Friday, October 31, 2014


I ran the Denver Rock N Roll Marathon last week. Upon finishing, I cried like a baby--partly in relief, triumph, and exhaustion, but mostly in pain. I staggered through the chute. I collapsed to the grass. I could barely move for fifteen minutes, or the next morning, or the next. But I finished the darn thing. Due to a bum hamstring, I was not in the peak physical condition I had envisioned. My time (4:04 hrs) was impossibly far from my goal of 3:30 hrs, which had seemed tantalizingly within reach only weeks previously.

But I finished it. It is done.

The marathon was the overarching physical goal for this 40th year spiritual quest, the goal around which all other goals have revolved, in preparation, excitement, and focus. Mind, body, spirit are all one thing, right? And so like other spiritual practices, I anticipated that extreme physical stress would create the conditions for spiritual enlightenment.

Except enlightenment didn't come in any definable way. No pillar of light, burst of inspiration, or burning bush. As I limped to the finish, the only thought was survival, the only sensation pain. The emotions were mixed: pride, disappointment, relief, loneliness, and empathy for my fellow runners. My wife, who had heroically completed the half marathon with a bad IT band just a little bit earlier, met me at the finish line. I leaned feebly into her, gasping, and collapsed. No angels that day, but I did have her.

For marathon runners, I understand it's not always this way, but often it is. This was my first one, and I've gathered that many have had similar experiences. The most dominant feeling at the finish line is pain. But unlike other physical and emotional pains I've had to endure, this time I was choosing with every step to prolong my agony. I could have stopped. But I make silly objectives like "never stop," and so I refused, against better judgment, to let my nervy clenched grinding numb legs stop moving. At one point, when I felt like I couldn't go a step further--and simultaneously realized with a gulp of terror that I still had eight miles to go--when my time goal had become unreachable and was dropping precipitously further away by the minute, I thought that, Well, if I'm going to be in agony, I might as well get it over with quicker, and the only way to do that would be to speed up, right? But I couldn't do it. My legs were in some sort of involuntary rhythm, their pace fixed. I couldn't speed them up or stop them either. It was close to an out of body experience.

What was carrying me forward? Some silly goal? Pride? Fear? Why was I doing this?

To frame my motivations, I have to go back to the slopes of Kilimanjaro. In February of 2012, Elizabeth and I joined a trek up Kilimanjaro, to raise money for the Sega Girls School in Tanzania. The invitation to join came while I was recovering from kidney cancer, and Kili was on my bucket list. A perfect combination of factors inspired us to say yes: a brush with mortality that begged for celebration, a bucket list item, a worthy cause we believed in, a physical challenge to motivate our exercise routines, and overall a joint outrageous goal that we sensed would bring us together and help organize and focus all of our physical, financial, and social activities for a solid year. This occurred not long after we left the LDS Church, and we needed something to aim for.

It worked. We had a fantastic year preparing. We hiked throughout the winter in Colorado, saved money, bought gear and plane tickets, and raised $10,000 through a 5K race and an online drive (we paid our own way, and all of the fundraising went directly to the school).

When we got to Africa and met our team, we were by far the youngest people on the trek and we had the added advantage of being from Colorado, when most of the rest were from sea level. We were in great shape. At the base of that monolithic mountain, the sky seemed the limit. The hike went perfectly, until on day four, at our 14,100 ft acclimatization camp at spectacular Mawenzi Tarn, I developed a headache, then a cough, and then within 24 hours I became severely ill.  My oxygen level dropped to 73%; my heart rate was 130 at rest. I borrowed a stethoscope and heard wet crackles throughout both lungs, the kind I've only heard before on patients with end stage congestive heart failure. I couldn't speak a full sentence without being winded.

I knew the score, but in a somewhat clouded frame of mind, I protested. Elizabeth spoke wisdom: "Our kids won't care if you touch the top of this mountain, but they will care if you die trying." I threw in the towel. I was carried off the mountain on a stretcher, on oxygen. Due to a pinky swear that Elizabeth and I had made prior to the trek, she continued onward, and eventually triumphed.

But while she went up, I went down. The cure for high altitude pulmonary edema is simple: get off the mountain. At a hospital at the base, my chest X-ray showed a left sided white out, but my oxygen climbed back to 93%. I recuperated in the hotel for three days while the rest of the group completed the climb, me staring mournfully at the summit that eluded me. So close but yet so far. The trip was still spectacular, but I left with the knowledge that my body had failed me at the doorstep of my dream.

And so, when I pulled my hamstring three weeks before this race during a fifteen mile training run, I felt intense disappointment. I also felt embarrassed, and afraid. On one level, I knew that it wasn't my fault, and I knew it didn't really matter in any ultimate way. This was not a referendum on my character. Injuries happen, and they happen more often to forty year old bodies. Plus, nobody really cared about this marathon but me. Nobody would think less of me if I didn't meet my goal or complete the race, and besides, if they did, then what would I care?

But on a physical and visceral level, this hurt. I was getting older. When would I ever be this young, or this fit, or this motivated again? I feel that more and more now: the ticking clock. I don't really fear it, but I find I kind of resent it. Who is this guy Father Time who's trying to tell me what I can't do? Mostly, I feared that if I didn't complete this marathon, I would be establishing an irreversible pattern for these bucket list goals: my body failing me at the threshold. A willing heart, but weak flesh.

All of that circulated through my mind at the starting line. I had rested my hamstring, done yoga, stretching, physical therapy, dry needling (ouch!), massage, ice, heat, ibuprofen, and mostly rest, and then for the final week I had done nothing. Trust your cardio fitness, my runner brother and friends told me, but rest your legs. You can't run without two legs.

So on a chilly autumn morning before sunrise, as we waited in a ridiculously long port-a-potty line, I tested my leg. Stretched, twisted, jumped. It felt pretty good. But because I hadn't run in a week, I didn't know how it would respond to running. I made it to my corral just prior to the gun, and then I was off with the mob. My strategy was to take the first two miles a full two minutes slower than my planned pace so that I could ease into it. But in the thick of the crowd, that seemed way too slow. I wanted to get out ahead of some people. I was feeling good. I picked up the pace. No problem. Then we hit the first hill at about the 3.5 mile mark.

Tweak. I felt my left hamstring grab. Just a bit, but a flood of worry washed over me. I had over 22 miles to go. I'd spent a lot of time thinking about the psychology of this moment, how would I respond if the injury reared its ugly head? I was somewhat ready. I backed off the pace, I focused on maintaining an even stride. I "breathed into" my legs. Yoga breaths. Imagined lava orange fire seeping healing power into my hammy. It seemed to work. The grab was still there, but manageable, and once I got to the top of the hill, I felt it relax.

So I picked up the pace again. So far so good.  At mile seven, after another small hill, I felt it grab again, this time in my calf, too. More breathing. Seemed okay. At mile ten I felt a new and ominous pain in my left anterior hip. I suddenly had a hitch in my gait. Not good. For the next mile I considered, with a sense of utter failure, that I might have to bail at the halfway point. (The course loops back on itself at the half point. By the way, the course was totally amazing. A tour of all things Denver: Civic Center, Convention Center, Auraria, Pepsi Center, Broncos' Stadium, Coors Field, Downtown, City Park and Zoo, Capital Building, and Wash Park.) But as I approached the congested mid portion of the course, the crowd swelled, the bands rocked, people cheered, and on the flat stretch my legs felt almost okay. I was at the halfway point. All I had to do was . . . do this all over again. Tough, but doable. I pushed on.

By the time I got to City Park, I was in substantial pain. Up until that point, I had been within striking distance of my desired pace. But it got away from me in a hurry. Instead of passing people, now I was being passed. Fortunately or not, my Garmin GPS watch ran out of juice at that point, so I no longer had the direct awareness of my decreasing pace, but neither did I have that burr in my saddle. By mile eighteen, as the course looped back toward the central area and crossed the capitol steps, I was in severe pain. Eight more miles to go. I referenced my training runs in my head. That's not so long, I thought. I can't quit now. Then I'd have to do this again some day. Better just to bite the bullet and grind this baby out. I can do this. But remember: never stop.

Never stop, indeed. The next eight miles were endless, and became pure agony. The pain in my hip passed from severe to excruciating, and I couldn't figure out why. Probably because I was compensating in some way for my hamstring, thus putting unexpected stresses on my hip flexors. But how the hell was that going to help me now? This is the point where things became involuntary and clouded. My feet actually went numb. Why? I didn't have a clue. I began to feel emotional. I tried lamely to encourage the other runners I encountered, some having pulled out to walk, other trudging on past me. But I sounded less like a cheerleader and more like a mortally wounded soldier whispering to his comrades to press on, and tell Lizzy I always loved her.

The killer thing about it was that it lasted so long. It seemed like a hundred miles. It was late morning now and the sun was hot. I had no idea of my time. People lined the streets and cheered generically (which I truly appreciated), but no one actually cared about me, knew my name, could fathom my motivations, could understand my pain and disappointment, could applaud my tenacity, or cajole me to man up and press on. The bystanders cheered for the human race, for the multitudes, for the spectacle of sport and achievement, but not for me. Except for one person, a beautiful woman I hoped had survived her race and would be waiting for me at finish line, a line that I began to think may be fiction.

Eventually, the crowd and band noise began to swell. The buildings grew taller, and I could see the finish. I had imagined at this point I would feel an adrenaline surge, but that tank was dry. As I rounded the final corner, I heard my name for the first time: "Mark! Good job, Mark!" I turned around but couldn't find her in the crowd. I staggered across the finish and for the first time in 26.2 miles, I stopped.

I frightened myself by the strange gasping quality of my breathing, punctuated by sobs. It all seemed rather dramatic, except that in the melee of other finishers, not a soul among thousands was paying attention. This was what Mr. Mark Foster looked like in extremis, maxed out and beyond, and I was alone in the boisterous sea of humanity. I propped myself up against a fence until Elizabeth came limping up towards me. I leaned into her and wept, separated by bars.

After that we made our way to grass, where I collapsed to the ground and lay still, nearly unable to move my rigid joints when I tried to rise fifteen minutes later.  Brain sending signals, limbs not responding. Then the mile long walk back to the car, then home for a shower and an afternoon of football and laying motionless on the couch.

To my great surprise, I have recovered much quicker than I thought. It's now two weeks later, and I've got minimal pain, even went on a 3 mile jog yesterday. Hot tubs have been good to me. Yoga, too.

And so here's the obvious metaphor: Life is a race, man. There's a ticking clock. We race together. We race alone. The distance is arbitrary. (Favorite sign on the course: "Why 26.2 miles? Because 26.3 is CRAZY!") We invent the goal and busy ourselves with achieving it. We move the goal posts when our physical limitations demand it. If we're lucky, we may have one person among billions who cares as deeply for us as for herself, who will call out our name at the finish, and hold onto us when we can no longer stand.

And when we've finally pushed ourselves to the absolute extreme, when we call out to some deep inner well of soul power that is as vulnerable as it is strong, we only hope that it echoes back to us at the finish line, "Well done, dude. I love you."

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