Where is your new blog? Where are you hiding it? Ketikat asks from across the table. You haven’t been posting in your old one.
“Yeah…” I reply as I pop a chicken nugget into my mouth, “I’m done with my iron shoes. It’s now all about my iron nose…”
It’s been months since I last posted. I’ve been quite distracted. I have, after all, been avidly watching my very own soap opera inside my head. And, as most soap operas tend to do, the plot would often veer towards the ridiculous. There was no way I could share this story until I got it all sorted out.
My Iron Shoes started with this piece: Confessions of a Reluctant Racer. It was all about my reasons for being on the road and my attempt to run my first marathon. My reasons for running have not changed. It was, and it still is, mostly about sharing the marathon road with friends. It is, as it was then, still about my runs toward breakfast… with a slight variation. Now it’s a run to breakfast with friends and a side serving of B. B being Boston and running a 3:45 qualifier.
The path to Boston seemed pretty straightforward. But then that plan hit a snag or rather a curb! One fine Sunday morning, in the middle of cross training, I flew off my bike and misplaced my nose. And somehow, between the toppling bike and the hard pavement, a different story began to unfold…
The first day I got back on my bike, everything just scared me. I was a wreck. It was then I knew that there was more picking up that I needed to do. It wasn’t just my nose I had left in pieces on Temple Drive. I had also left behind pieces of the girl that once took such joy from being on the road. And that simply wouldn’t do. Not for me. Not for someone who considers the road her very own playground.
The journey to Boston now required a slight detour. Before I could continue my quest, I first needed to tame my monsters, temper my fears and somehow put the girl back together again.
I needed to get my iron back.
A curtain of fog and mist hides the bridge as a new wave of runners approach it on a chilly Sunday morning. It’s a steep climb up from the park below. Patches of blue and white are slowly becoming visible in the sky overhead. I take a deep breath of cool, crisp air and focus my gaze intently on the loom of the bridge up ahead. My steps quicken as others have began to slow down. I am getting nearer the incline. I scan the crowd of runners slowly making their way to the side of the road. Just a few more steps and it’s time to let go. A full-blown grin is let loose on my face. It stays there the whole time I am running up that road. A part of me still cannot believe I am finally going to cross the bridge in my running shoes. The bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, my marathon bridge now! Five full months of training and just a kilometer and a few heart beats away …
“1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6…7…8… 1, 2, 3…”
I hear Batgirl’s voice counting inside my head. The first time we encountered an incline that daunted us, it was at the Yakult run in Roxas Boulevard so many runs and what now feels like a million years ago. Back then, Batgirl would count out loud for both of us. We would run up the fly-overs together. She told me to keep my gaze on the road below and to simply count out the steps. This way, the incline would feel more manageable. Batgirl is a natural coach. She taught me how to run up hills. She taught me how to attack inclines. It’s a lesson I carry with me to this day…. except, I don’t look down anymore. I fix my gaze firmly up. I keep my focus at all times on that crest at the top of the hill. I stare intently at whatever gray blue patch of sky rests over it. I always want to know exactly what’s left of the hill to run.
I signed up for the San Francisco’s Marathon in January of 2009. San Francisco was going to be the marathon. It was my first attempt to improve on my then 4:45 marathon finish time. My goal for San Francisco was 4:15. But then, in the middle of a very long run, I found myself in another marathon… The Milo Marathon.
Maintain! Maintain! Maintain! Coach Titus shouts out the instructions 6 kilometers away from the Milo Marathon finish line.
A plaque on my father’s wall reads: Life is something that happens while you are out making other plans. It’s a Beatles’ quote that’s always amused me as a child. It’s something I found myself thinking about quite suddenly in the middle of what seemed like an endless stretch of Roxas Boulevard. Apparently, a marathon is also something that happens while you are out for a very long run. I had been running for close to four hours. My last water stop was at km 35. There had been no open water stations after that. We were getting so close to the finish line and yet it never felt so far away as it did then.
I take it a step at a time. One foot placed in front of the other. Like prayers in a rosary, every step was a declaration of faith and every bead of sweat, an offering of gratitude for the grace that’s kept me going towards a finish line that, at this point, I still could not see.
The plan for Milo was simple. It was meant to be a 35 kilometer long run. The rest of that 42 kilometer route was optional. I could walk it, I could crawl it or simply ignore it. After all, this wasn’t meant to be my marathon. This was my last big push. One final go at running long before my real marathon which was going to happen in exactly 21 days.
That was the plan. What happened was something altogether different.
When we hit km 30.5, a man on a bicycle told us. “If you keep this up, you may just make it to the top 10!”
Top 10? I was in the top 10? Wow! What a magical number. Coach Titus and I looked at each other… And then we just kept going. After all, what is another 12 kilometers between friends? It’s good to be brave. And when your courage begins to fade, well, you just hold on to your illusions and delusions as long as you can. I had no idea what that 12 kilometers was going to be all about. This was a good thing because it was going to be one of the driest and hardest 12 kilometers I’ve ever ran in my life. I was lucky that I had Coach Titus pushing me all the way. My saving grace during that training-run-turned-marathon was an experienced coach who figured out early enough that there would be no more water stations left. I was running inside my head. I had not noticed. I had started to push. I was all set to run after that all elusive 4:00 hours. The coach had shouted at me to maintain my pace and to conserve my energy. “Maintain!” He tells me. “Maintain and save your fire for a later day!”
A desert full of dry cups and a thousand sanity checks later, I see the finish line!
“Seventh place!” The woman shouts out as soon as I cross the finish line chute. Then she hands me a laminated piece of pink paper that reads:
I needed to ask,”Are you verifying if I ran the full 42.2K or if I am a woman?”
Sign up for the full sprint. A mini-sprint will just bore you! AquaGirl gives her instructions from across the store.
I shake my head all amused at this woman’s fire. What AquaGirl so conveniently failed to add was this: What does not bore you may actually kill you!
It all started with an application for a tri-sprint, the Animo Sprint. All of a sudden, I found myself deep in training for an honest-to-goodness half-ironman.
Blame it on borrowed fire…
I would not have had the courage to get back on the bike had Aquagirl not pushed me that very first day. This explains the detour… She wouldn’t allow me to keep sitting on that curb so I had to force myself to get back on that bike. Part of what pushed me back was perhaps pride and a reluctance to show weakness…But now I recognize it mostly to be a moment of grace. Grace through a friend who adamantly refused to leave my better and stronger self sitting on the curb.
“You don’t earn grace, little girl,” Sr. Xaveria, tells me with a stern voice. I am seven years old and getting a lesson in faith from my then favorite nun of the above! “All grace is freely given. It is never earned. But when you do get it, you better have a grateful and open heart.”
And so the journey continued. I stuck with my training. I focused on hacking away at those miles. And every weekend, I faced my demons on the bike. I kept at it knowing that I had friends counting on me to show up and expecting me to share the road with them. I kept at it in spite of the constant arguments I was having inside my head. Having a team waiting for me by the side of the road gave me a deadline. It forced me to deal with my issues and resolve it. I winged some, I faked some but at least it got me back on that bike and on that road.
“That’s what we do,” AquaGirl tells me, “that’s why we are a team. We push each other in training. And when we have to, we catch! “
Heat, oppressive, stifling heat at every turn. It had been hot on the bike leg. It felt like I was in an oven during the run. I was running towards electric poles. I was running towards tent poles. I was running towards the next pail on the side of the road. I was running towards anything I could see on the path in front of me.
I was tired but this wasn’t the time to stop. I had started reciting nursery rhymes because I was unable to remember anything more complicated.
“800 meters to go!” I hear someone shout. And once again, although there is no incline up ahead, I start counting every step in my head.
I spy four men in front of me as I run around the small pond. I keep running towards them. I pass the first man. He waves me on. The second guy stops and starts massaging his legs. I slow down, I fiddle with my race belt but I can’t find my biofreeze gel. He sees me slow down and waves me forward… Go! He orders and then smiles. The third man is just ahead and he is skipping on the red carpet. He looks back and he is wincing in pain. I look away and allow him his moment to be brave. We are both after one thing, after all, a good and strong finish. He will have his. I know it. I am off to have mine now.
What we need is a good mix of Fire and Grace…
I tap into everything I have left on reserve and sprint towards the finish line of the 70.3 Half Ironman in Cam Sur. I will not walk to the finish line although there is no shame in that. I will run because that is where I find my joy. I will run because, even now, even as I flirt with my first half ironman, I know my passion still belongs to running. It’s still the marathon that makes my heart skip that beat. I push off and I run and for a brief second both my feet are off the ground. I know it is the closest I will ever get to attaining flight.
Fire and Grace…
Fire is, was and will always be my responsibility. It is my job to make it and to continue to stoke it so it keeps on burning inside of me. Forging iron requires true-blue fire. But my grace has always been in my family and my friends. They are the ones who cheer me on, who hand me bananas on the road, who badger when required, who heckle and push and who catch. They are the people I share the road and my journeys and my stories with. They are the ones who fill the path with laughter and humor and joy so that the occasional growls and yowls of pain are drowned away…so that the fears are faced and the devilkins are sent back empty-handed into their own little hells.
That finish line is now more than a thousand steps behind me. But there are other finish lines beckoning up ahead as there are marathon roads left to run. But for now, I am enjoying my pit stop as I look back to celebrate all the finish lines I have crossed.
What’s next in the horizon? Why, another marathon finish line, of course! Which one? I don’t know. Not yet. But now I look down that road with a heart as light as feather wings because now, finally, the girl’s all here and once again she is ready to play!
Milo Marathon (Manila Eliminations July 5, 2009) – 4:10:52
San Francisco Marathon (July 26, 2009) – 3:57:56
70.3 Ironman Cam Sur (August 23, 2009) – 6:22:09