I jokingly referred to it as the hillbilly half-marathon, but there was nothing funny about the course itself.
On a day that should have been snowing and blowing with temperatures in the teens but was instead unseasonably warm, I found myself in the company of 14 honest-to-gosh runners, huffing and puffing through a course that started and stopped in Butler Township and snaked through parts of Knox Township and North Georgetown.
It was the inaugural Bloss Bardo Sanor invitational, conceived by three enterprising guys who marked off a 13.1-mile course near one of their houses and sent word to friends to come run with them. They collected entrance fees (donated to a local charity), made up T-shirts and racing bibs, and laid out a sumptuous feast at the finish.
It was my first half-marathon. Over the summer, I had increased my distance to 15 miles at a time, but summer was long ago, and in the intervening months, I'd lost 10 miles and gained 10 pounds, so I was worried about crossing the finish line in anything other than a crawl.
I started the race as I always do -- too fast. The first few miles I was middle-of-the-pack and feeling strong, deftly jogging past cows and horses and what looked like a prehistoric buffalo, and I started to fantasize about finishing seventh or eighth. But my stamina dried up faster than Kim Kardashian's marriage, and soon runner after runner passed me by.
This happens so often that I have a routine to follow. As a racer cruises past, I nod my head, wave, and say, "Good job!" or "Finish strong!" or some equally inane expression that is more socially acceptable than what I'm thinking, which is, "I hope you trip."
Somewhere around mile five, my goal shifted from finishing strong to simply running the entire course without stopping for more than a quick drink. That goal was shattered at mile six, as I climbed a displaced Mount Everest that glacial activity carved on Winona Road. I looked up and up and up and somewhere, at the fog-enshrouded peak, I thought I saw Gandalf the Grey shouting "You shall not pass!" before shattering the road with his wooden staff.
I started walking. (Who am I to contradict a wizard?) And once I walk in a race, I will walk again, no matter what lies I tell myself. And so I did, at various points in mile eight, nine, 10 and 11.
But the walking wasn't as bad as the hallucinations. At one point, I saw the bleached rib cage of a deer on the side of the road; at another, a large black or brown dog that watched with baleful eyes as I wheezed past its driveway. Maybe they were real or maybe not.
Periodically, I scooped up old, dirty snow and rubbed it on my head and neck, like a Native American on a vision quest. They say there are no atheists in foxholes. I don't know if the same holds true in distance running, but I believe I was only a few miles away from finding out.
As often happens when I experience dehydration and overexertion, I became very philosophical, questioning why it is that we Americans will put ourselves through extreme physical and emotional deprivation in the name of recreation, but will complain bitterly about even the slightest extra exertion in the workplace. To put it another way, if my boss required me to run 13.1 miles as part of my job, I'd file a grievance, but on my own time, I'll pay for the opportunity.
At the 12-mile marker, I found my second (or third) wind and ended better than I expected, crossing the finish line in 12th place with 9:54-minute miles, despite a half mile or more of walking. I didn't collapse or kiss the ground, but merely sent a text message to my wife that I would meet her at home instead of the emergency room.
Coincidentally, 1,000 miles away, my daughter and my sister had just completed their first half marathon, in the company of more than 27,000 runners in Disney World. They finished strong, too, coming in 13,594th and 13,595th on a course that included Cinderella's castle and a pirate ship. If any dog stared at them from a driveway, it was probably Pluto.
You've got to love sports like running -- and baseball, football, soccer, and so on -- that are so adaptable that people can participate in so many different ways and at so many different levels. All across America on Saturday (and other days, too), people laced up their shoes to run, jog, shog (thanks, Harry Paidas!) distances ranging from a few hundred yards to 26.2 miles. They were doing it on treadmills, in their own neighborhoods, solo or in organized races as small as 15 people and as large as 27,000. I find that inspiring, which is why I plan to keep running as long as my legs hold out.
Or maybe I'm just imagining these warm thoughts, and I'm really still climbing Mount Everest out there on Winona Road. Hold on, Gandalf, I'm coming.
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