It’s funny, but I’ve reached a point in my life where I’m jealous of people in constant pain. I think that constant pain may well be more manageable than pain that is ever-present but highly variable. For the preceding ten days my pain level had been higher than usual and as a result I opted out of running a four-mile Independence Day road-race that my wife had signed us up for.
Oh, wait! No I didn’t! I should have opted out, but instead towed the line for the Keep Raleigh Independent fourth of July road race. If you look up pig-headed in the dictionary you’ll actually find my picture. Don’t think so? Google it!
July Fourth I carefully rolled out of bed, planted both feet on the floor and winced as I rose shakily. My legs moaned, my back screamed, and my feet revolted. Leaving the bed I share with my wife I closed our bedroom door and climbed down our sixteen steps in thirty-two movements, using banisters on both sides of the stairwell for support and dropping first my left and then right foot to each step. Slowly, laboriously and painfully I carefully descended, each footfall uncertain and unpleasant. Pity-party much?
I had slept in, rising at 4:30 for a seven-a.m. departure for our race, and after customary morning rituals sat down at my computer with a mug of coffee, wrote and recorded, Substance, a short poem of praise for my ever-loving, and then wincingly rose from my chair around six. I had things to do.
I stretched, got my necessary items ready for my after-work bicycle ride home (we locked my commuter on the car’s bike rack in preparation of the goddess dropping me off for a truncated ten-to-four holiday workday) and greeted my darling as she descended the sixteen steps in sixteen footfalls.
“How you feeling?” she asked.
My right cheek rose in sardonic, mute response. “Made you coffee,” was my non sequitur reply.
Climbing into the car I breakfasted on a banana and shared water with my wife (You Grok that?) as she drove to the race start. Exiting the car made me wince but I stifled the moan of pain. Mostly. Every step hurt but standing hurt too. It was going to be a long four miles.
At the start line we drank more water and I kissed the goddess before heading toward the back of the pack. This was a race and it is incumbent on participants to queue up according to likely pace. My likely pace was thirteen-minute miles, so my place was in the back.
The race began sans a singing of The Star-Spangled Banner (On Independence Day!?) and I plodded forward at a leg and back stabbing pedestrian pace. I “ran”, refusing to walk, and was thankful for the uphills where my slow-as-a-snail pace allowed me to pass those who see hills as rest opportunities.
As I trudged I waved to and thanked race volunteers. I’m never going to win the Grace and Poise portion of a beauty contest, but I can at least strive to be MS Congeniality. I checked my watch around thirteen minutes and wondered if the course had mile markers posted. Thirteen-minute miles is a pretty slow pace and as I wasn’t walking I figured I must have completed mile number one. Wrong.
I reached mile marker one in 16:30, a pace I don’t even consider a fast walk. Distraught, I shrugged my shoulders and wondered if this race had a maximum time cut-off. Feeling sorry for myself, I continued and immediately encountered orange traffic cones that segregated the road into two distinct sides. A pickup-truck approached, emergency lights blinking, and the truck was followed by a trio of cyclists who led the way for a lone, off-the-front runner. The front runner was traveling roughly three times the speed I was maintaining, and I cheered for him as he approached. Feeling miserable doesn’t have to lead to acting miserably and I chose to clap and cheer the oncoming racers. Misery may love company, but I try really hard not to give into my most base urges.
As I plodded and cheered a funny thing happened; my pain abated. Instead of each footfall bringing agony it only brought discomfort. With a diminution of pain my stride lengthened, and cadence quickened. Soon I was running; not fast, but at least I was moving faster than a geriatric octogenarian with two canes. I continued, scanning the oncoming runners for the appearance of my wife. She did not disappoint.
Seeing my beloved, I began screaming, “Durga! Durga! Durga!” as I ran, inching left to the cones where I raised my left arm in classic invitation for a high-five. A man running in front of my wife slapped my palm, I grinned, shook my head and then high-fived my wife before saying to the woman who ran alongside me, “Durga is the most fierce of all Hindu goddesses. She’s the one with eight arms. That’s my wife all over; fierce!”
As my constant pain reduced from DEFCON Four to Two I broaden the scope of my well-wishing from race volunteers to fellow back-of-the-packers. Climbing a hill a very large, young, white-man was slowly running while those around us walked. Seeing him I said, “You, sir, are showing incredible tenacity! Keep up the good work.”
“Thank you, sir,” he panted as I inched away.
The uphill ended and the very large youngster and I caught another large man, this one African American. We came abreast of the third man just as we crested the hill and the young white man and older black man picked up the pace. To their escaping forms I cried, “See you at the finish!” and continued on.
Rounding a curve I spied another black man walking ahead, his shirtless form displaying a muscled back that glistened in the sun. Approaching him the words, “You’re too pretty to be walking,” formed in my mouth but I decided that this was too glib and instead I pointed about a tenth of a mile ahead and said, “See that parking lot up there on the right? Run with me to that lot.”
The man sighed, looked at me, grinned and started running. When we got to the lot he kept running and I said, “You don’t have to wait for me.”
Nodding, he replied, “It’s all good,” as he stopped inching away.
His pace was just fast enough to push me without being fast enough to crush me and I worked a little harder to keep with him. “What’s your name?” I asked.
“I’m Keith. Nice to meet you,” I huffed as we hit a hill and passed those who slowed from a run to a walk.
Coming to a corner I thanked a volunteer and he responded excitedly to our passing, pleasing me. Allen slowed, and I gently grabbed his elbow, willing him not to break stride. “You got this!” I declared as we trotted upward. We reached mile-marker three and, glancing at my watch, I said, “Thirty-six! Not bad.”
I heard Allen say, “I’m thirty-six, too.”
I took Allen’s declaration to be about his age and laughed. “Thirty-six! I’m old enough to be your daddy.”
“Yes, sir,” and we both chuckled.
(It turns out that I misconstrued what Allen was saying. He was referring to his race time and I’m only 12, as opposed to 21, years his senior.)
Another hill approached, and Allen slowed. “No, no, no!” I cried. “You can do it.”
A volunteer waved at us and I waved back. “Man, I’m a heavy smoker,” Allen moaned, looking over his shoulder.
“Don’t look back, look forward,” I exhorted. “Unless you got somebody back there.”
Allen nodded. “I do,” he said, breathing hard.
“You need to get a patch. You need to quit.”
“Yeah,” he said, slowing again.
We had nearly reached the hill’s crest and I started counting down from twenty. “Twenty, nineteen, eighteen,” I said, stopping my chant at six. “There! We made it! It’s downhill from here.”
Allen nodded but slowed to a walk. “Yeah,” he said. “Go. I’ll see you at the end.”
I raised my hand in salute and went. The finish soon appeared, and I completed my race in forty-six minutes, meaning I’d covered the last three miles at a sub ten-minute-mile pace, a speed I now thought of as reasonable for broken, old me.
My wife waited at the finish and we grabbed water. I needed to get to work but said, “Hang on. I need to find somebody,” and went back in search of my running partner. Allen was surrounded by well-wishers as I went up to him.
“Good job!” I said.
“You too,” he replied. “You know I walked here. Came all the way from Transitions.”
Uncomprehending I looked at him, but my wife said, “Transitions? Right here? Isn’t that the half-way-house?”
“Yes, ma’am. I’m getting clean. I’m gonna make something of my life. I’m going to get me a future.”
“Wow,” I said, extending my hand. “Just wow. Good for you. God bless. Good luck. Hey, Allen! What’s your last name? I’ll write about you.”
“Allen. Allen Blue.”
“Cool. Allen Blue. Thanks. God bless,” I repeated.
Walking past the free beer was difficult- after all we’d paid for it!- but I had to get to work. As we headed to the car I realized that the host of race volunteers who had responded so animatedly in recognition of my shouted thanks as Allen and I ran by weren’t excited to see me at all. They were happy to see Allen, one of their own, a man of the immediate community, working to better himself.
Wait. Did I say, ‘Working to better himself’? No. Allen Blue was bettering himself.
Pain sucks. Physical obstacles that cannot be fixed and make daily life difficult are soul sapping. Every year brings more challenges, more pain into my life, but I’m positive that my life’s a bowl of cherries compared to Allen’s. God bless, Allen. God bless, and good luck.