“But it’s not about the bike. It’s about getting out of your routine, and that could look like anything.”
While feeling a bit blue last night, I opened another browser tab and scrolled through Facebook. I usually move past videos unless they actually feature my friends and/or they’re about 17 seconds long. But something about this one made me stop. Maybe it was the mention of Oregon, a state I love. Maybe it was the bike, which I’ve been longing to ride outside. But maybe the main reason I stopped is that it was posted by Cindy, whom I admire and who sometimes pops into my head when I’m least expecting it.
At any rate, I stopped scrolling and instead clicked the volume button on the video. Four minutes and 14 seconds later, the video was done and I was left sitting there, unaware that it had far exceeded my normal mental video capacity. And so I’m sharing it, because we all need these reminders to nudge our subconscious — until we do something about them.
I went to the desert of New Mexico with one mission: to run a marathon in memory of my grandfather. And, though he’s no longer here to comment on my blog as “Grampa Ben,” I think he’d be proud of me for having the determination to overcome many challenges to reach that finish line.
I’ve had a few tears in my eyes at race finish lines, but this was the first in 17 marathons that I found myself sobbing as I ran through the finish chute. Two soldiers even asked if I was okay. I said “Yes, thank you,” because I couldn’t put into words why I was crying. It was a mix of sadness and happiness, of broken and healing hearts, of fear and hope. Most of all, it was because Grandpa’s grin had just flashed through my mind.
To tell the story of my Bataan Memorial Death March Marathon experience, I should go back 2 years, 3 months and 2 weeks – or 119 weeks. That’s the last time I ran a marathon. The IT band in my leg had started acting up, and it worsened halfway through that December 2013 marathon where my friends were tracking me and saying, “She’s on pace to qualify for Boston!” I tried doctors and therapy and cross training, but my leg simply was not happy. I took it into my head to just get used to NOT running. After all the childhood excuse notes out of physical education, and after all the recent running, I decided that was my new reality. And I stuck to it for quite awhile.
But running still called me. I wasn’t done with it, and it wasn’t done with me. Nearly a year later, in the fall of 2014, I signed up for a half-marathon the following August. And then in spring of 2015, I threw my name in the lottery for the 40th annual Marine Corps Marathon that would be held the next October. My perfect race lottery track record held up yet again, and my name was selected. Around the same time, I crossed a goal off my list by trying a Body Pump class at my gym. I’d never done so many squats and lunges in my life, and I was sore for several days. But my IT band didn’t hurt at all. I kept going back, and my IT band remained silent. Perhaps this was a partial cure. In the meantime, I bought a road bike and shifted my focus to cycling, so that helped me regain some fitness without attempting to return too quickly to running. (“Shifted” wasn’t an intentional pun — that was inherited from Grandpa.)
I didn’t leave myself a lot of time to train for that August half-marathon. I was more worried about hurting my leg than anything else, so I kept the mileage low. The race was almost 25 minutes slower than my personal record, but I finished with an intact IT band and decided I could actually run the Marine Corps Marathon. And then I broke my thumb three days later. I sold my race bib (legally) and canceled the expensive hotel I had booked, putting the money toward my insurance deductible.
I had hand surgery around the same time my grandfather couldn’t get out of bed and said he needed to go to the hospital. This alarmed the entire family, because he never asked to go to the hospital. The plan had long been that I would be the first to get on a plane, because I was the closest family member by several flying hours and the only one who could get there on a non-stop flight. Now, I couldn’t go; by the time I could travel, it was too late. Grandpa never returned home, and we lost him on October 14, 2015. His determination never wavered, even at the very end.
Somewhere in the midst of everything, I heard about the Bataan Memorial Death March Marathon. I’ve been fascinated by World War II since childhood, but I had never heard of the Bataan peninsula in the Philippines. American and Filipino soldiers tried to defend it, but it fell to Japan in April 1942. Thousands of soldiers were taken prisoner and forced to march for seven days without food or water. Most died. Those who survived were then subjected to brutal prison camps, where more died. Filipino residents tried to help the American soldiers, and were killed for their efforts.
For the past 25 years, a marathon has been held in the desert of New Mexico to honor those who experienced the Bataan march. Bataan survivors, many of whom live in New Mexico, attend the marathon every year, shaking the hand of any and every marathoner. And every year, fewer survivors remain.
I’ve never been to New Mexico, and I want to see every U.S. state. And, hey, it would get me another state if I ever decide I can attempt a marathon in each one. But the main reason this race would not leave my head was the meaning. Grandpa wasn’t at Bataan, but he served in the Army in the South Pacific. He could very easily have been sent to Bataan. I couldn’t stop thinking about the marathon.
New Year’s Day came, and friends told me: “Here’s to a better year.” Well, that was not to be. On January 12, my world shattered from more family medical crises. The second surgery I needed on my thumb paled in comparison. The idea of going to New Mexico to run a marathon seemed ludicrous and selfish.
But once I started looking through the prisms of my shattered world, I knew I had to keep living, now more than ever. I could only be strong for my family if my own mind and soul and body were strong. I needed to make decisions that would make me happy and that I wouldn’t regret later. I still wanted to run Bataan in Grandpa’s honor, and I feared that I might put it off until there were no survivors left. I registered for the marathon just three weeks before it was to be held.
After changing my itinerary three times due to family matters, I found myself sitting on a plane beside the friend who had bought my Marine Corps Marathon bib. We landed in El Paso, Texas (a new airport for me), ate carbs, then headed to White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The drive went past “tank crossing” signs and others that warned people to stay in their cars. It’s very much an active missile range, and the military doesn’t mess around.
Upon reaching a gate, everyone had to wait for clearance through the National Criminal Information Center database. Old speeding tickets didn’t count, so they let me inside to collect my bib, shirt and medal/dog tag — this was given out before the race, kind of like one final reminder that I was to finish what I started.
I was back there at the starting line before dawn Sunday morning, surrounded by marchers and runners, and outnumbered by those who wore camouflage.
It was freezing cold, especially since I was wearing a thin tank top and shorts. I received many comments about how cold I must be, though later I would hear people saying, “I wish I had worn a tank top” as we passed. I hadn’t worn my Marathon Maniacs tank top in almost three years, so it was fun to feel like I was part of a running group again.
The opening ceremonies included a number of military rituals, including the national anthem, a fly-over by a medical helicopter, a roll call of Bataan survivors present, and a roll call of those who had died since the previous year’s marathon. That list numbered 21; I can’t imagine what it will be like when only one name remains, and then none.
At 7:30 a.m., we were on our way. The race has a marathon and a 14-mile route, and the majority do the marathon. There are civilian and military categories, and “light” and “heavy” options: You can choose to carry a 35-pound pack. Many service members wear their full military fatigues, including the boots that are quite sturdy but not exactly ideal for marathon running. Many of them walk the entire route, some carrying flags and some wearing prosthetic legs. I passed one young man with two prosthetic legs and heard him saying “I got blown up,” and knew he was telling the story of how he lost his legs.
The first few miles were on pavement, and I did my best to rein in my pace, since I had a long way to go and was starting at 4,000 feet altitude. I chatted for two miles with a Maniac named Maria who helped me set my pace. She was born in the Philippines said Bataan is a big deal there — she learned about it as a child. When I left her, I picked up the pace, but managed not to be too reckless. I have my fueling pretty well dialed in by now, and I just eat five gels during the course of a marathon when I’m supposed to, whether they’re appealing or not. I carried my trusty old handheld bottle and told myself to stop and refill it at least twice so I’d keep drinking and hopefully stave off the effects of altitude.
The climbing began around mile 7 and did not relent until mile 13.5, at 5,400 feet elevation. I had noted this ahead of time so I knew what mile point I was looking toward. What I hadn’t fully expected was the sand. I’ve run plenty of trails, but not loose sand. Sand combined with uphill (and my lack of training) to reduce me to many, many walking breaks. I chatted with various Maniacs, sometimes leaving them and sometimes being left by them. I leap frogged with some people through much of the race. The views were lovely and peaceful, the weather was perfect with warm sun but a breeze that cooled me. The aid stations had water, cold (bonus!) Gatorade and orange slices that hit the spot for me.
Mile 13.5 brought the reprieve from all that climbing, and I finally found myself running downhill on what was thankfully packed dirt. I did lose a minute to fish a rock out of my shoe, but that was the only time I thought I should have worn gaiters.
Somewhere around mile 19, we returned to a paved road we had run up. Walkers were still heading up, and nearly all of them were in full military gear. I had just reached the “furthest I’ve run in more than 2 years” point, I was going downhill, and I had amazing people to smile at. As a bonus, many of them returned my huge grin with compliments and smiles. Fortunately, I looked at my watch and saw the 8:30 pace so I slowed down – I still had seven miles to run, and I was really not in shape to be running that pace at that point.
We returned to packed sand, and I said hello to a gal who was wearing military fatigues and had a Maniac sign pinned on her back. Her name was Laura, and we ran together from about mile 20 to 24. She was such a sweetheart, and I was fortunate to have her company through the notorious “sand pit,” which wound up being about 1.5 miles long.
I felt a little guilty, but I left Laura at mile 24 and began to run. I knew I could probably jog most of the last two miles, and I wanted to get this done. I also wanted to try to run those miles to finish strong for Grandpa. And so I did, sometimes very slowly because my legs really wanted to stop.
People were cheering, soldiers and civilians alike. I rounded a corner and saw the finish line, and Grandpa’s smile flashed into my head. I started to cry. I picked up the pace and didn’t want to stop running because I was afraid I’d start bawling, but someone had to scan my bib so I came to an abrupt stop. I was crying but trying to hide it behind my sunglasses. Then I realized the survivors were just beyond the finishing chute. Those elderly men had been there in the morning when we started, and they were still here. I gently grasped their hands, saying “thank you” through tears to each one. What they didn’t know was that I was also thinking, “thank you for being there instead of my grandfather.”
Post-race delirium always hits me, but this time I think the emotions made it worse. I usually text a few people from finish lines, but I was too drained to think about it, aside from Eliot, whom I’d texted from mile 21 and 24, trying to coordinate post-marathon shenanigans. A Maniac I’d never met went searching for a recovery drink for me. Laura, my buddy from late in the race, finished and hugged me.
I finally forced myself to go find food, then made myself eat half a plain cheeseburger because it was too much effort to find condiments (though I later found a packet of mayonnaise in my handful of Chex Mix and Oreos; I have no idea where it came from).
And then, because I knew I’d regret it if I said no, and because I could hear Grandpa chuckling, I went sledding down sand dunes.
It was a 40ish-minute drive away, I was still wearing my marathon shoes, and my legs were in utter denial that they’d have to hike up the dunes. It was absurd and hilarious. We didn’t even get lost.
Oh, and my finish time was 5:19:02. I was 47th of 785 women in my “civilian light” division.
Grandpa, every step was for you. Thank you for the unwavering confidence, for encouraging me to look at the good side of life, and for setting an example of determination.
I’m blatantly stealing this idea from Kimra, because I have nothing better to do on a Thursday evening, I suppose? Anyway, here is a list of cities in which I spent at least one night between January 1, 2015, and December 31, 2015. An * denotes those cities in which I spent multiple non-consecutive nights.
Santa Rosa, CA *
Dublin, CA *
Kailua-Kona, HI *
Portland, OR *
Beaverton, OR *
San Francisco, CA
So, that makes four states and one Canadian province. I had planned on several more cities and states, but surgery and family happened instead. I did make two trips each to Kona and Portland, so I guess that’s something.
I also captured 364 of the 365 days in photos. When you’re about to lose your grandfather and you cannot go to him, no photo will suffice. But here is 2015, in photos dumped into a low-resolution phone app, then put into low-resolution Facebook, and then captured in screen shot. I get an A+ in photo presentation skills, right?
I haven’t been inspired to post lately, and I even broke my nine-month streak of blogging at least once a week. But a thoughtful “comic” from The Oatmeal resonated in many ways. I put “comic” in quotation marks because it’s not actually comedy. It’s a tribute to a hero who’s not even really known for his heroism, and a reminder that we’re all a little better if we help rather than hinder.
So, this 23-year-old guy works at Google and lives in a truck in the parking lot. Because Google is a ridiculous company like so many in the over-priced Bay Area, their employees get three free meals a day at work. They also have gyms and showers and laundry and bikes and all sorts of things that ordinary people have to buy (musical instruments, games, etc).
I can’t blame this guy (who’s been getting a ton of publicity). Instead of paying rent, he’s going to pay off all $22,000 of his student loans in just 10 months. AND he doesn’t have to deal with traffic, which is a big perk all on its own. Plus, he doesn’t have chores like scrubbing a shower and vacuuming.
But he’s also giving up some things. He can’t kick back on his couch with a book and a summer evening breeze drifting in the windows. And, as he put it: “I will most certainly be “That Guy”. No amount of planning or forethought excuses the fact that I’m the psychopath living in a van in the parking lot.”
Would you do it? I don’t think I could, because I really like windows and space. But I admit I did briefly ponder the idea of putting my stuff in storage and living in my work parking lot, which is one mile from the gym (showers are required). Either way, it’s fascinating — partly because he’s a solid writer and seems to have enough common sense. Bonus: You can actually start at the beginning of his blog via this link, which I would love as a feature on more blogs)
To say I’ve been struggling is an understatement. Death and destruction have taken tolls on me, and a lot of uncertainties continue to wreak havoc. I’ve had a lot of low points in the last two months.
But despite everything that continues to suck joy out of my life, my internal optimist is really trying to surface. That little voice has been telling me to look at races, to look to the future, to look ahead to a time when everything is not crashing down on me. Maybe Grandpa’s positive thinking is reaching through other-worldly barriers to me.
This morning, I was supposed to be running the Marine Corps Marathon. It was to be my comeback after many (many) months of IT band pain and the subsequent decision to stop running and make myself get used to life without it. I did kind of get used to it, and bicycling filled some of the gap. But I had a lot of unfinished business and unmet goals in running, which haunted me to the point that I decided to try again. In August, I ran my first race in 20 months and was on track to get just enough training in to finish the marathon 10 weeks later. I was not going to run MCM for time. In fact, I was pondering the idea of stopping for photos, something I don’t do in marathons (except for the grand piano at Big Sur).
Everything came to a sudden halt when I broke my thumb. I had surgery two weeks later, at the same time my grandfather’s Parkinson’s suddenly got worse.
Now, both of those events continue to have trickle-down effects. The juggling of cross-continent family schedules will continue (seriously; my family is spread out between six hours of time zones). Meanwhile, I am out of shape. I can’t bike, I can’t go to Body Pump or lift weights, I can’t hold an elliptical handlebar, and after two miles of running I have to stop for air and to try calming my thumb’s swelling.
But here’s the thing: I have no leg pain when I run.
And here’s another thing I hadn’t quite realized until I had to cancel the marathon: I am happier if I have a race on the calendar. [I actually do have two scheduled for next summer, but one isn’t until August and the other was a cheap enough deal that I won’t mind too much if I have to cancel.]
And here is yet another thing: I kind of want to run a race for Grandpa. If I could have run MCM today, I can almost guarantee you that I would have started sobbing. Grandpa served in the Army in WWII, and it would have been moving to see all those Marines.
So, despite all the uncertainty about my family and my thumb and my lack of fitness and my life in general, I’ve been looking at spring races — marathons, not half-marathons.
This morning, as I shuffled through 3.4 measly miles with two stops to try getting blood flowing away from my thumb, I made a third stop to take photos of fall leaves that are finally arriving.
Then I came home, looked up a race date, and put it in my countdown app. I don’t know if I can get in shape in time, if I can justify using money from savings for it, and if my unknown schedule will allow it. But if I can, it will be for Grandpa the eternal optimist.
I truly do not know how many deaths I wrote about during my 10 years as a journalist. I covered crime and courts for nearly all of that time, as well as breaking news including car wrecks, fires and deaths of local citizens. People were shot, stabbed, poisoned and run over. People overdosed, crashed, took their own lives and drowned. People died of cancer, “old age” and incurable diseases.
I was that person talking to sobbing family members at crime scenes and car wrecks. I was the one looking through phone books, searching the internet and court records for relatives, then knocking on strangers’ doors. I was the one blasted by the public for intruding in the lives of those who were grieving.
The thing is, people almost always wanted to talk. They were desperate to tell me about their loved ones, and they begged me to write about fond memories. They showed me childhood photos, they recalled jokes, they told of scholastic and professional achievements. After I had left, they often phoned the numbers on my business card, wanting to tell me one more anecdote. They invited me to funerals, and some even contacted me on an anniversary of their loved one’s death, anxious to keep memories alive. One friend of a domestic violence victim sent me Christmas cards for years. A few found me on Facebook years later.
Even in the midst of gruesome, terrible scenes, I liked the work. I liked recording history, which included the details surrounding the death as well as the people involved. I liked being able to tell others’ stories.
But what happens when it’s my own family?
Until Wednesday, October 14, 2015, I never had to ask that question.
The answer is that I don’t have words. I don’t know how to sum up the life of a man born into an impoverished immigrant family, who went off to fight in WWII, earned a degree at Rutgers and became such a successful businessman that an Iowa town once dedicated an entire day to him. I don’t know how to tell about how he retired but then started a new career. How he made exquisite jewelry as a hobby but then began selling it, how he grew fruit for fun but then had so much that he had to give it away. How he designed and built his last home because he wanted the views to be just right. How he watched “Jeopardy!” every day and was so pleased when he knew the answers. And there were his legendary puns — a trait he passed down to my mother and which sometimes comes through in me.
It’s no wonder grieving families usually talked to me, the badge-wearing, notepad-carrying journalist who was at their door: They wanted someone to write about their loved one, but they didn’t have the words to do it themselves.
“The Cubs just won their first post-season road game for the first time since 1945. I thought I was cheering for the underdogs and I thought I didn’t watch baseball. Well, ‘my team’ is still winning, and I just intermittently watched two innings of baseball. The sky must be falling.”
I remember that time, in my upstairs apartment that had no air conditioning. I sat on my free (used) couch and watched my 19-inch TV with rabbit ear antennae that I had to regularly adjust to reduce some of the static.
I had no knowledge of baseball, but a couple internet friends caught my attention with their sports chatter. The statistics intrigued me, as did the Chicago Cubs’ underdog status. I’d always been picked last in sports games in school, so I liked the idea of rooting for the worst team in baseball. Just three years earlier, I’d expanded my family, and they all lived in Chicago and rooted for the Cubs, so why shouldn’t I add the Cubs, too?
Me, the next week, in October 2003:
“Five days ago, I wrote about how I was taking an interest in baseball. I’m getting worse: I watched part of yesterday’s Chicago vs. Atlanta game and a large part of today’s game. I actually talked to the TV, cheered a few times and then really cheered at the end, when the Cubs won their first postseason round in 95 years.
My sister is appalled that I’m getting into baseball. Many other people are laughing at me or are simply bewildered (as am I). I think I’ll blame it on Jon.
Oh, and the next Cubs game is Tuesday, against the Florida Marlins.”
After the Cubs lost that season, my interest ebbed and flowed. Later that month, though, when the Yankees and Red Sox were playing, they got into a brawl. And I loved quoting this news story:
“NEW YORK (AP) – Boston Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez should have been arrested for throwing 72-year-old Yankees coach Don Zimmer to the ground during Game 3 of the American League Championship Series, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Sunday.
“If that happened in New York we would have arrested the perpetrator,” Bloomberg said. “Nobody should throw a 70-year-old man to the ground, period. You start doing that, pretty soon you’re going to throw a 61-year-old man to the ground, and I have a big vested interest in that.”
About five or so years later, I went with friends to a San Francisco Giants game. It was my first professional sports game of any kind — and we had a suite. I was amazed. Then we went to an Oakland A’s game, where we also had a suite as well as a few seats close enough to see the blades of grass, and we took turns sitting in them.
A couple years later, in 2010, I moved to the Bay Area to work for a company that has season tickets to Giants games. I made friends who were Giants fans, some of whom took me under their wings and explained more of the game to me.
Some fans were snooty, looking at me as a bandwagon fan because the team was doing well that season, and because I also rooted for the Cubs. But you have to start somewhere, and I take the firm stand that it’s all just a fun game (played by people who make a ridiculous amount of money).
When the Giants won the World Series, it was inspiring to see their true, honest elation. Then came the 2012 World Series win. And the 2014 win, in which I got to attend two post-season games and cheered until I was almost hoarse.
Now it’s 2015. The Giants had a lot of injuries this year, but they still beat most odds. The joke is that they “only” win the World Series in even-numbered years.
I don’t keep up with All Of The Sports the way some of my friends do. But I was interested when, after the end of another season last year, the Cubs began making big changes, including hiring a new manager and signing a lot of players. Having watched the Giants a lot, I believe true teamwork is key. You don’t get to the major leagues unless you’re a good player, so it’s not like anybody in the MLB is swinging a bat on my level. Everyone out there is talented, but one man’s talent does not win a World Series. Winning requires teamwork, so you know where everyone is on the field, you trust they’ll be there, and you work together for the one goal of winning. If someone gets hurt, the season isn’t ruined — because it takes a whole team to win or lose. That’s one reason I really like the Giants: They’re a team in sickness and in health.
The Cubs are playing with a lot of new team members, all the way up to the manager, and they’ve even started a massive overhaul of Wrigley Field. I believe this season has been crucial, because it’s their best chance to gel as a team. I said last spring that I didn’t know if the Cubs would be ready yet to go all the way this year, that it would depend on how well they could learn to work together and truly trust each other. Well, they finished the regular season with the third best record in baseball (but still had to go to the wildcard game because their division is very talented/tough).
Last night, the Cubs did exactly what the Giants did last year: They shut out the Pittsburgh Pirates for the wildcard win — in Pittsburgh. (I kind of feel sorry for Pittsburgh: Two shutouts in two consecutive years with home field advantage has to be rough.)
I finished the book “Dead Wake” by Erik Larson today. As with his first book “Devil in the White City,” I sat there for a minute and thought, “Wow.” His research is incredibly impressive, and he weaves everything together in a magical, captivating way.
Larson’s work is my kind of writing: Gather lots of research, gather a bit more, and then piece it all together like a puzzle. In college, history classes relieved me, because I could write my way through them rather than guessing at arbitrary multiple choice questions on exams. Term papers were dreaded by many of my classmates, but I truly enjoyed finding the material and then watching it meld together. I liked footnotes and bibliographies, also unlike my classmates, because they were a way to give credit where it was due.
When I wound up in journalism, it’s no wonder that I found it easy. By nature, I’m curious and I like people, so I was being paid to be myself, and then to put everything together in writing. I could tell factual stories, and it was usually effortless. On election days, I was always tasked with going out and talking to people near the polls, because I could get them to talk. Then I would gather all my quotes, and the quotes my colleagues had also managed to collect. I’d piece together the puzzle, adding in numbers and outcomes as polls closed and results began rolling in. I don’t like politics, but this I could do — combine the solid, opinion-free poll numbers with people from all walks of life.
I haven’t written much of anything beyond this little blog in five years now. When I was a little girl, and then a teenager, and then a young adult, I never imagined I would reach this age and have no book with my name on the spine. But if I ever reach that one and only lifelong goal of mine, I like to think it would be a poor imitation of Erik Larson’s work style.
And, hey, he apparently likes the cream part of Oreos, too.