Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Road Less Traveled By

They say the sequel is rarely as good as the original... Then to try to add a third is just stretching it. Perhaps that's why there's so few books or movies with trilogies. But here I was signing up for the Waco Miracle Match finish line for the 3rd time. The first was all but irresistable to a guy whose brain was damaged but I always want to test the timber of my heart. How could my last marathon with a stroller not be Texas' Toughest... How would I not carry a stroller up a long long flight of mile of stairs? The sequel returning in 2015 to do the half since it ran through the zoo had some matching miracles with some mixed reviews. It would be the first time my dad would do a race of any sort a 5k and the three generations would get across a finish line together each on their own two feet? That time would be the only time Kiana would get out of the stroller during the race, running up the stairs on her own while I awkwardly carried just the stroller... She beat me up. However, I had already made two wrong turns at that point and I would make others, the spatial orientation and exhaustion leaving me drained.

But here in 2016, I was returning with one purpose and one purpose alone, settling the score. It was tempting to do the marathon again since I've ran 4 twenty milers in the last few weeks with no marathon on the calendar but I hadn't gotten lost on that course, that course wasn't the one I wanted revenge on. So I signed up on the half... I had done a paper registration and anyone whose ever seen my hand writing will tell you that it's horrible... so the person typing it in had typed what they thought they read "Iram Leon" had transliterated it to "Team Leon." I didn't bother asking for a correction since even though this time I had no official company, you better believe my heart didn't for a second think it was ever alone, Team Leon was going to be the one taking the course.

In my pre-morning race ritual I always play a song to figure out the emphasis of that race. Some are different than others. In fact, I never know if I run so much because I'm trying to lose myself or because I'm looking for an answer...but maybe those are one and the same. But in this one, in this race, just had to go back to an old classic of Frank Sinatra... that's life:
I've been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king
I've been up and down and over and out and I know one thing
Each time I find myself flat on my face
I pick myself up and get back in the race
That's life (that's life), I tell you I can't deny it
I thought of quitting, baby, but my heart just ain't gonna buy it

So I got up, got dressed and ate with one focus... which was keep my heart and mind focused to not make a wrong turn, to not make a bad step. This was the first race I was doing by myself since December, on January 31st so I decided to go out there to see how well the system could wake up from a long winter's nap. 

When the race started, let's just say it was a lot warmer than I like. The race beginning was in the low 60's... if revenge is best served cold, the weather was not suggesting that focus was the correct one. So I spent a few moments in conversations remembering that this race, the reason I came to it originally wasn't only because it was tough but also because it helped match marrow donors and recipients. In fact 4 of the Waco firefighters who help put it on had donated themselves... they save people from burning buildings and save lives down to the bone. So that got me thinking sometimes settling the score is much bigger than the pettiness of revenge. The nerves didn't calm down but the smile came on.

The race started and I got into a comfortable pace, one I knew I could hold for 13.1 miles. There were only two people in front of me for the first couple of miles but at the first turn around I realized they were both 10k participants so early on I realized I had the lead. The music was singing in my ears, the signs and spectators and military were cheering on the course... Then at mile 3 the carefully crafted playlist on the iPod gave way because the iPod ran out of batteries... Well I started singing internally and just chose to decide that I'd come out here for focus and focus was now on new alert. It didn't take me long to realize that having earphones on your ear without music is actually a distraction because you hear your heavy breathing a lot more. I threw the iPod at a volunteer and asked her to please hold on to it.

Not long after the 10k and the half split ways we were in the zoo, running around monkeys and cheetahs and near the king of the beasts, the lions. There were a couple of turns in there were it was clear I had a solid lead, a good 300 meters over halfway done with a clump of 5 or 6 all staying with each other vying for second. It was then that it occurred to me that maybe my return might be a win in more ways than one. Another turn around a couple of miles later and I had a solid minute lead or so but then we got closer to mile 10. I knew somewhere in the middle of it was Jacob's ladder.  I don’t know why it’s called Jacob’s ladder but if it’s in reference to the story in Genesis where Jacob gets to see a ladder going up to heaven... the road to heaven is a steep one. There was a spectator who was biking along the course and was saying you've got a solid lead and was confused when I yelled back, where's Jacob's ladder?

It would be at about mile 10.5 where it came through. There were two younger than me guys and therefore young guys who started kicking in about then, about the right time to start kicking in for a half. And just as I saw them for the first time up close during the race, there was the Jacob's ladder... And in the 20-30 seconds I had a thousand and one thoughts... While this is a hilly course, from that point forward there are no required hills. You can run along the riverside in the most direct way or you can go up 100 very steep, manmade stairs that add at least a tenth of a mile, quite a bit of elevation which raises your heart rate like you wouldn't believe. How to balance all of those thoughts? 

*You can out kick these guys. You're not even on PR pace and you got fuel left in the tank
*You've had a victory or a PR every month since June of last year... are you ready to let the streak end to go up some stairs?
*Kiana ran up those stairs last year and you carried her up them two years ago... you ready to tell her you came on your own and skipped them? Ready to tell yourself that?
*They say to never let them see you sweat... that's unavoidable in this heat but they've only gotten to see your back sweat... do you wanna watch their sweat

*You would literally be walking away from the potential of a victory because no matter how good of a runner you are you cannot run all 100 steps this late in the game
*What's the best choice, going straight and easy or going to the right and going hard?

And that final thought was the one that was on my mind as I turned... you go right and go the hard way. One coach always says you can do extra and another coach of mine said if you go the extra mile, it's never as crowded. I'd come out here to settle scores and the ladder and the right turns was who I needed to beat. The ladder turns so I was going up I'd get to see the guys who had been behind me now be ahead of me on their course since no one else had a brain damaged enough to come up it.

Still, I would repass one person on the way in from the half but in the end I'd take 6th overall and win my age group. So I kept running and running and running. At the top of the race they give you a bracelet... I've never actually stopped to let them put it on, just threw in the stroller before. This time I kept it in my hand and held it with the same conviction I'd gone up the stairs with. It may well tell you something that while I generally ignore finish line pictures and someone else had gotten to break the tape I was sprinting holding that band very proudly.

I finish races sprinting too hard to be smiling. But not long afterwards,I was smiling and as I remembered that the first time we came out to the race that Kiana had gone on top of a certain animal because the race kept saying, Texas Toughest' race, no bull. She's climbed on top of the bull because we'd gone to the top of the stairs. I remembered that and did the same though a little less graciously. As I waited for the awards, got the race director to do a little dance with me in the middle of "running the race." I talked to the proper half marathon winner and congratulated him and encouraged him to keep running since he had also been there last year and had stepped up his game a lot since then. I cheered on many more race finishers and the ones who had done the ladder might have gotten a little extra affection from me. The overall marathon winner heard enough people excited about it that he went back and did it himself not long after he'd finished the course. A group of firefighters did the course in full regalia and took a little girl up the ladder together.

I can't tell you that I didn't second guess the decision on the drive home. But the next day I was telling Kiana about it and the fact that I had to decide between winning and taking the stairs and asked her what she thought I did. With far less hesitation than I had taken to make the decision she said, well you took the stairs of course. A few moments later I noticed what the medal ribbon said, Rise to the Occasion... I'm thankful that on a race course, for a cause, and for our hearts, others and Team Leon had the opportunity to do so. Jacob's ladder had helped me settle the score from being lost and I'd stayed on the right path and for at least one course and at least one day, gotten not revenge, but redemption.

1 comment:

  1. I think the ladder should be required! No shortcuts allowed. You made the right call, even if I can't honestly say I'd have done the same :)