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.

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