Dr. J on Running

8 Wrightsville Beach Marathon, NC, 5:14:49

Sunday 20 March 2011

The old man wore a shirt that read “I can do all things through Him who gives me strength.” His unshaven face sported a subtle smile that told of a long life of blessings. His eyes glistened in a peace that belied an inner turmoil. I met him at the start line of the Wrightsville Beach Marathon, and I wondered about his story.

The temperature reached 80 degrees the previous day, but Marathon morning started windy and cold. Runners huddled and shivered in anticipation of a start gun that we never heard. I started my stopwatch when I saw the masses flowing forward. I crossed the Start line a couple of minutes behind the leaders. The old man ran beside me. He shuffled his travel-laden legs in a flawless form, and moved effortlessly forward. His ever-so-subtle smile shone in the early light of a new dawn.

I reconnected with Bill Rodgers at the race expo. He remembered me as the librarian from Syracuse. He planned to run the half-marathon in the morning. I picked up my race number and chip, kept to myself my disappointment with the short-sleeve shirt, and bought a 26.2x8 bumper sticker. In the evening, I partook in the pre-race pasta dinner. The quality of the food was extraordinary. I savored spinach-strawberry salad, eggplant lasagna and chicken fettuccini Alfredo, and I topped it off with banana pudding. After I pinned my number to my shirt, I lined up my clothes for the morning and went to sleep.

I ran the first mile of the race to avoid the early stampede. I felt well, and revised tactically my race strategy. I decided to alternate running a mile with walking half-a-mile. I worried about my left hip – it hurt a lot the previous week. I rejoined the old man during my walks. Runners cheered on the verse on his shirt as they passed him. Some spectators called him “Doc” and urged him along. He acknowledged the cheers with a smile and royal hand wave.

I ran five miles in the first hour, a half-mile faster than planned. I drank water and Heed at every water stop. The course entered the Landfall gated seafront community at Mile 6. I ran on manicured lawns whenever possible to relieve my hip, to the horror of the homeowners. I reached 10 miles in 2 hours, and devoured a Harvest Powerbar and 200mg of Ibuprofen.

I felt good at the halfway point and dropped the old man, certain that I no longer needed him. I reached 15 miles in 3 hours, then 20 miles in 4 hours. I ate a second Powerbar and two more Ibuprofen tablets. I thanked a homeowner for setting up a water station, and discovered that he and I ran the same Marine Corps Marathon in 1997. I took my shoes off to empty them from collected gravel. When I put them back on, the cardboard collapsed inside the heel cup of my right shoe. The ceremonial dump in the trash had to wait another six miles.

The old man haunted me, and I wondered about him the entire race. I looked often over my shoulder to see if he was near. I passed several walkers in the waning miles. A painful cramp in my right calf prevented me from running after the half-a-mile walk to 24 miles. I rubbed vigorously the knotted muscle, and walked several minutes to loosen it. I resumed eventually my run, and crossed the Finish line in about 5 hours 15 minutes. I saw no sign of the old man.

I treated myself to a hot slice of pizza at the party tent, followed by a 30-minute massage that loosened my muscles, stretched my ligaments and dislocated my joints – or so it felt. After a long shower, an hour nap and a steak lunch, I drove to Wilmington airport for the late night return flight home. I wondered when I will see the old man again at some some future Marathon Start line, or in the bathroom mirror some morning. Kansas - here we come.

Dr Kamal Jabbour is back on track to run a monthly Marathon on his way to 50 states. Dr. J's RUNNING Column appears in Cyberspace whenever endorphins call.

© 2011 Dr Kamal Jabbour