(Or, The Not-So-Old Lady and the Asphalt)
The Valentine’s Day sunrise threw rainbow flames over the East Bay. I caught a glimpse of the light show as I drove and, although I was running behind schedule, I made a u-turn at the nearest pullout on Mt. Tam’s Panoramic Highway and headed back to the opening between the conifer branches from whence I had glimpsed that ferocious light and color.
I knew this delay could greatly decrease my chances of finding a good – and free – place to park in San Francisco. And, I worried that the mad dash across the road might be the only running I’d do that day if a car came around the blind curve nearby and did me in (before I could do myself in, but more on that later). But, these risks were outweighed by compulsion: I had to take a quick photo of the sunlight’s fire splashed across the sky, overwhelming and vanquishing the night.
That sunrise was indeed auspicious – an early Valentine’s Day gift – and I quickly posted the photo to Instagram and Facebook sharing the gift with friends and family and letting them know I was on my way to participate in the 2016 Kaiser Permanente San Francisco Half Marathon in Golden Gate Park. It would be a race through the park to the eastern Panhandle back down to the western edge and along the Pacific Coast on the Great Highway and promised to be a beautiful run.
But, in my Facebook post, I also mentioned my concern about not preparing for the race as much as I would have liked. Unfortunately, due to a 2-week-long illness, I’d not had a chance to break in my new trainers and the farthest distance I had hiked or walked was 7 miles, way less than the 13.1 miles I planned to walk/jog that morning, in as close to 3 hours as possible.
After circling the neighborhood north of Golden Gate Park, I found a parking spot three blocks from the starting line on Balboa and 12th Ave. It’s a great accomplishment to find a free unlimited parking spot in San Francisco on a Sunday morning! So many SF residents are home at that time taking up most of the available parking. The default would have been to pay to park (???$$$!!!) in the underground parking beneath the Academy of Sciences. Free is better in my book unless parking in the City is absolutely impossible. Too often, it absolutely is.
But, not today! So, already feeling triumphant and in the company of other race participants who parked on the street – many already wearing their race numbers – I found my way to the starting line not far from the DeYoung Museum, one of Golden Gate Park’s many treasures. Pumping music; the palpable anticipation of thousands of runners stretching, jogging in place, adjusting ear buds; and sunbeams reaching down to us through clouds produced a sense of high pre-race jubilation.
But, ominously, the twinges of a shin splint were already brewing in the front of my right ankle. The pain was merely mildly distracting at that point, so, even though I knew I would be walking/jogging the entire 13.1 miles in a bit of pain, I quieted the logical, reasonable, and sane voice inside my head asking me to consider not participating, and joined the other back-of-the-pack racers.
Once the race started it took we slower ones a full five minutes to cross the starting line, there were that many racers:
But we made it!
Shortly out of the starting line, I stopped to take a photo of the park’s Strybing Arboretum, its sun-kissed facade just beginning to dazzle amidst the surrounding greenery and golden flowers.
My family sent text messages:
Brother: I’m with ya…
Daughter Jacque: Have a blast! See you soon!
Daughter’s boyfriend Greg: Go Renate!!!
Sister-in-law Kelly: You go girl!!!!
It was fun to run around the eastern edge of the park (AKA “the Panhandle”), on Fell and Oak, San Francisco streets usually loaded with traffic. Even at this early point in the race, during only the first two miles my right shin was already increasingly complaining. But, ahead of me on Fell Street, a runner was carrying a U.S. flag, the sight of which spurred me on. And, as I neared him and saw what his t-shirt said – “Team Trauma” – and realized the limping young man with the spastic arm swing and identical t-shirt running next to him, obviously running in spite of the effects of traumatic injuries – a soldier? – I was humbled and said to myself, “If he can do this after what he’s been through and if his partner can carry a (not-small) flag the entire way, then I can certainly keep going, too.”
I rounded Broderick and headed west on Oak Street…
back toward the Park and the Great Highway and the Pacific Ocean.
The mile 2 marker greeted me along with some encouraging volunteers.
My shin splint ached with troubling persistence, but a woman jogging not far from me unwittingly encouraged me when I heard these words from her, “We’ve all got something, don’t we?” She was responding to another runner who had asked how she was holding up and how her leg was doing.
We’ve all got something, don’t we? We’ve all got an injury or pain or something we’re struggling through while we continue on. And, the prize is in the continuing on.
Again, if others who were hurting could hold steady in this race, so could I.
We re-entered the park.
Most of the runners were far ahead by now but there were plenty manning the rear with me, working hard, sweating.
A slogan on a t-shirt helped me…
as did seeing the names of our local beloved professional basketball team – the Golden State Warriors – on another…
(I think every man , woman, boy, and girl in the San Francisco Bay Area has a crush on Steph Curry. He’s almost super-human in his athletic ability. Not to mention, he’s hot, as my daughter – and I! – would say. The Dubs are on fi-aaahhh! ADDENDUM June 2016: we still love them even though they lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the finals last week.)
We passed the Japanese Tea Garden, which is a beautiful pocket within a beautiful park. It is the oldest public Japanese garden in the United States and has a smattering of wonderful examples of Japanese architecture and, of course, the gardens. And, there’s a nice little outdoor cafe where you can have a cup of matcha tea which will make you feel strong. (I could have used a cup at that moment!)
We passed the entrance to the De Young Museum with its dancing statues which inspire movement and freedom and…encouraged me.
The California Academy of Sciences, situated right across from the DeYoung, has seven museums in one, and they call me back to visit regularly.
(When – not if, but when – you visit San Francisco, make a point of spending some time at the Academy of Sciences. Go meet Claude, the 20yr old albino alligator and say “Hi” to Lemondrop for me. He’s the 15-foot long reticulated albino python who is as bright yellow as his moniker suggests!)
I saw quite a few racers pause to take a photo of the Rainbow Falls along John F. Kennedy Drive.
(Stopping for photo-ops is just one of the perks of being back-of-the-packers!)
Miles 5 and 6 carried us along the length of JFK Drive
and down to the western edge of the park, and its iconic windmill,
and on to the Great Highway and Pacific Ocean.
This was roughly the halfway point and, thus far, the beauty and diversions in the park had kept me from focusing too much on my increasingly sore shin. I had been looking forward to reaching the ocean thinking that on this leg (bad pun) of the race I would have the beauty and rush of the sea to urge me on. But, I’d forgotten that sand dunes separate the Great Highway from Ocean Beach for large swaths. So, what lay before me for the last half of the race was dunes for miles on my right, returning runners on my left, and hard and unforgiving asphalt beneath my feet, and my right shin now began to scream inexorably.
And, at this point, both feet decided to join in the clamor…traitors.
I sent a message to family:
9 miles. Hurting.
They answered back:
Sister-in-law Kristine: That’s a good pace. Keep it up!! We feel ya!
Greg: Beer is near
Brother: Go Go Go!!!! But Go Slow Slow Slow…..
And, Santiago, the old man who fought a marlin and won…and lost…and yet, perhaps ultimately won, began invading my thoughts.
It was during this never-ending Great Highway stretch that I began to seriously question why I was willingly continuing this masochistic exercise. I was not in competition. Nothing was seemingly at stake. And, the pain was so, so great. What was wrong with me anyway??? What was I trying to prove???
I became much less of a tourist at this point. Walking became more painful than jogging for some reason. There seemed to be fewer volunteers to cheer us on during this stretch of the race (although the ones who were there were incredibly supportive and so appreciated) and the mile-markers seemed strangely to grow farther and farther apart. It was a slog, pure and simple. I sent another group text message but directed it at my daughter, Jacque, and her boyfriend, Greg, who were waiting at the finish for me: “Hurting. Ice.”
My brother responded:
How about ice cream??? That’s what I’d want, just saying…
I was acutely aware that most of the runners had finished the race by this time, but I tried not to think about it. Instead of growing closer, the finish line seemed further away the longer I jogged. The Great Highway became an evil, desolate place. I didn’t want to quit, but I so wanted the pain to be over – right now – but it wasn’t over, nor did it seem that it ever would be.
I slowed for water at the two drink stations along the Highway.
Hydration, I knew, was important. But, not running – stopping, for Heaven’s sake! – when you haven’t prepared and your shoes are not broken in and YOU ARE HURT seemed a much more logical and health-conscious strategy.
Still, I kept going. I wanted to see this through and I wanted to do it in about three hours. I did not want to give up.
But, oh, how I longed to give up!
Is that why I continued? Did I have such a heart, too? There was no other reason that came to mind. My heart said to continue; so I did. It made no more sense than that. The leg pain signaled that I was probably quite injured at this point. I could barely put one foot in front of the other. The “shin splint” was a much greater lacerating, stabbing agony now. Yet, just as the old man in Hemingway’s masterpiece was almost destroyed, almost defeated – certainly not triumphant – he simply just kept going. He made the conscious decision not to give up. Pain be damned.
What kind of a hand is that, he said. Cramp then if you want. Make yourself into a claw. It will do you no good. – The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
For, even with hands cramping, he still caught the marlin, didn’t he? (Even though both were ruined in the end, or so it seemed.)
I had two – albeit cramping – feet. And, I had a heart, flagging and wavering, ready every second to just stop. I began fantasizing about the SF Muni and taking a bus back to the finish.
But, instead, I focused on one step at a time, and kept faithful to that heart which wanted to give up and yet (for some strange reason) refused to do so.
And – finally, and quite less than triumphantly, and, yes, very nearly defeated – I did cross the finish line – in three hours and two minutes – and limped into my daughter’s and her boyfriend’s arms.
Sister-in-law Kristine: Yay!!! 13.1 !!!!
Jacque: She did it!
Sister-in-law Kristine: Yay, congrats!!
Sister-in-law Kelly: Yay!!!!
Brother: That’s so awesome! Now go and get some ice cream, you deserve it 🙂
Perhaps I just needed to finish it, to complete what seemed impossible for me. But, just like Santiago, who had Manolin, the young devoted boy waiting for him and whose love gave the old fisherman strength to go on, I had my family, supporting me the entire time, cheering me on, loving me, giving this humbled, not-so-old-lady the strength she needed to not completely falter and, if not to conquer the asphalt, to at least not let it conquer her.