Sixteen years ago on a lovely summer day, my daughter and I were on a walk when she asked me, “Mom, do you want to do the equinox with me?”
“Sure. What is it?”
“It’s a marathon.”
Because I love my children and enjoy spending time with them, I looked forward to the event which would take place the weekend nearest fall equinox, not understanding what I’d agreed to. September rolled around, and the day before the race we signed up and got our t-shirts. Early the next morning there were pictures taken, smiles, poses and anticipation. My daughter told me how we would reward ourselves with Chinese food after we finished the run. She told me the race would be twenty-six miles long.
When we arrived at the starting point, there were hundreds of runners lined up, some had come from various places around the world. Excitement filled the late September Alaskan morning. Spectators, friends and families chatted and laughed with participants, a welcome and instructions given, and finally the shot that announced the race had begun. Professional racers were at the front and disappeared up the hill we ascended the start of the race. Not disheartened, we chose a power walking speed and chatted with friends as we set out. As we made our way over tundra, through woods, up hills, we shed layers. Some runners passed us and we passed others. Along the route a couple had a table set up behind their house near the power line where they offered runners sourdough pancakes. Other places along the way offered water or Gatorade for hydration. Throughout the course, volunteers had stationed themselves to cheer or offer refreshment to those who wore an official number pinned on their marathon t-shirt.
At the top of the dome, there were tables set up with oranges, Girl Scout cookies, water, juice and even ibuprofen. How did they know? Immediately after that rest stop, we had to go down a chute — steep snowy, slippery. “If we had cardboard we could sled down,” I told my daughter. We spotted a man at the bottom who hadn’t successfully stayed upright on his way down and we stopped to offer aid. He’d bruised himself, his arm hurt, and no doubt he felt discouraged, but he assured us he’d be fine, so we pressed on.
Later we crossed a field that in my mind seemed to go on forever. “Are we there yet?”
My daughter laughed. “We have a while to go still.”
I plodded along. Not being a breakfast eater, my stomach growled. I should have eaten more oranges and cookies. I looked forward to that Chinese food. Finally, we spotted the twenty-six mile mark, but instead of a checkered flag, all that awaited us was more trail. “What? Why are we still going?”
“Because the race is twenty-six point 2 miles.”
I grabbed her hand. “Then let’s run!”
“No! I can’t run, Mom.”
When we came out of the woods into the clearing, I could see the end. My only desire at that moment to cross the finish line.
We finished, we got our patches; we went out with the family to celebrate and eat Chinese food.
Nine years later, in August, I asked my daughter if she wanted to do the equinox with me. She couldn’t go that year, but I had come through a difficult time and I needed to do that race. My friend is an orthopaedic surgeon, and he had told me if I wanted to do the race again, he’d help me get ready. So I called him. “Mark, you said you’d help me get ready for the equinox if I wanted to do it again.”
“You can’t do it. You don’t have time to build up and you’ll ruin your knees.”
I considered what he said, but the evening before the race I signed up and got my t-shirt. The next morning I stuck a granola bar and my phone in my pack and drove across town to do the race. I chatted with friends along the way, happy that I knew someone to run with. But I found out they were part of a relay-team with each person only doing one third of the race. In mile four, I broke my right middle toe on a root. By mile six, I had hit it on roots or stumps twice more — just to make sure I’d done the job well. No matter, I planned to finish and beat my time on this race.
Volunteers handed me liquid as I passed and when I drank it, discovered it was Gatorade instead of water, so I spit it out. At the dome, I realized I was on pace with the twenty- and thirty-year-olds who I worked with. Then something went wrong. As I did the loop at the top and made my way back to the checkpoint, the flag marking the way wasn’t there. I kept going, looking for the marker and after painfully making my way down a clearing to the woods, realized I’d lost my way.
I got my phone out and to my amazement I had cell reception. I called my son-in-law to see if he had tracking on his phone so he could tell me the way. When that failed I had to call 911.
“911, what is your emergency?”
“I’m sorry, this is not an emergency. I’m doing the marathon and I missed the trail. Can you locate me and give me direction?”
A bit of time went by while I made my way back up the incline. Going up didn’t hurt my knees like going down did.
“Yes, I’m trying to beat my old time.”
“But I can’t get a clear location unless you stand still.”
I spotted other racers coming down the hill and I waved at them to go back. “I’m on the phone with 911 to get directions, don’t come down!” Their facial expressions ranged from stunned to disheartened.
The operator came back on. “Okay, go forward and eventually you’ll see a tower. Your path should be in that area. Do you want to stay on the line? Do you want us to send someone to get you?”
“No, I’m finishing this race. Thank you.”
A father and his young adult son had reached me before stopping even though I had tried to get them to go back. The father became angry when he realized someone had sabotaged us. Maybe it was someone’s idea of a joke, on someone they knew, but we paid the price for it. We found our way back to the trail, we never spotted the marker, and then had to go down the chute. My knees ached so bad I went down sideways. By the time I got to the bottom, I limped, but I forged ahead, mile after mile. In the last two miles, a man I had passed hours ago, caught up to me. As he came alongside me he said, “Go baby, go baby, go!” At a highway crossing, people sat in parked cars along the shoulder. They honked as I passed. Some teenaged boys were flagging to stop traffic for runners. As I crossed the road, they cheered me on. Racers who had finished earlier clapped and called out encouragement. I picked up speed and pressed on. The last leg of the race wove down the starting hill — my knees were screaming; every step brought excruciating pain, yet that man stayed beside me chanting, “Go baby, go baby, go!” I crossed the finish line and strangers grabbed me in hugs and congratulated me. Someone handed me water, others offered me refreshments.
I still had to walk a few blocks to my car and when I got there, I had to lift my right leg in, then pull my left leg in. I drove home and had to lift my legs out of the car. I made it into the house and had to crawl up the stairs. But I finished. My detour had added forty-five minutes to my time, but taking off the extra mileage, I had beat my original time. Most important — I finished. It was a declaration that I was not a quitter, even if life challenged me.
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” 2 Timothy 4:7