Saturday, May 14, 2011
My Lucky Day
“The miracle isn’t that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.” – John Bingham
When I arrived at the Lucky Bucket Run, it was a cool fifty degrees. Runners of all ages and ability milled about the staging area. Some were in costumes. Most were not. A very tall bloke dressed as Batman slipped through the throng. A gorilla in a shell bikini sauntered past. A woman in a body leotard stood nearby, taking position next to her friend. I took their photograph.
Standing with my friends among the runners, I was thinking through my strategy, repeating my motivational mantra: Finish, but don’t finish last. A man tapped my shoulder.
I turned. He smiled. I ovulated.
“Can you tell me where to get a time chip?”
“Uh, yes,” I said, and pointed to the nearby tables. We locked eyes for a moment. He smiled again. Another egg neared my right fallopian tube, ready to jump like an ovarian paratrooper.
“Thanks,” he said, “have a great race!”
“I just did,” I mumbled as he turned and walked away.
When I turned around to rejoin my friends’ in conversation, Kate laughed. “You should have seen your face!”
“Oh my god,” I said, struck with an incredulous smirk. “It’s been years since that’s happened.”
(PHOTO: My friend and his besties)
Blushing pink on a grey Saturday afternoon, I shambled toward the start and packed in with hundreds of others. Before the herd would be released, a man with a trumpet and standing atop the Lucky Beer delivery truck would play a soulful, funeral-dirge version of our national anthem. His silver horn pointed to the darkening sky with an American flag flapping in the breeze beside him, he nailed it. I smiled. To be atop a beer truck while playing The Star-Spangled Banner seemed to me to be a highlight of any American musician’s career.
Freshly fertile, wearing my racing tag and time chip, and oozing contemplative patriotic pride, I plodded onto the course at a listing, spasmatic pace. I passed three ladies with substantial curves dressed as princesses with billowy tutus. I slipped through a group of women walking together, already regretting the trail race.
Unlike the tidy training trails the Lucky Bucketeers have used for the last couple of months, the race terrain was formidable. Just after the first mile, the first of three water challenges provided an opportunity to schlep through some muck and a creek. The second water challenge, however, was a deeper and steeper ravine. Course workers provided ropes to help runners scale the slick wall of mud on the other side of the creek. Instead of taking that obstacle head-on, I opted to take another route. It was steep but less traveled, and though it cost me some time it was worth the safer ascent.
By this time, runners were spread thin along the route. I often had large stretches of the run to myself. As I ran I could see the sprawling, rolling hills outside of Ashland green with spring rain, an emerald foundation holding up a clouded sky. Prairie birds chatted and chirped. The deep scent of ground, of damp earth and trampled grasses, filled my lungs. I could taste the earth as the sky, mischievously mottled with patches of deep grey, threatened rain and urged me onward.
Between the second and third mile markers, the route became a lesson in pain mastery. A steep upgrade stretched before me as far as I could see. I slowed my pace, listening to the sound of my Keens hitting the packed ground, my breathing, and my heartbeat. My hamstrings played a symphony of burning notes as I scaled the route. I knew I was, by all definitions, a straggler. Though I could hear the moans and exclamations of runners behind me, I could also hear those runners who had already finished partying down at the finish line.
I pushed onward, slowing to an aggressive walking pace, repeating my mantra. Just finish, but don’t finish last. As I reached the apex of the curved earth, I felt a surge of pride. Picking up my pace, I focused on making the halfway mark of the route: a beer-stop.
Alone on a stretch of wooded pathway, I could hear the quick pace of an approaching runner. As he passed me, he slowed to my pace briefly.
“Hey,” he said, “You’re doing a great job! Keep it up!” before leaving me. I smiled as I watched him disappear into a curve.
When I arrived at the beer-stop, workers were packing up the tables and putting them onto golf carts. There were pitchers, some full, some half-full, on a service table. As I approached, a woman worker called out, “We’re out of cups!”
I spied a pitcher, half-full. It beckoned me with its amber charm.
“I don’t need your cups!” I said as I scooped up the pitcher and drank deeply from its brim.
“Atta girl!” a man called out.
I put the pitcher on the last table and pounded toward the last water challenge. As I reached its edge, I understood the difficulty and felt a twinge of panic seize me. I turned, jogged twenty feet back to that pitcher and picked it up again.
“I need courage,” I said as I slugged down several gulps of ale. After an epic belch and a high-five from a race worker, I ran toward the obstacle. The descent was nearly forty degrees – not quite a straight-down drop, but close. Trampled down, slick, nothing but mud and stubborn grass clumps, all one could do is surf. Using my right hand as a rudder, I slid my way down in a big, muddy swoosh until I reached the water’s edge. Momentum pushed me upright as I crossed the water, splashing and determined. The ascent could be ranked, I swear, as a modest 5.5 slab. There was a rope dangling down the slimy route.
Instead of taking the rope, I quickly looked to the left and right of it to see which way offered the best hand and foot holds. “Screw the rope,” I said, and let my climbing skills take over. I ascended fast and was feeling pretty awesome. Workers on the other side yelled, “Woot! Way to go!” and clapped as I grabbed a tree trunk and then leapt toward another. It was a minor free-solo mud victory.
As I left that challenge behind me, I could hear other runners yelling and squealing. Energized and bolstered, I followed the route into the woods. Alone again, feeling my side ache, missing my running shoes, I carried on. I was beginning to lose faith that the race would ever end. As I rounded a curve, I realized I was in the final stretch. I could see the parking area. I could hear the music and smell the burgers grilling at the finish line staging area.
A man approached from the opposite direction. “Are there others behind you?”
“Yep,” I said, “there are folks back there.”
“Good, I can’t find my wife.”
As I reached the paved section a fifty yards or so from the finish line, Kate and Derek were there, cheering. I got a high-five as I pushed past. The final yards were uphill, asphalt-hard, and I noticed some runners were already on their way to the parking lot. As I passed a group of young runners, clearly underage and without their free drink tickets, a dolled up girl holding onto her boyfriend said, “Oh my god, I can’t believe there are people still running.”
I vexed her immediately. “May your thighs become thunderous, and your cellulite profound,” I muttered, “and your syntax sucks.”
Just a few yards from the finish line, my friend Travis was there to take a photo. A woman I didn’t know ran up to me to congratulate me on my finish. “Great job! Keep it up!”
As I crossed beneath the finish banner and stepped over the line, I came to an abrupt stop. Overjoyed, exhausted, I did a jig and a few pelvic thrusts. My friends were right there, awaiting high-fives and grinning.
It wasn’t a flat course like a typical run. It was a 7k trail run with challenges. I did it in an hour and twenty-two minutes, hardly a prideful pace for Spandex-clad seasoned runners. But I didn’t care. As I sipped my beer with my friends, as I felt the dead ache spreading up my legs like a rising tide, even as the temperature dipped below fifty degrees, I radiated a warm sense of accomplishment and self-gratitude.
When the trail got tough, I had thanked it for its lesson. When the trail emptied and I was alone, I was grateful for the solace. When the wind blew chill, I thanked it for the relief it brought. It was a cool kind of beautiful out there. My mind was empty of its doubts, and this was beautiful, too.
I finished, but I didn’t finish last. I ran. I conquered. I smiled. I ovulated. And the beer was damn good.
I guess it was just my lucky day.