Sunday, March 20, 2011

Broken (Land Between the Lakes Trail Marathon 2011)

Somewhere past mile 14 of the Land Between the Lakes Marathon, I am on the ground, and I am completely broken. When I crashed headlong onto the trail moments ago, I landed on my nose, and I both felt and heard it break. It's been gushing blood like crazy for a while now, and lots of kind strangers have stopped and offered help, but other than providing me with a stash of napkins to staunch the flow, there's not much to do but wait for the shock to wear off a bit. I realize as I sit on the side of the trail that my streak of 57 consecutive marathon finishes without a DNF will be broken now, too. There's no way that I can get up and run again, and I've lost the will to go on. Broken nose, broken streak; these don't really concern me that much. Even now, as I sit on the ground with a bloody napkin under my nose, it's my broken heart that hurts the most.

My heartbreak was my Valentine's gift this year from The Doctor. After close to two years together, he announced that he wants to be alone. He did not call it a breakup, but I don't get what else it is. He took me home, dropped me off, then quit calling or emailing. In the following weeks, I saw him once, briefly, and that was that. This has devastated me beyond any previous breakup. One day I thought that we were going to spend the rest of our lives together, and the next day - no fights, no disagreements, no shouting matches, nada - it seems that I'll be spending the rest of my life alone. For days on end, I've done little but sit at my desk and, between conference calls, cry my eyes out.

Benji and Amie and I had talked about making a road trip out of this marathon, but we had all waffled. A long drive, iffy weather, a trail marathon, and just the problem of actually feeling prepared for a race of marathon distance. But after Valentine's Day, it seemed the perfect escape; something that would get me outside myself. And that's what it's been: a perfect escape. The three of us have traveled together before, quite companionably, and it works that way for this trip also. We cross eastern Colorado and Kansas and get halfway across Missouri on our first day. That leaves us just roughly five or so hours on Friday to cross the rest of Missouri and a southern slice of Illinois (including a stop in Metropolis for photos at the giant Superman statue) before we reach Grand Rivers, Kentucky.

After picking up our packets, we head off in search of the trail, wanting a sneak preview before tomorrow morning's race. We look for but don't find the point where the race enters the trail, but we then trip upon a stretch of trail further up the road, and stop to do a test run. The test run leaves us all a bit apprehensive - there's quite a lot of mud and water on the trail, and it's much more technical and hilly than we've been expecting. It will turn out that this particular stretch of trail is more muddy than most of it, and the hills are among the biggest we'll encounter. But for now, I have a sense of foreboding for the race tomorrow.

A sense of foreboding is exactly what I had last year on Labor Day weekend. Life with The Doctor had been good, and it just kept getting better. Early in 2010, we went to Hawaii together, and then in July we went to France. We had gotten along so well at home, and now it turned out that we traveled well together as well. We came home from France, and then had an epic month of bicycle riding in August. Life seemed almost too good to be true. And then in the course of an afternoon, it started to fall apart. The Doctor's son, we learned that weekend, was hooked on some serious drugs. Heroin. Narcotics. You name it, he was using. The Doctor yanked him out of college and sent him to rehab. But as the son started his withdrawal from drugs, The Doctor started his withdrawal from life. I saw it, little by little, but couldn't quite comprehend. Or maybe I handled The Doctor's withdrawal the same way that he handled his son's drug habit: seeing it but not really knowing for sure, and not wanting it to be true, because then you have to deal with it.

On race morning, it's time to just deal with the trail. It will be what it will be.

Benji and Amie and I get to the starting area early, listening to NPR in the dark in the warm van while waiting for the sun to come up and the wind to die down. There's little pomp and circumstance at the start of the race, and then we're running. The race configuration is a lollipop, where the first and last 1.75 miles are on the same asphalt stretch of road before we hit the loop of trail that we'll run two laps on. Amie takes off and is soon a few steps in front of me, but then as we climb the first of two not insubstantial hills, we're together again. We stay together and chat about how these hills are going to look at the end of the race, and then we hit the trail, and I watch as Amie takes off in front of me. I'm happy with this, since I know that I really need to run the trail myself. It's too easy to fall if you're not completely concentrating.

It's easy to fall off the wagon, also, and that's the elephant that sits in every room when the son comes home from rehab in early December. He's drug-free and sober, ready to lead a clean life. He says all the right things, shows the right attitude. He goes to his daily meetings. He gets a job, says he just wants to work and ski for the rest of the winter. It all seems good.

The trail is booby-trapped with rocks and roots, but I manage to stay on my feet. People are passing me like I'm standing still. In principle, I'm okay with this; I have no delusions of finishing this thing fast at all. In practice, the passing starts to get to me. The problem is that I like a margin of at least five or six feet between me and the person in front of me so I can see what's coming. But when people go around me, one after another after another, it blocks my vision and destroys my comfort zone. Twice, I stumble and fall - just little falls, a skinned knee, nothing major. It's a big distraction, though, so I decide to start just stepping off the trail and waiting while people pass me. It's not efficient, but it's better than going down.

But then, I go down hard. It hurts. It's a full-on body plant, and I'm not even sure what happened. The odd thing is that it happens when I'm entirely alone. I take a moment to get up, brush myself off, and then I'm running again, a little more skinned up, a little worse for wear, but not damaged badly. I think that I really need to be more careful. An aid station comes up, and I like the chance to stop for a moment, take a gel, drink a cup or two of water, and then start to run again. Really, how much more can I fall?

But falling is easy to do. In only a week or so, the son starts skipping meetings, claiming that he doesn't have time. He gets a second job, this one in a restaurant, and we start to think, uh-oh, not a good environment. We see him on a Sunday in early January, though, and he seems good - vibrant, happy, alive. Laughing. But appearances are so deceptive. Just two days later comes the call: he's using again, and has been using since a week after he got home from rehab. He's shooting up heroin again, there's cocaine, who knows what else.

So The Doctor does what he has said he would do: tells the son he's done rescuing him, and he walks away. He walks away entirely. Tough love, the ultimate. Everyone says it's the right thing to do, but "everyone" doesn't have to deal with the emotional aftermath. On the surface, The Doctor seems to be dealing with things, but underneath, who knows what is going on?

After the aid station at the visitor center where we were yesterday, we run onto the muddy and hilly part that we pre-ran yesterday. I get through this part just fine, and I think I'm home free. But the trail becomes covered with leaves, and the leaves hide the rocks and roots, and soon, I've done a second full-body plant. Oh Lord, it hurts. Somebody not far behind me sees me go down and helps me up, and makes excuses on my behalf - it's the hidden rocks and roots. I just think I'm inept, but I appreciate the concern and the absolution.

For the next month, I feel The Doctor moving away, withdrawing, becoming more sad and more alone and more removed, and there is nothing I can do or say to reverse the trend. I think this is his primal scream, his way of dealing with his ultimate loss. His son is gone. Physically, the son is back in rehab once again, but he's lost to his father. No matter what, the father-son relationship they had is forever gone, to be replaced by what? And it's while I'm worrying about him, trying to help him, suffering with him, that he pushes me away and says "I want to be alone". Which, of course, means that suddenly I'm alone, too.

Just when I think I've got it under control - I'm taking it *so* easy - I go down hard a third time. It's almost an exact replay of the second fall, only it hurts that much more this time. Again, somebody helps me up; again, somebody points to the leaf-covered trail. The good Samaritan offers to stay with me, but I assure him I'm okay, that I just need to walk a moment. So I get up and start walking, and then it all hits me: the loneliness, the sense of failure, the pain of it all. Out of nowhere and everywhere comes a deep sob, and suddenly I'm stopped on the side of the trail, crying so hard that I'm barely able to breathe. I wonder what the hell it is I'm doing out here, and I'm afraid of the miles ahead, and I want to quit. I don't know if I can go another lap on these trails. I'm afraid of hurting myself badly; I'm afraid that I'm already hurting too badly, emotionally, spiritually, to go on. But there is no easy way out, and only trail in front of me and trail behind me, so I gingerly set out again. This time, I am outrageously careful of the leaf-strewn path, and I slow to a walk through any thing that looks like gnarly roots or rocks. Little by little, I get my head back in the game, and pretty soon I'm at the start of the second lap, and I think, yes, I can do this.

In The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz tells us "Don't take things personally". I've been trying to do that with The Doctor and his disappearance from my life, but it's hard. When you're in a relationship, and the other person takes off, how can it not be at least a little bit about you? So instead of being a good new-ager and taking this advice to heart, I've been thinking negative thoughts, and coming up short. I'm unloved, and probably unlovable. Why else would The Doctor leave me precisely at the time when you would think he would need someone the most?

So now that I've been alone much of the time on this trail, I've picked up a party, and it's a personal pity party. It's a potluck, which means that anything and everything is fodder for this mental feeding frenzy. There's barely room on the trail for everyone who comes: the father I didn't have growing up, the boyfriends I didn't have in high school or college, my first love - who turned out to be a cheating bastard, the girlfriends who were once BFFs but who disappeared from my life without so much as a goodbye, the husband who abandoned me for his car clubs, the babies I never got to have, the grandchildren I'll never hold on my lap, and finally the guy I thought I might marry and spend the rest of my life with but who disappeared down his own rabbit hole after his son broke his heart. It takes a lot of energy to entertain a party of this size. There's not really much energy left over to watch for rocks and roots.

And then I'm down. Hard. A total face plant. I didn't see it coming: how could I? I was too busy with the pity party. But clearly the racing gods are unhappy that my head is not in this race, and they've offered the ultimate comeuppance. I'm certain that my nose is broken, and suddenly, nothing much else matters. The party has scattered, and there's just Renee - the angel who was behind me when I went down - and me, sitting on the side of the trail, waiting for help to arrive.

But help doesn't magically appear, and after twenty minutes or so, we decide to get up and try to walk to the nearest aid station. I feel bad for ruining this woman's race, but she is exceedingly kind, and I need this kindness right now. Oddly, as we walk along, I no longer trip and stumble over the trail. It no longer scares me. I'm intent on keeping my nose from bleeding too much, and still I'm doing a better job of staying on my feet.

Eventually, Renee says, "you know, it's only 9:30 in the morning", and then "we could walk the rest of this thing and still be done before the cutoff". As I grow more steady on my feet, the idea takes hold. I think about my 50 states goal and how few options there are for Kentucky marathons. I think about coming all this way to go home without a finisher's medal. I think about how I'm actually seeing the scenery now that I'm walking.

By the time we reach the next aid station, at mile 16, there are only 10 miles to go, and I've made up my mind. Renee takes off at a run. The folks at the aid station give me a Ziploc full of ice and a handful of ibuprofen and a new batch of paper towels for my still-bleeding nose. I ask them to send word to Benji and Amie, who will be waiting a long time for me at the finish line, and I head off to complete the thing. The pity party is gone. Twirling thoughts of The Doctor and his son: gone. Just me and the trail.

Just me and the trail and all the good people who encourage me as they pass me. They all exclaim as they go by, and many of them say "I saw all that blood on the trail back there!" (It must have been a prodigious amount.) Around mile 18 or 19, Lee falls in step behind me, and keeps me company until we get off the trail with less than two miles to go. The miles have flown by; I am not all that tired, nothing like a marathon that I've run, and nothing like a marathon with this many hills. I'm just moving forward.

The racing gods aren't done with me yet, though, as I find on the final stretch to the finish. Once we hit the asphalt, I've decided to run again, just to get this thing done. At some point, I look down to my Garmin to see how many miles I've covered, and in so doing I step off the pavement, twist my ankle, and fall. It's the ultimate of adding insult to injury. I had protected my hands from scrapes by keeping my gloves on even when it got warm, and finally took them off when I hit the pavement. So now, on my final approach to the finish, I've scraped my hands to smithereens, too. Sigh. There's no pride left, though, just a need to get up and finish. So I get up and start running again.

Amie is waiting at the finish line. There's very little hoopla, just a narrow chute, a modest medal, and a short walk to the community center where I can wash up and get some post-race food and drink. We hang around long enough so that I can thank Lee properly for his company, and then we're on our way home, where I'll start the process of healing all that's broken.

In the end, it turns out that dealing with a broken heart is a lot like dealing with a broken nose. At first, you have to stop and sit by the side of things and just let the blood and tears flow. They will subside, eventually, even though at first the torrents seem completely unstoppable. When you finally start to move again, it will be with baby steps, much slower and more cautiously than you're used to, but this is okay. It's what feels right, just now, if anything feels "right". You'll quit thinking, and you'll just let the pain wash over you, because you know that you can't heal until you've accepted the pain. You believe that at some point you'll feel like getting on with things again, but for right now, you'll accept the kindness of friends and strangers alike. It's how you get moving again.

I asked a friend once, not long ago, when I first saw The Doctor moving away from me, "how many times can you get your heart broken?", and she replied, "as many times as you're willing to risk it". That's a lot like running marathons. When you finish one, you are tired and hurting and you think you can't possibly ever do this again. But when you get a little distance from the pain, and you give your broken self a little time to heal, you know that you'll get through it, and at some time you'll be willing to risk it again. It helps to be able to laugh at yourself a little along the way, and with a nose like Bozo's that's not so hard to do.