An excruciating ecstasy I can’t describe. That’s how I experienced the final mile of my first half marathon.
Besides spurting chocolate GU on my face and my hands at mile seven and stopping for a minute to clean myself off with two cups of water, and besides seeing the majestic Mount Rainier rising before me in the distance, the first 12 miles of the race passed the same way most of my running miles pass: Slow, fairly steady, occasional emotional shots of joy and gratitude at being able to run free, moments of relaxation as I hit patches of rhythm, anxiousness as I felt tightness in my muscles, moments of an empty mind dispersed among a circus of generally chaotic and obsessive thoughts.
I engaged in this race with the few simple commitments: To finish it, to have fun and to relax as much as possible. I had tapered my training for two weeks and had rested well the few days before the race. The first 10 miles felt about like any other long run I’d been on, maybe a little easier. Throughout the race I thanked just about every police officer and volunteer standing along the course. I felt genuinely grateful that all these folks had risen early on a Saturday morning and stood out on the roads to ensure all us runners could enjoy a safe run and stay on course. But my incessant “thank yous” must have gotten annoying for the folks running near me. Oh well.
I generally ran the whole race in a great mood. I felt happy to be alive, grateful for my body’s amazing anatomy and physiology and for the beautiful weather, and excited to pursue a tough goal I had never yet achieved. I also had great music playing in my ear buds.
During the majority of the run I listened to my Big Lebowski Mix. This mix consists of two 46-minute tracks, each one seamlessly mixed with songs linked together in a peculiar musical journey. Between most tracks I had mixed in classic audio clips from the movie The Big Lebowski. My favorite movie by a long shot, The Big Lebowski occupies a special, deeply ingrained space in my consciousness. To make the mix I had recorded the entire audio of the movie onto a minidisc (I made the mix back in about 2001) and then chopped the audio down into dozens of awesome dialogue snippets, each saved as an individual track. I then used my four-channel DJ mixer, dual CD player and two minidisc players to mix and record two tape-length tracks. Each of these long tracks includes an eclectic collection of songs that I’d selected based on music I had been listening to at the time. I selected some songs based on a general relevance to the themes of the movie that my mind somehow discerned. Other songs I picked simply because I had really enjoyed listening to them recently.
The end result is a mix that practically defines the word “eclectic.” And I created the entire mix with an intense focus on the transitions between songs and audio clips. Before making the final mix I noted the length of time of each song’s intro and outro instrumentals and the length of each audio clip from the movie. I sequenced the audio clips in a clever way and molded the song choices around the clips based on the fit of musical and movie themes and the way the audio pieces fit together. This was my best mix ever.
I’m providing this riveting background on The Big Lebowski Mix so I can explain an important aspect of my race: Every time an audio clip from The Big Lebowski came on between a pair of songs, my face lit up, my mood lightened and my step grew more springy. It wasn’t simply the humor of the lines and the images they brought up, but the juxtaposition of those lines with the current moment of my life. Each line spoken by The Dude, Walter, Donny, The Jesus or Maud shook me out of my obsessive thoughts about my footfall, my kickback, my tightly held core or my stride rate and reminded me to enjoy life and to smile. And I smiled. I smiled like an idiot almost the entire run. I can only imagine the curious thoughts passing through observers’ brains as they saw me plod along with a silly grin across my face. But I didn’t care. I really didn’t care because I was grateful to be alive, and living it up was all that mattered.
So, besides a little syrupy chocolate GU on my chin and cheeks surround my smiling mouth, the first 10 miles of the half marathon passed uneventfully for me.
When I hit the mile 11 marker I reminded myself that with every step I took I was running further than I ever had before. That thought, combined with my simple commitment to finish, helped me push up the rolling hills that made up miles 10 and 11. Near the end of a long hill I turned a corner onto a short flat straightaway and I saw the mile 12 marker. It was there just 100 yards away, but up a steep hill. I almost cursed aloud at the race planners as I started climbing up that hill, laughing at the same time at the absurdity of my tired legs still pumping. I relaxed as best I could, shortened my stride, leaned forward and just kept going. Somehow I kept going. And at the top of the hill I turned left, wrapping around the mile 12 marker and looking at a long straightaway that led to the final descent to the finish line. Wowza! Here it was. The last mile. I had kept it up through 12 miles already and now I just had one more mile, 9 or 10 more minutes of slow running and I’d have completed the race.
This is the point where the “excruciating” part of “excruciating ecstasy” kicked in. As I tried to get into a rhythm moving along this last mile my left hamstring started to Charlie horse slightly. At first it happened just slightly after every 20 steps or so and I was able to fend off further cramps by shortening and relaxing my stride. But half way through the final mile both my hamstrings and my quadriceps started cramping with every few steps. I started sort of hopping, shaking and dancing along as I ran, trying to loosen up my legs. That didn’t help much, except that in accompanying my wide grin it strengthened my village idiot appearance.
Since I couldn’t shake the Charlie horses in my upper legs I stopped for a moment to stretch. As soon as I pulled my right foot back behind my right bun to stretch my quad, my right hamstring clenched into a spastic Charlie horse, sending a shriek of pain through my nerves. I immediately dropped my foot back to the ground and bent over forward to stretch out my hamstring. As I stretched forward my quadriceps seized up. I stood straight back up and starting hop-shaking forward again.
“Holy crap” I thought to myself. I can’t stretch and I can’t stop the cramps. That meant I had one option. I just started running again. I kept running and with every other step I felt a Charlie horse grab some muscle in my thighs. And I kept running. With these jarring, stumbling steps I had trouble getting back into a rhythm, but I just kept moving forward. I couldn’t stop. I just had to keep moving.
I turned my head up to the sky as I ran, almost as if to look as far away from the pain as possible. And as I neared the final turn of the race, a 240 degree jackknife turn towards the finish line, I just started laughing. I couldn’t believe the absurdity of my situation. I laughed, smiled, howled a little from the pain and hop-shook-ran forward. I just had to surrender to the craziness of a run where every step caused a cramp and there was no escape. There was only running on towards the finish line.
And then the ecstasy.
As I approached the crowds I realized I was just about there. Now as an aside, I have plenty of friends (and a few family members) who have run much farther and much faster than I ran on this cool, sunny day. Compared to the runners I see profiled in running magazines, this 13.1 mile jaunt of mine could barely count as an easy recovery run. But this was MY run! This was MY first half marathon. This was farther than I’d ever run, farther than I’d ever thought I could run up until about three months ago. I was the champion today, the champion for myself, of my own life and that’s how I started to run.
I started picking up a little speed, with the Charlie horses still nipping at my leg muscles. Then all of a sudden I just opened up. My body opened up and my feet grew wings. The tight, heavy feeling in my hips and legs dissolved and my entire body felt like one light, powerful force, flying forward. After that excruciating last mile I magically started sprinting, passing runners on my left and right, legs turning over in long, light strides. I raised my hands in the air and smiled as big as I ever have in my life. I crossed the finish line with a wave of euphoria flowing through every cell. I wasn’t sore. I wasn’t tired. I wasn’t out of breath. I was a champion!
And then I started dancing.
Yes. I started dancing.
“Crazy” by Knarles Barkley came on in my ear buds and I just started dancing. I move as quickly as I could away from the crowd because even in this blissful state I understood how crazy I looked. But I just kept dancing. I danced out of happiness, pure joy in that moment of achievement. I danced because I worried that if I stopped moving my legs would seize up again. I danced just because. And it felt good. And I kept dancing and I was amazed at how much energy I had after having just run 13.1 miles. Wow! I just danced.
The song came to an end as I saw my lovely parents-in-law emerging from the crowd to come find me. I sort of kept dancing and moving a little as they congratulated and hugged me. Wow. I couldn’t believe I’d finished. I couldn’t believe I’d sprinted across the finish line. I couldn’t believe sprinting felt so good. I couldn’t believe the pure joy that was coursing through my every cell.
For the next half hour I danced, stretched, bounced, whooped and hollered and I enjoyed this tremendous joy and gratitude. I am so familiar with life lived in my mind, assessed, controlled, even-keeled. But in these moments I just lived out loud, in the moment, fully emerged in the sensations of my experience.
I felt acutely alive. I felt unbridled, accomplished and happy. I couldn’t quite believe that I’d made it through that last mile or that I’d sprinted through the finish. I didn’t try to think it through, but instead just drank it in.
This was my first half marathon, something I signed up for just because. I figured that since I’d run a few 5Ks and a 10K I might as well aim for the next big beast in the food chain. Today, two days after, I have no specific plans to run another half marathon. I don’t find it particularly enjoyable to run long distances. I still don’t really feel like a runner. But I can already see how I may find myself chasing this feeling of being so fully alive, pursuing this excruciating ecstasy again, working towards another champion moment.