The Eternal Saturn Return Part 5: Washington, D.C. 2018

“And I’ve been a fool and I’ve been blind.

I can never leave the past behind.

I can see no way, I can see no way.

I’m always dragging that horse around.

 

All of his questions, such a mournful sound.

Tonight I’m gonna bury that horse in the ground.

So I like to keep my issues drawn, 

But it’s always darkest before the dawn”

 

– Florence + the Machine, “Shake It Out”

 

~

I woke up at four thirty in the morning on the day of my first marathon.  Surprisingly, despite the combination of nerves, anxiety, and excitement, I was able to sleep through most of the night.

We had gotten to Washington, D.C. in the early afternoon the day before.  I wanted to give myself enough time to get situated, since it was the first race I signed up for that was more than a forty-five minute drive away from our home.  Plus, since race day was on a Saturday, we only had Friday to pick up our bibs at the expo.

I signed up for this particular marathon – the Rock ‘n’ Roll D.C. Marathon – a full year before the actual race.  I had originally planned for this to be my second marathon, after the one in Montreal the previous September. And I had decided to sign up for it early to take advantage of the early bird price.  But since the marathon in Montreal was cancelled, D.C. was going to have to be my first marathon.

I signed up for D.C. to ideally improve on my time from Montreal and because I was looking for a bargain.  And now, this was it.

The disappointment of Montreal stoked a fire in me.  I had trained so hard for it and was primed for an excellent performance, and the proverbial rug was pulled out from under me.  So I trained even harder this time around.

Instead of taking any time off, I got right back into training with a healthy dosage of miles that first week back.  I generously upped my mileage every week. But I still made sure I never increased more than 10-20% of the total miles from the previous week – the suggested rule of thumb for runners.    

I was freestyling this portion of the training rather than following a specific plan.  I started with intermediate runs of seven miles each time I went outside and added to it each week.  At one point during this period of training, I ran essentially four half marathons in a week.

I ran out of frustration, searching for answers post-Montreal.  But my answers didn’t come at the end of those runs.

All that I was confronted with was a searing pain in my hip and the return of my biggest nemesis to this day: plantar fasciitis.  I was in danger of just burning out and calling it quits.

So I took a few weeks off to regroup.  Instead of training harder, I had to train smarter.  I revised my training plan to give myself some time to heal, and then start all over again.

Though it was natural to want to channel all of the disappointment from the cancellation into my training, I had to make sure I didn’t compromise my goal of completing my first marathon in D.C.  I had to make sure I didn’t add to the overuse injuries that were starting to pile up from my ill-advised decision to just pick up right where I left off. The miles were beginning to catch up to me.  

Training in the summer in the months leading up to the Montreal race had prepared me physically.  But here, I would have to rely on preparing myself mentally by running outside in the winter. Since I had to dial back the mileage, this was all that I had to go on.

Running outside in the winter calluses your mind.  Oftentimes, you’re the only runner out there. Oftentimes, you would rather stay in bed sleeping or would rather watch television to relax after work.  Oftentimes, the air is so cold it becomes difficult to breathe without feeling a stinging sensation in your lungs.

I had learned all this when I trained for the Rutgers Half Marathon the year before.  And I loved it. If this was all that I had to go on, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe it’s exactly what I needed.  

And I had to go slower.  There was no getting around it this time.  With my body feeling like I was on the verge of breaking down, I couldn’t run at my ideal race pace every time I put on my running shoes.  

I would also have to be more diligent with stretching and rolling out sore muscles and tendons.  I couldn’t take anything for granted now. As they say, sometimes the best “ability” is “availability.”

While there are many great stories and lessons to be learned from this training that I am merely glossing over here, they will have to wait.  Because the real story starts at four thirty in the morning on the day of my first marathon.

Running a marathon for the first time is a truly special event in anyone’s life.  I know it was for me. Because if running has paralleled my life thus far, this memorable day can only serve to mark the end of one chapter and the beginning of a new one.  

It’s always darkest before the dawn.

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~

When I woke up at four thirty in the morning, I immediately got to business.  I had a routine that I wanted to run through before I left our hotel room and started walking to the race area a mile away.  

The first thing I did was turn on Headspace, the guided meditation app that has gained popularity these days.  I selected the meditation labeled “Competition” and pressed the large play button in the middle of my cell phone screen.

I had been using Headspace for a few months and had cycled through many of their packs, including all of the sport ones.  But I had saved the specific guided meditation on competition for this day.

The idea was to sort out all the pre-race chatter in my head.  But I didn’t have much. Maybe it was because it was so early in the morning.  But I feel it was more due to the fact that for an entire year I had this one goal in my head.  And the day had finally come.

The meditation did help ease the little bit of excitement I had.  I focused intently on my breath. I paid particularly close attention to each exhalation as I envisioned success.  I had been preparing for this moment for an entire year. I knew I was ready.

Even though I would be sweating profusely for the remainder of the morning, I got into the shower and just sat under the warm running water.  I wanted to feel fresh and – as silly as it sounds – sometimes a shower can help reinvigorate me and helps me start anew. A baptism of sorts (to be honest, I make it sound all deep and spiritual, but I mostly just use showers to snap me out of a funk when I’m lounging around in our apartment in my pajamas and I know I should be doing something productive like chores or lesson plans).  

At this point, my girlfriend also woke up and sat on the bed while I started getting ready.  She was going to be running the half marathon, but it didn’t start until a couple hours after the marathon was underway.  She started fumbling around on her cell phone while I started putting on my cold-weather compression leggings and a long sleeve.  It was going to be cold that morning, but since I also wanted to warm up and stretch in the hotel room before heading out, I just put that base layer on.  I then skipped to the next thing on my itinerary list.

I had brought my big tub of powdered Gatorade – something my girlfriend and her sister always make fun of me for.  Sure, I can probably buy however many bottles I need at the nearest supermarket. But why buy individual bottles of Gatorade when I had plenty of the powdered stuff at home and can brew it to my ideal concentration?  I don’t know, maybe it’s just my cheap side taking over.

Anyway, I mixed some of the powder with tap water, and I started downing pretzels.  Gatorade and pretzels became my ritual before Saturday long runs, and I didn’t want to deviate now.  In addition, I would also take a bottle of Gatorade with me on runs.

Furthermore, on any run over eight miles, I would also bring energy gels.  During training, I would take a gel once every five miles. So again, that was the plan on race day.  

When I finished my snack and felt full, I knew it was time for my stretching routine.  I wanted to go through it a few times before I walked out the door just to be safe – since my hip and my plantar fascia were a little tender.  

I silently walked over to my cell phone and turned on Spotify.  I had made a pre-race playlist – even though I had stopped listening to music while I ran.  As corny as this sounded, I had made a playlist of my favorite running songs I had accumulated along the way to pump me up before the race.  I had a rule that these songs must also be able to serve as an entrance song if I were an MMA fighter.

I wanted to capture that same feeling as I walked towards the starting line.  Like fighters, runners train for this one big singular event – battling pain in their body and wrestling with the demons in their head along the way.

I decided to let the chips fall where they may and put the playlist on shuffle, rather than play specific songs in a particular order.  The first song that came up on shuffle was “Shake It Out” by Florence and the Machine.

Opening with this song made me reflect on the entirety of the journey.  I had changed so much on the running trails, but the biggest change had come off of them.  Running had acted as a catalyst in my life and helped me exorcise many of the ghosts from my past.  Exerting myself and pushing my body through hell helped me purge and sweat out the negativity. This song acted as a celebration that the dawn was indeed coming, but still acknowledging the darkness and struggles that had preceded it.

Normally, this would be a moment in the story where tears would well up in my eyes and I get emotional.  And I certainly felt all of these things in that instance.

But I calmly continued stretching and focused on my breath.  I had never experienced that level of focus before in my life – every movement felt effortless.  When any thought entered my head – positive or negative – it was gently noted, and I went back to focusing on the sensations in my body.

When I finished three cycles through my stretching routine, I put on the rest of my clothes, kissed my girlfriend goodbye, and we wished each other good luck on our races.  We would see each other again at the finish line.

It was still dark out when I started walking over to the race area near the National Mall.  I wanted to get there with plenty of time to spare so I didn’t feel rushed. But since the race was already starting earlier than most of the other races I had seen, I had to begin my walk especially early.

It was bitterly cold as I walked, but I was listening to my playlist and was so focused that I hardly noticed.  I took that time alone as a chance to think and collect my thoughts and try to enjoy the moment. So many emotions were bubbling up, but the music helped me surf the waves of feelings that were swelling.  

One vivid memory was when I was nearing the starting line.  As dawn was breaking, I passed by the Washington Monument. It was ominously quiet, as no one else was outside other than me and the police officers who were shutting down the roads.  As I walked past each street, they were being roped off one by one, adding to the eerie feeling. It was here that Sigur Rós’ “Untitled 8” began playing through my headphones.

If you know the song, you know that the last six minutes are one of the most intense six minutes in all of music.  It is the climax of an entire album filled with atmospheric tension, sorrow, joy, gloom, hope, and despair. It is one of the few songs that makes me want to run up a mountain after listening to it.  Whenever I see them play it in concert, I feel like something takes over me. Out of all the songs I’ve seen live, this one probably makes me the most emotional.

Because of what that song – and that album – has come to represent for me.  This was the moment where I had my first of three flashbacks on that day.

 

~

 

Six years earlier, on my 24th birthday, I decided to go to one of my favorite barbecue restaurants – Cubby’s – near where I lived when I was a kid.  I was living with one of my grandma’s friends in her basement at the time, because I had run out of options. The one night that I slept in my car at a service area along the New Jersey Turnpike wasn’t going to be a long term solution.

I had stopped talking to everyone in my family except for my brother and my great-grandfather.  I had been so focused on fixing our family problems that I wanted time to focus on me and to get my life right.  I was done living in a toxic environment and needed to be on neutral turf. Living with my grandma’s friend provided me just that.    

Even though she was friends with my grandma, she generally kept to herself and gave me the space I needed.  And for that I am eternally grateful. More than words can express. It was an awkward situation to be sure, but for the most part, it worked out just fine.  

I acted and felt like a ghost in that house.  And that was just how I wanted it.

My brother moved back home with my parents again and my girlfriend had to work that night, so I was alone for the evening.  On the few occasions I didn’t have to work at my restaurant job, I would normally stay out and only come back late at night so I can slip into the basement unnoticed.  Even though it was my birthday and I was alone, on this night I would do the same.

I ordered a full rack of ribs with a side of mashed potatoes and a healthy portion of garlic bread.  We had been going to Cubby’s for years since my entire family loved it. I had typically ordered a cheeseburger platter as a kid before I graduated to the ribs when I started college.  It became my new favorite dish.

I felt a tinge of sadness as I ate alone, but it was easy to suppress.  I had gotten used to eating alone the past few years. Going to movies alone.  Going to bars alone. Sometimes, those were the only moments I was able to escape the madness in my life.  

Yes, it was my birthday, but I didn’t really feel like there was much to celebrate anyway.  It was a rare day off from work, and I just wanted to have a nice, quiet meal.

I finished my dinner and headed out to my car in the parking lot.  I didn’t quite know where I was going to go now since it was still early and my girlfriend wasn’t out of work yet.  So I decided to do the typical adolescent New Jersey thing: drive around and listen to music.

As I drove, I realized I had to drive past where my parents lived.  Where my brother lived. Where I used to live. Where I should’ve been living.

I had to accept things the way they were – broken and dysfunctional – if I wanted to live there again.  But I didn’t want any part of that. I knew what it was like living in that house before the night I was forced to move in with my grandparents.  And I couldn’t imagine it would be any better now. Whatever hell I was living in now was better than the alternative. I couldn’t stand to live in a facade.  

As I drove, I thought of all this.  And I became enraged. My home was taken from me.  I was living in a basement on a pull out couch. I was working at a restaurant with no prospects for a better future.  I just spent my birthday alone at a restaurant. A restaurant we all had such great memories at. A restaurant that was less than a mile away from my childhood home.  Where my family still lived. And I didn’t.

I yelled angrily and punched my steering wheel repeatedly as hard as I could.  I hadn’t felt like this since the night we were forced to leave our home a few months prior.  I felt an animalistic rage. All of the emotions that I had held in check for the past few months all came pouring out.

And then I thought of my great-grandma.

My great-grandma had died about a year and a half earlier.  She was one of my primary caregivers when I was really little.  Throughout my life, she had been my beacon for unconditional love.  Her fourth grade education did not limit the complexity and depth of the affection she showed us.  

But during her last few years in this world, she was on the losing end of a battle with Alzheimer’s.  When she would look at you, it was as if she knew that she should have known who you were. But she just couldn’t bring herself to remember.  It was heartbreaking, compounded by the fact that we were now split between our two houses in north and south Jersey. We weren’t visiting her every week as we had before.

I thought of her on my birthday.  Wherever she was, I thought of what she would think of this situation her family was in.  The dysfunction we were all living in. The work she had put into loving us – in vain.

The sadness she must be feeling.  The soul-wrenching sadness.

At that moment, I felt it all.

I started hyperventilating.  And I couldn’t get in under control.  Whereas a few seconds earlier I was a charging bull stomping around with anger, I was now a helpless and frightened calf at the slaughter.

I started to lose consciousness and everything began to fade.  Luckily, I realized what was happening just in time and was able to pull into the first place I could safely get to.  I think the only thing that saved me that day was that I knew the area so well and simply relied on muscle memory.

I spent the next few minutes trying to slow down my breath to no avail.  I couldn’t process the music and words coming through the radio. I had no awareness of anything that was going on around me.  I was completely locked into the panic I was feeling.

Once my breathing started to normalize, the music from the radio became clearer and I suddenly realized what had happened to me.

I just had a panic attack.

I had never had one in my life.  I took a few minutes to compose myself before calling my brother and girlfriend, mostly because I didn’t know what else to do.  I wanted to feel normal.

I just wanted everything to be normal again.

~

 

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I got to the National Mall and once I saw other runners, I immediately felt the buzz of excitement.  Since I was there so early, it wasn’t overcrowded. Thus, I had plenty of time to visit the porta potties as many times as I needed – the main reason I wanted to get there as early as possible.  

Plus, I wanted to warm up and stretch again and then drop off my bag.  I had brought a fresh change of clothes and some other necessities. This was my first time bringing a bag to a race (mostly because I never wanted to deal with the stress of carrying things).  But I really saw the benefit now. I vowed to never go to another race without it – even much shorter 5K’s.

After I warmed up, I queued up the final two songs that I wanted to hear before I headed to the starting line: “Victory Dance” by My Morning Jacket and “Tweezer Reprise” by Phish.  Unquestionably, these are my top two songs if I did have to choose my own entrance music. Probably still to this day.

I tapped into the energy of the music and closed my eyes.  This was my moment.

I took off my hoodie and sweatpants and walked over to the baggage area where I dropped everything I had off.  Then, I walked over to the starting line, carrying nothing but my thoughts.

I was as ready as I was going to be.  

 

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As the horn sounded, we all began shuffling and I started running at a brisk pace.  I knew nerves would play a factor, so I was mindful not to start out too fast. I didn’t want to burn out; I wanted to have enough energy by the end.  I already knew approximately the pace I could sustain for the full 26.2 miles. I just had to trust my training.

I was surprised by how sparse the crowd felt at the beginning.  At races, sometimes I feel claustrophobic at the start and it makes me want to surge past people to beat the crowd.  I was fearful this was going to be the case here, but it wasn’t. I chalk it up to the fact that this was technically a winter race.  Still, I’m glad that I had as much space as I did.

The beeps from my watch signaled that I had just completed my first mile.  I looked down to see that I was right around an eight minute per mile pace.  I felt as if I was going much slower than that, so I take it as a positive sign.  I started doing the math in my head and realized that if I kept it up, I could maybe finish in three and a half hours if I didn’t take long breaks at the water stations or porta potties.  Yes, I would have to slow down to take my gels too. But it was still possible. The possibilities danced around in my head.

But then I told myself to relax.  Don’t think about it. Have fun. Just enjoy it.  Be present.

I did just that.  And you couldn’t find a happier runner on that day.  

 

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As I approached the 5K mark, my relaxed attitude caused my pace to improve considerably.  And I wasn’t even trying. I was now averaging less than eight minutes per mile. And I was feeling great.

Just as I rounded the corner, I saw four familiar faces.

Two of them were cardboard cutouts of my cats: Taj and Carson.  They had been with me every step of my journey ever since I saved up enough money to move out of that basement into my very own apartment.  They had been my silent companions throughout this metamorphosis, and I truly could not have done it without them. It was fitting that they would follow me along the race course as well.  

The cutouts were being held by the other two faces: my girlfriend and her sister.  

I was confused at first, because my girlfriend was supposed to run the half marathon.  When I called out to her and asked her about her race, she replied that she had hardly trained anyway and that there was no way she was going to miss the opportunity to cheer for me during my first marathon.  She had secretly planned on skipping the half marathon to support me along the way.

I was equally confused at her sister being there.  She didn’t sign up for any of the races and had to work that weekend.  I had asked her the week before if she wanted to come to D.C. with us anyway.  When she said she couldn’t, I was a little bummed because I especially wanted her there in my corner.  She had become one of my best friends before we began to drift apart. But here she was. I don’t know if it was my girlfriend who twisted her arm, but it meant a lot to me all the same.

I smiled and tried to compose myself as I jogged past them.  That was just what I needed as I headed towards probably the most difficult part of the entire course.

 

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About a week before the race, it had dawned on me that maybe I should research information about the course.  As someone as meticulous as I am, you would figure that would’ve been high up on my priority list.

I looked at the elevation chart and saw a spike at around the sixth mile.  It was hard to tell, but it looked like the distance of the ascent was about three quarters of a mile long.  And the peak on the chart towered above the rest, so I knew the climb was substantial.

But there was no point in fretting, because I had nothing to compare it to.  I didn’t know the grades of the hills near my apartment. There were some pretty steep hills that I would often run up.  I would have to look it up online so I had something to compare it to.

My jaw dropped when I saw the numbers side by side.

The hill in the race was just as long.  But it was double the height. I hadn’t faced anything like that in my training.  I hadn’t faced anything like that ever really.

During the final training run that evening, I went to the gym and just set the treadmill on its highest setting.  It wasn’t going to be enough, but it would have to do.

In the race that day, I knew I wasn’t prepared physically to run up that hill.  But maybe I was prepared mentally.

When I got to mile six, I knew the hill was near.  I tried not to think about it, but I couldn’t help it.  I was expecting it to appear at any moment like the monster in a horror movie.  

I was anxious, but mostly I just wanted to get it over with.  Because then I could just focus on the race. And the remaining twenty miles.

After the mile six marker, once I saw photographs of fallen American soldiers lining the course, I knew the hill was near.  They wouldn’t place these photos just anywhere along the road. It was going to be now. At the most difficult moment.

The emotional impact of the photos worked; I got choked up.  But I closed my eyes and calmed myself down. I needed much more than that if I wanted to get up that hill.

I turned the corner.

I opened my eyes again.

~

I received a phone call from my grandma one evening while I was sitting on that pull out couch in the basement I was living.  

I hadn’t yet cut everybody out, but things weren’t exactly peachy either.  It was still strange that she was calling though at this time though, so I picked up my cell phone.

Because I immediately knew something was horribly wrong.  Her calming and soothing voice did nothing to lessen the blow.  

My brother had been in a car accident.  And it was bad.

As she ran down his list of injuries, the only one my brain processed was a ruptured spleen.  All I could do was shriek and cry out.

There was no time to even think.  I rushed out of the house to the hospital where he was staying.  

I called my girlfriend on the drive over and told her what had happened through desperate panting and a steady stream of tears.  I told her he was in a coma. Without hesitating, she also started making her way to the hospital.

I got there before she did and walked right up to his hospital room.  I froze when I saw my parents inside. In my panic and terror, it hadn’t even occurred to me that they would be there.  This was the first time I would be in the same room as my dad since that fateful October 23rd.

I hesitated, collected my thoughts, and went inside.  I just knelt beside his bed without even saying a word.  I wanted to be there for my baby brother.

I remember the day he was born.  My sister and I were staying at my grandparents’ house while my parents were in the hospital.  We received word that he was born, and we went to visit him after my grandma picked me up from my kung fu lesson that Saturday morning.  My only clear memory is the intense joy I felt when I saw him for the first time.

When I found out it was a boy, I was over the moon.  I would’ve been happy with a sister too, but I already had one.  And I loved her. I wanted a baby brother.

And now, I was at a hospital again to see him.  His eyes were closed just like that first day. But now tubes were sticking out of him.  If the doctors hadn’t performed the surgery when they did, he probably would have been dead.  

Not him.  Please. Not my baby brother.

My girlfriend appeared in the doorway and immediately came in.  She just stood there next to me and held my hand.

I squeezed my brother’s hand and tried talking to him.  I convinced myself that maybe he was able to hear me.

The intensity of the moment was unbearable.  And I was forced to ask myself a haunting question.

Did I do enough for him?

We had both taken the brunt of the repercussions of our family’s dysfunction.  At the time of his accident, he was still living with my grandparents. Not at our childhood house.  And I was living on that pull out couch.

When things had reached its apex the months before that, I stepped up and held a meeting to work out our differences.  

I did it for him.  I saw how our family problems were negatively impacting his life.  And he was still an impressionable child.

But the meeting backfired and made it worse.  And now months later, after essentially getting kicked out of our childhood home, he was nearly killed in a car accident.

If the situation wasn’t dire before, now is when things got really real.

To this day, he doesn’t remember what happened the day of the accident.  When anything truly traumatic happens, our brains have a tendency to shut down.  Which makes it impossible to remember details. It’s why those weeks I spent visiting him in the hospital are also a little hazy for me.

But the thought I couldn’t shake was that I let him down.  He will never admit it. And I’m sure most of my family will disagree with me.  But I can’t help but feel like we were all culpable for what happened.

Maybe we weren’t really.  

But we needed to be open to that possibility.  That our problems and our issues now had actual real world consequences.  And we all contributed to it.

Maybe it was just a random, unlucky roll of the dice that caused the car he was driving – my grandpa’s car – to wrap itself around a tree.  Maybe.

Or maybe just like what happened to me on my birthday, something took hold of my brother.  I was a 24-year-old man. My brother was just a 17-year-old boy.

The story is apparently someone cut him off, and he swerved to avoid it.  It was just that simple.

But what if he didn’t notice until it was too late because his mind was elsewhere in that instance?  No, it would be irresponsible to shut out that possibility. The possibility that maybe all this stuff weighed on him in that moment.

It was probably chance, but I still had to be open to that possibility.  This was my baby brother after all. And he almost died. Something had to change.

When I brought these ideas up to my family, I was shot down.  It was just some bad luck. And we were blessed with a miracle.  My brother was special.

Now, I don’t care what anyone believes in.  But I do know this: miracle or not, if I can do something to even possibly prevent something like this in the future, I’m going to do it.

Something had to change.  This was my baby brother. And he almost died.    

By them not acknowledging this possibility, that was the final straw for me.  They wanted to use this terrible tragedy as a galvanizing moment to go back to the way things were.  The status quo.

But I couldn’t stand for that.  I wanted things to change.  I wanted to change.

I wanted to do it for him.  I wanted to be enough for him.  

Because I didn’t want to just be the typical older brother archetype in movies – the failure, the has-been, the one who messes up.  I wanted to be more.

Because he looked up to me once.  

This was on me.  Things had to change.

I wanted to shoulder my fair share of the blame.  Because he’s my baby brother. And I loved him.

~

And I had changed.  Maybe it took me a little longer.  But I had changed.

And running up this hill was going to prove it.

You see, I saw the hill as a metaphor for everything that had gone wrong in my life up to that point.

Maybe I would’ve taken the easy way out before.  But not now. Now, I was different.

Rise.

I had adopted a running mantra during training.  I had first heard it on an episode of “The Joe Rogan Experience” with Maynard James Keenan.  It is the same mantra that’s on this website, but this specific part is the part I would repeat on my runs:

Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life.

So I started chanting it to myself, just like in training.  I started climbing the hill.

I thought of the child my girlfriend and I didn’t have.  And the suffocating solitude I had to endure because of our decision.  But then I thought of our seven wonderful years together. And that she skipped her race to cheer me on.  And the time she held my hand while I cried next to my baby brother’s unconscious body.

Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life.

I thought of the night in college.  The night I flirted with suicide. The hollowness.  The pain. The numbness. But then I thought of all the friends that helped get me through it.  I thought of how much I cherish all of those connections. Even now when adulthood sends us in different directions.  Both with the friends I still talk to and the ones that refuse to talk to me.

Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life.

I thought of my brother.  I thought of our Sundays at Buffalo Wild Wings.  I thought of his accident. I thought of the day he was born.  

I thought of my great-grandma.  I thought of how I wanted to make her proud.  Wherever she was, I wanted to make sure the work she had put into loving us wasn’t in vain.

Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life.  I started saying it louder. And I started going faster.

The hill was lined with volunteers who were cheering us on.  I’m sure the race organizers did this to give runners extra encouragement on this particularly steep and difficult hill.

But I’m pretty sure they didn’t tell the volunteers what to do if they came across someone like me.  

I charged up the hill, smiling like the sadistic, crazed person that I am.  I weaved past every runner I came across, fighting back the tears. And I was chanting a line from a poem by a Native American chief.  I felt alive.

The image of the frightened look on their faces is something that will forever be etched into my brain.  At that moment, I didn’t care what my finishing time was. In my eyes, I already won the race.

I got to the top of the hill with ease.  Maybe it took me a little longer. But I had changed.

And when I ran up that hill, I proved it to myself.

~

Climbing that hill was a triumphant moment.  But then reality set in at the top.

I still had to run another twenty miles.  Nice going.

The next fourteen miles were punctuated by breaks to down energy gels, breaks to drink water or Gatorade, breaks to pee and dispose of the aforementioned water and Gatorade, and appearances by my girlfriend and her sister holding up the cutouts of Taj and Carson.  

I saw them one final time around mile twenty.  And this was when I was starting to fade.

Seeing them certainly sparked me, but my pace had slowed to well north of nine minutes per mile.  

Because I was so reliant on carbohydrates at this point in my running career, the gels and Gatorade weren’t enough.  They weren’t sustaining me.

And mentally, I knew I was about to hit 23 miles – the greatest distance I had ever run at once.  And that was way back when I had trained for Montreal.

I felt like walking was inevitable.  But I was scared that if I started walking, the pain would hit me and I wouldn’t be able to finish.  My hip was on fire. The stinging in my heel from the plantar fasciitis was unbearable.

Seeing them certainly sparked me, but I needed much more than that if I wanted to get through these next six miles.

The memories I have outlined in this chapter and in the previous ones act as Horcruxes.  Deep down inside, I hide a part of my soul in my running. The intense moments that are difficult to face.  It serves as a defense mechanism, so it doesn’t affect my day-to-day waking life.

I’ve also hidden parts of myself in the music I listen to.  And the Oakland Raiders. But now, it’s primarily hidden in my running.    

More often than not, they stay hidden there.  But sometimes they bubble up. Especially if I’m really tired or fatigued or struggling.  

This was one of those moments.  

The last of the three flashbacks during this race is my final Horcrux.  

~

On the day of the NFL Draft in 2013, I had a rare day off from work.  I was working seventy hours a week at the same restaurant I was working at when I lived on that pull out couch.  But now I was promoted to assistant manager; I had a little time off before I needed to start training for this new role.

I took this opportunity to visit my great-grandpa at the nursing home he was now living at.  He had been living at a home ten minutes from my apartment, but my family relocated him.

I visited him often when he lived ten minutes from me, but my visits became less frequent when work increased my hours.  And because I so desperately wanted to climb out of the financial hole I was in, I never protested. But visiting him would oftentimes change my outlook for the entire week.

Because I wasn’t talking to anybody in my family other than him and my brother, when they moved him, I wasn’t informed.  I found out when I got to the nursing home, and the staff informed me he was gone.

I angrily called my grandma and texted my mom.  They had known I was visiting him. Because he would tell them when I did.  I suspected that not telling me about his relocation was some sort of passive-aggressive maneuver on their part.

When I found out from my brother where he was living now, it was a while before I was able to visit him.  I would often have only one day off each week. And I mostly spent it catching up on sleep and spending time with my girlfriend.  

But on this day, I put it on my schedule to go visit him.  I even had good news to tell him. He would be proud of my promotion to assistant manager in such a short amount of time.   

I parked and entered the building.  It was a building adjacent to the hospital where I was born.  I gave his name to the front desk. They bluntly informed me which floor he was on and pointed me towards the elevator.  

When I got out of the elevator, I walked into the main room where most of the elderly people are sitting.  

This place was not as warm as the other nursing home.  The people at the front desk were cold and distant. The colors in the room were bleak and dingy.  There was a heavy feeling in the air. Why would they put him in here?

I scanned the crowd and looked for him.  I saw him at the precise moment he saw me.

“Fuck,” I said.  My shoulders drooped.  I lowered my head. And I started crying.

Noticing my reaction, he also started crying.

I was completely deflated.  

The last time I saw him, he was the same as always.  He joked with me about the other viejitos in the nursing home.  We played dominoes together.  He was fine. He was himself. He was still the same person I always knew.  He just lived in a nursing home now.

But now he was emaciated.  His expression was gaunt. And he couldn’t speak.  He seemed so weak. This was the strongest person I had ever known.  And he was now a shell of himself.

My world was crushed.  

And I couldn’t even fake it for his sake and keep up appearances. I was too weak in that moment.  I couldn’t even muster up enough strength to be strong for him. I feel pathetic even to this day.

I fumbled for my cell phone.  I started scrolling through photos I had of my apartment.  Since he couldn’t speak, I had to fill in the voids. I showed him photos of my new home.  How far it had come along since I last showed him.

For months, I had no furniture except for two lawn chairs.  I was sleeping on an air mattress. And now, it resembled a true home.  And I was proud of it.

I showed him photos of my two cats.  When I told him a year ago that I had adopted two cats, he was as stunned as anyone.  He never would’ve imagined me with cats – let alone two of them – and even ribbed me for it.  

I showed him photos of my girlfriend and I.  He liked her immediately when he met her, because she had the same name as my great-grandma.  And she had been the only stable thing in my life. My rock. Just like my great-grandma had been for him.    

I told him that I was promoted and was now an assistant manager.  I had only been working there for a little over a year and was already promoted.  That was unheard of. I had gone from struggling to figure out what I was going to do with my life to now having a career path.    

We both cried as I shared all of this with him.  We both cried even more when I told him that everything I had – and everything I will ever be – is because of him.   

I was his first great-grandson.  He quit smoking when I was born. He taught me how to play dominoes.  He would play baseball in the backyard of his house.

And in his later years, we shared a connection, because we both felt like outsiders in our own family.

I was the rebellious one.  The one who messed up. And he was the cantankerous old man with a temper.  

When I used to watch football at his house with my friends when my brother and I were living with our grandparents, he would sometimes join us even though he didn’t understand the rules of the game.  And even though he was never a drinker, now that he was over ninety years old, he wanted to drink beer. And be one of the boys.

Naturally, my grandma had reservations.  They would get into fights when he noticed she was cutting him off or giving him light beer that he said tasted like water.  She didn’t even want him coming down to watch the games with us.

But he just wanted what we were drinking.  He wanted the good stuff.

But most importantly, he wanted to feel human connection.  He had lost that when my great-grandma died the year before.  And he was struggling with the loneliness.

To make him feel better while also not upsetting my grandma, every Sunday I would bring a six pack of whatever dark non-alcoholic beer I could find at the liquor store – in addition to whatever else I brought.  He could drink as many of those as he wanted and still feel like he was drinking something strong.

He was one of the boys.  He was happy. And I was happy that he was happy.  Spending Sundays with him that football season was one of my fondest memories from this dark time in my life.

I also remember when we talked about my brother’s accident.  Even though my brother was living in his house, he was kept in the dark about what happened to him.  When my brother didn’t come home every night, they just told him that my brother had a lot of work to do.  They didn’t want him to worry. They didn’t want something to happen.

When I talked to him about it later on, I explained how upset I was that they treated him like that.  He loved my brother. Maybe more than anyone. He had a right to know and be there for him. He was told about the accident weeks later after my brother had fully recovered.

We had one of our deepest conversations at his kitchen table that day.  I think this was the first time he really saw me as an adult. As a man.  

This was a hurt and broken person.  He was cast aside. Viewed as senile.  No one had time for him anymore.

But every time I talked to him, he was sharp.  When I told him that I was thinking of cutting ties with the family to start focusing on building my own life, he was the only one who supported me.  He understood why.

I talked about all of this and more on that day at the nursing home.  

As I got in my car, I knew deep down that this would be the last time I would ever see him.

Sure enough, a few weeks later, he passed away.

My biggest regret is that he didn’t get to see a happy ending.  The dysfunction we were all living in. The work he had put into loving us – in vain.  

The sadness he must be feeling.  The soul-wrenching sadness.

We didn’t even have time for him.  My parents were spending every weekend in South Jersey.  My brother and sister were busy with college and school. I was too busy working as a bartender.  

And all I could muster to make him “proud” was a tiny apartment in Jersey City and a promotion to assistant manager at a chain restaurant.  

I was pathetic.

When it was time for his funeral, I knew no one would want to confront all of these ugly truths.  That we let him down. Just like my brother’s accident. No one would want to put in the work to be better for him.  The fix themselves for him.

I didn’t go.  Because I couldn’t stand to see that charade.  

The first time I would see or speak to my family was not going to be at his funeral.  When my brother was in the hospital, I went there for him. At my great-grandpa’s funeral, the person that I wanted to be there for wasn’t alive anymore.  I wanted to grieve in private, because there was no point in it. My great-grandpa was dead.

When my great-grandma died, it became what a funeral normally becomes: a social gathering.  You catch up with people you haven’t seen in awhile. On some level I get it. I think there can be a great healing power in that.  

But during her funeral, I remember there was a moment when my great-grandpa was alone.  Everyone else was deep in their own conversations. My brother and I instinctively went over to him just to chat and keep him company.  But with us, he felt comfortable enough to ask us to help him walk to the collage of photos my mom and sister had made honoring her life.

When we brought him over, he just broke down.  He bowed his head and just wept.

That was the first time I saw my great-grandpa cry.  I only saw him cry one other time: my final visit to the nursing home.   

It was a raw expression of emotion.  This was the strongest person I had ever known.  He doesn’t cry.

But I’m thankful he felt like he could express himself fully in those moments.  There is a lot of strength in that.

I didn’t want to have to put up a facade in front of everyone.  He deserved better than a social gathering. I wanted the raw emotions to come out.  I wanted to be able to express myself fully.

And there was only one person I felt comfortable enough to do that with – the girl who had the same name as my great-grandma.  The girl he liked immediately when he met her. The only stable thing in my life. My rock.

On the day of his burial, my girlfriend and I drove to the cemetery.  We waited until everyone cleared out, and then slowly made our way over.

I wasn’t sure if it was going to be clear where he was buried.  The crowd of people – people I had known my entire life – had long since dispersed.  I slowly drove around, hoping there would be some sort of indication.

But once I rounded a bend in the road, I saw the fresh pile of dirt.  My heart sank. I gasped from the intensity of the moment.

We parked the car, and I walked over to it.  As I stepped onto the grass, I fell to my hands and knees.  I couldn’t hold myself up.

I crawled over to the patch of dirt where my great-grandfather was buried, bawling loudly in the silent cemetery.  There was nobody there but my girlfriend and I.

I wailed as I clawed through the dirt.  I wanted more time.

I wanted to be better for him.  I wanted to give him a happy ending.  He deserved better.

And I failed him.  I was pathetic.

~

Rise.

At that moment, I felt it all.

I started hyperventilating.  But this time, I got it under control.

Maybe he didn’t get to live to see that happy ending.  But that doesn’t mean I can’t try to give it to him. Maybe he could see it wherever he was.

His spirit lives on in my running.  The regret I feel that I never did enough for him.  He will live on forever. In me. In my running. In what I teach my kids.  He has permeated every fiber of my being. Everything I had – and everything I will ever be – is because of him.  

I was going to run these final six miles for him.

I didn’t use this sudden boost of energy to just power through.  Instead, I closed my eyes, focused on my breathing, and just went back to my mantra.  Left foot. Right foot.

Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life.

Once I completed twenty-three miles, I was in uncharted territory.  I had never run this far before in my life.

But now, it was if my brain had realized that I had crossed a threshold.  And there was no going back from it. Once I saw that the first step after I crossed the twenty-three mile marker felt the same as the one that preceded it, I knew the final three miles would feel no worse.

It was all in my head.    

The final three miles of the race were hilly.  I knew that going in. Not as steep as that one hill at mile six, but they were grueling, rolling hills.

But those final three miles were also my fastest since those first three miles.

I was on autopilot.  I kept a steady pace.  Left foot. Right foot.  As I started passing runners who were starting to walk because of the hills, I yelled out words of encouragement.  And many of them started running again.

I crossed a bridge and saw the finish line in the distance.  I saw the crowd of people cheering as I approached, but their faces and the noise didn’t register.  I was focused on only one thing.

I crossed the finish line with an official time of 3:46:47.  I had set a conservative goal of breaking four hours, and I had done just that.  But really, I just wanted to try my hardest and see what happened. To give it everything I had.  

All I wanted to do was to go the distance.    

When I crossed the finish line, I made my way to a quiet corner where I just stayed for awhile.  I sat down and just started crying.

I had done it.

I changed into fresh clothes and looked for my girlfriend, her sister, and my parents who had now joined them at the finish line.  

Because what kind of happy ending to this chapter of my life would it be if I didn’t invite my parents to celebrate this with me.  Just like for that Raiders and Chiefs game at Buffalo Wild Wings, I invited them to be a part of this moment.

We’ve had a rocky relationship to be sure.  But if you can’t forgive people and get through your own shit after running twenty miles, I don’t know what to tell you.  There really is no hope for you.

 

IMG_0197

Not pictured is my sister, who couldn’t make it out in time for the race.  But we all hung out together that night – me, my sister, my girlfriend, and her sister who had become my sister.  

I hadn’t really spoken to my sister in six years either.  But we are slowly mending some of those burnt bridges. Just as I am going with my parents.  

When I crossed that finish line, there wasn’t that feeling of relief you might expect – like crossing off a task that has been lingering for way too long on your to-do list.  This was just a beginning. There was more work to be done. I had a much longer way to go. This was just the first of many miles.

I knew I could go further.  I could do more.

This memorable day marks the end of one chapter.  Not just in this series or in my running career. But in my life.  Running helped me shake that devil off my back.

But more importantly, it marks the beginning of a new one.  Indeed, it is always darkest before the dawn.

I am a marathon finisher.  And there is more to that title that simply running 26.2 miles.

I know that this is just a beginning.  

I know there is more work to be done.  I have a much longer way to go.

I know I could go further.  I could do more.

I know I’m not done.  And I will never be done.  There is no happy ending – it’s a myth.  There is no final destination. You have to keep pushing.  “Para atrás ni para coger impulso,” my great-grandpa used to say.  I have to keep moving forward.

But I’ll just stick to the words that got me here.

Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life.

 

IMG_0196

  

Running

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