Naomi Frandsen teaches English at a high school in Fairfax County, Virginia. She also sidles around the bloggernacle from time to time, and she’s honored to be able to guest post at BCC.
Marathons are a rite of passage in my singles ward. Since I moved in three years ago, I’ve gone to a marathon a year to cheer on friends and ward members, and I’ve congratulated dozens of other wincing runners as they’ve gingerly walked into the chapel the Sunday after their race. My family, too, has run about 20 marathons between four runners. So at the beginning of June when I received a pamphlet in the mail advertising the Baltimore Marathon on October 14th, it seemed quite natural to send in the registration card and take my turn on the starting line.
I noticed “the Thing” even before the race began. Shoe-horned in among the 11-minute-mile pasty white girls in spandex biker shorts and tank tops that read “First-time Marathoner” or “Happy Birthday, Grandpa Jack,” he stood a full head taller and probably 100 pounds heavier. He was a black man with big muscles, reflective sun-glasses, and a bright yellow shirt that read “Cheer 4 the Thing” on the back. “Cheer 4” and “the Thing” were separated by a hand-drawn picture of a fierce-looking rock with a face, arms, and legs. I hadn’t seen Fantastic Four when it came out, but the resemblance was enough to spark some recognition just based on the trailers. I was running with a super-hero. At least until we crossed the starting line.
But it turned out that some super-heroes run slowly, because for the first 10 miles or so, I was close enough to hear the on-lookers chuckle when they read the back of his shirt. He didn’t pay them any mind. He was listening to an MP3 player, and when I passed him (which happened every once in a while) I could hear him humming along under his breath. I wasn’t paying him much mind either. I was on the look-out for an old roommate who had driven up to cheer me on, and I was wondering if my boyfriend would make the four-hour drive on time to catch me at the finish line. Besides, it was a beautiful day and the mile markers were passing like I was on a bike.
He spoke to me for the first time just before Mile 17. I had been running for about three hours, and for the past mile I’d been repeating Feeling good, feeling good every time I came down on my throbbing left knee. “We make a good team,” he said as he pulled up to me. I looked over at his MP3 player and shiny sunglasses. In their lenses I could see myself–red-faced, skinny pigtail, a limping form that would make my high school cross-country coach feel like a failure. He was right. Since about Mile 12, we had been playing tag with each other. He would stop running about 100 yards past me and keep walking until I had passed him. I had made a resolution not to walk at all, so my steady run, while not much faster than his walk, probably gave him a fairly dependable pace. And he was helping me too. The hills had started on Mile 16, and his bright yellow “Thing” shirt had pulled me up after him, reeling in my shuffling gait until we were running shoulder to shoulder. It was a good thing–despite my best intentions, I had only trained up to about 13 miles, and I had been sorely afraid of Miles 14 through 26. The Thing was giving me something to focus on outside of my knees and calves and lungs.
By Mile 19, the world had become the five feet, all uphill, that were continually before me. My excitement, three months of training, my discussion group that night, three roommates who were waiting to hear how I’d done–everything had been reduced to the bright sun above and the hard road beneath. I was alone with this intensely difficult experience and I had at least another hour left. I didn’t even notice when the Thing passed me and continued on up the hill. He didn’t say anything as he passed, and I was feeling light-headed from exertion and concentration. This is endurance, I thought with a jolt of recognition. I have to keep going. The miles aren’t going to get shorter if I walk. The miles aren’t going to get shorter because I am in pain. It was about noon, and I was at the farthest flung spot on the course. At Mile 21, we would start heading west, and at Mile 23 we would crest the hills of north Baltimore and start running south to the end. But I couldn’t think that far ahead. My world was five feet wide, and those five feet were nowhere close to the finish line.
I realized how far ahead of me the Thing had gotten when the course doubled back on itself and there, coming back down that same hill, was a bright yellow shirt and sunglasses, not fifty feet away. It was the first time I had seen him from the front. He was running strongly, and he may have been moving his head in time to his music. I felt a little despair when I saw how far ahead he was. I had the rest of the hill and then that same distance back down before I would get to where he was right then. For a moment, it seemed to me that we were frozen in our respective positions, a median strip apart, going in opposite directions on this unending hill. Would he recognize me from the front, would he even notice that I was passing him again from 10 feet away? As we neared each other, I raised my hand to him–no response–and started walking. My marathoning sister had told me not to because my legs would cramp up, but I suddenly had no more run in me. And what was the point, because this race was never going to end. I was frozen in that position and my feet were covering the same five feet over and over again.
I passed him shortly after Mile 20 and that was the last time I saw him. There had been water at the top of the hill–yes, it had an end–and bananas and a sweet kind of toothpaste substance called Gu that I gummed around in my mouth for a while. Get your butt down there, I had told myself, even though I never used that word. And I had. The course turned downhill for a bit, and by the time it took us into some tall-treed residential streets where neighbors were handing out gummy bears and blaring “Staying Alive” from a parked car for the benefit of passing runners, I caught up with him. My shuffling run matched his long walk for about thirty seconds, and it felt good, quiet, strong to be sharing the same five feet. He didn’t say anything, and neither did I. I didn’t know I should. If I had thought that I would take the downhill a little faster than him and he wouldn’t catch up again before Mile 26.2, perhaps I would have. If I had known that I would limp out of the finishing area, get a long hug from Dave, and walk back to the car for the long drive back home, perhaps I would have found words to give him there at the beginning of Mile 20. Something like, “We’re making it,” or “What are you listening to,” or “Thank you.” Something like, “What is your name.” But those were words for the end, and at Mile 20, we had six more left to go.