Sunday 5 November 2017
Start time: 7:01am
Suppose it’s been a while.
Fires tore through the North Bay this fall. The forest, our place of refuge, imposed its wildness on us. Or was it the result of human error? The cause of destruction is almost beside the point, but we hunger for justice.
While the fires raged, we stayed indoors, we donated, we wrung our hands helplessly trying to imagine what it would be like to lose everything. A family of evacuees sat next to me outside of Whole Foods. The mother cut up bits of cheese for her two sons and told me she was trying to make the exodus fun as they moved from couch to couch. They went to museums, played pinball, and read.
The Healdsburg half marathon was canceled due to the fires. With a voucher from race organizers, I signed up for the Golden Gate half a week later. Unmotivated, I didn’t commit to running it til an hour before.
As a result, I got to the start line late. About four miles in, I was in trouble. We climbed one hill and then another. On the Golden Gate bridge, under a cloudless sky, I tried to smile.
Two guys behind me were chatting loudly, having a great time. I waited a beat. “Want to work together?” I asked. When Luke and John said yes, I didn’t expect the apostles to stay with me very long. Luke was aiming for 6:40/mile pace, and I was praying for anything sub-7 at that point. At the end of the bridge, John fell back, and Luke and I trotted off.
The trail off the north end of the bridge is breathtaking, a dirt descent into the narrow channel – the “gate” that gives the bridge its name – that passes the bay into the sea. Luke told me he’s training for the North Face 50-miler in Marin. Like most trailrunners, his disposition was sunny and his aggression towards hills relentless. As we turned upward, he told me to put my head down and lean forward. We climbed. Mile 7. I heaved. “Go for it,” I told him several times. “You got this,” he reminded me. It was hard to imagine we were strangers less than 20 minutes before.
Back on the bridge, Luke checked the pace – 7:30. “That’s…slow,” I choked out. He helped open my packet of chews. We picked it up. Mile 9: 6:49. The downhill. We were back at sea level. Mile 10: 6:29. Luke thanked every security guard and race volunteer along the way.
I forced a last gummy chew down. A woman in pink socks passed us. Two and a half more miles. Everything was willpower at this point, and I was slowing.
Luke stayed with me. He had sacrificed his race, and I was moved. It occurred to me that the best way to thank him would be to just give it my all, to take full advantage of the gift. My body screamed.
I wanted that <1:30 so badly but couldn’t bear to look at my watch. One last steep climb took everything I had. “Lean into it,” he told me again.
I felt ill. The downhill. 1:32:13. Not close. Not fast by my standards, though only a few seconds slower than my personal best.
Across the line, I thanked Luke, though it wasn’t sufficient to express how I felt. He had done something selfless, something running rarely asks you to do. In return, I left everything out there, all the pain and frustration and hope and despair. I placed twelfth among women.
Around the exact same time, 3,000 miles away, Shalane Flanagan was draping a flag around her slim shoulders, absorbing the new identity of New York City marathon champion. At 36, it was her first victory at the distance.
Days later, I still don’t know what to make of this glimpse of totality. Racing satisfies a craving to reach for the outermost edge of experience – the rush of color, the violent rippling of bones and muscles, the fleeting connection with another person, the end of suffering.
And yet, I am tired. Most days, I drag my feet to the trails, stopping in the middle of an easy jog to fold into my knees and cry. Running is the only thing that makes me feel better at the end of a tough day, and the last thing I want to do. I often think about how to carry that ambivalence. Even with a medal glinting around your neck, there’s no easy redemption. No way to catch the light and reflect it back.