When a man dressed in tux and tails rolls his baby grand piano into a meadow, and plays classical music for passing runners while the sun rises to herald a 55-degree morning in Southwestern Montana, you know it’s going to be a good day for a half marathon.
Somehow, this very unusual sight made perfect sense for a day that could have been a real bummer, but turned out to be one of the more memorable feel-good experiences I can recall.
This past weekend, we were in Missoula, home of the University of Montana, to celebrate my return to the Boston Marathon. So I thought. Missoula was my qualifying race, and as of a month ago, I was primed to run around 3 hours, 20 minutes, easily below the 3:30 standard for 26.2 miles that I needed to get into my fourth Boston. All I had to do was stick to the workouts, rest and recover, taper down, avoid injury …
Avoid injury. Like a runner in Missoula told me Saturday, “that’s half the battle to get to the starting line, isn’t it?” Well, I didn’t avoid injury. I developed a sore heel, Achilles tendinitis, and a strained calf muscle. That erased my final five weeks of training, so I had to watch fellow competitors cross the line to the cheers of thousands. What a major, demoralizing disappointment …
Only, it wasn’t.
I switched focus to the positive, and was it ever positive. I watched my sweetheart, Martha Halda, add another notch to her ongoing legacy of life, which she is chronicling in her memoir, A Taste of Eternity, now being reviewed for publication. Martha entered the Missoula Half-Marathon, a miracle in itself when you consider that in a 1999 car accident, the impetus of A Taste of Eternity, she broke her pelvis and hips in many places (among many grievous injuries) after her Ford Expedition landed on top of her. She’d overcome a “you won’t walk again” diagnosis to walk the Dublin Marathon in 2003. Now, ten years later, she was trying the long stuff again … only this time, she would walk much faster, and do more than walk.
While Martha made her way around the picturesque 13.1-mile course that wound into the Norman Rockwell-like neighborhoods
of South Missoula, my job was to cheer her on and shoot photos. I’ve ‘caddied’ for others before, joining Martha in a 5K last Thanksgiving Day, course-hopping like a jacked-up rabbit to urge on the Union County High cross-country teams I coached, and helping my friend and former UCHS cross-country coach Jeff Brosman complete the Evansville Half Marathon in 2008.
This was different. First of all, I’m not 100% healed yet, so just getting onto the course played into the day. Four days before, while hiking in stunning Glacier National Park, I’d felt my calf twinge during a steady uphill climb, which forced our party of four (my high school running coach Brad Roy, his wife Susan, Martha and me) to take an easier, flatter route. It was by no means a safe bet that I would do anything but sit at the finish for three hours and wait.
I mapped out a shortcut from the finish to the halfway point, and ran five easy miles to get there. All good: no pain in the ankle or calf. A police officer saw me heading west with my Missoula Marathon shirt on (they gave full and half runners different colored shirts), and she cracked, “You’re going the wrong way!” I heard that more than once …
After arriving, I shot photos for awhile, cheered on passing runners, and waited for Martha.
She wanted to power walk at 14-minute mile pace, which is a little more than 4 mph – a very fast walk. Since I was sitting at the 6.5-mile mark, I expected to see her 85 to 90 minutes into the race. I talked with spectators, fumbled around with my iPhone camera, stretched my legs, soaked in the tall field grasses, oaks, cottonwoods and blue spruce …
She charged around the corner. Running, not walking. I looked at my watch: 78 minutes. Already well ahead of goal pace! I scrambled to get ahead of her and shoot photos as she ran past. The glow on her face was sublime; happiness and joy never wore a more beautiful expression.
For the next four miles, we ran-walked the course together (the wonderful Missoula staff and volunteers were incredibly nice about letting ‘caddies’ amble alongside their racers for short periods of time). Martha kept pushing and throwing short running intervals between her walk segments. I was surprised, because a week before, we’d nearly argued while on a long walk together, due to my analytical breakdown of paces and finishing times. Or, as Martha would say (and did), “ANAL-ytical”. You know, “If you average 14 minutes per mile, you’ll finish in 3 hours, 4 minutes.” When you’re walking the backside of Oceanside Harbor on a sweet summer morning, seagulls and boats bobbing in the still, warm water to your right, it’s best not to go scientific on your loved one!
As we ticked off miles, I watched her stride, body alignment, and the looks on her face. The coach in me. She talked with others as they passed or she passed them, kept her eyes focused straight ahead, smiled and enjoyed the amazing old Victorian homes, and kids offering gummi bears, lemonade, smiles, and cute signs. I marveled at the turnout. In all my years of racing, I’ve never seen a bigger on-course crowd for a race in a small city. It exceeded many big-city races as well. Nor have I seen greater enthusiasm, with the possible exception of Boston. It was obvious why Runner’s World magazine anointed Missoula the nation’s top marathon (in 2009).
Martha looked strong. Very strong, in spite of the fact her hips were hurting, and she grimaced every time she slowed from a running interval.
Still, she wouldn’t change her strategy. She smiled, lengthened her long stride to compensate for a slight slowing down of pace, and moved forward. One thing I know about this girl: She will finish what she sets her mind to do. Whenever possible, she’ll do so with the same ‘I love life’ smile on her face as she wore on the Missoula streets.
As we passed 10 miles, it was almost time for me to leave the course for my next task: Shortcutting to the finish line, across the bridge from Clark River (named for William Clark of Lewis & Clark fame), to shoot photos of her finish. Her pace had slowed, but she’d gained more than enough time earlier “to do something very special,” I told her. “Just hold this pace for three more miles, stay out of the aid station traffic jams, and even if you don’t run anymore, you’ve got it.”
We kissed and I headed off, but not before texting Brad and Susan Roy, who were following Martha’s progress through my text messages. “She’s on 2:55-56 pace. Looking strong. She’s got it,” I texted.
“WOW! Fantastic!” Brad texted back. That’s where I learned my supportive, ever-positive coaching philosophy from … the Master.
A few minutes later, I immersed into the pandemonium of the finish line. Crowds were lined four deep from the tape to the start of the bridge, a good 200 meters away. Every time a runner charged across the bridge, the PA announcer called the name and the fans cheered. Every time.
Soon enough, Martha reached the bridge and broke into a finishing kick. As a former collegiate 800-meter runner, she knew how to kick. She was between two packs of runners, each 20 meters away. She ran alone, which lit up the PA announcers – and the fans. As they cheered her across, I felt shivers in my spine. If only they knew her story, I thought. But they will, when her book comes out.
I shot photos as pride and joy surged through my heart. As she hit the tape, I looked at the clock time: 2:58. Her actual chip time would probably be a couple of minutes faster, since it takes two or three minutes to get to the starting line when you’re amongst a field of 3,500. “I think you ran 2:56,” I told her. An achievement-filled, adrenalin-aided smile broke across her face.
Martha’s goal was to finish the half marathon in 14-minute pace, or 3:04. Her official time was 2:56:00.7. By anyone’s measure, that’s busting the doors down.
Since I run for time and place in these races, and usually finish in the top 5 of
my age division, I never see what happens in the middle of the pack. This entire experience took place in the middle, and opened my eyes to the whole point of tackling a challenge, or a goal: to see if you can do it, and then to push yourself to exceed expectations. I’ve always recommended that serious racers jump into the pack to support someone who’s out there because they want to cross the finish line of a half marathon. For me, it’s a reminder of the joy of running.
In this case, it turned what otherwise would have been a disappointing morning into one of the greatest days of my running life. The best part? I get to experience the afterglow of accomplishment as it shines from Martha’s face every day – even though she winces every time she has to walk downstairs or downhill. Ah, the exquisite agony of sore muscles after a long race well-run …