Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Greatest Marathon in the World

Heartbreak Hill. It's the most famous hill in the most famous marathon in the world. By mile 20, every runner in the Boston Marathon has been tested by a series of up and down hills throughout over a half dozen New England villages, especially the brutal Newton Hills, which are a mostly uphill course from miles 16 through 20. But the steepest hill awaited us around mile 20, where for almost a mile runners ran, walked, or limped up the incline. There is no sign that lets the runners know when Heartbreak Hill started. But at the end, there was a balloon arch, which said "Heartbreak Hill is over!"

I guess the guy next to me on the ascent up Heartbreak didn't read the words on the balloon arch. I don't blame him; he probably was a bit oxygen depleted from the climb, as I was.

He turned to me, a stranger in the normal sense of the word but one of "my people", as he and I had just run 21 miles together through 8 Massachusetts towns before conquering the final 5.2 miles of the Boston Marathon. "Is this where we start Heartbreak Hill?" he asked, in between gasps. "You just did it! It's over," I answered with the biggest smile I could manage. My fellow marathoner returned the smile, a bit amazed. We kept on running, towards the next landmark, the CITGO sign at mile 25, then finally, towards the finish line at mile 26.2.

Running the Boston Marathon on April 18, 2011 was one of the highlights of my life. I had an incredible journey that day for 4 hours and 20 minutes and 8 seconds.

But the journey that got me there, got me running, then running marathons, then qualifying for The Greatest Marathon in the World (as Coach Doug Butler, our running coach here in Florida, calls Boston) was even more incredible. It has been one long wild ride.

If you could find my elementary, middle, and high school gym teachers now (and how hard could that be in 2011 when everyone is on Facebook? Oh no, does that mean I could actually find them?) and tell them that Cindy Oppenheimer, the smallest and skinniest kid in the class, the the last one picked for any team sport, had become a marathon runner who had qualified for the Boston Marathon with over 6 and a half minutes to spare and had run and finished Boston, smiling the whole way, they would be speechless. They might even blow their whistle at you, and make you "get down and give me 20 pushups for lying!" But you could explain my story to them, and by the end they would believe you and be rooting for all of us, the non athletic kids in the 1960's and 1970's, who as adults finally found their version of physical fitness fun and exhilarating and a necessary part of every day. Plus they could verify it on our Facebook pages!

So I didn't enjoy PE back then, especially the light blue polyester gymsuits with the elastic waists and baggy shorts I had to wear. I practiced the anesthesia school of athletics, which is best described as 99% of the time complete boredom as the girl furthest out in the outfield during a softball game, then that 1% of the time when the patient under anesthesia has a problem during the operation and the doctor must act quickly to remedy the situation. Can I extend that analogy to me being the doctor and when the one girl who could actually hit the ball when it was her turn up at bat way out into the outfield and I had to scramble to save the patient's life (which would be actually fielding the ball back into the baseball diamond somewhere?)

Most of us girls didn't really have much love for sports. We just weren't ever exposed to it, except in those scary moments in PE class wearing even scarier outfits, since when we were kids in the 1960's, organized sports, such as league baseball and football and basketball, were just for boys. It wasn't until the advent of the passage and funding of Title IX in the 1970's, which guaranteed equal opportunities for girls in all sports, that the ball began rolling, so to speak, for girl's athletics. But by then I was totally ensconced in my own world of band, theater, student council, and writing, so athletics could wait.

Then I had my own kids. I was the world's best soccer (and baseball and tennis and ice skating and gymnastics and karate and marching band and...) mom! I drove my kids to every practice, rehearsal, game, contest, match, show, etc. I was the snack mom, the clapper and head cheerleader for my kids and everyone else's kids. But sometimes, especially when I would watch the young girls run on the soccer fields, I thought about how I had missed out and was glad for these young girls who had the chances I never did, young girls who looked free and happy and strong as they ran.

One day Larry asked me to join him on a training walk for a hike he was preparing for in the Rocky Mountains. I thought, yes, this is what I was waiting for. Maybe I'll take up walking as my sport.

Now, Larry is about 12 inches taller than me. He walks fast. Really fast. Is there a race walking sport in the Olympics? If so, Larry would be a gold medalist. As we began to walk on Tropical Trail, I realized that if I were to keep up with him, I would have to move faster. I walked as fast as I could, but I still couldn't keep up with this man. So I began a light jog. Larry looked over at me, realized the stakes had been raised, so he began jogging. Even in his hiking boots, he was jogging so fast I needed to ramp up my game. I started to run, and so did he. To this day I wonder if Larry planned this all along. I was running hard, sweating, my heart was pounding, my breathing ragged. We ran side by side for awhile, then turned around and reached our home. My sides hurt. My everything hurt! I looked up at Larry, and realized, as I ran, I felt free, happy, and strong. I was hooked.

After that inaugural run, I ran every day I could. Soon, after my friend Margie Dubois challenged me to run a local 5K, I found that I loved competing - with myself - at races. Each subsequent race became an opportunity to beat my previous time. I became a regular on the local 5K circuit, then began running wherever we went on vacation. In 2004 Larry and I started a yearly Thanksgiving morning tradition where our whole family would run the Turkey Trot together. Running became a huge part of my life. I couldn't imagine not running.

I thought of all this, my nontraditional path to running, as I said goodbye to my friend and uber athlete Sue Bellon, (3 hours and 44 minutes later she would PR at Boston!) who I had just spent 4 hours with, hanging out on the bus and in the Athlete's Village, prior to the race.

She went to her start corral and I went to mine. The gun went off, and I hit the start mat in suburban Hopkinton at 10:47 AM on Patriot's Day. I was so happy to be running this race, grateful, honored, even humbled. I blinked back tears at the start, and began running.

The 24,390 runners of the 115th Boston Marathon started running downhill, through hundreds of cheering spectators, past impossibly quaint centuries old farmhouses, stores, and churches so old fashioned and pretty I practically wanted to convert at once. Norman Rockwell or Currier and Ives would have a field day painting these towns we ran through in these Massachusetts villages on our way to Boston. I kept expecting to see Martha Stewart herself walking out of one of the stone walled cottages, beaming at us as she held a tray of delicious looking concoctions in her arms, desserts so intricate that I wouldn't have been able to buy them, much less make them.

But even more than the scenery, which was spectacular, it was the spectators who kept me going all the way from mile 1 through mile 26.2. Sitting in lawn chairs outside their houses in the suburbs and standing five people deep in Boston, these New Englanders cheered, called out our names, and screamed for us the entire race. 1/2 million strong, they let us runners now they were proud of us running through their cities. They made us feel like the biggest rock stars in the world.

And the spectators themselves put on shows for us. Dozens of people in a drum circle, playing bongo like instruments, hammered out a beat for us as we ran by. A few miles later I noticed about 20 mini trampolines lined up on the side of the road, all with a child bouncing up and down, calling out our names while they were jumping into the air. There was a Red Sox game going on at the same time as the marathon, and every few blocks there would be Red Sox shirted fans with signs showing the score of the game at that moment, or holding up radios with the game's broadcast on, loud enough for us to hear. And the signs these marathon fans held up... Some were funny: "Chuck Norris never ran a marathon"; others inspiring: "Keep going, almost there, you can do it" even when we were far away.

And then there was Wellesley College at Mile 13. I'd read about it, I'd heard about it. But nothing could prepare me for this wall of sound. Every year at the marathon, the Wellesley girls stand outside the college and scream non stop at the runners. Ryan Hall, America's top male runner for whom every second counted in the marathon, smiled and put his hands over his ears as he ran by.

The girls of Wellesley also hold up signs. Signs their mothers might not want to know about, but I'm here to report to you that at least 3/4 of these coeds held up signs that said "Kiss Me!" Most of them added another phrase to their sign such as: "Kiss Me, I'm": "Jewish", "from South Carolina", "Korean", "Please Kiss Me, I go to an all girls college", and its counterpart, "Kiss Me, Ladies Only", "Kiss Me, I won't tell your wife"... I watched one of the male runners take a Wellesley girl up on her offer. My favorite sign was "Run fast Sue and Cindy" a sign Sue's friend, a Wellesely alum, had the girls hold up for us.

The buzz from Wellesley kept me going until I reached the infamous hills of Newton around Mile 16. These hills continued for 5 miles, mostly steep uphills, with a steep downhill as the only break in the action. I trained for these hills, I stared at pictures of them, but like the screams at mile 13, they really had to experienced first hand to be believed. I did slow down for these hills, but never stopped running. I wanted to meet these hills on their own terms, keep going, and conquer them. And I did.

Hills happen, in marathons as well as in life. They won't go away, you just have to make your own way over them and then enjoy the feeling that you beat the hill.

In my running life, I had two very high hills to conquer. The first one came in January of 2005, when The Very Rare Disease That Is Fatal Unless Emergency Surgery Is Performed Right Away occurred. Larry rushed me to the hospital at 4:00 in the morning one Monday, and my life was saved by Dr. Fusco's surgery. I came home a week later, broken and unable to walk more than a few steps at a time, and that was at a 45 degree slant. Not overweight to begin with and only an inch over 5 feet tall, I lost 17 pounds in 17 days. Those slim Kenyans who win all the marathons? I made them look chubby.

I stayed home to heal, president of my own pity party. One day Margie, the same friend who challenged me to run my first 5K, came over to my house. Her arms were empty of the flowers and dinners other people brought over. "Where are your running shoes?" she asked, looking around the living room for them. "I don't know," I answered. "Bring them out now or I'll go into your closet and get them," she said. I knew better than to argue with Margie. "I'll find my shoes, but I can't run," I said. "We'll walk," Margie answered. "Put them on, we are on the Trail in 5 minutes."

So began my recovery. Since I couldn't get rid of Margie, I went along with her plan of walking on the Trail every day. As the days went by, my walks went further, then faster. My 45 degree slant began to straighten up until I was standing tall. I began to run again, measured in a few steps one day, a fraction of mile another day, then the miles began to ratchet up again. I healed, then became better than before. I got back on the 5K circuit, and now, instead of my middle of the pack finishes, I began to bring home hardware, placing 3rd, 2nd, or 1st place in my age group. Life wasn't good, it was great.

Once someone told Ginger Rogers they thought her dance partner, Fred Astaire, was an amazing dancer. She answered that she did everything Fred did, except backwards and in high heels. When I hit my second hill, I had to do everything all over again, except without Larry and in Spanish.

Liana and I never made it to our cruise ship at the port in Barcelona in July 2007. Once the plane landed in Spain, The Very Rare Disease That Is Fatal Unless Emergency Surgery Is Performed Right Away struck again. Armed with her high school Spanish, and with the help of Michelle Romandetti, a Brevard County woman who I had met just a month prior to this trip who "happened" to be on our plane (some times things happen for a reason) my then 16 year old daughter got me to a teaching hospital where two women doctors with stylish funky eyeglasses and dangley earrings saved my life with their surgical skills. Liana was able to contact Larry and our son Danny, who were on their way to Africa but were able to divert to Spain. When I opened up my eyes after the surgery, there was Larry, my hero in a bright yellow shirt, who told me once again my surgery went fine and all would be great.

Larry, as always, was right. As this was not my first rodeo, I ran over this hill faster than the one in 2005 and recovered quicker. Larry arranged a schedule that all day long either he, Danny, or Liana would stay with me in the hospital room. Finally, after about 5 days, I said it was OK if they left me alone after dinner and at least had some semblance of a "vacation", although not the ones we planned. I needed them gone because I was a woman on a mission. My first time alone in the room, I briefly thought of how Margie got me back on the road after Hill #1. Margie was not there in Spain, but I thought of her as I decided in that hospital room, having never run a race further than a 5K, I was going to start training for a marathon. As in immediately. With no one around, I got up out of bed, held onto my IV pole for support (to which I was attached with several tubes) and left my room to start training for my first marathon. I was wearing two hospital gowns, one closing in front and the other closing in the back, and I was holding onto my IV pole with one hand and hanging onto the wall in the other hand, but in my mind's eye I was wearing a cute running outfit from our local Running Zone and running along the Banana and Indian Rivers on Tropical Trail in Merritt Island, Florida. I only made it part way around the circular hospital unit until I made it back to my room (with the help of a nurse who was speaking very rapidly to me in Spanish. My high school Spanish was not good enough to get the gist of what she was saying, but I think I heard "Americana loco" or something to that effect) but I didn't care. I was no longer the girl in the bed but I was a runner again, training for my first marathon. I was once again the girl on the road.

After arriving home (very dramatic trip home, the kids flew commercial and Larry and I flew home in a medical evacuation Lear Jet, with two nurses on board, since I was too weak to fly in a regular plane) I was focused on getting better ASAP and continuing my new marathon training. I was back on Tropical Trail again days after landing back home, first walking, then running 2 steps one day and 4 steps the next. "Should I run 6 steps tomorrow?" I asked Larry, trying to chart my progress. "No, 8," he said. And so it began. I ran my first half marathon that November. Larry took a picture of me running that day, and framed it with Calvin Coolidge's quote beneath the picture which says: "Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent."

The following year I joined Coach Doug Butler's (Coach Butler has a 2:25 marathon PR) running camp, where I trained with serious runners, Athletes with a capital "A" who I don't think were in the marching band in high school. I ran another half marathon, beating my previous time by over seven minutes. In January 2009, I ran my first marathon, the Disney World Marathon, finishing one minute over my projected time of 4:30, with Larry, Liana, and my parents waiting for me at the finish line. The New York City Marathon followed in November 2009, followed by the race of my life at the Mohawk Hudson River Marathon, were I got a 32 minute PR of 3:59:12, which allowed me entry into the most prestigious marathon in the world, the one you have to qualify for, the following April's Boston Marathon.

As I crested the Hill at Heartbreak (and ran over the next mini hill, what a place for another incline!) I was focused on only one thing: making it to mile 25. Most marathon runners, if they are doing it right, are hurting by this time, and thinking only of the finish line. That could wait for me. I just wanted to make it to that iconic symbol of this marathon, the CITGO sign, where Larry was waiting to take a picture of me. I was ready to pose, just like we had practiced the day before.

Hours before I arrived at mile 25, Larry shot amazing pictures of the elites racing towards the finish. He didn't know it at the time, but he just snapped a photo that would make history, of Geoffrey Mutai, who was minutes away from running the fastest marathon in the world, in 2:03:02. It is a Sports Illustrated Magazine quality photo. And unlike me at mile 25, Geoffrey Mutai was not posing for Larry!

The CITGO sign at mile 25 was my landmark. All I had to do, I told myself after running 23 miles, when fatigue and soreness set in and my legs became heavier, was make it to that large white sign, with the amber triangle in the middle and the large capital letters "CITGO" at the bottom, beckoning to me. A marathon is 26.2 miles, but I figured if I could make it to mile 25, the last mile and 2/10ths, a gentle downhill, would practically run itself.

Then there it was, that large square sign, almost beaming at me about a mile ahead. I kept running, ignoring the protestations of my weary legs. Right past the sign, my hero who wore the yellow shirt at my bedside in Barcelona was standing at the side of the road, snapping pictures of me while I smiled and realized I had almost done it, run the entire Boston Marathon. I no longer felt tired; I was exhilarated. I kept running, and the screams of the spectators, lined 5 deep on either side of the road, kept me going as I ran towards the finish line of the Greatest Marathon in the World.

Friday, April 8, 2011

A woman walks into the bar...

Argentina. Even the name sounds exotic, foreign, slightly dangerous. For over a year Larry had been planning our first trip to this new country. Visions of tango dances, Buenos Aires cultural sights, fine dining and shopping, and wildlife encounters in rural La Pampa enticed me. I couldn't wait until late March, 2011 for this trip of a lifetime.

Enjoying a lunch tango with Jamie, Ann, and Larry in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Then I ran a 32 minute PR at the Mohawk Hudson River Marathon on 10/10/10. My 3:59:12 time more than qualified me for the ultimate runner's dream, the Boston Marathon, which will be held April 18th, 2011.

I did the math and realized I'd be gone 13 days, 2 -3 weeks before the marathon I trained so hard for. I needed to continue my training not only if I wanted to do well in Boston, but tackle Heartbreak Hill? No way would I give up my Argentinian vacation with Larry, but I was bummed about the timing of our trip.

So - I decided I would run. Wherever and whenever I could, through the streets of Buenos Aires, and then, as I told Larry after our outfitter told us there was nowhere to run at the ranch in La Pampa, no one else had ever done it, too many wild animals, armadillo holes so large a semi truck could sink into them (OK, he might not have described the holes as that big but that's what I was hearing...) "If I have to run circles around the ranch all day, I will".

My runs in Buenos Aires were like several other big city runs. It's fun to run around city streets while everyone else is going to and from work, you really feel like you are part of the city life. And then I found Buenos Aires' version of Central Park - actually several long green leafy parks with lakes and hundreds of other like minded people running, walking, and biking. My people, only in Spanish!

I was glad to check off the miles on my marathon mileage chart in this pretty city in South America. The only problem was, after running all around the parks, I, being directionally challenged even back home with English languages street signs, got horribly lost and arrived back at the hotel over an hour late. I used as a landmark that guy on the horse statue I noted at the entrance to one of the parks. After a spectacular run, waving to my people, saying "Buenos Dias" to everyone like a real local, I kept running into that guy on the horse statue but the streets looked very different from where I had been before.

Soon, I figured out that on almost every street corner the Argentinians have erected a guy on a horse statue. Bad landmark to follow, I figured out too late! Finally, the ninth or tenth statue I passed almost seemed to have the guy quickly point the way to me to find my way back to the hotel. To this day I believe that guy came back to life and did that for me to help me out! Otherwise, I'd still be running around the parks and the statues. Anyway, once I arrived back at the hotel and Larry was happy to see I hadn't been kidnapped, I began planning my runs in La Pampa. This time there'd be no guys on horse statues to keep me company, only wild animals to keep me company. I was dreading these solitary runs, scared of the wild animals. And at that point I didn't even know about the electric fence I'd have to crawl under...

Fast forward a few days to Estancia Poitahue in La Pampa. Larry and I are sitting in the ranch's bar, along with the other American guests, enjoying our pre-dinner (dinner starts between 9:30 - 10:00 PM) drinks. The door opens, and a woman walks into the bar, followed by her husband. They introduce themselves (Sue and Dave) to the rest of the gang, hometowns are exchanged, and then Sue turns to her husband and starts talking. "So I ran in Buenos Aires," she said, a slightly tense edge to her voice. Her slim, athletic build seemed poised for action, as if she could take off on a run any minute. "Tomorrow I'll start running around the ranch."

Her words. Her intense talking about running just minutes after entering the bar. Why is she not relaxing on this vacation like everyone else (except for me)?

Looking at Sue was like looking into a mirror. Was it possible? "Sue," I asked, "is there something that you are training for?"

"Yes," she said, smiling. Her face lit up and she said, "The Boston Marathon!"

"Me too!" I said. And, to not sound like a poser, I let her know I knew the date. "21 more days!"

The other guests looked at us and thought either, wow, what a coincidence, two Boston Qualifiers at this ranch in the middle of Argentina, or wow, two Boston Qualifiers at this ranch in the middle of Argentina, must not be that hard to qualify since 20% of the guests here qualified for Boston!

Sue and I started talking and never stopped. We ran together almost every day on that ranch. (We took one day off to go shopping in the big metropolis of Santa Rosa).

Short runs, middle distance, long runs - we stayed on our schedules and had epic runs. Hills, sand, ruts in the road - none of that mattered. We talked and laughed on every run. Our 12 miler went by so fast it seemed like only 12 minutes had elapsed. Not only did wild animals cross our paths (red stag, blackbuck) but we ran by scary looking cows (to me anyway, Sue is a Hoosier and wild cows don't scare Indiana girls like they do Jersey girls)and even had to crawl under an electric fence!

Don't fry for me, Argentina!

In addition to being running nerds, we had so much else in common we were almost like twin sisters. Same profession, both of us avid readers, mothers of two kids (boy first, then the girl), and Sue even worked for and is friends with one of my law school friends! I've visited her high school in Indiana and our son is now a student at her alma mater, Indiana U. We were meant to be friends - and Boston brought us together!

Sue and I are texting and emailing daily, planning our weekend in Boston. Larry and Dave, both former military guys with wicked senses of humor and similar life of the party personalities, will hang out together and be our cheering section during the marathon. We plan to move the party that was Argentina up to Massachusetts. The roar of the red stag (Rooooaaarrrr!!!) will become the roar of the crowd. As Sue would say, "the adventure continues!"