I grew up in a family of storytellers. On a typical Sunday, my grandmother would show up at our house after attending the Presbyterian Church in Dodge City, Kansas, and during Sunday’s meal of roast beef, mashed potatoes, gravy, and corn, my mother and grandmother would sharpen their wordsmithing skills as they told their favorite stories. One of my grandmother’s favorite stories involved a relative crashing through an outhouse as he sat for his morning constitutional. My mother enjoyed telling stories about her artwork. Drawings, decorated eggs, and handmade jewelry were so much more than the materials they were made from. Although my mother tried to teach me how to decorate eggs and draw pictures of people and places, I found my creative side through storytelling. From a very young age, I began writing poems and songs to play on my guitar. I learned from the best—and not just from my mother and grandmother. I recently attended the Bear River Writers’ Conference at Walloon Lake in Northern Michigan. Wordsmithing and listening to each other’s stories were the featured attractions.
Once again, I was excited to be in a workshop run by The Living Great Lakes author Jerry Dennis. I first attended the Bear River Writers’ Conference when it was in its infancy at Camp Daggett in 2001. My friend Darcy Czarnik Laurin and I attended our writing workshops, had a memorable canoe ride along the swollen Bear River, and survived with the help of a preacher who guided us out of our very precarious situation. Paddling is difficult when your canoe is stuck on a log in a fast-moving river. Darcy also tried to kill me with a paddle, but she still claims she was trying to whack a spider crawling on my back. But that’s another story.
Workshops are interesting beasts. As a freshman comp, literature, and creative writing teacher at SVSU, now retired, I understood that writing was difficult for many students, and providing honest feedback on their work was essential in order for them to improve their skills. Just because a student’s mother liked his or her poem, did not mean it worked. I never quite knew what to say to a tearful student demanding I change my opinion.
As writers and readers, we have a responsibility to dive deep into what another person has written, explore its meaning, and give constructive feedback. Personally, I prefer feedback on my writing to be brutally honest, as does my long-time friend poet Chris Giroux, a professor at SVSU. We exchange our writing with each other in order to make it better. Honest criticism always works for me. Bring it on.
I have gone to the Bear River Writers’ Conference nine times since 2001, and I have attended Space, In Chains author Laura Kasischke’s workshops four times during a span of sixteen years. One year I opted for The Art of the Personal Essay author Phillip Lopate’s workshop, and it was truly memorable. My fourth time in one of Jerry Dennis’s workshops would allow me another chance to practice my skills as a writer. The feedback on my writing from each of these authors over the years has been instrumental to my growth as a writer.
I was very concerned about attending Bear River this year after the crazy leg surgery I had done on April 7th. Since I have a very long recovery, I wondered how I would get around the grounds of Camp Michigania, and how I would be able to sit for long periods of time both in workshops and listening to authors read. Not to worry! When I showed up on registration day, the Key Administrator, Jessica Greer, handed me a key to a golf cart so that I could get around easily. She had also placed me in the nearest cabin to the Education Center so that I wouldn’t have as far to go around campus. Life in the slow lane wasn’t so bad after all.
In workshop, I was offered plenty of opportunities to stand up and stretch, and people were very kind in making sure I was comfortable. Although it is always intimidating to be in the company of so many good writers, there was a feeling of kindness and empathy as we worked our way through revisions. Nature, grief, longing, memories, history, and the need to understand how the world works were some of the themes present in our stories. We listened carefully as each person read. We offered feedback to make the pieces stronger. Yes, it was a very good workshop.
Baseball batters often have a walk-up song played before they step up to the plate. As one man in our class was about to read, I wondered what his song might be. He did not share his song with us if he had one. My song has been “Texas Flood” by Stevie Ray Vaughan since 1983 when it came out. My son was a year old, and life was wonderful. I don’t play baseball, and my short-lived attempt at playing softball when I was barely pregnant with Matt was disastrous. I was that grown up out in right field messing with my hair as a fly ball headed my way and dropped dead in the grass a foot in front of me. I did, however, become a runner, and for the past thirty years, I have run road races all over the state of Michigan. Since I injured my leg in October 2015, and especially since my surgery for an acetabular labral tear, I am on the disabled list. My physical therapist said that I should not even attempt to run until next April. In everyday life there has to be a theme song or a song that seems to get your heart pumping and your blood moving. From the first moment I heard “Texas Flood,” the guitar licks and the words have somehow mattered to me. That song is always on my playlist.
I hope that if you are reading this, you have a walk-up song that pumps you up before you step up to the task of being an empathetic and kind person in this world today. Listen to people’s stories when they tell them to you. Read what thoughtful writers are concerned about. In an essay for Ploughshares titled “Poetry, Science, Politics, and Birds” by writer Bianca Lech, she says that “a world with more lovers of books is worth striving for.” In addition, she suggests that a world with more birders would indeed connect us to nature in ways that would bring us joy. As a birder myself, I agree wholeheartedly. Isn’t that what we should strive for at the start of each day? A little walk-up song as we head out the door, a willingness to listen to each other as we tell our stories, and, at the end of the day, a book to read to learn something new about the world and to connect us to others? As we watch the sun go down and eventually go to sleep, our dreams will prepare us for tomorrow and the chance to do something that matters.
In the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Butch tells Sundance that he’s “got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals.” Bifocals, or not, vision is critical to anyone’s success. Different activities require varying degrees of vision, and on April 23rd, my “vision” skills were put to the test.
Early that morning, I tapped into my “do not break anything” vision skills. At the start of the Houghton Lake 5K Trail Run, my son and I, along with about two hundred and thirteen other runners and walkers, listened carefully as the gentleman starting the race gave us some advice. He warned us that we would be running through mud, puddles, tree roots and rocks (marked by orange spray paint), and “you’ll see.” Since Matt and I had both run the race the previous year, I wasn’t too concerned about the mysterious “you’ll see.” Instead, I found myself preoccupied pondering the presence of bears in the woods and my mostly rehabbed iliotibial band. One of my neighbors had recently told me that her daughter had photos of a bear wreaking havoc in her daughter’s back yard at Higgins Lake. I had visions of bears wandering away from Higgins Lake, swimming across Houghton Lake, and hiding in these particular woods waiting to pounce on unsuspecting runners. I reminded myself to stay in a pack with other runners at all times. The whoop-whoop sound of a State Police Trooper’s siren signaled the beginning of the race.
I quickly lost sight of my speedy son as he surged ahead. I kept pace with a large group of runners for about the first mile, and then I hit a section of very deep ruts. A large pile of cut timber lined one side of the trail, so I assumed the ruts had been caused by trucks and equipment. I lost sight of people in front of me, and I could not hear anyone behind me. I felt the slip-slap-slop of my hips trying to realign themselves after each awkward lateral move. As soon as the ground smoothed out, I picked up the pace as I avoided orange rocks and tree roots, crossed over swampy areas, hip-hopped over hula-hoop-sized puddles, and somehow prevented myself from falling when I tripped over an unmarked tree root. I crossed the finish line mostly intact. My “do not break anything” vision skills had guided me along the trail. It was time to head home and prepare for the day’s next event. My vision for a poem the previous year had led to an opportunity to read it in public.
When I was young, I never imagined myself as a runner, even though I racked up some blue ribbons at track meets. I stopped running when I graduated from my small country school and started ninth grade at the junior high in Dodge City, Kansas. I did, however, start writing at a young age, and I had visions of being published as early as my teenage years even after I received my first rejection letter from Seventeen magazine for my heartfelt poem about being confused about boys.
My inspiration for the poem that the Dunes Review had recently accepted for publication stemmed from a vision I had while visiting my cousin Audrey in Kansas in 2015. One night the cicadas were so loud that the stars in the sky seemed to vibrate. Birds shimmied to the beat. Dogs in the neighborhood howled. I scribbled down lines in my journal. A writing prompt from writer Laura Kasischke’s workshop at the Bear River Writers’ Conference a few months earlier popped into my head. I imagined myself standing in front the house I grew up in out in the country east of Dodge City. I began working with the lines. Was I under the spell of poetic vision? I seemed to be breathing in images from the past, both real and imagined. The poem began to take shape, and after months and months of revision work, my vision paid off in the best of ways: publication and the chance to read it to an audience.
As my friend Julie and I began our journey to Traverse City, I told her that when she, friend Jeri, and I had been at Brilliant Books the previous fall, I had mentioned to them that the Dunes Review hadn’t accepted any of my work since 2010. Over the years, I had submitted a piece occasionally for the biannual lit magazine, only to have it rejected. I convinced myself that this vision during my previous visit to Brilliant Books had somehow led to the subsequent acceptance of the poem for the new edition of the journal. I was scheduled to read about midway through the list of writers, and when it was my turn to read, I stepped up to the podium. In a voice that only the ghosts of dead authors could hear, I said the title. Fellow writers and audience members quickly encouraged me to speak up. I stopped, placed my right hand on my sore right hip, and said, “Hello” in a weird sort of British accent, and started over. I have no idea why I used a British accent, since I grew up in Kansas and lived there for twenty-one years before moving to California for two years. For the past thirty-nine years, I have lived in Michigan. As Hoyt Axton once sang, “I’ve never been to England, but I kind of like the Beatles.” Apparently my vision skills had somehow been affected over the years by listening to the Fab Four, reading a gazillion books by British authors, and watching the movies Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility far too many times. Most likely my Michigan/Kansas accent worked its way into my reading, but I can’t seem to remember.
After the reading, Julie and I headed back to Higgins Lake via the backroads. We quickly realized that we would both have our “driving at dusk and then into total darkness” vision tested. Anyone who lives in Northern Michigan knows that if you are driving at night, you are destined to encounter deer making poor decisions. They will lurk silently around every corner. They will stand idly along every straightaway glaring at you with their cataract-like eyes. I turned on my “deer-vision” as I slowed the car down and prepared for the one hour plus drive.
Deer mocked us on each two-lane stretch of highway. At various locations along the backroads, we felt as if we were characters in a horror movie. Night of the Deer Zombies seemed like an appropriate title. At one hilly curve, nine deer nonchalantly watched us as I slammed on the brakes. I had a brief vision of MDOT renaming this part of the road “Dead Women’s Curve” in our honor. The vehicles that had been following us since Traverse City willingly played this game of hop-scotch with us as I alternated between complete stops and sixty miles per hour. Not once had the other drivers attempted to pass us. They somehow sensed my “deer-vision” while they were probably wearing their bifocals. I briefly considered stopping at Military Road, jumping out of my car and demanding a thank you for guiding them through deer hell, but, alas, I could not convince my hands to un-grip the wheel. Julie and I figured that we had avoided over forty deer.
By the time I pulled into my driveway, I was worn out and wound up. My legs hurt from the morning’s trail run. My husband inquired about the reading, and I launched into a ten-minute soliloquy about reading my poem and the exhausting drive home. I grabbed a beer and sat down on the couch. I closed my eyes for a moment and imagined myself riding off into the sunset à la Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I don’t plan on robbing any banks and going out in a barrage of bullets. My vision for a happy ending goes like this: I will be running a road race at the age of ninety (certain to win my age group), composing a poem in my head that the editor of the Dunes Review will love, waving at the deer hiding in the woods, and dreaming of a nice cold beer after I cross the finish line.
I can’t believe it has been eight years since my mother died from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. Because Alzheimer’s strips away memory and function at such a slow rate, it seems as if my mother died long before her body took its last breath. It’s as if one day she was kissing my cheek, and the next day, she entered into a long sleep as her body started to shut down. With every labored breath she took, I tried to remember everything my mother had taught me about facing the tough times. We had a joke we would say to each other when we needed to get to the point, but there were hundreds of side stories that would try and jump into the mix. Instead of saying that’s another story, one of us would say, “That’s a whole nother story,” Our language. Our stories.
I still feel my mother’s presence every day, especially when something wonderfully unexpected happens: A red cardinal at the bird feeder when I’m preparing to submit writing to a literary journal. A burst of sunshine through the clouds when I am feeling sad. A handwritten card from someone. I still have all the cards and letters my mother wrote to me after I moved away from home.
A whole nother thing I learned about myself after my mother died was that I would often ask myself what my mother would do in a particularly stressful situation. She constantly told me to “kill” someone “with kindness” if someone happened to be causing me pain. That can be a very difficult thing to do. I have not always been successful. I am working on not reacting negatively when someone does something unkind to me, and I am focusing more on the good things that happen to me and cherishing the moment. These good things seem to be happening more often now, and when I least expect it.
After six weeks of painful physical therapy, I decided it was time to test my body in a road race. Because my son was signed up to run the St. Patrick’s Day road race in Bay City, Michigan, I decided I would attempt the 5k walk. I hadn’t run since January 23rd, so I promised my physical therapist that I would walk slowly. My husband and son both doubted that I knew what “slow” meant. They were right.
I felt good at the starting line. I was surrounded by people anxious to get going in the thirty degree temperature. I put my earbuds in and started my playlist. I waited for the race to begin and the crush of bodies to move forward. As soon as I could, I passed a bunch of people and began walking. I tried to go slow, but my body seemed to be dictating my pace.
With a little over a mile to go, I felt a tap on my left shoulder. Becky, as I would soon find out, indicated that she liked my pace, and she wanted to walk with me. I knew I was going at a pretty good clip, and I had just strategically passed through a group of walkers blocking my route, so I didn’t have to slow down. I was in the groove.
As Becky and I continued at our fast pace, we began to chat a bit. I pulled out my left earbud, so I could hear her better, and we really cranked up our pace. I explained that I had recently finished PT, so I wasn’t sure how I would do. Becky was a great motivator. It was one of those moments where I felt as if my mother was keeping watch over me, and somehow picked Becky out of the crowd to cheer me on.
We ended up finishing the race fairly close together. Becky had a better kick at the end and finished just ahead of me. We were passing quite a lot of people as we headed towards the finish line, and I felt pretty good about that. Becky and I chatted briefly after the race, and I headed off to find my son.
Matt had run a good race at a sub-seven minute mile. He was 11th in his very competitive age group. As Matt drove back to Midland, I checked the results on my phone. I was shocked. I was second in my age group. Although the fastest walker in my age group had a 12:11 pace, my 13:31 pace was a keeper. Becky also finished second in her much younger age group. Despite my husband’s reminder that I had promised to walk slow, I told him that once Becky showed up, I felt as if I was meant to walk at that pace for the race. Some things are just meant to happen.
On the day before the anniversary of my mother’s death, my friend Darcy sent me a link to a poem about a woman dealing with her father’s Alzheimer’s. Beth Copeland’s poem is about erasure, and I thought of my own mother’s memories being slowly erased as we moved through her illness. I missed her laugh and her moments of “whole nother stories” that we would no longer share. I wish I had written more of those stories down. They seem lost somewhere in my own memories, but sometimes one of those stories will find its way into an unexpected moment.
I thought about the moment during the road race when Becky and I were nearing the finish line. I could hear Becky saying “we’ve got this” in my left ear, but the earbud in my right ear suddenly seemed to ring out louder. Chris Stapleton’s “Parachute” blasted through the sounds of the race, well-wishers, and music playing somewhere nearby. “Baby, I will be your parachute,” seemed to take on even more meaning. As I marched my way towards the finish line, I looked up into the beautiful blue sky, and I thought that if only my mother was still alive, I would have lots of stories to tell her. The one about my promise to walk slowly. The one about a stranger showing kindness to me. The one about drinking a beer with my son at lunch after the race. Or the one about my long drive home and the fact that I could not wipe the smile off of my face. But that’s a whole nother story.
Linda Ronstadt’s version of Warren Zevon’s “Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me” popped into my head the minute I figured out that I was no longer able to heal myself. In October of 2015, I made the mistake of stepping awkwardly off of a friend’s porch as I turned to wave goodbye. The minute my right foot hit the ground, I knew I had injured my body. I didn’t fall. Perhaps I should have. Despite the obvious pain in my leg, hip, thigh, quad, hamstring, screaming muscles, and pride, I figured I would rest a few days, stretch more, and get over it. For the next few months, I alternated walking and running. I knew my gait was wrong. Occasionally on hills, my right leg collapsed. I was in running denial. After a fairly decent four-mile run on January 23rd, my body suddenly seized up like a broken corkscrew. After a series of x-rays showed that my spine was fine, my doctor informed me that I would have to have physical therapy. I headed home and sang to myself: “Poor, poor, pitiful me.”
This wouldn’t be my first dance with physical therapy. About twelve years ago, I hurt my back shoveling snow and had to go to PT for six weeks and attend back school. During the first week of intense pain caused by a bulging disc, I was in a Vicodin-induced euphoric stage. I liked it a little too much. After being stretched out on a rack-like bed, learning exercises that would help me get stronger, and finding out ways to rake leaves and shovel snow without hurting my back, I finally recovered. I no longer wanted to sleep on the floor. I could drive a stick shift again without wincing as I changed gears. Spring came. Birds sang. I could run again. And then one day I found out I could not float through the air. Hadn’t my mother always warned me to watch where I was going? Although I didn’t fall, the minute my right foot hit the ground, I knew I was in trouble. Ouch.
In early February, my doctor listened to me recite my excuses for not coming in four months earlier. She didn’t even roll her eyes at me. After listening to me whine for a few minutes, she gave me a prescription for Cyclobenzaprine and Naproxen to help with the pain. I took the Naproxen for four days, before I decided to quit. All I could think about was drinking Pepto Bismol straight from the bottle. I didn’t even try the other drug. I wanted to embrace my pain. The following week I headed to my PT assessment, and I was told me that I would run again, but I had four weeks of PT to look forward to. My iliotibial band was a mess. Let the exercises begin.
As part of my daily routine, I work out twice-daily to strengthen my core, hips, hamstrings, quads, and thighs. I work out the elliptical trainer. I walk slowly. After almost four weeks of physical therapy at a facility in Houghton Lake, I have developed a love-hate relationship with my physical therapist. When I told her I was going to write about her for my blog, I asked her if I should use an alias for her name since she obviously was the Sweeney Todd of the PT world. She laughed and said I could call her Debbie.
Debbie, despite being a wonderful PT, introduced me to the world of the Graston Technique®. This particular use of stainless steel instruments used to break up scar tissue is guaranteed to locate your sore spots and make you sit up, see stars, and wish you had been smarter a long time ago. With apologies to Bryan Adams, “it cuts like a knife.” My Graston tool looks like a very large knife. The tool leaves bruises. Debbie promises me that she is breaking down the knots in my iliotibial band. These unwanted knots formed in my muscles while I was stupidly trying to heal myself. They are nasty. They hurt. They are the three stooges of my nightmares, and I can feel them when I try and massage them on a regular routine. I think of beer. I think of chocolate. I think of swimming in the ocean with sharks. Poor, poor pitiful me.
A few days after I started PT and was firmly entrenched in my pitiful mood, I went to the Winterläufe race in Frankenmuth with my son. I had signed up for the race, but since I had zero chance of running or walking the 8k race, I decided to go along and cheer on my son and take pictures. This was a new experience for me. I am not used to the sidelines during road races. Matt placed third in his age group and won a cowbell. I have never wanted a cowbell so much in my life. I now stare at people running on the roads with envy and despair.
On March 1st, the folks at PT will assess my body to see if I need more PT, or if I can work out on my own. Last week, I asked Debbie if I could at least walk the Bay City St. Patrick’s Day race, and she, in turn, asked me if I could walk without being competitive. Umm, sure, I said. I can teach my body to stroll. I told her I had walked 2.5 miles on the road recently and had walked fifteen-minute miles, and it seemed really slow. I even made a playlist that has more mellow songs on it. Debbie didn’t seem convinced that I could participate in a race and take it easy.
I guess my stubbornness and my inability to be patient got the better of me this time. I miss swearing at inattentive drivers on the road. I miss the endorphin rush that kicks in when I run. Instead, I work out inside and dream about the day I can run again. I do my exercise routine while I listen to the blues. I think about what that first run is going to be like when I get the go ahead. I will pretend that Debbie is chasing me with the Graston tool.
Perhaps the hot summer sun festered an old love-sick sore in his mouth. He leaned against his seal coating squeegee as if it were an extension of his self-esteem. He grinned at me as he smoothed out the driveway he worked on, the smell of seal coating oozing through the humid air like burning tires. “Good morning. Beautiful weather.” I agreed and smiled as I continued on my morning run. As the road curved to the right, I glanced towards the left. “I fancy doing me some of that,” he said as he pointed towards me. His face morphed into a venomous leer, and his inference was quite clear. His young coworker looked horrified and quickly lowered his head. Mr. Fancy That seemed quite pleased with himself as if this line had worked somewhere for him before. His smiled reeked of delusionary charm.” I quickened my pace as I ran the last mile home. The theme song from Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone started playing in my head like an unwanted earworm.
Cue the music. Hasn’t everyone had a Twilight Zone moment? Imagine Rod Serling’s serious voice delivering the unwelcome news. Over the years, I have heard plenty of strange comments while out running or during random conversations with people. Really? Did that person mean to insult me with that compliment? Did you mean to suggest that I am older than dirt? When someone tells me I look good for my age, should I say thank you? A student in one of my creative writing classes one year had described a character as “old” in her one of her short stories. I made the mistake of asking how old the character was in front of the class. The student pointed at me and said, “Your age.” Well, thank you so much. It was certainly a TZM (twilight zone moment) for me, but I think the rest of the students in the class thought it was the most hilarious thing they had ever heard. Running the roads or teaching classes aren’t the only places I have experienced a TZM.
A woman I barely know came up to me at the end of church one Sunday and said she wanted me to “sing a duet with [her] much-younger boyfriend.” She asked me if I was married, and I quickly flashed some major sparkle at her. She said she needed to check, because she didn’t want me to steal her man away from her. This woman is 86 years old. She said her boyfriend had a really long beard as if I might find him to be irresistible. I’m thinking: ZZ Top? Would he be “A Sharp Dressed Man”? Chris Stapleton? Would he be my “Parachute”? I knocked that vision out of my head and thought about my husband: He reminds me of a young Sam Elliot, mustache and all. I fancy that.
I wondered about this sudden sexual power I had. Okay, so it was only twice in the past six months, but I still wondered what sort of message I was sending. I sweat when I run, and my running clothes are actually pretty boring. When I go to church, I wear jeans and a nice sweater or shirt. Being prematurely accused of stealing someone else’s man before I had even met him seemed a verifiable TZM. I thought of Mickey Gilley’s song “Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time?” This Baker Knight penned song was a number one hit in 1976. In 2016, the lyrics took on a whole new meaning.
Suppose closing time is really just a metaphor for aging. Epiphany! I must be getting more desirable the older I get. I was on board with this notion. I now had a reason to live. I now had something to look forward to. I wasn’t getting older; I was getting prettier.
For most of my life, I was referred to as cute. Not beautiful. Not gorgeous. Not pretty. Cute and funny. These are just the words a teenage girl wants to hear as she watches all of her friends get selected for homecoming court or prom queen. At church camp one year, I had the misfortune of being referred to as a cute puppy. Imagine the hit my self-esteem took on that one. I was thirteen at the time. Luckily the puppy stage was short-lived, and in high school, my nickname was Missy. When I moved to California, I informed everyone that I wanted to be called Melissa. After all, it is my name.
I don’t really consider myself cute anymore. I’m too old for that. I’m tolerable. I don’t break mirrors when I look into them. I try not to look horrible in public. I try not to scare my husband in the morning. According to most of the women’s magazines I occasionally read, I don’t even really exist. It seems that once women reach their fifties, well, the advice columns drop right off. I have no idea what to wear anymore without Glamour magazine telling me what’s a “do” or a “don’t.” I do know that women past thirty should never, never, ever, ever wear a skirt that hits above the knees. Apparently, thirty is when “Ugly Knees Syndrome (UKS)” kicks in. I bet each one of you out there has been offended by a woman’s ugly knees at some point. I have also been reading articles about “crepey” skin. When I first saw the word, I thought it was a typo for creepy, but, no, crepey means basically old skin. Cher does not have crepey skin despite being almost 70 years old. Apparently there are ways around this unfortunate development with our skin as we age, but I have decided to stick with the face I was born with. And I am not going to go hide in a coffin until I die.
I am basically happy with myself right now, and my husband seems content with me even if I haven’t washed my hair for three days, put on makeup for a week straight, or bothered to put on a shirt that doesn’t have the name of a road race on it. And for me, he is my sharp dressed man even in his blue jeans and t-shirt. He’s been my parachute for a long, long time.
I guess when those occasional Twilight Zone Moments happen, I will remind myself that I am obviously getting prettier at closing time and that my puppy dog days are over. However, as I slip closer and closer to the twilight years, I plan on singing songs, running or walking, and showing off my ugly knees, crepey skin, and all of the other things that will happen to my body right before closing time.
In the classic movie Animal House, Bluto, portrayed by the late John Belushi, rallies his fraternity brothers to stand up for themselves after they are kicked out of Faber College. Recently, I felt a little Bluto-ish as I neared the finish line of the Alden 10K road race in Alden, Michigan, on July 25th. After one of the toughest 10Ks I had ever participated in, I was thrilled to finally see the end. Oh, the heat! Oh, the humidity! Oh, the three killer hills in the first two miles! As Bluto says towards the end of his speech, “When the goin’ gets tough…the tough get going.” I knew I would have to dig deep to cross the finish line. “Wait for me,” I yelled to no one in particular. It was my first time being last in a road race.
Alden is a gorgeous village along the border of Torch Lake in Northern Michigan. Lush rolling hills compliment the woods and open fields. As my son Matt and I arrived in Alden from Higgins Lake that morning, we noticed the pressing dark blue skies. Despite hoping for a short downpour before the race to cool things off, the sky held its steady gaze. Shortly before the race began, the sun burst through the clouds like a one-eyed panther staring down at a group of slowly roasting runners and walkers: 260 for the 5K and 92 for the 10K. We were off.
After a short uphill segment, the 5K runners and walkers split off to the left. Silently congratulating myself for being tough enough to tackle a 10K on a nasty summer day, I looked ahead at the hills ahead of me and told myself I could do it. By the time I approached the final hill in the first two miles of the race, I wondered if I should turn around and join those much wiser 5Kers. A woman pushing a child in a stroller passed me and said, “Only one more hill to go.” Why was she so perky when I was miserable? Perhaps she didn’t get out much. Was I even sure there was a child in the stroller? Was it a gallon of water? A keg of beer? Focus, Melissa, focus.
I tried to think positive thoughts, but it was useless. My calves felt like two sets of bad dentures. My hamstrings hummed like an out-of-tune guitar. I knew I would die of thirst before I reached the finish line. Skeletons danced before my eyes. Poor, poor, pitiful me. By the time I got to the top of the last hill and made the turn onto a dirt road, I realized there was only one woman behind me. She looked determined to beat me.
At the first of two water stops, I ran through a sprinkler, sucked down some water, and poured the rest of it on top of my head. Hot and smelling like last week’s roadkill, I had 4.2 miles to go. At least the dirt road went downhill. The reds, blues, and yellows of the runners far ahead of me flashed before me as they turned right and headed into the wooded area of the race. As I thanked the volunteer at the turn, I quickly turned my head. The woman behind me had gained on me.
The road morphed into a sandlot for grownups and off-road vehicles. What the hell? If I had wanted a beach run, I would have gone to Sleeping Bear Dunes. Step, slide, sink, step, slide, and sink. My ankles rolled to the left and right. Eventually the road became easier to navigate as it twisted through a tunnel of woods, ferns, and imaginary bears. In my nearly demented state, I believed that bears hiding in the woods were sucking up the runners who had once been in front of me. By this time, I saw only two runners ahead of me, and felt the hot breath of the woman behind me. I tried to run a little faster and catch up to the runners in front of me, but my body shouted no. I started walking. The woman who had been following my sorry butt for the first three miles passed me. We began battling back and forth for last place. I became insanely covetous of her purple tank top.
Before long, we were on paved road again. I spotted a few runners in front of me. I charged ahead and passed the woman in purple. It didn’t last long. I figured she was messing with me. She looked to be in her twenties. She probably kept saying to herself that she wasn’t going to let some AARP member beat her. At what I hoped was the final turn in the road, I thanked the volunteer sitting on the tailgate of his truck, and I confidently informed him that I was last. He said he would wait a few minutes to make sure. I hope he didn’t wait long.
As I hit the final stretch, a man on a bicycle rode up to me—the sweeper. Don’t fear the sweeper! Embrace the sweeper! I decided to chat. I learned that Dan rode his bike almost every day. I envied Dan on his shiny bike wearing a non-sweaty t-shirt. He looked clean. He smelled good. He promised to ride in the rest of the way with me. He probably wanted to make sure I would reach the finish line before sundown.
As I turned yet another corner, I saw my son in the distance near the finish line. He had finished the race far ahead of me, so he had been there a long time waiting for me. I turned to Dan and said: “He probably thinks I died somewhere on the course.” Dan laughed, sort of. A group of people sitting in their yard, presumably to cheer on the racers, seemed surprised when I ran by and bowed. I shouted, “I’m last,” and they clapped for me.
Near the finish line, I thanked Dan and said I had better give the last bit of the race my best kick. I nearly ran into a man picking up cones as I turned to approach the finish line. “Wait,” I yelled. “I’m still running.” At least the timer on the race clock was still running. Everyone else was gone. I ran to the water table. A volunteer told me they were out of cups. He handed me a jug of water. Ah, the nectar of the gods! I began searching for bananas, grapes, or any kind of food. I was starved. Matt told me that they had already hauled away the food. How could that be? I was less than two minutes behind runners 90 and 91. What the hell?
As Matt and I walked towards the awards area, we met up with my husband’s aunt, cousin, and some friends. Matt walked over to the results posted on the side of a building. Since I was starving, Aunt Barbara bought me a muffin from the Muffin Tin. It was better than the best steak in the world. I ate and drank from my jug of water. I would survive.
Matt soon discovered that he was fourth in his age group and had just missed out on an award. He wanted to stick around for the raffle to see if he had won anything. He walked over to the results again and came back with a smile on his face. “You aren’t going to believe this.” “What?” I said. “You were third in your age group. You get an award.” Apparently my age group, 60-69, only had three runners.
So there I was, outrun by 91 runners, two of which happened to be in my age group. No bears had attacked me. I had survived the hills. I had made it through the sand. The two women who finished in front of me both came up to me and wished me well. The woman with the stroller smiled and said she would see me next year. A cute little boy smiled at me. He had apparently enjoyed his ride in the stroller.
As we sat at the Alden Bar and Grille eating our post-race breakfast and drinking very tall beers, I realized that although exhausted, I was able to smile in a Bluto-ish goofy grin. Even though I looked like a squished snake who took a little too long to cross the road, I had completed another road race with my son. I had won an award. I also managed to win a free muffin and beverage in the raffle. It was a good day to be me. So what if I was last?
Let’s face it: I don’t have the beat. Or the pace. Or any kind of running smoothness. Despite the new black compression running shorts, dubbed my “magic pants,” I can’t seem to find a consistent pace when I run a road race. There’s no groove in my moves. No consistency in my MapMyRun® (MMR) split times. I started to doubt MMR’s timing, and began checking my watch to see if perhaps MMR was toying with me. How could I run fast (for me!) training runs, and then chug-chug-chug during a 10K? Why am I so dazed and confused on race day?
I began running road races about twenty five years ago. I’ve been younger, skinnier, faster, and slower, but for some reason, this running season I have yet to find any sort of fluidity or consistency when I participate in road races. I think I will blame it on my son Matt. Now that he runs road races with me and that he is running fast and furious in the tough 30-34 age group, I have turned into a rambling, chatty runner. I usually end up about five to ten minutes slower per race than my hoped-for and achievable goal. Yes, I might have sprinted that last .2 miles, but what the hell was I doing the previous six miles?
During training runs on my routes along Higgins Lake, I seem to do fairly well with my time. I run without music on some days, and on other days, I listen to songs that are based on my hoped-for pace. I run sprints using telephone poles as markers. This seems to work well, and I feel confident, until I show up for a road race. Then my slow gear kicks in, and I feel as if I have turned into a sputtering motor on a fishing boat.
Despite deer running across the road in front of me, random pit bulls that can’t decide if I am a chew toy or something to ignore, or drivers that have road kill (me) on their minds, I can hoof it pretty well for six or seven miles during my training runs. Brimming with confidence, I enter my house and provide my husband with a play-by-play of every significant thing I have seen that morning. I am kind of like a golfer reliving every hole, or so I have been told. After a road race with Matt, I mentally, and verbally, replay every hill, water stop, and moments of chatty conversation with random strangers, and ask myself what I could have done to improve my time.
My first road race with Matt this year was a 5K in Houghton Lake, Michigan, and consisted mostly of trail running. Obstacles, such as tree roots, rocks, mud, planks to cover wet areas, and an extremely uneven path through a densely forested area, made me realize how much I had forgotten about trail running. Although I had experienced the Mud Creek Crawl in Sanford, Michigan, on two occasions in the past, and the much more difficult Great Turtle Half Marathon on Mackinac Island, let’s just say I was older now, and hopefully a bit wiser. I ran a careful race. I did not want to trip, fall, and face-plant in the mud or on top of a rock. Even though the tree roots and rocks were painted to alert the runners, I ran with extra caution. Despite this, I ended up second out of four in my age group. I felt pretty good about this.
For my next adventure with Matt, we tackled the Shanty Creek to Shorts Brewery 10K in Bellaire, Michigan. I was really excited about this race, and I figured I would do well. I exceeded my expectations by winning my age group! I won a prize! I got to go up near the stage. Random strangers clapped for me. I was a winner! So what if I was the only woman in my age group? Actually, I was the oldest woman who ran the 10K. Shouldn’t there be an extra prize for that? I think so. The Shorts Brewery beer after the race worked pretty well as an addendum to my prize package.
Matt and I looked forward to our next 10K: the Mackinac Island Lilac Festival Run. As we rode the ferry from Mackinaw City to the island, Matt reminded me that he hadn’t been to Mackinac Island since he was four. What? Where had the time gone? Although I had run the Mackinac Island Eight Mile with friend Julie Davis twice, and the the Great Turtle Trail Run Half-Marathon four times with my husband, the Lilac Run would be a new one for me. Running a road race on the island would be a first for Matt. I reminded Matt to watch out for horse poop on the roads. He ran a great race, but my right Achilles tendon felt like a Charlie Daniels’ fiddle being tuned while trying to navigate the insane elevation as we made our way up to the top of the island. The headwind for the last two or three miles seemed especially unfair, and I wondered why the island had turned into the Devil’s Triangle. I kept running though, and I finished 14th out of 22 in my age group. Matt and I went to Horn’s Bar for some beer and food before heading back to the mainland on the ferry.
Our most recent race was close to home: The Higgins Lake Sunrise Run. I was excited, and I tried not to be overconfident. During last year’s race, I had gone out too fast and tanked. I vowed I would not screw up again. I figured that between me and MMR, I could average somewhere around a ten-minute mile. Nope. Not even close. I also somehow screwed up starting MMR at the beginning of the race, so I will never know what those darn split times were. Although I ended up second out of six in my age group, I was pissed. Why hadn’t I kicked it up a notch for the last three miles? Why had I engaged in multiple conversations along the way? Why did I make beer jokes at the water stations?
I did sprint at the end and cross the finish line as if my pants were on fire. My husband and son greeted me. I picked up my water and Powerade, and we posed for pictures. I felt good. I didn’t even feel tired. Clearly, I had not lived up to my potential. I imagined my mother’s voice reading my sixth grade report card to me. I tried to block out the negative thoughts, and I realized what I really needed was some food. Jim returned home, and Matt and I went to the Pine Pantry for breakfast. As I sat across the table from him, I realized that even though I hadn’t been a perfect mother as he was growing up, not even close, I must have done something right: I had just completed another road race with my son.
We have another race coming up in July, and a few other ones we are planning on signing up for in August and September. My son has to run early in the morning in Midland, Michigan, before he goes to work. He seems to have the pace thing figured out. I may never figure out how to run a road race again with any sort of consistent pace. I may never win a prize in my age group again with or without competition! But I really don’t care. As long as Matt is at the finish line and waving at me as I cross it, no matter what the clock says, I know that life is damn good. MMR can’t factor that data into my workout log. Maybe I do have the beat after all.