When it comes to asking for help—I simply won’t do it. Actually, that’s not completely true. I will ask for help, but only as a last resort, after I’ve exhausted every other option.
Carol and I were running buddies. Back in the 90s, we were in the same running club and often ran together during the weekly interval training. Over time, we became friends and would even do our long runs together on the weekends. I was in training for my first marathon in Boulder, Colorado, and was grateful to have Carol to train with. She had run numerous marathons and triathlons and was a great resource on everything from my diet to the number of miles I needed to train each week.
But what I failed to plan for, or train for, or ask about, was the actual terrain of the Boulder marathon. Although I was in the best shape of my life, it never occurred to me to train at higher elevations or the steep grades that I would face in Boulder.
The Boulder Marathon
I’ll never forget that day. Though the sun was shining, the winds were against us at 30 to 50 mph. There I was, trying to run up a mountain (that I never trained for) with a wind (that I never anticipated) literally pushing me back down. It was like running in slow motion while exerting twice the amount of energy. Not even a mile into the race, I knew I was in trouble as more and more runners passed me with what looked like minimal effort. How are they doing that, I thought, as my frustration turned inward. Why didn’t I prepare for this! Why didn’t Carol say something! Between fighting the winds, the ascending roads, and my negative thoughts, I was falling apart.
And then it got worse.
Completely exhausted, I somehow managed to make it to the 13-mile mark (the halfway point), but my body was struggling. The lactic acid build-up in my quads made every stride so painful that walking was the only way I could move forward. The marathon was beating me into the ground, and I didn’t know what to do. What’s worse, I came alone to the marathon. There was no Carol, no support team, or any marathoners to run with for encouragement. They had all passed me up a long time ago.
And on it went. I trudged in pounding pain. I limped, I cursed—but I kept moving. At the rate I was going, I knew I wasn’t going to finish the race, but it was more painful to stop than to keep walking. So, I kept moving—albeit at a snail’s pace. By mile 20, I couldn’t go any further and collapsed right there on the road. I had nothing left in the tank and the pounding in my legs was so intense that all I could do was rock myself back and forth and wait for help.
About 15 minutes later, a flatbed truck pulled up. It was the race organizers and they had to scrape me up and help me into the back of their truck. To my surprise, I found three other runners there in the same condition as I was. Well at least I beat those guys, I mused to myself. We then drove the rest of the course to the finish line, where a crowd had gathered to cheer for the runners—and for us. We each received a “participation” medallion as we got out of the truck. Now I know how those kids feel who get trophies just for showing up at the school tournament. A very hollow feeling to say the least.
I couldn’t walk. Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration; I could walk but not without a lot of pain. But the pain paled in comparison to my disappointment over not finishing the marathon. It felt like I had just tossed three months of training down the drain and all I had to show for it was a lame participation medallion.
Then, four days after my aborted attempt, an outlandish idea came to me while I was getting a leg massage. I grabbed my cell and called Carol.
“You’re going to do what?” she yelled. “You’re absolutely crazy!”
Carol wasn’t buying my logic. I tried again. “It is no different than doing a long run just before a marathon,” I pleaded.
“You can barely walk. That’s not the same!”
My pain was bearable, and I knew I’d be fine by the weekend, when the Pueblo marathon was scheduled to take place. I was convinced that I could do another marathon, as long as it was on a flat course. Plus, I just couldn’t let three months of training go down the drain without a completed marathon. I just couldn’t.
“But I’m going to need your help,” I added.
“You definitely need help,” she joked.
I smiled. “Funny—but I’m serious. I need you to come with me to Pueblo.”
“I’m not running a marathon,” Carol shot back.
“I know, Carol. What I need is for you to run the last six miles with me. Will you do that?”
I could tell by her tone of voice that she was going to say yes.
“I actually think that is a very good idea, especially considering your condition,” she added. “Okay, I’ll go with you.”
I knew that enrolling Carol as my support team was the right thing to do. I should have done it the week before. Why do I always learn things the hard way? I thought to myself as I ended our call.
Little did I know what lie ahead…
The sun was just coming up from the east. It was 6:00 a.m. and a cool 45 degrees outside. Carol wanted to run the first two miles with me before taking off for a leisurely breakfast. She was enjoying the whole experience.
“I’ll meet you at the 20-mile mark in about three hours, okay?” she said as she trailed off from the course.
I nodded, quietly wondering if I could run the next 18 miles in three hours. Clearly my confidence wasn’t where it needed to be.
This was a much smaller field of runners from the 400+ in Boulder the week before. In one sense, it was nice to have so much room between runners. In another sense, I could literally run for a mile or two and not see a single person. It was kind of eerie. Negative thoughts began passing through my head. What if I get into trouble? Will anyone be able to find me? And then a more disturbing thought, I have no way to contact Carol should something happen before mile 20! I didn’t bring my phone.
Marathons have a way of playing mind games with you, especially if you are in any kind of pain. And, as self-fulfilling prophecies go, by the time I hit the 13-mile mark, the lactic acid built-up came back with a vengeance. The pain was excruciating. Panic came over me as the course moved through a dense forest. No! This can’t be happening!
By mile 14 it was déjà vu all over again. I couldn’t run any longer and was forced to walk. I wondered what was worse—the intense pain in my legs or the intense disappointment I was feeling. It was like I was watching the same bad movie two weeks in a row, unable to change the channel. I couldn’t even muster the energy to look up and acknowledge the few stragglers as they passed me by. I was in serious jeopardy of not finishing the marathon—again!
I looked at my watch. The three-hour timeframe to meet Carol had already passed. She was waiting for me at mile 20, but I had no way to tell her that I was only at mile 17 and walking. The temperature was now over 90 degrees as the course moved to the open desert. There was no shade in sight, nor were there runners, or race officials, or even a truck to scrape me up. At this point, whatever pride I had left was long gone. Now it was about survival—and that meant I had to get to mile 20. There was no other way to end the nightmare.
Slowly, methodically, I put one leg in front of the other and kept moving. Walking had never been so difficult. As mile 19 came and went, I could feel my hopes rise. Surely, I can make it one more mile.
And then, off in the far distance, I could see the 20-mile marker, the same mark that did me in the previous week. But at least Carol would be there to help me. I was an hour-and-a-half late at this point and most likely dead last in the race.
As I approached with agony written all over my face, I noticed an ambulance was parked on the left side of road, obviously waiting for the last runners to either pass by or hop in the back. And there on the right side, with a big smile on her face, was Carol, looking at me as if I had just come back from the dead. What a welcome sight!
She gave me a big hug and helped me over to a shaded area where we sat down. My emotions were overflowing as I lamented about my aches and pains and the physical toll the last seven miles had taken on me. My legs were aching so much that I had to rock back and forth in an attempt to distract myself from the pain.
“What do you want to do?” she asked, very concerned.
“I can’t go on. This whole thing was a bad idea,” I cried out.
Carol squeezed my arm. “We don’t have to do anything right now, let’s just sit here for a while.”
“I blew it,” I said, shaking my head. “You told me I was crazy and I ignored you. I’m sorry.”
Another 20 minutes passed. Just then the ambulance pulled out and took off down the road. Carol and I looked at each other and immediately started laughing.
“Now I’m really screwed,” I joked.
Carol got up and looked over at me. “Hey, why don’t we just walk a little together,” as she pointed toward mile 21. “We can quit at any time—but my car is in that direction anyway.”
Feeling a little better, I agreed. “As long as we have to go that way anyway, why not.”
The 20th mile of the Pueblo marathon will always go down as a turning point for me. Had Carol not been there, I would have given up on my dream and taken a ride in the back of the ambulance. But Carol was there, and here we were walking toward mile 21, chatting away as good friends do, one step after the other.
When we came up to the 21-mile mark, my legs were pounding so bad that I was forced to sit down again. “Where did you park the car?” I asked, while rocking back and forth.
She looked at me apologetically, “Near the finish line. But don’t worry, we can catch a ride over there.”
We sat for 20 more minutes.
“Do you want to try walking again?” she asked.
By now the pulsating feeling had subsided. “Sure. We have to go that way anyway,” I said again, trying to be funny while seriously wondering if we’d ever reach the 22-mile mark on foot.
We slogged on for what seemed like the longest time.
“At this rate, I don’t think we’re going to ever see mile 22,” I complained, wondering how we were going to “catch a ride” as Carol suggested.
“Over there!” points Carol.
I look up and couldn’t believe my eyes. It was the mile 23 marker!
“No way!” I exclaim. “Where did mile 22 go?”
Carol looked at me with a smile, “We passed it already and you didn’t notice. Greg, we can do this!”
“We can finish this marathon,” she said.
I resisted. “I can’t make three more miles. Carol, let’s just get out of here. I’m done with this.”
“That’s fine,” she said. “I just thought that since we are so close that maybe…”
“Greg, since mile 20 we’ve already walked over three miles. Remember, we’re doing this together. Just three more miles and we’ll be at the finish line.”
I was almost convinced. “Do you think we can? I mean, do you think I can?”
“We’re doing it now,” she says.
I perked up. A long, lost skip appeared in my step. I started to imagine the finish line instead of the car as my final destination. I actually started to jog!
The adrenaline that pulled me through all those months of marathon training took over. We made it through mile 24 and then mile 25. Five hours had passed since the start of the race and we were merging onto Main Street in downtown Pueblo in a full-out run for the finish line. City workers cheered us on (while picking up the cones behind us). Cars honked. Runners who finished hours earlier passed us in the other direction, giving us high fives.
“We are going to do this,” I scream.
“I told you,” shouted Carol as she veered off the course and watched me cross the finish line.
I did it! We did it! And once I crossed the line, I was presented with the same exact participation medallion that I got the week before!
I embraced Carol, with tears rolling down my face. For Carol, it was just an ordinary Saturday in the park, helping out a friend. For me, it was so much more. It was about friendship; it was about asking for help; it was about perseverance; it was about overcoming adversity; and it was about finishing my first and last marathon ever!
Thank you, Carol! You have no idea how eternally grateful I will always be.
*This story is from Geese’s latest book, It’s All About Me: Stories and Insights from the Geese