It’s the starting chute of the Montreal Marathon and the overcast sky dances above. I am standing next to Hillary and together we hug each other and shiver into the morning fog. Shortly the fog will turn to mist and then to rain. The rain will follow us for most of the next 42.2km. As I rub my hands over the goosebumps of my arms and legs I think of Grandpa.
It’s my earliest memory of Grandpa. We are in New Jersey and it feels like Easter time. Grandma and Grandpa’s backyard has a tree. The tree has two rope swings with a pink seat knotted at the bottom. The siblings and I spend hours on this tree, pushing each other and ourselves. Somehow I have fallen off a swing. I'm crying, maybe bloodied. I go running into the house and I run into Pop. He wearing a baseball hat and his Piscataway High School jacket. He is a giant to me, a grandiose mystery how my Grandpa could be so much larger than my father. I hold up my scraped palms and he scowls.
"Don't be a sissy," he thunders, as I go running for my Dad. "What do you think your Dad is going to do? I'm his father!" He is laughing at me and I am crying, terrified. I run into Mum first and she swoops me up in her arms. Grandpa is still laughing. "Oh, my Damn Canadian Grandchildren!"
Hillary and I are running silently side by side. We've just passed the 8km marker and I realize I should have looked up what the french word for water was, as I breezed through the first two aid stations without consuming anything for lack of understanding. It feels to me like we're flying. The running is effortless and smooth. The rain continues.
It's school time and we're back in New Jersey. For some reason, Grandpa has taken us to school with him. He is a High School teacher and a Football Coach, simultaneously respected, loved and feared by his students. The three of us are small but we are tasked with signing in his students at the start of gym class. He stands at the door and tells all his students as they come to the sign-in table not to speak to us because we only speak French.
"These are my Canadian Grandchildren!" He tells his students, proudly. "They might be funny-looking and that is because they are from Canada. Also, don't talk to them. They don't understand you!"
We silently check in the high school students, as they regard us with a mixed sense of perplexity and awe. A brave blonde approaches the table. She opens her mouth and beautiful, rounded beautiful french comes out. The three of us stare at her. We have no idea what she is saying. In the background, Grandpa howls.
We've passed through the 19km marker of the race and the course is now thick with spectators. They are wearing all kinds of rain gear and are holding signs in French. There is a short, steep hill knotted with rows of spectators, hollering in the robust Tour De France style. We crest the hill and music blares, the finish line is ahead! My body settles into a smooth rhythm, momentarily tricked by the Finish Line music, the finishing chute, and the excitement. Up ahead a small sign reads:
HALF MARATHON FINISH -->
I look at the sign gloomily as I veer left. The sign may as well said: HEAVEN(arrow right), HELL (arrow left), because this is where I am convinced I am going. I run for a few strides and it feels like for ever. I start closing my eyes for short periods of time. I try counting backwards from 100. I close my eyes for (what feels like) a long time and I think, well, I must be somewhere near 30km!
22km, the next red sign reads. And so begins the suffering. Suffering of a whole new kind, a suffering that permeates through my body and radiates with each step that hits the pavement.The rain loosens to a damp mist and the crowds thin. Hillary and I silently plot along together, neither of us daring to speak to the other. It's as though I can feel every individual fibre in my legs, and they are all asking me for relief, to please stop, to walk for just a moment. I glance at Hillary and back at the road ahead. There are many motivational signs, but I can't read any of them. I don't know how I should feel, excited? Nervous? Hopeful? I feel a rising swell of something else.
I just turned 20 years old and we are visiting Grandma and Grandpa for Christmas. It is this Christmas I appreciate my Grandparents more as adults, there is a maturity to me that allows me to shift my paradigm. My ginormous Grandpa seems more normal sized, although he is still a relentless tease and immensely politically incorrect. I'm not sure what we're doing in this scenario, and yet the conversation is burned into my brain. Maybe we are washing dishes (can't be- Grandpa never does dishes), maybe we are working out together (this is another fantasy), but Grandpa starts. "Holly," he says to me, in his thick New Jersey accent, where the H sounds like "Ha!" and the "olly" is nasal and drawled, making it sound more like "Hawlee". He says my name and I let my world freeze, because I can't remember many times when he has said my name. It's my Dad's accent but deeper, older, thicker, decades of Eastern new Jersey drawl frozen into the vowels as it slowly escapes his lips. "Holly, you know what?" I pause, waiting for some sort of insult. "What, Grandpa?" "You're build like a Higgins Woman." I must have given great space during this moment because he smiled and grabbed my shoulders. "Shoulders. Hips. Quads. Tall and thick. Just like all of your Aunts." I can't find anything to say in return. I'd escaped the body troubles many of my friends had suffered through in high school and University, always being proud of what I had. I looked through the house at my Aunts. All tall. All broad. Big, viking women. I went to the bathroom and closed the door, looking in the mirror at my frame through my thick black sweater. For the first time I noticed, really noticed, I wasn't like my Mom or my sister. I was tall. I was thick; not in the barrel-chested broadness of my Aunts but I was wider than many girls. I had large quads that rubbed together for as long as I can remember. I felt a mix of acceptance and strangeness looking in the mirror like I was seeing myself for the first time. Built like a Higgins woman. Strong like a Higgins woman. I left the bathroom and rejoined the party. We've rolled through the final aid station and the little red marker we passed reads 38km. 38km! It's started to mist again. I start to slow and Hillary turns around, prodding me along. For the first time all race, I succumb to the rising flood of tears. I shake my head at her and manage to breathe out a "just go" as I slow down to a jog. I start to shake and cry. I can't remember the last time I felt this horrible. I'm going to be sick. My legs feel as though they are no longer attached to my body, they ache in a way I didn't think possible and my knee joint is locking up in an unbendable manner. So I cry and I jog, slowly losing sight of Hillary as my miserable feet put one foot in front of the other. I pass some spectators holding a sign that says, "Mind over Muscle." I hate them. I hate everything. I can't remember why I decided to do this. Another slight undulation and I see a man pushing a wheelchair, and in the wheelchair is an older man.
It's the last time my parents went to see Grandpa and there is a photo of Mom and Grandpa. She is holding an iPad, and she is showing Grandpa photos of us. She is showing Grandpa photos of Jon and I. Grandpa is hunched over in the chair, looking much older than his 83 years. He is using a cane all the time now, and his back is constantly painful. His increasingly bad dementia makes him consistently confused. In his chair he looks so old to me, he looks frail. He doesn't look like the larger than life figure I will permanently remember. He is just a small old man, confined to one floor of the house, because he can no longer move with ease. It isn't Grandpa I see in the chair, it can't be. I pass the man in the wheelchair and in my chest I fear my heart will physically break into two. I am overwhelmed by grief and for a few short moments I wonder if this is the end of my race. So I cry and I jog, feeling like an eternity passed before a yellow shirt appears in my periphery. The yellow shirt looks... familiar. The yellow shirt pulls up next to me. A pace bunny. I grimace, preparing for the sign he's holding. Based on the pathetic performance of the last 18 km I prepare for the 4:15 Pace Bunny. Except it isn't. It's the 3:45 Pace Bunny.
This moment suspends itself in time, as though everything has moved to slow motion. 3:45? I look down at my watch, which miraculously confirms that indeed I have been running for 3 hours, 38 minutes and 2 seconds. What? Everything comes into focus, suddenly. I'm here to run a marathon! It's in honour of Grandpa! He wouldn't want me to be a sissy!
This miracle was nothing short of what a shot of flat coke can do and I barrel through the last two and a half km of the race burning through the finishing shoot during a funny sort of crying/ laughing that is captured on photo which mostly looks like me squinting, wincing and smiling at the same time. Hillary's braids come into view and I cross the finish line, and we hold each other. Soaking, both crying, smiling, trying to make out words and phrases to each other but nothing will really come.
We stumble through the finish chute, gathering our medal and food. I go to pull my shorts down from their high-wasted resting place and I notice something amiss. My thighs, the big beautiful Higgins women thighs? The combination of the rain, the shorts riding up in the rain, and the rain washing away my body glide has resulted in inner-leg injury similar to road rash: the inside of those fabulous thighs scraped together for 42.2km leaving a new layer of skin exposed. And blood, lots of blood. We roll into the med tent where a new EMS chick wide-eyed tells me she's never seen road rash so bad. It's not road rash, I reminder her, my thighs have rubbed together for the last three and a half hours and they scraped the skin off. Of the other thigh. She cleans me up and puts gauze on the wounds.
One hour later we are back at the hotel, eating, getting warm. I undress to hop in the shower when I realize my inner-thigh wounds have oozed and the gauze has stuck to them. I gently try to pull off the now-stuck strips and I "eeeeeee" and "oooooooo" my way though the process. I can almost here Grandpa laughing.
Don't be a Sissy.
Grandpa coaching Piscataway High School in the 1970s
Marathon in honour of Grandpa Higgins
Dear Endurance Athlete Friends,
You’re all crazy.
I’ve long had a suspicion that something was wrong with you. All of you. Each and every one of you has some sort of mild - or major- psychosis that propels you to these absurdly long races and mind-bendingly difficult endurance feats. I’ve spent enough time hanging out with you to know this is true and the longer I spend hanging around all of you the more warped my own mind becomes. At the end of this block of training I fear now for my own sanity, viagra sale my own safety, rx and my own state of mind.
I believe endurance athletes are Straightjacket-style crazy. You know what the irony of a straightjacket for an endurance athlete would be? That even with their upper limbs all tied up they would probably still ask for their bike on a trainer. “Well, the old arms are tied up but doesn’t mean I can’t spin out those legs!” “Maybe once I’m done my 120 minute spin I can still do a little run! Brick style you know!” “Hell, why not throw me in the lake. Having a straightjacket on doesn’t mean I can’t do a little kick. Pass me the kickboard, will you?”
My newfound certainty of the insanity of my training mates is all because of The Marathon.
Earlier in 2013 I set a goal to “accomplish an athletic first”. As proud I am of my newfound Mountain Bike skills, I didn’t feel that counted towards an athletic first. Being a Pace Bunny in the Stampede Half Marathon was a solid experience, but I still didn’t think it counted because I’d done a half before. I was looking for something major, something I could add to my athletic accomplishments, something I could do around my Birthday so I could wrap up the Birthday + race experience all in one.
I settled on a Marathon.
I decided Marathon for a number of reasons. One: it’s an athletic first. I haven’t completed any (yet). Two: up until now (and now more so than ever) marathons have disgusted me (please read herefor an awesome account of the weird and wonderful -and very funny- reasons someone else runs). Three: I figured I could probably eat double my daily caloric intake for the week following the race which would nicely allow of a gluttonous birthday week. Four: I know that whenever I decide to tackle Ironman (which now I think, maybe never) I will have the knowledge that I can run a 42.2km finale after a long day.
With Hillary at my side we booked the race, the plane tickets. I made a spread sheet for training and populated it based on some scientific (and non-scientific) advice and training programs. I had a couple people take a look and make adjustments. And then, well, I started running.
It was mid-July when I started to wonder if I was going crazy.
Call it an increase of miles during the week and of longer runs. I had this fretful feeling during my longer distances that I might stop moving, drop to the cement in the middle of the pathway somewhere and curl into the fetal position, hands cupping my ears, letting out bloodcurdling screams until someone arrived with a gallon of Gatorade and a Cinnamon Bun. At times I would feel a rising tide of anger when my alarm went off early and I would dress myself and scoot out the door to get in the time before work. At other times I would start feeling full of gratitude and joy (the neighborhood is so beautiful! My sneakers are so colorful! Life is so grand!) -usually when I got to run 6km or less. Mostly though my feelings hinged between irritation and exasperation, a sensation that flowed mostly near the start and end of the run(s). Irritation: it’s 5:30am and I want to be sleeping. Exasperation: I’m tired. Irritation: I have only run 8km. Exasperation: I still have 8km to go! As the mileage has climbed I’ve been faced with a gamut of emotions I didn’t even know were brewing deep down in my spirit, emotions and thoughts that only the long haul of training could bring bubbling to the surface.
Having Hillary during the long runs has been a lifesaver. Usually we can find a middle ground in which to pace, set small goals within a big one, and decide when we are going to eat (Gels and Salt Tabs are my best friends). Two weekends ago we finished a brutal 34km long run in the blistering heat, and we drove directly from Fish Creek Park to Jelly Donuts. We sat outside in almost silence as we scarfed full-sized donuts down our throats, giddy like kids during Christmas, consuming caloriesoff our dirty sticky fingers as quickly as possible. I went home, drank a protein drink, had a cold shower and lay in bed for three hours icing my knees, which had decided they were going to stop bending. As I lay in the dark, still sweating and hot, knees throbbing and stomach churning I thought, Why the Hell does anyone want to do this?
I am reminded of friend and former triathlon coach Mike Neill, who did FOUR ironman triathlons and TWO half-ironmans in 2011. Let me repeat this for emphasis: Mike ran four marathons after the superhuman feats of swimming and biking the aforementioned distance. I almost now think there might be something seriously wrong with him. Mike, if you’re reading, I know now why you were so tired that year. You probably are still in sleep debt.
Then there is my friend Lentine, who just ran all six days of the Trans Rockies race. Now, if ever you need to be hopelessly inspired by a chick who just keeps on going… and going… and going… that’s her. I am so proud of her for running this race, a mind-numbing feat that I cannot even begin to fathom. I also suspect, lovingly, there may be a screw loose in her head. I thought that until I read her race report and I couldn’t help but laugh out loud while she describes the experience of trying to eat (altitude and running 30km + a day had robbed her of any appetite) a sandwich but was crying so hard she was drenching the bread while eating it. Turns out she is human after all, just a human who wants to push and push and push herself to the max. Verdict? Temporary insanity and deep, deep down digging, to see truly how far one can go. Cause? endurance sport.
Last Saturday I ran my final long run, Hillary at my side, before the big show. I nailed the nutrition, we jimmy-rigged together a long run (the flood has damaged so much of our usual running routes we’ve been forced to be very creative), hit the water perfectly, and had a decently paced long run. My feet still swelled, my knees still locked, I was still so sore I could hardly move the next day. Never before have I had the joy of popping blisters for weeks on end, new blisters forming on top of the old ones, angry in the multi-layer glory, taunting me with their constant reminder that they won’t stop coming until I stop running. Sigh. Even at the end of this seemingly never-ending run I realized that when I run the marathon I still have 6km more to run than this. Unfathomable.
During this training I was also introduced to a whole new world of chafing, one I thought unimaginable after having suffered many unfortunate “issues” that come with long distance bike riding. One of the most bizarre instances was a few weeks ago when I thoughtlessly shoved a gel haphazardly down bra. It was a moment in time I didn’t give a thought -oh an extra gel, I will probably need this- I simply stuffed. I learned the very hard way you can get away with a lot in 15km or less when running, but certain things are not possible for longer. Strange parts chafe. In this case, the little escapee gel that I thoughtlessly put in my chest tucked between my sports bra and skin settled in there horizontally, where it rubbed, bled, blistered and scabbed over while I was running. When I went to shower I pulled off my sports bra and had to hold in my scream of terror: by sports bra was drenched in blood. I frantically grabbed at my chest and I realized then my error. The one little __ml gel back rubbed so bad it created two small holes of pain which resulted in the sports injury mentioned. I never really thought it was possible a little plastic gel pack could cause that much bleeding, but I guess I was wrong. I could hardly wear a normal bra the rest of the week. I thought saddle sores were the epitome of painful after-sport bang-ups and now I realize I am wrong.
Despite all these km and all this training, I still am in mild shock that I am going to run 42.2kms, something I often dismissed as not that big of deal. After all these months of training and all these hard sessions I suppose I am on the downslide (the endurance folks like to call it “taper”) into this athletic event. When panicked, I comfort myself with the thought of eating poutine and drinking expensive wine on the other side of the finish line. Oh, and adding it to the list of athletic accomplishments. It’s a good thing we have moved into taper. I’m really damn tired.
Frank Shorter is on record as saying, “you have to forget your last marathon before you try another. Your mind can’t know whats coming. “ I have a hard time comprehending that I might forget about the suffering of this training.
I allow myself to bask in the incomprehension of the feat of Ironman. I allow myself even more so to fall even deeper in love with my friends who are true endurance athletes: you’re a crazy bunch of a_________s, but I truly love you all for putting yourselves through this kind of pain, this kind of wringer, to see what your body is capable of. You amaze me. You inspire me.
I live in Calgary where I own a small business, instruct fitness classes and call myself an endurance athlete. I am the proud owner of four bikes, an expensive wine education, and a strange fascination with the colour orange. I have a long-time love of football, baking, and coffee. I put my minor in creative writing to use occasionally both here and in other publications.
I live with my tall, handsome and often-hungry professional triathlete husband.