"Bright Spots" is an email column I write on occasion for our staff, highlighting something exciting or interesting the life of one of our staff.
Running for her Life
“Have you ever wanted to run a marathon?”
On a breezy Spring day in 2001, these fateful words wafted out of the radio station, rode the waves across town, and settled into the unsuspecting ear of one Sue W, age 45, transplanted Ohioan and X-ray Tech Extraordinaire. Sue looked up, cocked her head in thought for a fraction of a second, and then responded with a resounding, “Yes!”
Thus began the journey which landed her at the starting line of the San Diego Rock and Roll Marathon a day after her 50th birthday this summer. Sue and 25,000 other honed athletes. After the pistol, it took Sue six minutes of slow shuffling in the dense crowd to get to the actual starting point of the race, where she passed an electronic sensor, setting off a beep in the computer chip attached to her running shoes. Five hours and five minutes later….but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Fade back to 2001. Inspired by the cryptic but inviting radio ad, Sue put in a call to “Albuquerque Fit,” a division of “USA Fit” and the originator of the fateful message. Next thing she knew she was in training, along with 150 other hopefuls. All had their sights on the Duke City Marathon, some 6 months hence.
Larry the Evangelist (not his real name), an experienced runner and skilled coach, has been Sue’s mentor now for five years. You’ve got to figure a guy in his 60’s who is still running fifty mile races knows what he’s doing. Under Larry’s expert guidance, she and her new buddies built their strength and endurance a mile at a time. Every week, they got an enthusiastic lecture about running, hydration, injury, energy foods, clothing, or some other relevant topic, and tacked another mile onto their daily training schedule.
Fashion sidebar. Speaking of clothing, you experienced runners don’t laugh, but Sue actually thought she was all set from the get-go as far as her running wardrobe. “I’ve got shoes, shorts and a T-shirt; I can run!” she told her naïve self. Now, five years later, she laughs somewhat ruefully as she describes her closet. A whole drawer full of running socks. (She hadn’t even considered socks.) Another drawer full of running shorts, built of various high tech, lightweight, wick-away, friction-free streamlined materials. Stacks and stacks of running shoes. Shoes, yes, plural. This, after all, is the business end of marathon training, and life is rough where the rubber meets the road. Sue burns through one pair of shoes every 200 miles, which, for a serious foot soldier like her, takes a mere 3-4 months. The discards pile up, still too good to toss, but too old for serious use.
What am I forgetting? Oh, of course. Shirts. They don’t let marathoners go topless, no, not even in California. Sue has to have two large drawers for shirts. In one, she keeps the running shirts, first cousins to the shorts, with the same technically evolved construction. In the other drawer, the infamous Race Shirts. You know, the ones you get as a prize for entering the race, silk screened with the race name and sponsor logos. Those are usually regular cotton T-shirts, far too thick and heavy for running, and far too casual for social occasions, dahling. So they pile up like the worn out shoes, except many of the T-shirts have never been worn. No worries. Sue has a plan. Once she’s done running (Ha! Like that’ll ever happen) she’s going to have an afghan made out of them. By that time it’ll be an afghan big enough to cover her pool!
Back to our story. Sue discovered an immediate affinity for running, and for runners. She made fast friends with Cynthia and Lana, who have been regular running buddies since then. Sue learned quickly from Larry and from her own experience and improved rapidly, excited to run her first marathon at age 45. Alas, it was not to be. During the 10-mile-a-day section of her training, Sue pulled a groin muscle and had to give up on the marathon idea for the year. She was temporarily discouraged but not derailed. The next year, after healing and rehab, she rejoined the group. Two miles a day, three, four…onward, upward, and six months later she was at the Duke City Marathon starting line. Bang! Off they went. One mile, two, three….OUCH! At mile six, Sue suffered a torn meniscus in her knee, and her race was over. Foiled again! This time it was more serious, an injury requiring surgery and a year off from running.
Now, let me just pause and say that if you know Sue, you know what’s coming next. You know that a little thing like torn cartilage and knee surgery is not about to stop her from fulfilling her dream. Nossir! Maybe it’s that Midwestern stubbornness (eh, Barb?) or maybe it’s just Sue. If you saw the way she whipped our x-ray department into shape, you know what I’m talking about. Needless to say, she got back in the saddle. In the shoes. No, not the saddle shoes, the running…oh, you know what I mean. She went back to training.
What is it they say about the third time? Well, this time it was the charm. In the Duke City Marathon of 2004, Sue W. started, she ran, and by George she finished. Twenty six point two long miles. Five hours and ten minutes. Three of her best buddies ran with her. They were gnarly gals, all strong and tough, poker faced until they got to the finish line. There the sight of four proud husbands bearing flowers melted those marathon girls like buttah.
The success of her first marathon, far from satisfying Sue, just whetted her appetite for more. More races! More fitness! More endorphins and medals and fodder for the afghan! She was officially hooked.
In the next two years, Sue ran ten half-marathons and uncounted other races, including the dreaded La Luz trail race, which, in case you don’t know, is 9.2 miles straight up the Sandia mountains. Only for iron women and fools, you say? Not so. Would you believe that race draws out some 400 maniacs, including more than a few octogenarians? Believe it. As does the Sandia Peak race, on the back side of the mountain, which is a 7.2 mile grind up the ski slopes. Sue ran these and more, ran and ran, happier and stronger every year. And at the end of every race, there was her husband Jim. Proud, smiling, holding out a water bottle or a flower, offering a hug and congratulations to his strong and accomplished wife.
Spousal sidebar. Sue thinks the spouses should get medals too. Not only do they put up with their wives‘(or husbands’) training absences and smelly laundry, they drive the runners to the races at ungodly hours, drop them off, drive to the finish line and negotiate parking, then hang out with strangers, shivering or sweating, depending on the season, drinking coffee and making small talk, after which they greet the victors at the finish line with flowers and hugs, and then drive them back home, listening patiently to a detailed blow-by-blow of the race. Definitely hero material.
Which brings us back to San Diego, and the Rock and Roll Marathon. Jim dropped Sue off at the starting, er, scrum at 5:30 am. She was suited for action and loaded for bear. It’s a metaphor. But that does remind me to tell you about her gear. We could do a whole “gear sidebar” but I’ll spare you. Do think for a moment, though, about what your body might need in the course of a five hour, 26.2 mile run in the summer.
Fluids, of course. Sue carries one or two water bottles in loops on her fanny pack (of which she also has stacks, by the way, not because they wear out but because you gotta try out all the fanny pack styes to find out which one works best for which race). She also slows to a walk at the aid stations, which were set up every two miles or so in San Diego. Sue has settled on alternating Gatorade and water as her drinks of choice. She walks long enough to tank up, then takes off running again.
What else? Calories. You can’t expect your body to do that kind of work without giving it some fuel along the way. Here again, Sue has done her share of trial and error and success, through fig newtons, trail mix, Pay Day bars and the infamous “goo”. For San Diego, she settled on a nutritious combination of pretzels and jelly bellies. Mm mmMM! Breakfast of champions.
Besides those bare essentials, you’ve got to have a hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, Kleenex, a music source (in one ear and on low so you don’t miss an oncoming train or truck) and lastly, that most necessary of millennium necessities, a cell phone. Really. Think about it. Twenty five thousand people in this race, you’ve never been to this town before, and you have to find your ride at the other end. How better than cell phones?
Okay, back to the starting gate, and this time I won’t balk with the story.
After the pistol, it took Sue six minutes of slow shuffling….oh, I told that part already. So, off she went, into the So-Cal morning, feeling good and chatting with her pals. They chat the whole way, she told me. It’s a big part of the appeal. What do they talk about? “Everything, from underwear to men.” To men’s underwear, and women’s underwear, and runner’s underwear, and what, or whether, they wear under there. (Sue wasn’t telling, by the way. We’ll never know.)
They ran through the streets of San Diego, always with a view of the sparkling Pacific not far off. The neighbors were expecting them, and showered them (literally) with garden hose spray and offered fruit and encouragement. Because it was, after all, the Rock and Roll Marathon, there were even bands along the way, rocking out in rhythm with the racing feet. Entertainment on the run. There were also costumed racers in the crowd, including several Elvises, who greeted Sue and her pals with signature Presley phrases. “Hey, baby, lookin’ goooood!” It was an extravaganza.
It was also a very long way to go. In spite of her numerous other runs and races, this was “only” Sue’s second marathon and a marathon is a lot of work. One mile. Two. Three. …. Six miles, and there was Jim, to grab a quick kiss and give her a goose. I mean a boost. (It was a typo.) On she went, winding through the streets and into downtown, along the ocean and finally onto the military base, where uniformed soldiers, food booths, massage tables and a band would be awaiting them. As Sue crossed the finish line, worn out but still moving well, five hours and five minutes after she started, she pulled out her cell phone to call….who else? Her mom.
As soon as she heard her mother’s hello, Sue started sobbing and babbling with happiness and relief. “I made it, Mom! I made it! I finished! I’m done!”
Mom was thrilled. “I’m so proud of you!” (Moms deserve another sidebar, especially Sue’s mom, who vies with Jim for Biggest Fan award)
The woman running next to Sue overheard Sue’s call and started sobbing and babbling too. (It’s a neurochemical thing. Happens to all marathoners.) “That is so cool, that you called your Mom!” Sob, babble.
Who can blame them? Running a marathon at age 50 is a major accomplishment.
They deserve to be proud. Their families are proud. We’re all proud.
I asked Sue why she runs. She grinned at me around her Gyros turkey sandwich. “So I can eat!” And they do eat. The post-race feasts she described to me left me drooling. I even considered going so far as to buy a new pair of running shoes. But she can’t fool me. It’s about far more than the food. One look at Sue’s ruddy, youthful face and shining eyes (not to mention her awesome legs) and you can see the magic that running has worked on her body and life. I think she might even be getting younger.
What’s next? A well deserved retirement from running? Not even close! After a mere week off after San Diego, Sue is running almost daily again, and debating between --get this-- a triathalon and a fifty-miler for next year.
My guess? I wouldn’t be surprised if she did both.