A Half-Marathon for Life

The Oxford Dictionary defines perseverance as: “the steadfast pursuit of an aim, constant persistence.” To which I would add: “In the face of adversity and even pain when the mind and spirit are advocating quitting whatever activity is the cause.” Perseverance is an essential quality to possess in long distance running, a sport where one is constantly pushing oneself beyond what is reasonable but still possible.

Bob Morell | File: Sport

And so I found myself standing behind the start line of Vermont’s Green Mountain Half Marathon and Marathon on a beautiful cool, sunny fall morning in October with several hundred other souls, all of whom looked more like runners than me. It had been 10 years since I had run my last half marathon (21.2K or 13.1 miles) and 3 months earlier I was not even considering such an endeavour. I had lost the passion after almost 20 years of long distance races and constant training; I was now 65 years old, happily remarried and retired, 35 pounds heavier than my running prime, and my days were spent kayaking, cooking and volunteering. Admirable activities but not very good exercise.

All of this changed 3 months ago. I was at a local penitentiary where I attend weekly Bible studies with other volunteers and inmates, people who I’ve come to care about and look forward to seeing.

Just after arriving in the prison chapel one of the guys, I’ll call him “Mac’’ rushed up to me beaming enthusiastically. Knowing of my running past he couldn’t wait to tell me he had run 10 miles that morning, endless circles on a rough track around and around the prison yard. I admired his accomplishment but confessed to him that I felt a little ashamed of myself for having let myself go so much when I had all the time and space in the world to exercise. I promised him that I would try to get my distance up to 10 miles, sort of train together, and soon was reacquainting my body to the pain that comes with the increased distance.

That’s when I remembered the Green Mountain race, one of my favourites way back when, so I entered the 13.1 mile race  and told Mac and anyone else who would listen so that I would have to finish, giving a little impetous to persevere though the pain that would be there for the last three miles.

Added Bonus

At the same time I received an added bonus to my training at my annual medical checkup two weeks before race day. A year earlier the doctor had pointed out that every year my weight and blood sugar went up and I was now borderline diabetic. Looking me straight in the eye he said, “you know what you have to do.” Exercise more. Going over the test results he noted that I was 15 pounds lighter and blood sugar normal. Thank you Mac!

Besides persistence, the letter P comes into play with other characteristics of running. Patience is essential, start slow, don’t get carried away with the crowd. The slow starter passes a lot of burnt out runners later. Pace, run the same pace you trained at, focus on yourself and not the speed of those around you, short strides uphill and down, overstriding on descents might be faster but is more tiring on the legs and will slow you down in the long run. Pain is to be expected not feared, relax. Plan, go over the course beforehand, know where the hills are. Be pragmatic, if race day weather contitions are unfavourable (hot, humid, windy, freezing), adjust the plan and expectations like time.

The siren blared and the race was off. Soon the runners were spread out on the course that runs along mostly dirt country roads, hugging the shore of Grand Isle on Lake Champlain. Given its rural nature there are more cows than people watching which suits me fine.

The course is 6 ½ miles out for the half marathon and back, deceptively easy and downhill with the prevailing west tailwind going out. This of course means a headwind and uphills later when the legs start to tire. I’ve always said that running is half physical and half mental. My pace was good at the half, slow but steady but I knew the worst was to come. At the 10 mile marker I raised my arms and shouted “this is for you Mac.”

Fortunately no other runner was nearby, but a couple of cows looked bewildered. Then the course swung close to the lake where the wind was whipping up whitecaps on the water and I had to lean into it.

Between miles 10 and 12 there are 2 steep uphill grades. My pace slowed to a crawl. Ahead several runners were walking but I knew that once you walk the spirit weakens; and even though I only passed the walkers at a snails pace I was still running. Thankfully the last mile is straight and flat, the legs were throbbing but I could see the finish.

Something Special

My wife Cam yelled that I looked great as I ran past her to the finish. I tried to respond “bullshit” but was too tired to speak.

I was hunched over, hands on knees when she caught up to me, and looking up I realized that she was recording a video on her cell phone. “How are you, Sweetie?” she asked. I stood up, looked in the camera and couldn’t resist saying “I’m going to puke’’ with the accompanying gesture. She looked horrified and I was joking so I said “no I feel great, it was a walk in the park.”

I suppose the truth lies somewhere in between but I do know that for the first time in years I felt exhilarated at having accomplished something special: I had persevered over pain and given all that I had to give.

As luck would have it the next night was the Monday Bible study and this time I was the one who couldn’t wait to see Mac. But he spoke first, asking how it went and saying that Sunday morning he was thinking and praying for me. I told him that I cheered his name at the 10 mile mark, but cursed it for the last three!

Everyone wanted to know how it went and I said I was happy to finish, even though these days I can time my runs with an hourglass instead of a stopwatch. I promised Mac to continue what I have started again so that one day soon when he is free I can return the favour when we run a half marathon and he will understand the gift he gave me: my passion for running and reunion with my old forgotten friend “perseverance’’.

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