Thursday, July 20, 2006

Balls of String Are Not To Be Trifled With

I’m in my fifth week of training for the Chicago Marathon.

I realize that to a lot of people, running 26.2 miles is not the act of a rational human being. But if you live in Chicago and have ever strapped on a pair of jogging shoes and/or fancy yourself physically fit, you will one day feel shamed into entering this event. You will be slumped on your couch eating a bag of Cheetos, watching a broadcast of the race on TV and the announcers will mortify you with the inspirational tale of a blind, 80-year-old, one-legged grandmother who has just posted a personal best. You will think, “Surely, I can take her,” and the next thing you know, you’ve plunked down your $90 registration fee, which is just stiff enough to guarantee you won’t renege, and are downloading training schedules from some guy named Hal Higdon, who you hope knows what he’s talking about.

So I run five days a week—Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday. My longest mileage so far has been 11, and I’ll eventually work up to 20.

I’m not worried about whether or not I’ll be able to go the distance. I know I can take the punishment because Dave and I frequently spend our vacations beating the crap out of our bodies. Two summers ago, we traveled to Washington’s Olympic National Park. Instead of driving to a scenic viewpoint at Hurricane Hill, we opted for a 13-mile roundtrip hike to the ridge and back—the trail gained over 5,000 feet in elevation on the way up, and lost the same on the way down. (I’ll admit I misread the topographic map.) The descent was so relentlessly steep that I started walking backwards to shift the pressure from one set of aching muscles to another. I do not recommend this technique if there is at all the possibility of stumbling on a tree root and falling down a cliff or into an unseen stream. So it was back to forward motion. For three days after, we had a glimpse of an arthritic future in which our calves would protest at scaling so much as a curb. So, no, I’m not scared of a really long run.

I am a little nervous about this nagging sometimes-dull-sometimes-sharp pain in my left shin. Nervous enough that I’m meeting with an orthopedist a week from Monday. But not nervous enough to stop training. In the meantime, to take a little pounding off the shin, I am trying to run on gravel and grass whenever possible, although the unevenness of grass increases the potential of a sprained ankle.

I have sprained my ankles three times; one of them twice and the other once, although I’m not sure which incidents are related to the left or right. I’m a little fuzzy on how the first sprain occurred, but I’m quite clear on where it happened. When I was in high school, my parents dumped me off in Carey, Ohio, for a T.E.C. (Teens Encounter Christ) weekend. Apparently a Catholic school education wasn’t religious enough for them, and they insisted that each of their offspring attend a TEC to get closer to God, the hoped-for result being that we would stop behaving like surly teenagers. My sister had gone, kicking and screaming, the year before. I opted for the seething silent treatment on the drive down to the retreat site. Just the sort of attitude the weekend was designed to cure.

Not that I had anything against God. It’s just that some kids thrill at the prospect of these sorts of gatherings and some kids don’t. Sort of the way that some kids play in the band and other kids mock it. Me, I was a mocker. I knew there wasn’t anything remotely “neat” or “cool” about TEC. I also knew I would be stuck with a bunch of girls who thought otherwise.

Now, if I had found a partner in cynicism that would be one thing. But my roomie was Jodie. Jodie was very sweet and very earnest and very sincere. And slightly troubled. Like a lot of teenage girls, Jodie didn’t get a long with her dad. As I see it, the problem with fathers is that they were once boys. They didn’t understand teenaged girls back then, and they don’t get them when reincarnated as daughters. Heck, most haven’t figured out their wives. Throw a second or third case of PMS into the mix and they retreat to the basement and their power tools.

In Jodie’s case, the situation seems to have been more than your garden variety Mars vs. Venus communication gap. It might have involved abandonment, neglect, abuse or maybe even a step-dad. I had a hard time following the thread of her tale of woe, as I was busy composing mental hate notes to my parents. But Jodie did find a sympathetic ear in one of our jailers. Let’s call him “Rick.” Within a matter of hours, Rick had been anointed official Father Figure and Jodie had turned into his Cling-on, rendering her useless to me as a recipient of sarcastic bon mots.

I’ve managed to successfully block the remainder of my TEC memories. Between two rounds of therapy, the most vivid detail shaken loose has been a ball of string that TEC-ers gifted one another with as a symbol of God’s undying love and devotion. Or some such thing. The rest of the vaguely cult-like experience is a blur—a pairing of constant activity and sleep deprivation that had all of us hostages praising the Lord at the end of our three day indoctrination, the effects of which were not so easy to shake, as I seem to remember attending, voluntarily, at least one TEC reunion a month or so later.

Anyhow, on the first day, I and my fellow detainees were coerced by our captors into participating in a bonding exercise. I think it involved building a human pyramid. And that’s when I sprained my ankle.

I know what you’re thinking. According to the Geneva Conventions, this should have been my perfect out. A sign from Jehovah himself that I was not fit for duty on the God Squad. I was ecstatic and when the warden asked, “Do you want to go home?” every neuron in my brain screamed, “Hell yes.” But then it occurred to me that if I bailed at less than the halfway point, the ordeal would not qualify as a complete TEC weekend and my parents might send me back for a do-over. I had already served a fair amount of my sentence, which would be utterly negated. So I stayed.

One of the adults on hand happened to be a nurse, and wrapped my ankle in an Ace bandage. As luck would have it, Carey is home to Our Lady of Consolation, a shrine to which people from all over the world, or minimally Northwest Ohio, flock for healing. I was not consoled by these powers directly, being something of a Non-Believer in Shrines, miracles, and images of the Virgin Mary appearing on tree bark. But the Shrine had answered others’ prayers—witness the roomful of abandoned crutches. I hobbled around on a loaner pair for the rest of the weekend, feeling a bit like Tiny Tim. God bless us all, every one.

Mom and Dad had not been apprised of my injury. I confess that I took a perverse and not particularly Christian pleasure in witnessing their shock and guilt when they appeared on Monday afternoon to spring me from lock-up. “You should be ashamed of yourselves,” I telepathed in their direction. “You forced me to come here against my will and look what happened. You are bad, bad parents. But because I have had the Spirit of God rammed down my throat, I will forgive you.”

And that was the end of TEC, my parents apparently deducing that it was no magic remedy for puberty and fraught with dangers of its own. My younger brothers’ sentence was commuted, just another exhibit in the It Sucks To Be An Older Sibling Hall of Fame. I’m still waiting for the boys to thank me.

But now I wonder if God isn’t having the last laugh. While it’s entirely possible that the current state of my shin is nothing more than a strain caused by over-training, it could be a Sign. It could be my old TEC sprain acting up to remind me that Higher Powers and balls of string are not to be trifled with.

God knows my intentions are not pure. I don’t want to just finish the Marathon, I want to beat that one-legged, 80-year-old grandma and maybe even a Kenyan. Perhaps this is His way of telling me that the former is not a particularly noble goal and the latter is altogether psychotic. Or maybe He senses that I’m using the Marathon as an escape, that I am literally running away from my problems and difficult life decisions.

Or not.

So I wait for my appointment with the orthopedist. Because my mind tends to jump to the worst possible conclusion, I’m convinced the probable strain will turn out to be cancer of the shin, requiring surgery and possibly even amputation. And if that’s diagnosis, well, I know where to get a cheap pair of crutches.


Blogger Blogging for scraps... said...

hope all goes well with the run. cancer of the shin can be a real bummer. I had an aunt who had it and was told to stop effing moaning. she used to moan a lot.

5:43 AM


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