Surviving the hills

Nov. 16, 2013 @ 10:58 AM

For four months, I trained to run the Raleigh City of Oaks Marathon, held Nov. 3. The reasons to run and expose my body to the pains of long-distance running were many. Here is an account of what happened to me.

It is 6:57 a.m., and strangers surround me and I turn the music up louder. The earpieces in my ear are inserted tight and the headband is pulled over them and I am trying to lose myself into what is about to occur.
Ahead of all of us is 26.2 miles of roads that some of us have never traveled. Behind us, for months, are the training miles we individually endured to lead us to this starting point.
Some are running because it is what they do. Some are running because it is one item in a bucket. Some are running to accomplish. And some are running to test body, mind, soul and sole. I am here for personal reasons. My life, like every other human, has had hills and flat terrain to travel. For the past year, I walked a hill with a life change – a divorce.
In July, I decided that to honor my slow, difficult and emotional walk up a hill, I was going to run many hills, many sidewalks and many miles, ending in a marathon. Yet, when the countdown began, two thoughts competed for my attention: Will I finish and will my knee hold up.
Twelve days before the marathon, on a 5 a.m. run that was supposed to be eight miles, I hurt my right knee. By the time I made it home, I was stiff and in pain.
That afternoon, I was at Duke Sports Medicine and the next several days I stretched and participated in therapy. One minute before the race began, everything felt fine.
The race begins and we all walk then trot and then jog and then we begin the arduous task of finding our pace. It is crowded and people are yelling and bystanders are cheering and I am worried about tripping or being tripped. There is a roundabout ahead and some choose to go right and others left and at the other end we all end up together.
We are one minute into the run and everything feels great. For the first mile, there is constant jockeying of position. Mile 1 is completed in 8 minutes, 38 seconds, and the first hill greets us.
There are people on corners and some are sipping coffee and some have bells and a police officer stands guard as we pass. There is something fascinating about watching others run, and I wonder what our faces tell those that witness?
Mile 2 is completed in 8:28 and I have not yet begun to sweat. It is cold and we are in the shade and I wonder if my gloves will stay on my hands the whole race. I am wearing an outfit that has purpose. My shoes are blue -- it is my favorite color -- my left sock is green for Chase, and my right sock is orange for Ayden. They are my two boys and they are coming with my mom to see their dad compete and race.
Mile 3 is completed in 8:25 and I begin to sweat now. Mentally, I examine my pace, my arms, my legs, and I think about my knee. Another hill is ahead and I hope all is well where knee and femur and tendons connect.
Mile 4 is completed in 8:40, and I am listening to a familiar song and also listening to people talk around me. There are all shapes and sizes and ages. I study the man in military fatigues and boots and pack, and for a few minutes I am distracted.
Mile 5 is completed in 8:14 and I grabbed water from a race volunteer. She is smiling and yells, “You’re doing great!” We all throw our cups to the ground and I note that I spill almost as much as I swallowed.
Mile 6 is completed, and I begin to notice the signs that people hold. Two kids are holding a sign that reads, “We love you daddy.” Seeing the sign and thinking of my own kids, and their eagerness to support me, tightened my throat and brought tears to my eyes. I ran, thinking of my boys and what their signs might say.
Mile 7 is completed and this time I take a swallow of an energy drink, and again I spill as much as I swallow. I feel something very faint in my knee. It lasts a few seconds and is gone and for several blocks people are standing and cheering. It is nice to be cheered, even by strangers.
Mile 8 is completed and this is my fastest mile at 8:11. I am neither cold nor warm, neither thirsty nor dry. Again there is something faintly sensitive below my knee and toward the outside. Ahead of me, a man is wearing a shirt that reads, “Running because Chad can’t.” I wonder about what hill Chad might have walked and the hill this man is running, and it gives me a moment to reflect on family, friends. A lady is standing on the corner with clown-balloons wrapped around her head.
Mile 9 is completed in 8:18 and for one entire song, I notice my knee feels strange. Again, I mentally check, and with my hand, I briefly touch my knee as if it would appease or provide insight. My stride is steady. I see a man ahead, on the sidewalk. He is wearing a white shirt and two kids are holding signs. It’s Mile 9.67 and it is here that everything in my right knee goes stiff and numb and I stop suddenly. The pain is relentless. I rub and bend and stretch against a utility pole and optimistically I take to the street and begin to run, again.
The man sees me. The kids watch me. And, after three steps I dart from the street to the sidewalk and I know something is wrong. I am done. I can’t run any farther. My will is great. My endurance is solid. But I cannot take one step without pain.
Here, somewhere in Raleigh, on a hill, I surrender. So, I begin to walk. Soon, I am at the split where the half-marathon and the full, separate. I watch for a moment, runners peel off for the remaining distance and for the second time that morning, my throat is tight and my eyes are wet.
Every step hurts. From running a respectable pace, I am now limping along, on this course that was full with intent and now half in reality.  I think of giving up. I think of my personal hill, and that even though I walked, I reached the other side and eventually faced hills running.
It took me twice the time to complete half the distance, that day. The days following have found me with Duke Sports Medicine, again. I can barely walk now because of the pain.
But I know it is only temporary. Soon I will heal and run again. When I begin training, I will think about walking those last three miles. I will also think of the sign one of my boys made, that read, “You can do it!” Perhaps like life, before I can run my first marathon, I had to walk one. 

Have a feature for story for Jason Hawkins, please contact him at