Only a few other folks were about, the walking path mostly a blank runway filled with leaves and other debris, zipping off toward a slate-gray horizon. It was a perfect launching pad for thought and sent my mind momentarily searching for other cold days in my past.
Growing up in the south, I’ve never been forced to deal with the kind of cold that freezes your thoughts and chills your bones. It’s always been a soothing cold here, weather that is usually more delightful then painful, the sort of chill that has you feeling alive and alert.
Ice has occasionally been a problem, snapping trees and downing power lines when temperatures dip below freezing, turning highways and streets into disaster zones filled with motorists slip-sliding away – often into one another!
The icy fingers of winter have managed to grab hold of me tightly only once. And, like most problems, this bashing was self-inflicted. I’ll explain.
It was the late ’80s and I had been running for a couple of years. I was in a good place. Everything in my running life was stable – weight, training, running times. I had gone from races of modest distances, 5 and 10Ks, to running an occasional half-marathon – 13.1 miles. In some sort of vague way that had yet to completely materialize, I knew that at some point in the future I’d run a marathon. I just didn’t realize it would happen so quickly.
My boss and friend at that place with the printing press had gotten me into running and he was now pushing me to join him at the Rocket City Marathon in Huntsville, AL. No need to bore you with the details, but in early January – it was 1989, or maybe the following year – I found myself bunched together with Don and several hundred other runners, minutes away from the start of the race.
I’ve had people ask me how long the Rocket City Marathon was and, of course, the answer is 26.2 miles, the same distance as ALL marathons. What made this trek a bit different was the weather. A cold snap had literally blown in a few days earlier and settled over the area. The morning of the race, the temperature was in the high teens and the sky was an ugly battleship gray.
“Bracing” is what I think local meteorologists predicted for weather conditions at the start of the race. I’m not certain, but I think I recall one weatherman saying only a baboon would run in such conditions.
He was right. The low temperature, a modest wind blowing from the north and a wintry mix of sleet, snow and rain all came together over the next several hours to turn my little adventure into the marathon from hell!
To battle the elements, I was wearing a long-sleeve tee-shirt, a nylon running jacket, a runner’s cap, mittens and, um, tights – not toasty thermal tights, but some sort of unholy blend of nylon and spandex. Go figure!
Despite the dreadful weather, the race actually got off to a good start. Adrenaline can, in fact, keep you warm, even when you can hear ice crystals crunching beneath your feet and bits of sleet start building up atop your racing cap. The body has this miraculous way of producing heat as you expend energy, a wondrous mechanism that keeps you alive and functioning if you need to work outdoors in wintry climes.
But miracles only go so far and the body can only take so much punishment. At a certain point – and I’m sure there’s some sort of algorithm to figure this out – things start shutting down and the body’s thermostat gets turned off. In my case, that all happened around mile 17 or so on a slushy hill in the heart of Huntsville. I still had a grueling nine miles remaining before I’d reach the finish line and the warm embrace of Miss Wendy.
Making matters even worse, the Rocket City Marathon was a modest affair, only a few hundred runners, most scattered about the city in ragtag groups across a dozen miles or so. For long stretches I’d find myself alone, running in neighborhoods that seemed part of some mad artist’s vision of the apocalypse. Fortunately, race officials had placed a few poor schmucks along the route at key points to help runners find their way home.
That moment came for me about 3 hours and 45 minutes after I waved a hearty farewell to Wendy and Lauren, all but lost in the excitement of the starting ceremony – balloons and banners, a high school band, bells, whistles and a surprisingly loud bang from the starter’s gun.
Only Wendy and Lauren were about as I limped across the finish line. A volunteer wrapped me in some sort of metallic blanket that for the moment seemed as cold as the rest of the world. It was about then that I started shaking, chilled to the bone.
I was gingerly escorted into race headquarters and offered a bowl of tepid soup. I’m certain I looked shell-shocked and certainly felt like I’d just been through a major battle. I wasn’t at all certain at that moment if I had survived.
The room brought a measure of warmth and the soup, shakily spooned from bowl to mouth, began slowly thawing me out. That wasn’t all together a pleasant experience. The chill was immediately replaced with aches and pains in places I didn’t know I had.
A few minutes later I managed to make it to a shower – race headquarters, thankfully, were inside a local high school and runners had access to a large shower room. I stood underneath the warmth of a gentle spray of water, the chill, aches and pains of the day giving way to a rising cloud of steam.
Anyone who’s done any long distance running will get this next part. The rest of you will simply think me mad. On the mend and warmly clothed in fresh sweats, I was dozing off as the lovely Miss Wendy handled the driving chores for our return to the Land of Cotton.
The pain and effort of the day were already fading memories and my runner’s high – a euphonic blend of endorphins and exhaustion – was kicking into overdrive. So my thoughts as I fell asleep were focused on me jogging effortlessly along a sun-drenched beach and what I needed to do differently to better my race time at the next marathon I entered.
Such is the madness and glory of life.