Chapter 17

Al’s Run

A few miles north of Chicago, I started thinking about food. Stopping at the Lake Forest Oasis on our way to Milwaukee had become something of a tradition, and my body gave an almost Pavlovian signal the second I saw the first road sign. “Want to stop at the Oasis?” I asked, just in case it wasn’t a given.

“Sure,” Dan said, looking over his shoulder and changing lanes so he could easily exit I-94.

“We’ll be right back,” I told Taubensee, reaching behind me to scruff his head. He’d been sleeping in the back seat but woke and sat up to look out the window when he felt the car slowly weaving through rows of parked vehicles. Stepping inside the rest area was like being transported to the mall food courts of my youth, my nose trying to make sense of dozens of different smells all at once. The bitter richness of the coffee brewing at Starbucks mingled with the buttery sweet smells riding the air conditioning current from the popcorn shop to my nose. The aerosolized grease from Taco Bell, Panda Express, and the gyro shop carried hints of Chinese five spice, warm cumin, oregano, and paprika. I’d been training to run an 8k—the race and visiting Dan’s parents were our reasons for making the trip—so my appetite was more than healthy. I wanted one of everything, but settled on a greasy slice of pepperoni pizza and a large Coke after Dan announced Sbarro as his choice and the power of suggestion worked its magic on my impressionable prefrontal cortex. We sat at the bar-style seating looking out over I-94 and watched as cars, trucks, and the occasional motorcycle zoomed under us. We ate quickly. The weather that evening was pleasant and the sun had almost set, but we didn’t want to leave Taubensee alone in the car any longer than necessary. He was a bit of a worrier. 

I looked at my phone’s lock screen as I plopped in the passenger seat, my Coke sloshing in the to-go cup. Only fourteen minutes had elapsed before we were ready to get back on the road. “See Taub? I told you we’d be quick.”

I have not ever called myself a runner or considered myself an athlete. I didn’t even join academic teams in school because the team stuff felt too much like sports. But I did start 5k training when I was 29 after my friend and I copped to wanting to be able to say we’d run a 5k.

I fought back tears when Bonnie and I crossed the finish line of the Indianapolis Jingle Bell Run on a very cold December morning in 2009. I was so fucking proud of myself for doing the damn thing. Sure I was slow, but I maintained my jog slog pace for the entire 3.1 miles, not slowing to walk once. 

I kept running for a few years after that, paying the occasional race entry fee to let someone time my runs. It was never about competing. I figured as long as I had money invested in a race somewhere, I’d keep at the whole exercise thing. It worked like a charm. I even bought a treadmill. But I never took to running the way real runners do, and I never surprised myself with how good I was at it, taking off across the country a la Forrest Gump.

Honestly, I couldn’t even pretend to enjoy it. I never got a runner’s high, it didn’t clear my head near as well as two minutes lying in shavasana, and my body never developed a knack for it no matter how many times I repeated the motion. I thought practice would make it easier, but it remained the same strenuous chore that it had been for me on Week 1, Day 1 of the Couch to 5k program. I only kept at it because crossing finish lines felt like something the Universe didn’t want me to do, and I kind of liked telling the Universe to piss off.

After a pre-race photo op with the Klement’s sausages and an announcement about how much money had been raised for Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, I found my spot at the back of the Al’s Run start line. All around me people in race bibs jumped and bounced in loose groups, relaxing muscles and dumping nervous energy into the street. Shrugging shoulders and pulling their feet to their butts one at a time while chattering excitedly about the course, where they’d parked this year, and how many times they’d run the race before. As the local radio station blared “Hey, Soul Sister” over the public address, I felt a cramp in my stomach and wrapped an arm around my waist. “Perhaps Sbarro was a poor choice for dinner last night,” I said to no one. I waved to Dan standing just beyond the spectator barrier with his camera, and suddenly felt homesick. I was contemplating stepping out of line and telling Dan we should just go for a Webb’s Benedict—the greasy spoon version of eggs Benedict that subbed Cheese Whiz for Hollandaise—when Train stopped singing and somewhere far ahead the starting pistol popped.

Oh well, guess I’m doing this.

After just a few hundred feet I was running up a slight grade. I was thinking: Hills? Really? At least in Indianapolis we have the good sense to put running courses on flat earth. WHERE THEY BELONG. By the time I’d crested the incline, I was physically and mentally done. I looked at the Garmin on my wrist and noted that exactly three minutes and eleven seconds had past, and I only had 96% of the race left.

I placed 2,887th out of 2,908 and after rounding the last corner was surprised to see race volunteers hadn’t already dismantled the finish banner. And there was Dan, standing among the sparse crowd of people kind enough to still be there cheering me and my people—The Slows—across the finish line. “Good job, Swiss!” Dan said, handing me a bottled water.

“That was devastating,” I huffed. I fought back tears at the end of this finish line too, only this time, having walked close to half the course, it was more about how the race had crushed my spirit. 

We left downtown Milwaukee to pick up Taubensee from Dan’s niece’s and then went to visit his parents for a bit. His dad was outside having a smoke and investigating the landscaping when we rolled up to the curb, and he came to greet us in the front yard. I stepped out of the car and fumbled up the sloped yard while Dan opened the door for the dog. I took a few klutzy steps, arms out but askew. By the time I regained my balance and righted myself I’d spun 360 degrees. Instead of asking, “How’s charm school, Grace?” like my dad would have, Bob laughed and said, “You drunk, Sweetheart?”

I chuckled and hugged him saying, “Not this time. I just finished Al’s Run, and my legs are not happy about it.”

He kissed my forehead then scrutinized my face at arms length. “You’re burning up!”

“Yeah,” I shrugged. If I had known it would take me that long to finish, I would have worn better sunscreen.”

I never ran another race again.

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