WARNING: Some of the following content may be moderately inappropriate or totally gross; just letting you know.
It’s been more than a month now, but flashes from my experience participating in Pat’s Run came flooding back this morning as I jogged through a post-rainstorm landscape of puddles, soggy leaves, fallen branches, and higher-than-normal humidity. It was a peaceful jog and little memories trickled in as I made my way through the neighborhood. These thoughts started with a banana and ended with the stadium, all random and jumbled up, but I will retell them in a linear fashion.
In the beginning, there was the fear of the unknown. I’d never participated in a race. What if I humiliated myself by failing miserably or worse? What’s worse than quitting or getting injured?
Running a course without immediate access to a restroom seemed like it could be dangerous. Sure, it was only 4.2 miles, but sh…ahem…stuff happens. My first stop after saying goodbye to my family was the port-o-potties. Standard, from what I’d read. I tucked my water bottle under my arm and did my thing, conscious that should it drop to the floor we would part ways without a further word.
Now, I’m in the starting area. Many people milling around, some serious, some wear goofy outfits, some smile and looked relaxed, but determined. Some, like the chiseled, wise-cracking, frat boys in front of me, are looking a bit hung over, but in their nonchalant youth they are unafraid of what comes next. I stretch and think about the course. All I really want to do is finish. I just want to get through it without stopping. I finish my water and search for a recycle bin. No such luck. Trash can only. I wonder why big events seem to have such a hard time with recycling?
A few minutes to go. The holding area is crowded. 1000-yard stares are the norm. There is the “Star Spangled Banner”, played by a famous guy on his trumpet, the sound is sweet and clear and moving. We all join in. Tears fill my eyes because, no matter what your socio-political leaning, it is powerful to be surrounded by thousands of your countrymen singing the National Anthem, honoring someone who gave everything, who died tragically, in the presence of so many who want to give back, who want to be part of something greater than themselves. And it is a moment of pride, not merely patriotic, but pride in the human ability to do great things, together, when we put our minds to it.
In addition, my emotions overtake me, because I am in awe of this moment. Things are about to start and I am here, where I never thought or dreamed or even wanted to be. I am running a race. I set a goal and I accomplished it. I do love checking things off a list. So, check!
The race begins, but it is ten minutes before I can even see the starting line. There are a few small rumbles in my gut. I launch negotiations for a peaceful run in which my large intestines and the muscles surrounding them comply with most international laws regarding hostilities and just, for God’s sake, hold their fire. I’ve read too many running books in which the authors describe horribly crappy, (pun definitely intended), experiences. I don’t want that to happen. I beg and plead with my body to keep its shit together. Literally. It is then, moving like cattle that I spot the portables again. I think of the water I’ve had. My bladder tells me things are at level yellow, but approaching orange quickly. Maybe I can make it. Maybe not. Should I get out of the pack? No! I want to do this now. I recall that there are bathrooms in a park at mile 2. I can make it and maybe by then I’ll have sweated it out.
We are moving toward the starting line. Groups are being called. We’re all being swept along by the sheer numbers and adrenaline. No one calls our group. Suddenly, I am over the line. It’s on! I’m scanning the crowd for my family, too many people, too much to focus on. “Just run,” a voice in my head says clearly. So, I do.
I am on the course. Runners are all over the place. It’s a quarter mile before people settle in, some are starting to walk, some put the pedal down, slower folks move to the right, mostly, and I feel strong. I feel capable. We near the Mill Avenue bridge. I keep checking my systems. Everything is a go. I can do this. I’m up on the bridge now, blue lake water on either side. There’s a water station up ahead, manned by volunteers, so many of then showing ASU Sun Devil pride. I throw my hand up and make the the pitchfork sign. I feel like a moron, but who cares!?
We are across the bridge, nearing Curry Road and the hill. This is what I’ve been dreading, but I’ve put in some time on little hills to prepare, so I dig in. By now, the bladder is at critical stress level. I wonder about strolling into the scrub-brush off to the side of the street and letting go. Would people freak? Do I care? Kinda.
I press on. I am going up, passing more people than are passing me. This feels awesome! I crest the hill and I see the stream of humanity heading toward the bottom. I see Sun Devil Stadium across the lake. Tempe looks sound asleep despite all these people tromping through her streets. The sky is blue, the sun is out. It’s euphoria time! Still, the bladder is calling. I make the decision. I will be forced to stop in the park at the bottom of the hill. It feels like a failure to stop, but how would I feel if I spring a leak mid-race? This is the only option. I step over the mile 2 timing rig and go around the corner to the restroom.
My cough catches up to me. I’ve been sick, but so far it hasn’t been an issue. For some reason, stopping creates an opportunity for my lungs to rebel. I stand in line and wait in the grungy, lean-to of a public park restroom. The other guys standing near me are visibly disturbed, like I may be infectious. I can see them wondering if I have the flu or tuberculosis or SARS or Ebola. Finally, it is my turn and I feel relief, and it is suddenly like the defrosting scene from “Austin Powers.” I can tell the men waiting are worried that I might never stop. I sort of wonder too, but then, soon enough I am washed up and back on course. I remind myself to be more careful with water intake if I should choose to do this again in the future. However, I feel proud of myself that I am certainly not in any danger of becoming dehydrated!
I am almost there, down around one of the last turns, heading back toward the stadium. Another bridge to cross. Behind me is the steady cadence of a military unit. It is faint, but by the time I cross the river again and I am turning toward the final mile they have caught up with us. They run as one, call and response the whole way, just like every military movie you’ve ever seen. I fall in next to them for awhile. It is beautiful, their bond, their determination to do this as one, together. Inspiring, really. Their pace is faster than mine. I could go faster, but I almost don’t want it to end. I am enjoying myself. I was never a runner. In January, I could barely run to the corner. And now, here I am in the middle of thousands, running, jogging, walking, participating.
We wind past parking structures and where we began, final approach. I see my family and wave. It goes by so quickly. The route is quite narrow now, we are again herded toward our goal, cattle in blue shirts, around the back of the stadium and up the ramp. Here comes the tunnel. Finishers are streaming out on the right as we ascend on the left. It’s gone too fast. I am high-fived by the tired, the sweaty, the finished. We share milliseconds, but it feels good. The tunnel is dark and then there it is. The finish line. The open stadium, the green grass. So cool. I see the clock. It’s been nearly an hour since it began. I race the last 42 yards just to know that I completed my goal in under an hour, (41 or so minutes, officially). I stand on the grass away from the end of the line and take it in. Wow!
I blink and I’m trudging out through the tunnel again. I am giving out my own high-fives. Down the ramp. There are granola bars and water being distributed by happy volunteers. I just want to get to my family. I do see bananas and ask for one. There are gobs of people. A volunteer offers, but I’m too far out of reach. I point to the sky. She lobs it up and I catch it, like a boss. We smile. Pretty slick. I feel like the Fonz!
I make my way to the meet-up area and soon I see them coming toward me. Hugs and kisses and stories. So happy I did it. Pride and satisfaction embrace me like the arms of my dearest ones. I feel an overwhelming pleasure in participating in this cause. It benefits soldier-scholars. I keeps Tillman’s memory alive. Damn cool.
And, as we walk away, I am just grateful that I’ve still got my dignity. It may seem irrational, but as a first-timer, with a head full of race stories, the worry that I could blow a gasket was very real. Gross, I know, but true.
Although, in retrospect, this would probably be funnier if things had gotten dicey!