Sunday, October 27, 2013

Komen and going

There are many reasons to run Komen Dallas Race for the Cure. Some are obvious and huge; namely, the ever-growing number of women with breast cancer. The race, with its 20,000 runners and walkers, plus who-knows-how-many police officers, volunteers and spectators, raises awareness and money to fight this awful disease.

The numbers make you shake your head with disbelief and horror. The Komen represents that staggering, hard-to-wrap-your-head-around number of people whose lives have been touched, whose stomachs punched, whose psyches left reeling, by this disease.

But it also reminds us that each number is a person -- someone honored or memorialized by pink rectangles on the backs of runners and walkers, or t-shirts emblazoned with photos of loved ones who fought the good fight, but who ultimately succumbed.

As my son Charlie and I fast-walked to the Race for the Cure starting line on October 19,  we drew near a man wearing a yellow long-sleeved t-shirt. On the back were words that said something like "Here in memory of my wife," and the likeness of a smiling and beautiful woman. A few feet ahead was a young man with a similar shirt and the words "Here in memory of my mom."

I looked over at the husband and told him how sorry I was for his loss, and that he was doing such a good thing by being here. Clumsy, yes, but I wanted to say something to acknowledge the sorrow that must be so all-pervasive.

Charlie and I got closer to the starting line, and he tugged on my arm to stop walking so we could sing the national anthem. The gun sounded; Charlie and I started off together, and he quickly took off. For the first five minutes or so, I could see him up ahead, his fluorescent half-zip jacket and matching ear band weaving through the spreading-out crowd. I lost him in the dapple of leaves, and focused more on my own breathing and pace.

When I crossed the finish line, I looked around for Charlie and was surprised to see him almost immediately. He was talking to a young man who somehow looked familiar (but who, as it turned out, Charlie had never met until 10 minutes earlier).

I introduced myself. He had a beautiful smile as he motioned to Charlie and said, "Man, he kept me going."

Charlie said, "We kept each other going."

He explained that during the third mile, he felt himself slowing down a bit. Then he saw someone in his right-side periphery who a moment earlier had been on his left. The person -- who turned out to be this young man -- said, "C'mon. You can do it."

They stayed pretty much together. At one point, the young man said he felt like he was going to throw up. Charlie said, "No, you've got this. C'mon."

They crossed the finish line together and started talking. That's when I came up. I asked what had brought him here. Turns out I should have asked "who." He turned around to show me the pink rectangle on which he'd written "Running for Granny Moss" in black felt-tip pen.

"My grandmother's a two-year survivor," he said.

"That's great," I said. "How's she doing now?"

"Good," he said, "but I lost my granddad."

I said I was sorry and asked when. Last summer, he told me, and I told him that my dad and Charlie's grandfather had died in 2012. He expressed his condolences.

"What did your grandmother say about you running today?" I asked.

"She doesn't know," he said. "I just decided to do this. I'd never run a race before. I'm going to go see her and bring her a bunch of stuff."

He turned again to Charlie. "Man, you are ripped," he said. "I bet you don't smoke or dip or do drugs or drink carbonated drinks, do you?"

"No," Charlie said, equally amused, embarrassed and flattered. "I haven't had a soda in four years. You look like you work out, too."

"Oh, I do construction," he said. "This was really rough though."

He told us he hadn't eaten before the race. I said he really should eat a couple of bananas or something. I also noticed the cotton race shirt he was wearing. Cotton -- as any resident fitness nag, former running-store employee or frequent runner will tell you -- absorbs moisture, which can be mighty uncomfortable. Therefore she'll tell you (as I told him), the fabric isn't the best for working out.

"Oh thanks," he said. "I didn't know that."

As we talked and our heart rates slowed down, the northerly breeze became obvious again. I was getting chilly and then noticed the cotton t-shirt our new friend was wearing seemed stuck to his body. He was starting to shiver.

Charlie and I had carried our own race shirts as we ran, mistakenly taking them with us to the registration table, where we picked up timing chips. When I saw how cold our new friend looked, I handed him shirt.

"Here," I said. "You need it more than I do."

He was pretty muscular, and said he might bust right out of it.

"Take mine," said Charlie. "It's bigger."

"Wow, man," he said, pulling his own sweaty shirt over his head and putting on Charlie's dry one. "Thank you."

I told him how much we enjoyed meeting him. We reached out our hands to shake, but instead hugged each other. Charlie held out his hand, and Monty (oops; I let his name slip) engulfed Charlie (who's a hugger anyway) in a big bear hug.

Monty walked away smiling and just looked so darn happy. Charlie and I stood there for a moment; for a second, I thought I was going to cry. I think Charlie was taken aback emotionally, too.

"That was worth every minute of sleep we missed, all the traffic, the cold -- everything," I said.

"It was," he said. He slipped his arm through mine and we walked -- first to try to find my friend Laura, and then back to the car. All that day, which turned out to be really busy, periodically one of us would mention Monty.

"I wonder, did he just wake up and decide he wanted to do this?" I asked, totally out of context of anything we were doing or talking about. But Charlie knew exactly what I meant, offering his own wondering a few hours later.

"Do you think he went right to his grandmother's house? I wonder what she said," he asked.

We'll probably never know; our questions were, in all likelihood, rhetorical. What we do know, though, is that Monty and his grandmother put faces on huge and almost unfathomable numbers of those touched by breast cancer. That complete strangers can find commonality in shared steps and requited support.

And that this caring person and loving grandson unknowingly gave a mom and her son yet another connection, yet another something sacred and shared.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Crossing the finish line

My son and I don't often -- as in we never -- run together.  We had great plans to run the half portion of the White Rock Marathon (as it was called back then) his senior year of high school. But Charlie did something to his knee while playing volleyball, and while the details elude me, I do recall that not wearing knee pads was a significant factor.

His physical therapist was pretty specific about the race, saying (or perhaps he shouted) NO RUNNING.

Charlie's knee healed, but then track season started and thus, the two of us running together was out. He graduated; summer came. Any race we would have trained for would have taken place while he was in college.

Last fall, his freshman year at Hendrix College, we did run the 5K over Parents' Weekend (a.k.a. the Campus Kitty). It was tremendously fun, but we didn't stay together. One of us had youth, long legs, and inherent ability on his side. We met up after it was over and recounted our respective miles and a good time was had by both.

When Parents' Weekend rolled around again, we of course signed up for the race again. As part of his shake-your-head-at-all-he-does training, he's been running on the (gasp) treadmill (for which I've forgiven him) -- a pretty steady 3.1 miles at a pace (surprise) faster than mine.

I assumed that on race day, we'd start out together and, in an echo of last year, he'd be waiting for me at the finish line. But when we began talking about the upcoming weekend, what he said surprised me.

"Mom," he said. "I have an idea. Let's run together, and when we cross the finish line, we can hold hands and raise our arms like the marathoners do."

"That's great with me, but are you sure?" I answered, secretly tickled beyond words. "You're so much faster than I am."

"Of course I'm sure," he said. "It'll be fun."

And it was. First of all, the race was much better organized than last year. We had NUMBERS! Plus there were water stops and someone on a bike showing runners the route. But mostly, it was great because we were running together.

At a point or two, Charlie talked while we scurried through campus. "Look," he said, pointing to a building as we crossed some railroad tracks. "That's the language house" (where he'll live his junior year and speak only German). I tried to answer, but could barely get out two words: "Can'"

We passed some fellow runners, grabbed cups of water, reveled in the relatively cool weather and in the orange and rising sun. I'd lent Charlie one of my Garmin Forerunner 10 watches, and we'd compare paces as we ran and the time each mile took us.

Way too soon, we saw tables set up and people gathered at what could be nothing but the finish line.

"Mom!" he said, jostling me out of the zone I tend to get into when I run. He reached for my hand with his own and, as planned, we held them far above our heads.

Then, because he is his mother's son, when we looked at our watches and realized the course was a bit short and that we'd only gone 2.9 miles instead of the 3.1 that make up a 5K, he said, "Let's go!"

We ran a couple more blocks, walked back and picked up our allotted share of apples and bananas and energy bars.

We couldn't talk about our race right then because we had to change clothes and go to a meet-the-professors breakfast.
Throughout the rest of the day and the evening, though, we did. We reveled in the beauty of the morning and of the campus and, most truly and especially, what we had accomplished together.

The rest of the weekend was fun, too. Charlie got a haircut from a white-haired barber who looked him right in the eye while doing a questionable Elvis impersonation. We had great meals. Charlie painted his face and chest school colors -- black and orange -- and cheered at the top of his lungs for the girls' volleyball team.

I remember all those when I look back on those precious 36 hours. But when I put my shoes on in the morning to run, or when I let thoughts that aren't particularly positive block out my blessings, or most especially when I look at a calendar and all but see the pages blowing movie-like away, I remember those 24:37 minutes on a beautiful fall day in Arkansas. A day my son and I held our hands high above our heads and, together, crossed the finish line. Just like the marathoners do.