The Starting Line
"It can't be that bad," the cyclist hollered as he passed me, smiling.
"...fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck...," I continued, not breaking my mantra or my lopsided stride.
"Seriously, though, are you OK?," he asked over his shoulder, sounding mildly concerned.
"...fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck..." I didn't look up.
Dehydrated, painfully hot, vaguely delirious and covered in a dry salty rime, I was jog-limping toward Tiburon. I was no longer sweating and could barely swallow; my eyelids felt gritty when I blinked. I had clearly failed to drink enough and it was too late now. I was almost done.
It was 1998, and, in a fit of ambition, I had signed up with the Leukemia Society of America's Team in Training program to run the San Francisco Marathon. On this day, five months into the intensive training, two hundred of us set out at dawn from the Marina in San Francisco for the second-to-last group run: 18.5 miles, start to finish; more if you ran crooked.
When I think back to that gorgeous, sunny day, I remember my early optimism, and my elation in the prospect of doing something I'd never done before; something I never thought I would do--I had surprised myself by getting to this point. And it reminds me of another glorious, sunny day just last summer, when, full of that selfsame optimism and elation, I was sure that I was, unexpectedly, pregnant. (Which I'll get back to at some point in this entry, I promise.)
I had never liked running. The sheer repetition of it was tortuous to me, and my asthma and allergies didn't make it any easier. But, then again, I never expected to actually like it; I figured I might get to the point where I didn't mind it too much, and that would be a personal victory. But, early that morning as I saw the sunrise over the Bay from the Golden Gate Bridge at mile three, listening to Annie Lennox on my walkman, I was filled with strength and lightness and an unexpected joy. The breeze, the beauty--free as a bird! I could just keep going, never stop.
Every couple of miles, J. would find me as I ran by and hand me Gatorade and Fig Newtons--that week's magic food; the only thing I could eat while running that didn't make me retch. (The previous week it had been peanut butter and chocolate chip Clif Bars. Before that, raisin bagels.)
J. had intended to run with me, but an incident the month before involving darkness and a gopher hole had left him with a magenta-and-blue, ham-sized ankle that effectively ended his distance running dreams at twelve miles. And, to be honest, they were more my dreams than his anyway, and he rather liked the role of domestique.
So on this day, I ran--I flew!--and felt...wonderful. My lungs were clear, my legs strong, my rhythm smooth. I've got it! I've got it!, I rejoiced as the scenery sped by. Quickly, effortlessly through the Marin Headlands, down the hill, through Sausalito, then more of the Bay, and egrets and geese and people taking helicopter rides and the roar of Highway 101. Five miles! Six! Seven! Nine!
Nine? Has it already been nine?! Yes!, the runners around me answer, shiny and strong.
I must recheck my watch: has it stopped? No? I must recheck my math: is it wrong? No? My god! I've been running 9.15's--I have never before run better than 11.30's over anything greater than six miles. How did that happen? And I set off again, thinking, Yes!, I will make it, no problem!
Ten miles, eleven, still feeling pretty good. But I haven't seen J. for a few miles, and I am starting to get thirsty, and there isn't another water station till mile thirteen. Oh, and what's this? A slight pain in my knee? I will ignore it. I am strong and full of joy! I will fly!
And here's mile thirteen, and the water station, and I grab a Gatorade and a packet of lime-flavored calorie gel, and I set off again, with more difficulty, yes, but still light of heart. Nat King Cole is singing in my ears.
Thirteen and change. Still no Jeff. And now I'm being passed. And someone knocks my bottle of Gatorade from my hand and it goes over the guard rail and into the reeds. I toss the vile calorie gel; nothing to wash it down with. But I will see J. soon, I am sure, and he will give me Gatorade and Fig Newtons and I will be strong, and though my knee is really starting to hurt, and, what's that, a blister?, still, I will fly!
Ah, there's someone there, by the side of the road, I'll bet that's J. No? He's old and waving a Team flag. He has a water in his hand but doesn't offer it to me. Oh, well.
Oh, w...uh oh.
I am starting down a short, steep street and a searing pain shoots out from my right knee. I hop a few feet, look around, and do not know what to do. Should I stop? Go? Stretching! I remember now, the coaches said to stretch when something tightens up during a long run. That must be it. It's just tight. I'll stretch it. Yes. I'm sure that will help. Tra la la. My mouth is too dry to whistle, but I am whistling in my head, ignoring the voices that are telling me, no, it is not tight, it is damaged, and you should stop. Do not be foolish, you fool.
And how I would love to stop, if only I didn't also want so much to finish. People passing. May not fly, but must finish. Must. Finish. Must. Finish. Must...
Mile fourteen...mile fourteen-and-a-half...I am now jog-lurching slowly, unsteadily toward Belvedere, taking a stutter step with my right leg, the left holding me up. More people pass. I look drunk or palsied. One asks if I'm OK. I glance enviously at her water-filled Camel Pack. I am too shy to say, No, I am not OK and can I have some water? Instead I nod my head and give a tight, pained smile.
I was sure J. would be at mile fifteen, waiting for me. Holding out the Gatorade. And I know there's a water station there, so even if he's missed me again, I can get some...
Oh. No. Can't be. There's no J. There's nobody at all. The water station is out of everything except packets of Advil and course maps. Where is the water? The Gatorade? The people? I take two Advil, stuff them down the back of my throat, hoping they dissolve. The don't. I cough them out like a furball.
Mile sixteen...and a half...I start the mantra. Every other step. Fuck.
Seventeen. Almost over. The cyclist goes by. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. I keep going. I will see J. soon. I will have water soon. I will pack my knee with ice.
Eighteen. Where are the supporters, cheering people on? Oh, well. Almost there. Almost. There. Almost...
There's the banner! I pick up my jog-limp pace, want to finish strong. Want J. to hug me at the finish, pick me up, twirl me around. Yay! Almost there!
But, where is everybody? I see four people packing up a cooler, a few stragglers chatting and stretching--one shouts a greeting to me--litter strewn around the small park. The ice packs are gone. The Gatorade is gone. The bottles of water are gone. There are some sun-warmed orange slices in a bowl; I take three and suck on them. There is a discarded water bottle on a picnic table with an ounce of backwash in the bottom. I drink it. I roll awkwardly to the grass and sit there, dry-crying. I want some water, even the ice runoff, from that cooler. Desperately. But I can't bring myself to ask. I know they wouldn't mind, but I just can't get up the nerve. I want J. I want J.! Where is J.? Where is he?
I stop, look around, confirm. There is no friendly blue Volvo, no bespectacled young man clutching Newtons. I am in a strange place, hurt, thirsty and alone. I do not know what has happened to me: I started so strong! I felt so good! I do not know what has happened to my knee. Most importantly, I do not know what has happened to J. I overhear a woman saying that a pedestrian had been injured on the course; hit by a car. I imagine J. as the pedestrian, then as the driver.
No, no, no. There has to be some other explanation. I get up, start jog-lurching toward downtown, to the ferry building. Maybe he didn't look at the map. Maybe he doesn't know where the finish line is. Maybe he thinks it's by the water. I know these to be false--J. lives by maps since he has no sense of direction--but I go anyway.
I am beginning to panic, which somehow dulls the pain in my knee. I keep running. The tony tourists in Tiburon look at me curiously and with some disgust; look at my salt-streaked face and shoulders and back and belly, my red-glazed eyes, my forlorn expression, my limp. One asks if I'm hurt; I grunt.
J. is not in Tiburon.
I do not have any money on my person; I do not even have a pocket. I cannot buy a bottle of water or use a pay phone. There are no fountains. Could ask for water at a food stand but am not thinking straight. More panic, more self-pity. I run back to the park. No one is there. Yet more panic. Nobody left in park. Run haphazardly back toward the ferry--could I have missed him? He is still not there.
My burst of desperate panic-energy is now gone, and I feel small and lost. I limp slowly, pathetically, back to the park. I am sure J. has been in that accident. What other explanation? I despair.
And then, at that very low moment, I see a distant figure waving slowly in my direction, behind him the ancient blue Volvo, and I am overcome once again with the joy and lightness that had hit me with such force four hours earlier on the bridge: I can do this. And I run to him, and he picks me up and twirls me around and tells me how he thought I was still on the course and how had I possibly gotten so far ahead of him by mile 10 and he had waited for a long time and started to worry and retraced his path and thought I had been hit by a car and was he ever sorry and was he ever proud of me and did I want some Gatorade and Fig Newtons?
In the end, that was my last distance run. I had a meniscal tear and a badly inflamed nerve where the knee joint meets the shin. There wasn't enough time to rehab for the Marathon; in fact, despite three months of intensive physical therapy, it never healed completely. I would never get that participant's jersey or the little faux-gold finisher's medal. I would have to call my friends and tell them not to come. I had failed.
But I had tried. I had tried my hardest. Done my best.
That day last summer--when I was certain I was pregnant--was my first taste of the coming struggles with infertility. By evening, the cramps had set in and I was lying huddled in a hotel room bed, crying. But I was also determined, and strangely optimistic: This is painful, yes, but I'll run through it! Stretch a bit. Keep going. I'll get there in the end.
And, each month, the next mile is harder, I'm limping a little more, my mantra is filthier, I have a harder time finding J. when I'm thirsty. But I am determined: I will finish this training run, even if I know deep down it doesn't count, know it's not the real event.
And, if I train hard enough, try a different pair of shoes, give it my best, maybe next time I'll find myself at that starting line when the gun goes off for the big race.
Or not. Or maybe I'll start but never find a way to finish. Maybe my infertility cannot be rehabbed. But I will have tried, and in the trying so far I have at least learned something: that I am fragile, that I will make mistakes, and that I may be stubborn enough to persevere. That J. can't always be there, won't always know how to support me. And that, when I need help, I should ask for it; that there are kind, concerned, giving people who want me to succeed and who have water to spare.