The Ambulance Men

This was originally written as a part of my Team in Training fund drive.  The epic battle that was my first 5k occurred sometime in May, 2006. Possibly April. I’ve blacked out the details.

 

ambulance men

Two ambulance men. Not MY ambulance men, but a close enough approximation thereof.

I did not think I would be writing to you again so soon, but here I am, already in the homestretch! So many of you have contributed, and if I were able to do math, I could impress you all with the incredibly high percentage rate of contributors. Alas, I cannot. But let me just tell you, anecdotal evidence suggests a very high percentage rate!

This morning, as I slowly ran my way through eight miles around Furman University, watching the marathoners streak away into the distance in their tight black running pants, I reflected upon the generosity of my friends and family, and how this experience has been a journey.

In case any of you were curious, and had a lot of time on your hands – because, let’s be honest, I write even more than I talk – I thought I’d share with you how this all started in the first place.

Last January, I attended my company’s employee appreciation party, and there they unveiled a Wellness program that had some nice rewards attached to it. I went directly from there to the Biltmore Estate where I had a vacation package and roughly 40,000 calories of food waiting for me. I also weighed myself while there. Now, if I were able to do math, I could tell you how much weighed. Alas, I cannot count that high.

Upon my return I promptly tried to lose as much weight as possible before meeting with Jeff Thompson, our Wellness manager, who I suspected would try to weigh me. He did. He then said he’d think over my situation. The next week he sat me down and said, “Carrie, I have three goals for you. Before the end of the year, run in a 5k, a 10k, and then a half-marathon.”

It goes without saying I was deeply concerned for Jeff’s mental health, for obviously he was insane. I do not run. It is not something I do. And yet there was Jeff, optimistically handing me a sheet with a run/walk schedule that would get me to the point where I could run 20 minutes without stopping.  When I began, I could not run any longer than one minute. (Did I mention my cholesterol has dropped 50 points in the last year? Yeah…I was, you know, a little bit out of shape. Not a lot, or anything. Just a little.)

Before I knew it it was May, and time for my 5k. Jeff had picked out a “Take Back the Night” run around the Clemson University campus. Only we were going to be taking back the night at 8:30 in the morning. He kindly offered to be there to support me. “NO,” I said, accidentally almost yelling it. Like a wounded animal that slinks off into the woods to die, I preferred to be alone during my time of suffering. 

I had worked up to three miles in the area around my house, which is as flat as Kansas. I nervously arrived at the run, immediately got lost in the search for the start, and stupidly followed signs for the event for a mile before realizing I was following the course itself. Retracing my steps, I found the sign-up area, where a handful of people were milling around. They were frightening people in spandex and aggressively sleek eyewear. It is possible they were from the future.

I got in line for my number, but was immediately accosted by a woman. “The line is behind me!” she snarled into my face. Her boyfriend got behind her and shouted, “You go, Trish!”

“Am I going to get into a fight?” I thought. “Am I going to have to get into a fistfight and then run 3 miles? I don’t know if I’m up for that.” Thankfully, Trish and her cheerleader decided it wasn’t worth coming to fisticuffs over it. I wandered away, deeply grateful that at least I had my iPod. My little iPod shuffle had become my aural gasoline, fueling my gasping efforts to run the flat little loop around my house. It would be my lifesaver. I turned it on.

And it died.

After struggling with the desire to run home instead of running the course, I refocused, and remembered my battle plan – let all the runners go on, then I’d follow them, so that I could float in the in-between land between the runners and the walkers. My thoughts were interrupted by a woman making announcements, “…and an ambulance will be following the slowest runners…” to the woman’s surprise and mine, an arrogant snicker came up from the people from the future, in their spandex and aggressive eyewear. I tried to look inconspicuous.

The gun went off and I waited and waited and waited, until there were only walkers. I set off at a jog, and immediately realized I’d waited too long – everyone was walking in front of me! What the heck did they think they were doing, running 100 feet and stopping? I weaved my way through the pack, and as I did so, the ambulance got a bead on me. The ambulance men discovered that there was not a pack of slowest runners, there was just the slowest runner, singularly speaking, and that was me.

For the first mile I resented the ambulance lapped onto my flank like a remora suctioned onto the side of a whale shark, but even more I resented the sorority girls who could not decide if they were running or walking. Endlessly they’d sprint past me, get tired, walk, then I’d pass them, and the whole process would begin again. I think they deeply, deeply resented being passed by me.

Two miles ticked by, and I thought, wow! This is great! I could do this all day! Fantastic!

And then the third mile hit. The brilliant planners of this event charted the final mile as follows – from the Esso Club to Death Valley Stadium to Tillman Hall.

Steep Hill

This is a photo of the actual hill that precedes Tillman Hall.

For those of you unfamiliar with Clemson, that route would read as follows – from steep to steeper to suicidally steep.

Within a 1/16 of a mile I was done for. I took a walk step.

“KEEP GOING!” hollered a deep, masculine voice. “DON’T STOP!”

It was the ambulance men.

I started running again.

“WE’VE BEEN ROOTING FOR YOU THE ENTIRE TIME!”

The path became steeper still, I slowed even more.

I then heard a strange, click, click and the whine of a P.A. system turning on.

Surely not, thought I.

And then the crackling voice of the ambulance men, magnified 100 times.

“KEEP GOING! YOU CAN DO IT!”

I will grant the ambulance men this. It is quite impossible to stop running once the ambulance men decide that you’re going to keep running.

When it became apparent that I would make it to the finish line, the ambulance men raced on ahead and jumped out, so that they might give me high fives as I entered the rope tunnel thing that foot races have at the end of them. The ambulance men clapped and said, “that’s pure determination right there!” (Actual, verbatim quote.)

I looked up ahead to see my time on the giant, electric light board. The time read 39 minutes, and seconds were ticking.

“YOU CAN MAKE IT UNDER FORTY!” the ambulance men shouted. And then:

“RUN!”

And, by God, I ran. Somewhere I found the ability to sprint home, reaching the finish line before the clock hit forty.

If I was able to do math I could divide 3.1 into 39 and give you my average mile time, but I think it will suffice it to say that it was slow. But apparently, ladies and gentlemen, I am pure determination, which is something in and of itself.

BOTASTIC!

Last weekend was the Cooper River Bridge Run. Let me whet your appetite on how it went. It involved a man named BOTASTIC, hitting mile marker one at exactly the 57 minute mark, and the three wolf moon t-shirt.  (If you are unfamiliar with the three wolf moon t-shirt I’d advise reading the product review comments on Amazon.)

Previously, BOTASTIC was known only as Bo. This was before I renamed him. BOTASTIC is so much more descriptive. Here is a list of things BOTASTIC did for me and my cohorts for the Cooper River Bridge Run:

  • Booked us a lovely hotel room with his Hilton points
  • Picked up our run packets
  • Checked us in advance
  • Lovingly placed run packets in the room
  • Along with a darling drawing by his daughter
  • Met us at the hotel as we arrived
  • Made fabulous dining recommendations
  • Escorted our entire party to the shuttle
  • Generally held our hands through the entire process.
Cooper River Bridge Run

Imagine if they were all brain eating zombies.

And let me tell you, it’s a process. With 40,000 runners and who knows how many people running bandit, the Cooper River Bridge Run is, in many ways, an ordeal. To the credit of the City of Charleston, things ran smoothly. That said, with so many people, had it not been for BOTASTIC I am sure we would have run into plenty of headaches.

One thing BOTASTIC could not shield me from was the mind numbing cold. It was so. unbelievably. cold. I don’t know what the temp was, but it was a long, slow, cold walk to the start, and a long, slow, wait at the start for the race to begin. And I was dressed to run. I was to later learn I was destined to be cold the entire day. Little did I know the dreamed of warmth was never going to happen for me. Oh, Charleston, land of a million blistering suns, why the surprise freeze?

The other thing BOTASTIC couldn’t shield me from was my own stupidity. I woke up feeling dehydrated, so I drank tons and tons of water. When the clock finally struck 8am, I had to go. BADLY. Like a herd of cattle the crowd bumped and pushed and plodded through the start. About a half mile down the road, BOTASTIC spotted a gas station. “Let’s duck in here!” he suggested, and we saw a couple of other people doing the same. We told the rest of our group we’d catch up and ran over to the store.

It was blissfully warm. And jam packed to the gills. I got in line. It was moving at a glacial pace. BOTASTIC suggested getting some coffee. That sounded fantastic. And then we saw some Hostess. BOTASTIC went for a fruit pie, and I had my eye on some cupcakes. I hadn’t had Hostess Cupcakes in years (they’re hard to find in the South), so let me add this to the bullet list:

  • Treated me to a coffee and Hostess while waiting in line at the gas station

BOTASTIC and I noticed the gal in front of me was wearing a Clemson shirt. I was wearing a Clemson hat. I discovered she lived in Clemson and worked in the admissions office there. “Oh,” I said, “you must know GOOCH!” I would explain who Jennifer Gooch is, but it would take a whole ‘nother post. Let’s just say she’s an icon. The gal, whose name I never did get, exclaimed, “I LOVE GOOCH!” I said, “who doesn’t love Gooch! Did she tell you about the time we almost burned her house down last Christmas?” The gal laughed. “Oh, you must be a poker girl!” As I took a sip of coffee and a bite of Hostess I said, “indeed I am!” Why, this was turning out to be the most pleasant race I’d ever been in! Just then the girl looked at her phone. “Somebody just won the race,” she told us. “A Kenyan in 28 minutes.”

Finally, we made it to the head of the line. As we rejoined the “race” a stab of fear hit us. There was the straggler van. On an empty street. Frightened we’d be forced to ride in the van of shame, we hustled our bustle. But we didn’t run. We had beverages, man. We reached mile marker one. It had taken us 57 minutes to get there.

Three Wolf Moon

A gift fit for a king.

We upped our pace dramatically. In fact, we started catching people and passing them. By the time we reached the bridge we were back in the thick of the race. Along the way, BOTASTIC kindly took my empty coffee cup and carried it a couple of miles, until we reached a trash can. BOTASTIC is a true Southern gentleman. At the end of the Cooper River Bridge Run I set a personal best in terms of my mile times. No, I never actually ran. I beat my personal best running time. At a walk. Awesome. 

Later that day I discovered the three wolf moon t-shirt, of which I knew BOTASTIC to be a devotee, and of course got it for him. Not an extravagant thank you, to be sure, but one I knew he’d appreciate. Luckily, he did not already have it.

Next year, my plan is to actually run. But, you know, that’s assuming I don’t hear the siren call of a bathroom, coffee and a Hostess cupcake again.

Slosh Tube

Nick Nolte

Me, at the end of my workout.

I have an indulgence. I don’t go to movies, I don’t go out to eat at fancy places, I don’t buy clothes, I generally spend as little as I possibly can. That said, last year when Evan’s company started to pay our gym membership, I was able to splurge on a most glorious bit of luxury. His name is Brian Dykstra.

When I first met Brian I was scared of him, as is everyone with some sense. He is tall and big and Danish-looking and would not be out of place at a cage match. He is also all guy. When I signed up to train with him I said, “do you want to take some metrics?” Brian said, “what do you mean?” I said, “well, you know, measurements and stuff?” Brian put his hands up in the air and said, “yeah, you can have your husband do that, if you want.” Over time I discovered that even though Brian looks like he could break your neck, he’s actually a really nice guy.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a story on this blog about meeting Peter Exline. Within that story I mentioned my “lifelong propensity to say cheeky, off-the-cuff comments” that got me into trouble. Whilst writing that sentence, I internally complimented myself. “You have gotten so much better about that!” I said to myself.

The very next day I had a training session with Brian. It was the usual full thirty minutes. I’d certainly sweated plenty, had my heart rate up the entire time. And yet, for some reason, this happened.

Me: Are you putting the weights away?

Brian: Yeah.

Me: No! I don’t even feel like I’m dying yet! I am seriously disappointed in this workout!

Brian turned to me. I suddenly remembered this guy could totally be a cage fighter. He said, in a voice from an 80’s action flick, “then you’re not finished yet.”

Confused by what just happened, my mind hit rewind, then play. There I was, saying the words, “I am seriously disappointed in this workout!” Why did I say that? Because it was true? No, not because it was true, but because I thought it would be a funny thing to say. I rewound the tape farther, to the day prior. “You’ve gotten so much better about making cheeky, off-the-cuff comments!” I’d said to myself. Back in the present I wondered, why? Why can’t you just shut up? You’re not funny! You’re not! WHEN WILL YOU LEARN?

I nervously started hopping around, wondering what was about to happen to me. I followed Brian downstairs, taking four strides for every one of his. “Ha ha! Are you going to punish me? Ha ha!” I kept asking. Brian didn’t say a word. He only nodded.

Slosh Pipe

I wonder what she said to her trainer?

That’s when he got out the slosh tube. Slosh tube, you say, that’s a funny sounding thing. How can anything called a slosh tube be bad? Let me describe a slosh tube for you. It is a pvc pipe longer than I am tall. It is about six inches in diameter. It is filled with water. When it is placed across your shoulders the water sloshes left then right and back again. It weighs 45 lbs.

We went over to the bleachers. These are not normal bleachers. They are bleachers made for giant people. The first step is almost hip high to me. Granted, I am 5’1″. So maybe not bleachers for giant people. Maybe just bleachers for normal people. Regardless, to me, they are tall. Brian took a seat on the top step and intoned, “25 step ups, left leg leading.” It went pretty well at first. And then it got hard. And then harder. And then really hard. And I really, really wanted to stop. After my first 25 Brian had me run laps. Then the second 25, right leg leading.

Right around my 45th slosh tube step up two things happened. Firstly, my appearance morphed from your typical workout look to something in the vicinity of a Nick Nolte mugshot. Secondly, I had this thought: Is my heart going to explode?

While I promised Brian I would never again call one of his workouts “seriously disppointing,” I’d be lying if I said doing the 50 slosh tube step ups wasn’t kind of awesome. Sure, it’s not something I’d like to do everyday, but it for my entertainment dollar it beats buying clothes and going out to the movies any day of the week.

Strange City Run

Of all the pros associated with running, arguably the pro-est of all is the first run in a strange city. It’s not everyday you get a first run somewhere new and it’s an experience to be savored, every step of the way.

 Somehow you wake up early, knowing the run is out there, waiting for you. You dress in the dark in the hotel room. Whoever you’re with will still be asleep when you return. Even if you’re alone, you still dress in the dark. Now is not the time for artificial light.

 The morning is grey and overcast, but you can still feel the early. In the hotel lobby men and women move forward determinedly in suits and ties, coffee cups in one hand, bag or briefcase in the other. But not you. You alone wear a grubby t-shirt from college, your favorite running pants and brand new Nikes.

Out into the cool air you go, and the run begins.

And this time, the run is in Savannah, Georgia. In the early 1700’s the first European settlers in Savannah laid out a city built around oak-filled squares. Some are impressive, others modest, all have paths and lawns and Spanish Moss and benches and some have statues and fountains and plaques explaining the history of this particular square. Some are surrounded by homes, others churches and inns and restaurants and others still by parking garages and assorted other modern invaders.

 The founding fathers of Savannah did not create these squares to foster community or to ensure Savannah’s legacy as one of the most beautiful cities in the South. No, their calling was much more forward thinking. “Three hundred years from now,” they said, “people will be so fat and have so little to do that they will run for no reason other than to get rid of their fat. During this bleak and unfortunate time, these ‘runners’ – as they will be called – will benefit mightily from the incentive these squares will provide. They shall think to themselves, ‘if I just go a little father, I’ll get to see another square.’ And so it is that we shall build these squares, so that we might provide comfort to these pour souls of the future.” The founding fathers of Savannah were both merciful and far-sighted. 

Savannah

Doesn't that make you want to run?

But even in a city bereft of such run incenting squares the first run offers up delicate delights. You move through the landscape but never become a part of it. This is not your town, but someone else’s, and as you go along, too quickly to be spoken to but not so fast as to miss anything, you get to see these someones, see them in their town.

Down in a daylight basement coffee house a man places flowers in the center of the tables. He does not see my feet run pass, he is too intent on his tables, for he knows that the breakfast crowd will be here before he knows it. In the fire station a man wipes down an already gleaming truck, his face is serious, set. Three people, looking weary, wait for the bus, their eyes studiously gaze upon nothing, and certainly not upon me, a stranger in their town.

The morning is for natives, for deliveries and set-up, for work and duty. Not even the dog walkers are up yet. Only the people who must be, the people who belong, the people who run this town are here. Later will come the cars to the point of traffic, visitors to the point of tourists, but right now it’s just me running and the people running the town. Life is made of such simple pleasures.

Zen and the Art of Running Very Slowly

My family does things real fast. “Let me make this clam dip real fast.” “I have a story I have to tell you real fast.” “Just a sec, I gotta go the bathroom real fast.” Normally we are a family who enjoys the use of proper grammar, but when it comes to doing things real fast, we just don’t have time for –ly. That would constitute a whole other syllable, and syllables take time. And so, we get up out of bed real fast, we load and unload cars real fast, we make a drink real fast, we fix meals real fast, we get errands done real fast. We’re perpetually in a race, a race against doing anything real slow. My brother, what with his “chess” and his books on “neurology” is an outlier, but nonetheless he shares the underlying trait that fosters this obsession with real fast – a complete and total absence of patience. It is a quality possessed by exactly no one in my immediate family.

My sisters, although they may protest, are also real fast in the literal sense. Back in the day Becky used to run around Lake Morton, a small lake near our house, and it would boggle the mind how quickly she would make the journey. So, too, with Cindy, who likes to pretend to be unaware of how speedy she is. While my dad is not real fast he is real quick, the kind of real quick that astounds the eye. My mom was not just real fast but extraordinarily fast, and put on an exhibition of her still formidable speed last year when she sprinted to prevent a mare and foal from reaching an open gate and a highway beyond. My brother is also real fast, at least when sprinting, a fact few know.

I am neither real fast nor real quick. I am simply real slow. But this does not stop the impatient spirit of real fast from burning brightly in my heart. And so it was that when I took up running, I was obliged to also take up the art of zen and running very slowly.  When I first begin my run – even to this day – there is a flurry of panicked thoughts. “But I have to get to the grocery store! I don’t have time for this!” “I still need to do laundry!” “I need to hurry!” “I need to do this real fast!” But I cannot do this real fast. My body will not let me. If am to do this, I will be doing it real slow. And so, one by one, I have to reject the messages from that panicked voice.

As the run goes on the voice changes. “This hill is hard. If we can’t do this real fast, let’s just not do it at all.” I always answer the voice, “are you dying?” “No,” responds the voice. “Then I say good day to you, sir.” Considering that the benchmark required for stopping is being near death, the voice always loses. Although it may sound like an odd sort of encouragement, I cheerlead the negative voice by saying, “let’s resign ourselves to the idea that we will be running forever. We will never stop. It doesn’t matter how fast or slow, hill or flat, pain or no pain, we will run forever. So we don’t need to keep thinking about it.” It takes a couple of miles, but eventually, this voice wins. Once the win is had, the run settles into something continuous, neutral. When I get back no longer matters. Neither do the pending chores. Thoughts flit by and go along their merry way, but the mind is quiet. It no longer asks the body to do anything but continue on, slowly, steadily. Patience is at hand. And it stays with me for a good ten minutes upon arriving home.