Case in point, I have nothing but fondness for the city of Cleveland, despite its potholes and the fact that by mile twelve I felt entrapped in some Hunger-Games-like dome where the heat and humidity were cruelly ratcheted up.
Before the race, there's always such promise as runners, who tend to be a friendly lot, stretch and head to their corrals. Smiles are as wide as lines for the Porta-Potties are long. Hope abounds.
Of course, at some point you have to start running, which brings more sobriety to the entire event. As the miles wear on, those early smiles from the starting line morph into expressions of acceptance, then resignation, then weariness, then pain, then gritty determination, then a degree of despair, then outright loathing of life. This is when you start hating people, even the awesome woman at the side of the road who's spraying the runners who pass with water from her garden hose.
But still, you push on.
For me, I was trying to reach a goal that's eluded me: breaking the two-hour mark. I had a poor sense of my pace because my GPS had no signal, but when I reached mile twelve I felt a sliver of hope that this could be the race. Unfortunately, I also felt lightheaded, which, given my track record with hitting the pavement, unnerved me.
I concentrated on the only things I could reasonably control: breathing, putting one foot in front of the other, and remaining conscious. Like an oasis in the desert, the finish line finally appeared. And the clock -- the clock! -- came into focus (under two hours!), and each step hurt, and my face contorted into even more of a grimace, and my feet crossed the finish line even though they no longer felt attached to my body.
Then I felt dizzy, which lead to a helpful volunteer observing my unstable steps and immediately leading me to the medical tent where I sat down, said something akin to "I have a history of hypoglycemia," and felt a bottle of chocolate milk being put into my hands.
It's amazing how a little sugar can bring you back to life.
The temperature rose and the next hour passed while I stretched, waited for Joel to finish the full marathon, and tried to comprehend how -- why? -- people were still running. My anticipation shifted toward mild concern when the clock surpassed his expected finish time, then greater concern as more minutes ticked by. Finally, I saw him in the distance, obviously hurting, and made my way to the runner's chute as he crossed the finish.
This time, I was the one ushering him the medical tent as I listened to his story: cramping and getting sick to his stomach starting at mile 18, ceasing to sweat by mile 25. Somehow the man still finished in 3:57 in a wicked state of dehydration.
Somehow the man even looks good while getting an IV. I do not understand this. But I do understand, even after progressively vomiting on an eight mile stretch of Cleveland roads, Joel's remarkable kindness and thoughtfulness and good humor, as demonstrated with all of his interactions with the awesome medical team. This is the type of man Joel is, through and through.
It's amazing how an IV bag, just like chocolate milk, will bring you back to life. Within an hour, he was dismissed from the medical tent and we walked back to the hotel where we showered (always life-changing after a long run), stretched some more, rested, and eventually went out to dinner and talked over the details.
Joel shared how he once heard that nobody quits a 26-mile race at mile 23. If that's the case, he said, when I started struggling at mile 18, I just had to push for five more miles and reach mile 23, because nobody quits when they only have three more miles to go.
That's true grit. If it's possible, I might have fallen even more in love with him right there.
I shared about the girl I had loosely teamed up with near the third mile, how we had run beside each other for eight of the thirteen miles with periodic snippets of conversation until she dropped back, saying that I should go grab my sub-two-hour goal. I wish I could thank her. She kept me going and probably doesn't even know it.
Over burgers, I deliberated on post-race protocol. How long is it socially acceptable for me to wear this medal around my neck? We hashed out Cleveland's sights and sounds: the group who stood outside their church, jamming on guitars and cheering us on, the man in the hot dog costume, the signs held by spectators. My favorites?
"Looks like a lot of work for a free banana."
"You think what you're doing is hard? I'm growing out my bangs."
And this gem, which made me accidentally snort water up my nose while running past:
Yes, in the telling of the stories, the pain already had been forgotten. I had stretched and surpassed my goal. (LeBron isn't the only one with a formidable wingspan.) Joel hadn't run his fastest race, but given the circumstances, his perseverance might have been even more impressive than his original 3:37 marathon time.
Those medals? Oh, we earned them this time around. Yes, we earned them.