I was just twenty years old, and I was dying, a term used to describe a runner who has expended every physical resource, and whose pace has deteriorated to a crawling shuffle.
The 1981 Baltimore Marathon finished at the convention center. I was still miles away from there.
Two hours earlier, I waited at the starting line with more than two-thousand others, the cold late November wind made me wonder why I thought running a marathon was a good idea. Up until that moment, the marathon was alluring, something I thought all serious distance runners should do.
But standing on Pratt Street, freezing, I was unsure about a lot of things.
I was silent in my nervousness – typical me. Those around me chatted incessantly. They talked about their race strategy, bragged about other races, and cursed the cold.
Once we started, it felt more like a stampede than a race. All the jitters were gone in the first few strides, and I started running faster than I should have, passing the mile in 6:32.
There was no such thing as a GPS watch. My wrist watch had hands, not numbers, but there were large clocks placed at certain milestones along the way. The clock at mile five read 33:23 when I passed it.
I didn’t know much about running, though I had been doing it for six years. I didn’t have a coach or any training partners at that point. I trained and raced on instinct more than anything, which is dangerous for a first-time marathoner.
I thought I was okay because I was feeling good, running smoothly in the early miles, so I pushed a little to catch a group of runners in front of me, and then settled in behind them.
The half-way point was on Falls Road, and there were people lining the street there. They cheered for all of us, and for a while, the energy they gave helped mask the fatigue.
There was an uphill stretch that started just before Kelly Avenue. Then the course turned onto Cross Country Boulevard, a name I didn’t appreciate as much at the time, and continued to climb. I was still enjoying myself at this point, feeling like I was moving through a running rite of passage. But when I reached mile eighteen on Reisterstown Road, things began to change.
Energy gels and beans are a relatively recent antidote. The powdered Gatorade in 1981 was more likely to make you sick than help you. Water was a gift, but it did nothing to restore lost energy, and apparently, the guarantee on my physiology expires after eighteen miles.
Frank Shorter, who won Olympic gold in the marathon in 1972 and silver in 1976, once asked, “Why couldn’t Pheidippides have died at twenty miles?” I wished he had died two miles sooner.
There wasn’t anything merciful about the pain. There was no gradual transition. My legs became comatose. My arms were just extra weight. The physical battle was over; I was dying.
And then I was reborn.
Not physically, my body was still a limping mess, but a part of me awakened for the very first time.
At first, it seemed like I was just being stubborn, a temporary solution at best. But slowly I became resolute. I became tenacious.
A hundred runners must have passed me in the last six miles. If they offered any encouragement, I didn’t hear it. I was fully immersed in my own battle, and there was nothing external about it. It was only after I finished that it felt safe to let the world back in.
A runner that never dies probably hasn’t fully lived a runner’s life. I’ve died a lot, and each time something inside of me was born. The experiences have led me to understand that birth and death aren’t just events on the edges of our lives.
My childhood died and so did the young adult I used to be, delivering a man who ponders, runs and writes.
Relationships died, leaving room for the birth of my life’s truest love.
My children led me through a series of beginnings and endings, so many that I lost count. Now, all the phases of their past are shared memory, and I’ve been gifted with the freedom of an empty nest.
We celebrate birth because the newness is exhilarating, but maybe it’s time to acknowledge that dying can also hold an honorable place.
Birth, creation, heritage, dawn – everything new begins when something else ends.