Friday, August 26, 2016

Running Alaska and the bond of friendship

You can thank Carol who I met for only a few moments on the airplane ride to Alaska for this post. Thanks for the chat Carol!

You're getting the unedited version here so I'll apologize for any errors. I'll clean this up over the next few days but I like to get the first draft out there because it has the raw emotion of the moment that can get lost as the event moves into the past and the feelings subside.

I don't remember how I met Bill. I wish I did. I like to think it was one of those encounters that just happens, you know, the kind that seem to mean nothing at all at the time but attain significance after the fact. However we met, Bill became a constant fixture in my life that steadily moved out of just my running world and into the other realms of my life so much so that I could drop the "running" from friend when I talked about him. He was just my friend.
With that said, running always was at the core of our friendship. We were never far from it during a conversation or a night out. Running was the topic around which everything else revolved. I suppose that's not uncommon among runners. We enjoyed other things in life and had other interests, in most of those things though we kept our distance from each other. It was a mutual respect for each other's privacy that allowed us to keep our friendship but also limit it to those comfortable places close to running.

Bill has always been faster than me. He was the one I'd watch every weekend run and dream that one day I might be able to keep up. When he invited me to run with him for the first time I almost laughed at the idea. There was no way I could keep up with him! But Bill didn't, and doesn't, think like that. He didn't see me as a slow runner, he saw me as a runner. No prejudice about pace, I was just a runner so why wouldn't we run together? That blind kindness and relaxed attitude toward running is what made me want to be around Bill more.

So when Bill told me he was making plans to run his 50th state I was excited! He was going to Alaska and would finish out his 50 state marathon goal in grand style with a marathon in Anchorage. Not only that, but he'd already got a group of our other friends to commit to going too! This sounded like one of those trips I just couldn't miss. The problem was, I was going to have to miss it. My schedule didn't work out with the date of the marathon in Alaska and there was no way I could get away for that weekend. I was completely bummed. For weeks I listened to all those who were going talk about their plans and what they were going to do in Alaska before and after the marathon and it completely wiped me out that I couldn't be there with them. Be there with Bill when he completely this goal he had spent so much time and energy pursuing.

A few weeks before the marathon I got a call that changed everything. I would be able to go! Situations had changed and my schedule was now free! The thing that changed was fairly significant in my life and should have taken center stage as the cause of my excitement but the funny thing is that the minute I got off the phone, I started looking at flights to Anchorage! Rest of my world be damned, I was going to see Bill finish this marathon and I wanted to finish with him.

There was one little wrinkle in my excitement however. Since I hadn't planned on running a marathon until September, I hadn't run a 20 miler since the spring and I wasn't ready for the 26.2 distance. To further complicate this, I had never finished a marathon with Bill. He's always been faster than me and, although we've started many together, I've never been able to hang with him to the finish.

I'd been in this predicament before but not with a race so important and a goal so personal. After finishing arranging my travel plans I immediately set out to change my training plans. I knew I didn't have time to get in great shape and my schedule wasn't going to allow me to get in the long runs that I knew I needed. My only hope was to get what miles I could on my old legs and hope that Bill would have a tough day and struggle through the last miles, and maybe, just maybe I could keep pace with him. It was a long shot but it was my only shot. The universe had seen fit to get me to Alaska, now I was relying on it to get me to the finish with Bill.

I gave up my weekly speed work sessions and put in all the miles I could before the marathon weekend. When the Landrunner fall marathon training began, just weeks before the trip to Alaska, I noticed Bill was having a problem with his hamstring. He said it'd been hurting him for some time and he was having trouble running at all. Now don't judge me. We've all been there. You know you have, that time when you've taken some small delight in the misery of a friend. Whether they've called you the night before a training run and said they were injured and couldn't make it and you smiled a little because you knew the pressure was off. Or you were at mile 5 of a 10 mile run and your friend says they're really struggling and maybe you should cut it back to just 8 miles today. You've all taken that guilty pleasure of someone else's misery! Well I will freely admit that I saw my chance when I saw Bill limping. This was the universe giving me my cake and letting me eat it too. I have no idea why theses things happen or even less idea why they would happen to me, but stars were aligning and I was going to stand up and take the opportunity they were serving me.

The thing about booking flights at the last minute is that you have to forfeit something. You either have to forfeit an obscene amount of money to fly on reasonably scheduled flights, or you have to forfeit your health, dignity, and sleep and take flights normally reserved for business travelers who don't have a home anyway so don't mind flying across country in the middle of the night. In getting to Alaska, I ended up leaving both money and time on the unholy alter of the airlines. My trip to Anchorage got me in around 1 AM on Saturday morning and only after many hours of uncomfortable airplane sitting. Needless to say I wasn't in the best condition to begin this weekend of running. I somehow made it through the expo and even got into the 1 mile race on Saturday where Chuck, Bill, and I made total fools of ourselves while representing our great state of Oklahoma. Let's just say, the people of Alaska knew there were Oklahomans in the house.

Sunday morning we got up and made it to the starting line with plenty of time to spare. It was cold and spitting rain but I had decided (I.e. peer pressured) to wear Chuck's spare Landrunner tank top. I do love the cold so much and even more when it's delivered with rain (where's the sarcasm key?). It was nice that we were all wearing matching shirts though and I tried to see the larger significance of the bond these skimpy bits of cloth would bring to the event through my eyes that were now tearing up from the cold. Yes, this would mean something later. The race started and Bill, Mary, and I ran together at a comfortable pace through the early miles. I was surprised to see that most of the marathon would be on a trail that borders the water. Alaska, it turns out, has tons of paved trails.
Sidebar:Every road we would drive on later in the trip had a paved trail next to it even the roads far from the city. I guess when they build a road they build a trail. What a great concept!

Bill, Mary, and I made it through the early miles together and I was hanging with them easily but all the while knowing that I couldn't hold this pace. Bill's hamstring didn't seem to be bothering him much and my untrained legs were beginning to bother me. I was still focused on my goal of just finishing with Bill but the prospects weren't looking good and I struggled to get that out of my mind and just keep running. Around mile 13 I knew I was doomed. The physical whining of my legs was out-shouting the cheerleader in my head and I knew I would have to back off the pace if I was going to finish without walking a significant portion of this marathon. I told myself that I would run to mile 16 and then I could back off. That's the little game I play with myself, set a reasonable milestone like running another 2 miles and promise my body I'll give it a break there. Somewhere around mile 15 I noticed Bill's shoe was untied and I let him know. He pulled off the trail to tie it and Mary and I continued on. I slowed a bit to let Bill catch up. This slower pace felt great! I knew then that I wouldn't get the previous pace back. It was gone. It also helped my mental state a bit to let Mary go and be running alone for awhile. I didn't feel the need to keep a pace and I could just keep moving forward without being pushed or pulled. I kept running this pace for awhile waiting for Bill to catch up, expecting him to come running up to me at that faster pace and force me to decide right there whether I could push through and finish with him or drop my goal right there on the trail and fail. But Bill wasn't appearing. I kept running and stressing about failing when I got a sudden burst of mental energy and an idea. If I could pick it up just a little, not the previous pace, but faster than I was running now, I could keep this distance between Bill and I large enough that he wouldn't catch me until maybe mile 20. At that point, maybe I could gut it out to the finish with him. 6 miles seemed much more manageable than the 10 I had in front of me now. So I picked it up a little and focused on making it just 4 more miles. Somehow keeping my mind on a 4 mile goal was keeping me up enough to allow me to push a little. This was awesome! I could do this! Somewhere around mile 18 we made a turnaround allowing me to see how much distance I had between Bill and me. I was a bit saddened to see that it wasn't a lot! Bill was still running strong and only a few hundred yards behind me. I wondered for a minute if he was upset that I hadn't waited on him after he tied his shoes but quickly put that out of my mind and promised myself my lack of running courtesy was for the great good and I'd explain it to him later. I continued to push the pace to mile 20, my goal, and was surprised to see that I was feeling pretty darn good. Maybe I could go on to mile 22 before Bill caught me? So I forged ahead, head down, legs turning over as best they could. Now that the goal was closer to a possibility, I began to get emotional. I do that. 20 miles of running can easily make me a blubbering baby and the significance of actually finishing a marathon with Bill, his 50th state no less, was boiling over into my tear ducts. My running friend for so many years and I could finally be there for him. I pulled myself together, somewhat, and plowed ahead to mile 22 and then to mile 24. Now I was worried that Bill hadn't caught me. I usually lose my ability to do math when I'm really tired but even in my reduced mental capacity I knew that Bill should have caught me easily by now if he was running like I saw him at the turn around. Something was wrong.

I stopped running without thinking. My only goal was to finish with Bill and he was obviously having problems. I walked for a bit looking back to see if he was coming. He wasn't in sight. I walked until I made it to mile 25 and still didn't see Bill coming up behind me. I walked through a crowd of onlookers as they cheered me to keep going, I only had a little bit to go, and I really didn't hear them. I stopped. I wanted to find Bill. So I started back down the trail. The crowd looked a little puzzled as I ran back by them but they didn't understand. My friend was out there and this was a significant time for him. I wanted to find him and make sure this moment lived up to what the universe had foreseen. I don't know how to say I didn't do this for anyone other than Bill, as I know it sounds self glorifying, but I promise you it was deeper than that. I wanted that goal more than any PR or even a BQ.
I didn't have to go far to find Bill. He said his hamstring had let go when he stopped to tie his shoe. He had run for a while after that but eventually the pain was too much and he had to walk. He was in good spirits and seemed to be enjoying the race even though he was way off his normal pace. Finding joy in the simple pleasure of being out on a beautiful course with other runners is so typically Bill and I shouldn't have been surprised. We walked up the last hill jamming out to the rhythms of the drummer playing along side the road. At the top Bill thanked the police who were stopping traffic for us and told them they had a beautiful city, again, so typical Bill. He wanted to run across the finish line so he said we'd walk until the last turn since his hamstring didn't have more than a block or two left in it.
Nearing the final turn we saw the other Landrunners cheering for Bill on the corner. This was a great moment and I, of course, had to hold back the emotions which I did because this wasn't my moment. I was only a participant in it. Bill started running so I went with him. Coming around that final turn and seeing the finish line I asked him if he'd like to finish alone so he could have a finish line picture with just himself in it. Bill brushed off this idea so we continued on towards the finish. When the announcer called his name and announced this was his 50th state the crowd started to cheer and Bill raised his arms in a much deserved triumphant gesture to the crowd that said, "I did this, but I did this with all of you!". Crossing the line with Bill, I felt somewhat unworthy but fully included and accepted in his success.

Personal goals are great but they only give you satisfaction limited to yourself. Helping or being with someone else when they meet their goals is a much deeper satisfaction because it spans outside of just your world, it brings your world in close contact with someone else's and that kind of connection ripples throughout the universe!