Saturday, November 26, 2011

Death and life on the run--of memorials and affirmations ... and going forward

R.I.P. G. Chris Gleason and Jeffrey Lee

A marathon or even a half marathon can be a celebration of endurance and speed. The leaders cross the line flush with victory, and we celebrate. Many thousands of the rest of us cross the line with our own private pain and private victories… and we celebrate.

Sometimes, however, amid the celebration, there is tragedy. And we who celebrate our private victories over private pain share the public pain of hearing about young athletes taken too soon.

And we try to understand. We hear friends tell us, “It’s a dangerous sport. You’ll put too much stress on your body. You’ll wreck your knees. See what happens? People die doing these races.”

And yet people can also die driving to these races. Or staying at home. Or standing in line at Starbuck’s.

Still, we are given pause. Still, we listen for heartbeats that have stopped. We ask if we are next in line. No doubt these runners have heard about deaths that have occurred at other marathons. No doubt they too heard the same spiel: “You’ll ruin your knees.” “Running is dangerous. You can always walk.” And there may be those who will now say, “If they’d only listened to me, they’d be alive today.”

And no doubt there are people now running—maybe I’m one of them—who will be in the news because they collapsed and died during a race.

Yet we go on.


Some cite psychopathology. They say we are addicted. That it’s our cocaine, our crack.

But neither Jeffrey Lee nor Chris Gleason—both vibrant, productive individuals, bright, witty, contributing to their community—even remotely match the picture we have of a crack or cocaine addict.

They simply enjoyed the chase. So do many of us. On so many levels, running is life-giving, not life-taking.

In the fall, we feel the crackle of leaves underfoot. In the winter, the crunch of snow; in spring, we notice the first buds on trees, the crocuses peeking up from the grass. In summer, like children, we run through the sprinklers and puddles that others dodge but that cool us off. That sense of childlike freedom is perhaps what makes this sport special.

It isn’t just the everyday runner who feels this joy—some very competitive runners celebrate their time outdoors, the freedom they feel, the release from the phone calls, deadlines, e-mails, and all the detritus of adult life.

We travel this road together—fast or slow, young or aging—and we know.

It sometimes feels hard, sometimes feels like a slog, sometimes makes us wonder what we’re doing out there in the cold, in the heat, in rain, snow, sleet. But somehow, even then, we know we are still going to run.

Would these two men have stopped running had they known what would take them down? Would they have canceled not only their marathon or half marathon plans but all plans for running? Maybe they would have put them on hold while having their hearts checked by a doctor. But they likely would have found a way back, done the necessary medical check-ups and returned—probably. We don’t know the answer.

What if their doctors had told them running would kill them and it wasn’t a matter of “if” but “when”? Ryan Shay was told at one point that he had an enlarged heart. He continued to compete, reaching the Olympic Trials Marathon—and then collapsed and died during that race.

But when he was told as a teen that he had an enlarged heart—this could have meant anything perhaps—at first perhaps indicating a need for caution, then as school and sports assumed increasing importance, just some factoid that seemed not to affect his life.

Running has that hold on a person. It takes many warning signs before we heed them. Some don’t get that many warning signs.

Then people quote Housman’s “To an Athlete Dying Young.” But the thing is, that poem was written years before masters’ athletics and the advent of older athletes not giving up the chase. And athletes die young at all ages now, engaged in something that enlarges their spirits, not only their hearts. They might sometimes have to pause, but my guess is that they find their way back. We who have less dramatic conditions—our various injuries, aches, angst—running calls us back.

What would these two men or Ryan Shay tell us if they could come back and share what they learned? Would they tell us to put on the brakes, give up the chase? Take due caution but find a way back?

I suspect the latter.


It felt selfish writing about my half marathon having heard the stories of these two young men—did Jeffrey Lee even have a chance to get his finisher’s medal or experience the joy of breaking two hours, a goal that until about October was mine?

And did Chris Gleason feel the adrenaline of possibly breaking three hours in the marathon before he felt his heart giving way?

These goals trivialized by death….

Or are they?

Numbers have a way of showing us how far we’ve come but they become meaningful in light of the journey we’ve taken to get where we are, the growing, the training, the friends, the family. The numbers—the clock at the finish or the watch we stop or the result online—when they’re what we hoped they would be, we know what hurdles we cleared, what training challenges we overcame to get these times. They’re part of a larger picture—but they’re certainly part of the picture.

And so in that context, I look at my race, grateful for the result as the two departed men on that day might have been, competitors that they were.

My time: 2:06:39, good enough for fourth place in my age group. This was something I’d wanted, chased, hoped for. When sub-2 hours showed itself to be unrealistic (so I put aside qualifying for the New York City Marathon), I still held on to the goal of making the podium in my age division. And I held on to the hope of a sub-2:07 (my time + change in the Philadelphia Distance Run, 2008). I had a sense that this would show I could, even post-60th birthday, make fitness gains. Karl, on the Dead Runners’ Society list—spoke of the “upward fitness curve” that newer runners could ride but that became less available to older runners (he was tactful enough to say “experienced”). And yet this year, I improved in every road race on the Grand Prix circuit and ran two 5k’s in sub-9 minute pace. I came very close to running the Bobtoberfest in sub-9 pace but faded at the end. Still, I improved by four minutes in that and in the Schuylkill River Loop.


Today, I ran a more low-key but important race—the Delaware Open Cross Country Championships. My time last year was 33:22. This year (according to my watch), it was 31:49. Nothing spectacular, but again, an improvement.

To make gains when you’re told slowing down is inevitable—I wonder if we really have explored the possibilities, wonder if older athletes have greater capabilities than anyone suspects. I wonder too if this extends beyond sports. Why do we take for granted a “downward fitness curve” or a “downward mental curve”? This has been what we’ve had in the past. Must we take for granted that it will always be thus?

Deepak Chopra’s Ageless Body, Timeless Mind suggests otherwise. And yet if it isn’t so, if my life ends during a race, I hope that in my last breath, I’ll inhale life at its most intense. I hope that my last breath will fill me with the scent of trees, of freshly mowed fields, of salt in the air, or spring rain—I hope my last breath will fill me with wonder and gratitude for all I have experienced.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Ben Franklin Bridge Run 10k

After a nerve-wracking start ... a good day!

Quick summary:

56:35 chip time; 58:32 gun time, 586 out of 1793 women, 4th out of 15 women in my age division.

Okay, but it wasn't quite that simple...

After what seemed like a nicely organized start to my day--running clothes ready, chip attached to shoe, number pinned onto "Spibelt," and all the stuff I needed to take with me, including the packet of the friend who was giving me a ride to the race--I reached the trolley stop in PLENTY of time to get to her house, where I was to meet her at 7:15 and we'd leave together.

ENTER GOOGLE MAPS and Murphy's Law: I rode the trolley to the stop specified by Google Transit. Good enough. Then I proceeded according to the directions that resulted from my search for the address... which directions led me AWAY from her house. This I began to suspect because the numbers, while going up, skipped her house. Um... it should have been a clue that "destination will be on your right"--well, it would be on my right if Google had told me the right direction to travel. Sigh!

After a cell phone conversation revealed my misdirection, her friend came to get me and take me to her house. By then it was almost 7:30 and we needed to reach the Franklin Bridge by 7:45... when it closed to traffic... which it did when we arrived there at 7:47... and were then given directions to go to the Walt Whitman Bridge, then come back toward Camden, N.J. At about 8:15, we pulled into a parking spot... Race was to go off at 8:30.

By then I'd at least been able to give her the number with pins, ready to attach, and opened the stapled envelope with her chip. Since she needed to leave right after the race, I decided to take my bag to the bag check, so we went our separate ways, she to the start, I to the bag check, then to the start. This involved some sprinting as the announcers hurried us along with threats of being shut out of the race if we were not on the bridge at the start.

Fortunately, I was, in fact, on the bridge, with the start moments away--with a concrete barrier separating me from the runners... but one low enough to allow climbing over just as the "GO" signal was given.

I did this and was off... probably at a faster pace than I might otherwise have gone because I wanted to get through the crowd and into some clear space. (Many walkers had not heeded the instructions and had started in among the runners, not behind, but two minutes isn't too bad an amount of time to lose at the start considering....) Didn't see the Mile One sign so I have no idea how fast it was, except that I was passing many people, and still feeling a bit on edge. All the same, at least I was in motion, on my way.

But Murphy and his or her law weren't finished with me.... A little after a mile and a half along, I noticed a shoelace flapping around... and so I had to pull off to the side to retie it. Normally I double-knot my shoes, but this would be the morning I'd overlook that little detail. Just to be safe, I checked the other shoe which looked secure but I tied an extra knot in it anyway.

From that time on, though, things settled down... At mile 2, my watch read 19:00, and the clock 20:?? I wasn't quite happy with 9:30 pace, but c'est la vie. I kept pressing ahead, passing more people, sometimes a bit manic about it, but my effort was rewarded. Mile 3 read 27:45, so my pace had dipped below 9 for that mile. I'd done some good catching up to reach the 9:15 average pace a coach friend of mine had suggested, but I did wonder if I'd pay for this spurt later.

There's one long stretch of a street and I determined to push myself there, since it was a straight shot. I believe the four mile marker was on that street but I missed it. However, I feel I must have been holding a good pace, because I reached 5 miles in about 45:?? (on my watch).

With 1.2 miles to go, I was feeling the effort, and this section felt more and more like work. But I wasn't about to let up, not when I had pushed so hard already and improved the time at the 5 mile mark from last year. After more turns than I would have liked, it was almost time to enter Campbell Field, home of the minor league Camden River Sharks baseball team. Just before entering the field, I took a quick look at my watch and thought it said 57something, which disappointed me. I had thought that I'd easily beat last year's 59:05 chip time, but now it looked much too close. Still, something told me not to let up, not to give up...

As I crossed the finish line, I was delighted to see 58:3? on the official clock, and I then looked down at the watch I'd just stopped and saw 56:33... So either time went backward or I had misread the watch earlier. I must admit it's fun to think of time going backward, but I had no problem either with the more prosaic reality of a misread watch (I don't wear reading glasses in races).

As it turned out, the official chip time was only two seconds slower than what I'd recorded on my watch.

My friend who gave me the ride placed second in her age group, which made me happy too! After a rough start, this turned out to be a decent race, showing that my training was paying off! But I will be skeptical of Google Maps/Google Transit from now on....

I guess what I learned from this is that (a) things can go wrong, no matter how hard we try to be well-prepared, but that (b) we still need to press on, not give in to discouragement. After my shoelace came untied, I was about ready to throw in the towel, jog the race, but I didn't come to this race to jog it. And given my result, I'm glad I kept my focus.

Club-Mates and I following the race...