It rained last Saturday. It wasn’t supposed to rain. But that was okay. I wasn’t supposed to be running 25 kilometers, either.
But there I was, lined up in the middle of the pack with sixty other folks of varying ages and body types, about to launch down a trail that started next to Lake Pend Oreille and climbed hills and wound among pines and across fields for 15 miles at least two (possibly tortuous) hours. Was I the only person there wondering about the wisdom of their decision?
After the dismal struggle of the 12k Bloomsday race two weeks earlier (which I wrote about in a recent post), I had arrived for the potluck and camping the night before certain that attempting to run a 25k would only be an invitation to further discouragement and probably injury. There was no option but to do the 10k.
But it was heartbreaking to think of only being out for six miles in such an incredible landscape, even in the rain.
So, with much hesitation, and relying on the encouragement of the race organizers and some other runners, I had made the switch to this longer race that morning. And thus there I was, committing to 2+ hours in the rain and mud.
One thing about cancer is it destroys your rhythm, your pace, at every level. At least for me. The daily routine, the stuff you had energy for, the reasons you found for doing them—they don’t necessarily fit together the way they used to, and suddenly life has lost its sense of flow. Not just during treatment, but even now, five months later.
It was the same with running. I used to lock into a rhythm you could set your watch to, but after a year and a half without running and only four months into training, I couldn’t count on my inner cruise control to guide me.
You can’t run a race at an inconsistent tempo and hope to survive. The key to making it to the finish line would be finding others to keep me on pace.
About a mile in, the first few runners started to lag and stood to the side of the narrow trail to let people pass. It was clear most of them were in danger of gassing out. But one, a woman in neon green compression socks, seemed to be prematurely polite. She looked to be going just a touch slower than me, which probably meant about right in the long run.
I motioned for her to keep going, and slipped in behind her.
For the next eight miles or so, my eyes I locked onto those neon green compression socks. Within a few miles, I felt a magnetic pull to the relieve myself in the bushes, but the socks kept me going.
On the smaller hills that she didn’t walk, I kept running too despite the burning in my quads and knees, knowing that breaking pace could doom my progress. All the while, my eyes were glued to those green socks as they accumulated mud splatters like a Jackson Pollock painting.
Halfway along, we paused to cross a highway and she introduced herself as Vanessa. Then we were off again, she leading at her unwavering near-robotic pace, me strangely enjoying the continuous repetitive mechanics of pumping muscles and puddle-hopping even as I knew my body was at its limit.
Finally, at about mile twelve, we hit a hill where the combination of incline and bladder pressure finally brought me to a stop. She quickly faded from view as I found refuge in the bushes. When I emerged back to the trail 90 seconds later, she was a ghost.
My only hope lay in catching up with the anonymous male who had thrown a joke my way a few seconds earlier while my back was turned.
Within a minute, he was within sight—a fifty-something male with a bright blue hydration pack. For the last few miles, blue-hydration-pack-guy pulled me along in his wake, just slower enough than compression socks had been, that I could keep up. If not for him, it’s certain the rest of the race would have been the disheartening start-and-stop slog I had worried about the night before.
In many ways, those last few miles were the most rewarding as it became clear I would run the entire fifteen miles, other than major hills—and without any worrisome strains or lasting injuries. Coming five months after the cadence of the longest, emptiest eighteen months of my life, it felt amazing.
I was able to touch base with hydration-pack guy afterward (his name was Greg), and grab a photo of that heavenly blue pack on the paved trail near the finish line. Among more positive conversation, we connected over the commonality of cancer, which took both his parents later in their lives. Vanessa of the neon green compression socks was nowhere to be found.
As I’ve debriefed this experience, it would be great to say how it’s an obvious metaphor for the one or two significant pacing partners who have led me through my post-cancer recovery. Unfortunately, I can’t say that has happened. Not that it won’t, in small ways through relationships over time; just that life doesn’t always parallel a 2.5-hour epiphany or fit into a blog post or a tidy metaphor.
Digging deeper, I guess that’s why I’m hoping over the coming year to pull together a collection of stories of how people have found hope after cancer—not just out of a sense of kinship, but because on an emotional level I also need a set of green compression socks and a blue hydration pack to keep me going once in a while.