It Doesn’t Hurt Me
“It’s after the cinder cone on the right, there’s an intersection with a big green sign and it’s the third dirt road on the left after that.”
“I don’t see any green sign,” says Cicely, riding shotgun.
“Google street view had a green sign.”
Half an hour ago we’d been chilling at her friend’s cross-fit gym in Flagstaff; now we’re driving up and down a featureless road in the southwestern corner of the Navajo Nation, trying to locate the handoff point for the baton that left California two days ago. With cell towers few and far between communication with the stages before and after us has been sporadic. A few miles back we passed Amy, who’s running the previous leg, so we know we’re on the right road at least.
We backtrack to find Amy’s support vehicle (i.e. her husband in their Nissan Altima) and synch up with Kate and Danny in the Stinkmobile, where I bewail the lack of landmarks. “I think our landmark is behind that little bit of tumbleweed over there,” Danny deadpans. Kate brings out the One Run For Boston banner for us to sign, a blue and yellow map delineating the route that the baton will be taking from L.A. to Boston over the next three weeks.
Amy is a figure in the distance, running down the side of the road, slowly drawing nearer. I adjust the water bottle in my left hand. I’ve never run with a baton before. There’s a too-short time for hugs, a chat, and photos, and suddenly I have the baton and I’m running down the two-lane blacktop towards Leupp, 11 miles away.
It’s Monday April 15 and I’ve just gotten back to my desk after a long meeting. Out of habit I check the news. Then I grab my phone, go on Facebook and post the first thing that comes to mind: “Holy fuck.”
This should be a time for meditation, for opening oneself up to the experience, to thoughts of the reasons that I’m running, the people dead or injured in the Boston Marathon bombings, the banality of evil, towards showing our resistance and reclaiming our streets. Unfortunately even at this latitude and altitude the temperature is hovering around 100 degrees, and after 30 years of living in the Valley I’ve had it drilled into by tiny head that one simply does not exert oneself in this weather. All of my brain power is taken up shouting down a little voice that tells me I will die if I don’t find the nearest scrap of shade and crawl under until sundown. Cicely is waiting with the car at the 1.5 mile mark, and I fill up my water bottle while she mists me. I’m tempted to linger, but she claps her hands. “Great start, keep it going!”
It’s been a rough year; about Whiskey Row time last year I developed a repetitive stress injury in my QL probably from my desk setup at work, and several weeks after Rapa Nui my back gave out and knocked me completely off my feet. Months of physical therapy, and while I’m still climbing out of that hole I suddenly get a pinched nerve in my shoulder. I’ve been picking up the occasional race, even jumping into a Ragnar as a last-minute replacement, but not really having fun with it. Two steps forward, one and a half back. I just want to not be in pain.
The plain of the high Sonoran stretches off to the distance, tan soil and dried yellow vegetation, broken only by the occasional march of power line towers. Eleven miles is such a tiny fraction of the 3300. I concentrate on the wavering horizon, straining to imagine the great prairies beyond, Texas, Oklahoma, all that distance, other hands waiting for the baton.
Sunday, April 24, ballroom dancer Adrianne Haslet says in an interview, “I will crawl across the finish line, literally crawl, if it means I finish it.” This becomes my mantra on my log runs, whenever I have to stop alongside a canal and stretch out my back, whenever I want to just give up and walk. You have two good legs. Get on with it.
Fueled by excitement, a slight downhill slope, and a desire to get the baton back on schedule, I’ve started out too fast, at 9:15 almost my 5K pace. I need to dial back. The pinched nerve in my shoulder is killing me, and shifting my water bottle and the baton awkwardly between hands doesn’t help. Somewhere east of mile 2 I melt down spectacularly, miles from anyone and anywhere. I’d like to say that I draw inspiration from the runners injured horribly in the bombings, fighting their way back to mobility. The fact is my brain is too addled by the heat and exertion to be inspired. I pull myself together and go on simply because it’s the only thing to be done.
May 25, a link for something called One Run For Boston pops up in my Facebook news feed. The link takes me to an audacious plan to run a cross-continent relay, raising money for The One Fund Boston. The question isn’t am I going to do it; of course I’m going to do it. The question is, who can I convince to take a day off midweek and carpool up north with me? I elect to spam my teammates from March’s Ragnar del Sol Relay, and Cicely responds. The legs around Flagstaff have already filled up, leaving empty the stretch east of town, across the Rez. Still, it’s northern Arizona; it’ll be cooler than Phoenix, right?
At the three mile mark Cicely & I swap places and she runs the next three. I munch Pringles and blast the A/C, leapfrogging her a mile at a time. She dumps her water bottle over her head and refills it at each mile. “I’m not carrying my cell phone,” she says, “There’s no reception out here anyway.”
To non-runners, responding to the violence at the Boston Marathon by running 3300 miles across the country must seem like telling someone, “Stop hitting me or I’ll poke myself in the eye with a stick.” What we’re really saying is: “We are strong. We are undaunted. And we will support our injured long after the media spotlight has faded away.” How do you fight terrorism? Don’t be terrorized.
Replenished, I take the next 2.5 miles at an easier pace. There’s a little bit more scenery on this stretch, as I pass by an escarpment and through a wash. Far off I can see the Leupp water tower, and just concentrate on getting there. Hallelujah, even before that I spy the little orange Prius parked at the side of the road.
Reading the stories of the other runners in the relay, I feel a little out of place. Holly, in the stage before Amy’s, ran Boston this year. Thomas, the second stage following mine, was a few hundred yards from the finish when the explosions happened. I’m just a dorky mid-packer who’s willing to drive three hours to run five miles.
The final 2.5 miles are Cicely’s. I pull in at the gas station/general store that, along with the water tower, signifies the town of Leupp. Danny and Kate are there with the Stinkmobile, along with Mario, who’s driven up from Phoenix with his family, and Thomas, who’s driven down from Tuba City with his. As we’re waiting, a big dust devil rolls down the road, engulfs us. “What causes that?” asks Kate. “Just the wind,” I say.
Living the One Run Facebook page has been like being a single neuron in a huge mind with a single intent. We watch the ticker, willing the final vacant stages full, then follow the baton’s progress as it tracks from Venice Beach east and deep into the Mojave, occasionally departing from its path as a runner takes a wrong turn or has to re-route around some unforeseen obstacle. The photos filter in: killer hills; a clandestine midnight snap of a runner sliding under barbed wire, no explanation given; twenty dollars and a note reading “God bless ya’ll” tucked under the wiper of the Stinkmobile; lightning, bridges, cows, tornados. Stories are shared, transport provided for runners who need it, flying or driving in from all corners of the country. People who’d been in Boston, people who knew someone who’d been in Boston, people who’d never come closer to a BQ than five and a half sweaty miles on a remote Arizona highway.
Cicely runs in, hands the baton to Mario; photos are snapped, and he’s off, heading on down Leupp Road away from Leupp, moving the baton closer to the New Mexico border where it will cross early next morning. There’s a little time in the shade of the gas pump canopy for some more photos with the backup baton and a few laughs; then the Stinkmobile, Thomas and his family depart eastward in pursuit. Stage 55 is over. Cicely and I grab some sodas and head back towards Phoenix.
Two things I’ve learned:
It’s not all about you. You’re a small part of a huge swath of humanity, whose stories and struggles make your petty troubles pale in comparison.
It is all about you. That huge swath of humanity is made up of individuals like you, and your story and their stories make up the greater story. It’s all about us.