The Marathon Angel
A gentle nudge in the Highlands.
Thursday, May 1, 2003
Photos by Randy Tunnell: Guiding Spirits: A tired runner is greeted by a feathery spirit just one hill away from the finish line; Earlier, in the Carmel Highlands, an orange-vested angel spurred on the Weekly''s Andrew Scutro.
It was in the Carmel Highlands, somewhere near mile 23 of the Big Sur Marathon when the hateful and humorless pain took hold. It gripped me like an iron fist, squeezing for a plea.
The soles of my feet were numb and my shins were twisted up like birch saplings. I was fairly sure I''d parted company with the big toe on my right foot, but of course I couldn''t tell because I couldn''t feel it. Something was rattling around down there in my shoe, and it was big enough to be a toe, so I just figured, yup, that''s my toe.
After more than three hours of continuous, grinding motion in an attempt to run back to Carmel from Big Sur, my legs felt-to use a tattered but accurate running cliché-like they were made of clay or lead. I understood my legs; I could empathize. But they felt like they belonged to someone else. I wanted to disown them and get my trusty old legs back. I needed them bad. Real bad.
I was sucking air like I''ve never done before to be sure my heart had the oxygen it needed. In my mind I was trying to forestall a stroke or heart attack, which at age 32 would have been inconvenient and embarrassing. Like the whole thing-it was all my fault.
I''d been injured running from Andrew Molera Park to Carmel three weeks prior. My left leg hurt so much I had to stop my strict training schedule cold. Despite rest and ice compresses, walking made me sweaty and nauseous.
A week after the injury, my leg mysteriously swelled up. I got seriously depressed. I read a quote from a physical therapist in an online running magazine who spoke about what runners need to do to heal. She said: "I tell them it''s not going away unless they stop running. But telling someone training for a marathon to stop for four weeks makes them want to shoot themselves." Exactly.
My confidence was shot so completely it got down to deciding on the day before the race whether or not I would run. The long training lapse, and the fact that my rather unconventional training method included the occasional chain of Parliament Lights, meant my fear had some basis in truth. During some mangled, gloomy runs in the previous week I''d convinced myself I would cross the finish line in a gurney as payment for my sins.
Now, only miles from the finish, it was real. The physical stuff was brutal but the mental pain was worse. I looked over and realized I wasn''t running alone. I was running with the Devil.
He offered a way out with every step. "Walk," he said. "Who cares?" he whispered in my ear. "You will feel better. All the pain will go away.
"See that barbecue over there, where those people are sitting with cups of cool and refreshing liquids? They''re not running. You are hungry and thirsty. They are sitting, so just go over and ask them for a hot dog," the Devil said. "See all those people sitting in front of the Carmel Highlands gas station? See them? See them smiling? In the store behind them, there''s a whole refrigerator packed with can upon can of cold beer. Cold beer! You love cold beer!
"Does it really matter if you finish? Who cares about a lame medal? It''s not like you won. You''re not Kenyan, you''re from New Jersey. You''ve got excuses. Say it was your sore leg. People will believe you. Stop running," he said, "go up there and ask for a beer. They''ll give you one," said the Devil trotting along beside me.
The Devil of course was right. I was trapped, stuck in the marathon''s vise-grip, its crucible, the do-or-die chute.
I really started to wonder why the hell I was doing this. Just the night before I was at a pre-race feed when I was forced to consider an unanticipated view. I stood out on the patio, sipping a Heineken when the fiancé of a marathoner told me he wasn''t running this time because he had "nothing to prove."
I had never thought of running, or running a race, as proving anything. I just like to run. In fact I love to run, for a lot of reasons, but the fact is that few things in life have given me such joy. Running, you depend on no one else for that joy but yourself. Running means you can blame no one but yourself. Long-distance runners know what that means and a marathon is a test many are willing to take.
So until this point I was sure of my reasons. Then, in the final steps of the course, the tortuous last four miles of pitched and canted highway winding through Carmel Highlands, the Devil showed up, casting doubt and setting out a sumptuous buffet of temptation and excuses. I was ready to give up. The pain was too much. I didn''t care about the finish line anymore. I didn''t care about shame. I didn''t care that my mother would have to make an excuse for me to her friends when they asked how I did at Big Sur. The Evil One had squeezed me just hard enough. The Devil won.
Then I saw her. I saw the Angel.
She must have been over 70 but full of life. She had short gray-white hair and eyeglasses with dark frames. She had on an old-style orange puffy vest and clothes you might hike in. She had a cane or a walking stick and she was marching down the northbound side of Highway 1, calling out to the runners: "You can do it! You can do it!" She marched along calling out to us: "Come on, you can do it! Come on! You''re gonna do it!" The Angel in the orange vest nudged us along just enough. She said we could do it. We did it. And the Devil flew away.
Andrew Scutro finished the Big Sur marathon in 3:48:32, without beer.