The marathon is a great smile of sweetness.
I know that's subjective, certainly not everyone's experience of Knoxville's second marathon, of March 26. Far from it. But then nothing is quite as subjective as the experience of running 26.2 miles, and I'll file this memory away under the heading of sweetness if you don't mind. Or if you do. Not because I can claim to have run very well, I didn't, but I did run very far, as legs measure distance. More to the point, I smiled a lot, and that's the truest thing I know to say about this run.
When setting out to write, Hemingway once advised, lay down the truest declarative sentence you can muster about what's most on your mind. I long ago took that advice to heart. It's gotten me in a lot of trouble. Still, I don't know a more satisfying way to begin a column. Similarly, I don't know a better way to begin or end a 26.2 mile run, than with smiles. OK, I know some of you are rolling your eyes and asking why doesn't he just round off that number, to 26? Before you dismiss that last one-fifth mile—leading to the finish line in Neyland Stadium--read all. The. Way. To. The. End. and you'll understand. But first things first.
This looked to be the year Jeanne and I would sit out the marathon. After all, last year's race had been satisfying in a bent and twisted sort of way. I felt I'd spent time on a rack, with my skeleton pulled and pounded. Still, we crossed the finish line hand in hand in just over five hours, two minutes—slow enough that James Matuse, the Kenyan who won Sunday, could've very nearly looped us. But to me, finishing that marathon was an accomplishment nearly beyond belief, and I remember saying, “Self, you have nothing to prove anymore when it comes to running.” Yet reasons to keep on keeping on are reborn each season, and Jeanne began training last fall, as I knew she would. And I admit that it bugged me a tad that I hadn't broken the five-hour barrier last year. So I began picking up my distance just to keep my options open about this year's run.
Then came the inflammation in Jeanne's left foot. Three medical opinions later, we knew there'd be no marathon in her near future. It was a blow, because running has meant a lot to us.
I was undecided about carrying on, when the great St. Valentine's Day hip massacre struck.
While hiking atop Cove Mountain, I slipped on a patch of snow. Feet flew north, but my derriere had other plans, dropping south dramatically. My right hip landed on a recently felled hardwood with an impact that left my mind calling time out, back up there, but there was no backing up, as Jeanne rushed to my side with a fearful expression. For a few minutes I thought I'd have to crawl out of there, that's how hard I landed, but I managed to get up and hobble out, even run a few paces at the end.
A giant purple iris blossomed over my right hip and thigh, centered on a wallet-thick hematoma, and I cut out running for a couple of weeks during prime training time. On March 3, just to keep a foot in, I toughed out 15 miles--a beautiful run along a large, meandering creek, as occasional horses, goats, deer, herons and owls snorted, bleated, stared and hooted encouragement. That left me five miles short of the distance I needed to be running to even think about the marathon. So nine days later I drove to Knoxville and said, “Self, if you can build 20 miles, I'll sign you up. It all depends on today.” It didn't look promising. For seven miles, I ran in the rain, then, consulting a disintegrating map, ran as much of the marathon's course as I could endure. It's a beautiful journey, meandering through seven historic neighborhoods. I built my 20 miles in record slow time, stopping thrice to try out some yoga moves Jeanne had taught me.
Running the marathon Sunday, I never felt that bone-wracked weariness I'd experienced during past long runs. I took five time-consuming breaks to stretch, do shoulder-stands and otherwise unbind my frame. People laughed but I didn't care, I was laughing too. I had lots to laugh about.
Friends and relations were out cheering us all on. Cindy Spangler, a runner I admire, took home the Grand Masters Female trophy, and Knoxville writer Doris Gove ran hard and tough along with me near the end. Quips by friends and strangers brought the prankster out in me. At Gatorade and water stands I furrowed my brow and asked for merlot or Budweiser. This drew laughs every time. At the 23-mile mark, I saw Jeanne standing amid a cluster of other volunteers and called out, “If one of you ladies would lay a big kiss on me I think I could make it to the end.” Jeanne gamely ran out and laid one on me, to applause and astonished looks, and I kept smiling as she ran along shouting encouragement.
Now, back to that last one-fifth mile. As I ran into Neyland Stadium, I knew my goal of breaking the five-hour barrier--don't laugh--was on the bubble. Jeanne advised me to turn it on. I replied there was no “it” left to turn on, that it had caught a plane out of here as I'd run past Island Home Airport. Still, I ran as fast as my shortening steps would carry me and crossed the finish wire at, get this, four hours, fifty-nine minutes, and fifty-seven seconds. That's three ticks shy of the 18,000 seconds contained in five hours. I'd made it. Knoxville's second marathon had kept me smiling. Even. Unto. The End.