Running on Empty

256px-Trail_runningSomeone asked me last night what it had been like to live with a marathoner. He said that he had been recently thinking  that a certain amount of selfishness had to be involved with anyone training in the capacity one does for a marathon and wondered what that was like for someone (like me) who was not involved in the sport. I think he’s right; there is a certain amount of selfishness there. I guess there has to be some targeted self-focus for anyone that hopes to achieve something great though, whether it’s running a marathon, succeeding in a big way at work, or even becoming an amazing guitar player.

I had to think for a few minutes, and an odd thing came to mind actually. I never really minded all the training, all the running at perilous times of the day and night and in all kinds of weather. What bugged me, and not in a huge way by any means, were the unrealistic expectations my former husband John, a long-distance runner, had at times. Call it optimistic, but he often made plans to run 20 miles and think he could come home and easily settle right back into the day and proceed as if he hadn’t been running for a couple of hours. Call me crazy, but I’d go along with it each time and find myself waiting for his return, making a big breakfast (as he requested) for he and I and our young son, only to have him leave the table, nauseated and unable to eat. He continually pushed himself harder and harder, and seldom considered the implications of what he was doing to himself. It was frustrating to witness, particularly the times when he ran too hard and too fast in the Boston Marathon and ended up in the Prudential garage with an I.V. in his arm.

But this is what I remember most.

I remember the first time he ran a race and how quickly he was hooked. I remember the first time he won a race; the excitement each time a race began, seeing him start strong with the front of the pack and continue just as strong to the end. He loved to run, and he loved the running culture and community. We traveled throughout New England, making a weekend excursion out of races everywhere. We had opportunity to meet the elite runners and in those pre-internet days, we learned everything through Runner’s World magazine and other publications, as well as the stories we heard throughout our travels. I remember the music, the mix tapes John would make (no iPods back then), the songs that pumped him up prior to a race or just a training run.

His parents were very enthusiastic in their support of his running, and often traveled with us. His dad was a talented photographer, and taught me much about taking action photos. We had adventures, climbing fire escape ladders to the top of buildings, finding secret passageways to take up to the roof of places we had no right to be, perching precariously in any number of places, always trying to find a great shot. Sometimes we drove the course during a race, stopping at various spots, waiting for John, shouting out words of support, offering water and of course, taking pictures. I’d hazard a guess that my former husband still holds the record as the most-photographed amateur runner ever.

256px-Boston_marathon_mile_25_050418Then there was Boston, the holy grail so to speak for many runners, and particularly John. He ran the first year as a bandit, and then soon qualified to run officially, breaking the 2:50 mark. He went on that year to run Boston in 2:50:52, which would be his best time ever there. The first year, however, was the most memorable. We had no idea if he could really do it. We knew Boston was a big race, but nothing prepared us for the scene at Hopkinton that morning. That was back in the day when you could find parking on a side street and didn’t get bused to the start. Once the race began, we hustled back to our car and headed down the highway to Wellesley. We got there a few minutes prior to the front runners arriving, marveling at the fast turn of their legs and the pace they were keeping. We delighted in seeing John and then ran to the car and made our way to Heartbreak Hill. Quick stop and on to Boston. We made it there with moments to spare and saw John making his way down Hereford Street. In spite of the crowd, in spite of the police officers, his father broke through the sidelines and jumped into the street, snapping a picture that he would be proud of for the rest of his life – his son finishing the Boston Marathon.

It wasn’t all fun or excitement, of course.

That same exhilarating finish at Boston was followed by a period of vomiting, as a little boy sat nearby on the sidewalk, playing with Hot Wheels cars.

A lot of it was drudgery. Rubbing his sore legs almost every night. Black toe nails. Cortisone shots. Sitting patiently in the lower level of Bill Rodgers’ store at Faneuil Hall while he tried on one pair of shoes after another, jogging up and down the stairs. John walking downstairs backwards for at least a day after a marathon, particularly interesting when we lived on the 3rd floor.

When I got home last night, I pulled down one of the old running albums and started looking at pictures, many of them nearly 30 years ago, some even more. John was young and strong. His legs were so muscled, and his arms as well. He looked confident, happy, and there were many pictures of us together, leaning close, smiling, clearly enjoying the moment. There are pictures of John with laurel wreaths and trophies, some with our oldest son, just a toddler then, clutching a trophy as if he had won it himself. My daughter’s first real outing at just a week old was to a 4th of July race and her father won the race that day.

I looked through the album, smiling at first, remembering so many wonderful times. Hot weekends at the Cape for the Falmouth Road Race, the runner’s expo during marathon weekend in Boston, carb-loading down in Newport (do you want ½ lb of pasta or a lb for dinner?), staying at a magical inn up in Maine, and my son running next to his father on a track, a little Boston Marathon t-shirt and a smile as he reveled in doing what his dad loved so much.

Then I focused on now. I thought about back then and where the road led from there. I remembered when John’s foot started dragging. When the physician’s assistant said he just needed new running shoes. Me saying what he needed was a neurologist’s appointment. The diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. The crippling disability soon to come.

But John still ran, as long as he could move. He even had opportunity to run in a local race, at a much slower pace than he once did, with his oldest son, who was in high school at the time. They had come a long way from the little boy running next to his dad on the track.

John’s judgment became impaired as his illness progressed. Sleep often eluded him, and he would leave the house in the middle of the night and go for a run, not the best plan even for someone in good physical shape. We seldom knew he was gone, although he would tell me the next day of coyotes running nearby as he ran through the paths in the woods at two and three a.m.

One night, John wandered the house, restless and unable to fall back to sleep. He spent time online, and neglected to disconnect before leaving the house to run. This was back in the day when our internet access was via dial-up. He had a cell phone with him as he began his run through the trails. The medication which helped him move wore off while he ran. He couldn’t run any more, and eventually, he couldn’t even walk. As he tried to call home, at about 3 a.m., our phone line was busy, busy, busy because the computer was still online. Finally, he called one of his brothers, who lived a town a way. He called the police in our town, which was how I found out he was out there, in the cold, stuck somewhere in the woods. A short while later, the police returned with John, and while it wasn’t one of the last times he did such a thing, it certainly was one of the most memorable.

I closed the photo album tearfully. It hurts to see what once was and what is now. I think of John living in a nursing home. His legs, once so strong, are often rigid, difficult to maneuver or simply move. He has electrodes that attach to his brain, the result of deep brain stimulation surgery that has allowed him to take far less medication and move more freely. The effects of many, many years of strong medication, a nefarious progressive illness and significant cognitive issues have taken their toll on him.

His father gave him a picture many years ago, the day before we got married in fact, of that very first Boston Marathon finish, his hands held high, and a smile on his face; triumphant, joyful – and it was all captured beautifully in that one shot. It’s a large picture, perhaps 16 X 20. His father brought it to him in the nursing home, hanging it on the wall. I often wondered what John thought when he looked at it. Did he feel bitter about what he had lost, or simply grateful of what he once did? Is it a daily reminder of what he can no longer do, or a celebration of how much he was able to do? I still don’t know.  I asked him once, but it wasn’t a conversation that he seemed to be interested in pursuing.

John’s not interested in much these days. His life has become very small, and I grieve for what I wish could be for him. Our daughter has begun to run. Her husband runs, too, and seems to be leaning toward long-distance.  My oldest son no longer runs, but his fiancé does. They all will be running a race together soon, and my two younger sons will run as well. When I told John, his face lit up, something we don’t see happen much. We often talked about what it might be like someday for him to run with his children. He may not be running with them, but he’ll certainly be on the sidelines, cheering as loud as he can, enjoying the race atmosphere once again.

Although he often has trouble walking, he told me sometimes he still runs in his dreams.

 08.23.17: This was written in 2012, and at that time, I had no idea just five years later, we’d lose John, for good. He passed away on February 22, 2017 after a 20+ year battle with Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia.

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