get a grip on the bubbling emotions before seeing my friends and family. The aches and pains seemed to vanish, the smoothness returned to my stride and the last time I looked at my watch, we were running at a 7:55/mile pace. There were a bunch of people waiting in the driveway, and I raised my hands and stopped my watch. 40.03 miles, 7 hours, 6 minutes and 59 seconds. Had I had any fluid left in my body, I might have cried.
Here's one of the two photos which appeared on the front page of this morning's paper:
That's me hugging my wife at the end, with a previously unused Chicago Marathon space blanket around me. The other photo is even more compelling, showing a trio of us running with the officer carrying the flag, but I can't find it online.
The after-party was great, as I gave a brief interview to the reporter and let my physical therapist stretch and otherwise check me out. I wanted so badly to delve into some of the delicious food my wife had prepared, but I wasn't very hungry. I did enjoy a hot feta-hummus dip on crackers, with the warm salty flavor really hitting the spot. Some warm mulled apple cider and black bean soup also tasted good after a while.
I re-lived some of the run with those who asked, but tried to change the subject when I could. I'm not sure what's been more tiring: running 40 miles or planning for, orchestrating and managing the whole event. I'd been warned to expect to feel completely exhausted, but to have a lousy night's sleep. The warning was absolutely right.
There's much to reflect on for me about this whole experience, and I will do so here on the theory that very few of you will read down this far. If this gets a bit preachy, I'm sorry.
- Redefine your limits: The most obvious lesson is that each and every one of us has more reserves, depth of character and potential than we really know. On July 4, 2006, I could barely imagine running a half-marathon. By October 2007, I'd run a marathon. By October 2008, I'd run 3 marathons, and for my 40th birthday, I ran 40 miles. It is not false modesty for me to say that if I can do this, anyone can do it. That is an absolute, immutable truth.
- One person can make a difference: Another slightly cliched sentiment. This all started with the notion that I wanted to do something "different" to mark my 40th. Running seemed a natural vehicle, but - just like a party or a trip - simply running would have been solely about me and my interests. When I thought about how sad it was that one of my favorite people in the world did not live to see his own fortieth year, the plan essentially wrote itself. I've raised over $5,000 for cancer research, met some wonderful people I might not otherwise have met, and had a chance to feel like I've made a slight difference, not just in the fight against cancer, but in my own community, too.
- Court discomfort: Having worked with the lowest socioeconomic rung on the U.S. ladder and having lived abroad in a place with its share of abject poverty, I think constantly about the relative privilege into which I was born, in which I was raised and in which I have the good fortune to continue to live. That material comfort - in my opinion - is why obesity is such a problem in this country, and is a factor in creating ever more distance among us. By courting discomfort, pain and sacrifice, I've developed greater perspective than by simply spending time at work (usually on a computer) and/or enjoying my white-collar, middle-class rural/exurban existence. I'm stronger now than I was before, and from that strength grow ever more possibilities.
- Broaden your own sphere of existence: It was a privilege and a blessing to meet the flag-bearing officer and so many others who reached out to me because of this effort. As my wife aptly pointed out, anything that helps connect us to people we might otherwise not have gotten to know is very good thing. I love my friends, but a self-selecting group is bound to be somewhat limited in its thinking and experience.
So, I sign off feeling tired, but satisfied, coming back down to earth, eager to return to relative anonymity in my community and richer for the experience. Well, that, and I'm pretty sore. Thanks to all (both?) of you who follow this blog and to my RWOL forum-mates and running club teammates for all of the support and encouragement. Thanks most of all, though, to my wife for putting up with this unorthodox mid-life crisis and doing so with her usual grace and good cheer.