The marathon & me

“If you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experience a different life, run a marathon.” – Emil Zatopek

With just a few hours left, I impulsively made a promise to my son.  One that I had no idea if I could keep. Ultimately, I am not sure the exact reason I would make such a promise.  Even as I said it, part of me was thinking….”This is way out in left field. Can you even do this?” but it was big and I guess at the moment, when I could do nothing else, I needed it to be big. I will never know for sure if my brave 11 year old boy heard my tear soaked promise made in the twilight of his short life but I had heard it and knew that it was promise that I would have to keep.  A few short hours later on that early February 16th morning in 2011, when most Portlanders were sleeping in there safe comfortable beds, I watch in disbelief as the seemingly impossible happened and Tucker took his last breath on earth.

The next year was poured into fulfilling a different yet equally important promise I had made to Tucker. When he knew that he would not survive his battle with a rare form of acute lymphoblastic leukemia he asked that a charity be started to remember him by. One that would give toys to children battling cancer like he had done on his 11th birthday in the halls of the 10 south cancer ward at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. He asked that we call it Tucker’s Toybox. Tears trickled down his cheeks as he worried that I would not have enough money to buy all of the toys needed and I boldly promised him I would never have to spend my own money to do so.  That when people heard his story and how he wanted to brighten the day of a child in the fight of their life with a toy, they would make sure that I would always have enough.

Tackling the process of forming Tucker Arnold Foundation would prove to be cathartic and bring purpose to a world that still felt out of sorts and numb.  Writing bylaws, a conflict of interest policy, a nonprofit business plan and ultimately filing for nonprofit status with the IRS presented mental challenges that kept me focused and motivated.  Preventing me for spending hours upon hours sitting in a puddle of tears on my sofa for days.  Not that I didn’t ever find myself there many times in the throws of the storm that is grief but determination to make sure that Tucker’s Toybox happened pushed me when I wanted to give up. It promised to memorialize my son by sharing his giving spirit with other.

The left field promise that I had made in the early hours of February 16th to a dying boy was essentially back burner-ed. Tucker’s Toybox continue to grow and stretch. Our hard work was paying off and we were making my son’s last wish a reality.  As the anniversary of Tuck’s death drew near and then went, I knew that there was unfinished business that I had to attend to.  Sure, I could of blown it off.  Called it a momentary laps in judgement as I struggled to wrap my head around the fact that  my son was dying and there was nothing that I could do to prevent or stop it from happening.  But I didn’t want to chicken out because I knew it would be hard.  I didn’t want to take the easy way out. Tucker never got the easy way out.  He endure countless procedures and pokes, nauseating drugs and hours upon hours of beeping machines, prodding doctors and nurses, zero privacy and moments where all modestly was unwillingly stripped away.  He had to go through that hell and even if it would feel like hell to fulfill this promise…I knew that I had to do it too.  So without giving it another thought I logged onto the Portland Marathon website and registered for the Marathon Walk.  My bib would read For Tuck and every step would be made to keep a promise made to a brave boy for no other reason than to do it for him.

Those that knew me well were likely scratching their heads in curiosity and wondering if I has lost my mind. I am not the exercise type you see.  I don’t thrive on sweating it out in a gym or subscribe to the no pain no gain philosophy of a hard and fast athlete. I was more the glass of wine and a good happy hour type.  So clearly I was in new territory. But I was determined to succeed or at least not kill myself trying, so I went to the most readily available resource of information I had and typed “How to prepare for a marathon walk.” into the Google search bar.
The first thing I was tasked with doing was to get good shoes.  In bold print the marathon blogger, who’s page I was devouring, instructed  not to just go to the department store to get shoes, but rather an actual running store.  So that is what I did.  I browsed the wall of tennis shoes looking at the colors and styles before me. Some were cute other’s a mish-mash of neon colors.  I only owned a few pairs of tennis shoes which I rarely wore because I always thought they made my feet look huge. I was much more accustom to seeing myself in high heals or sandals   The clerk walked up to me and ask what type of shoe I wore and I admitted I had never purchased running shoes. That I was only there because the blogger said that I should be and I was preparing to walk the Portland Marathon. The sales clerk could see I had newbie written all over my face and quickly informed me that I just wouldn’t be picking out my favorite looking shoes from the wall of designs in front of me.  There was a process to picking out a running shoe and he would take me step by step through it.
He started by taking me over to the treadmill and asking that I run on it while he videoed my stride.  Whaaaaaaaaat? I glanced around the room at the other shoppers that I would be running in front of and thought, “Oh you have to be kidding me. I thought I was just shoe shopping.” But it was part of the process so what the heck.  My 16 year old son, Brady was with me and smirked knowing just how much I love treadmills.  I kicked off my heals and grabbed a pair of socks.  The young man looked at me and said, “Are those the socks you would normally run in?” In my hand were a pair of cotton dress socks more suited for loafers rather than tennis shoes, “Uhm, no?” I replied knowing that my socks had newbie written all over them too.  By now my son was holding back laughter and shaking his head in teenage embarrassment.  I shrugged and giggled.  The young clerk informed me that I wouldn’t need socks and Brady quipped, “You better get up there.” as he motioned towards the waiting treadmill.  Secretly I think he was enjoying this a little.

So there I was jogging along and praying that this process would not take long.  Entirely unsure of how long I could last, plus the store had filled up with a local high schools track and field team. When the clerk announce I was done I simply stopped running only to find myself sailing off the back end of the treadmill and nearly knocking down the poor young man helping me. “You Dork.” Brady laughed and I did my best to steady myself. “Oops” I sheepishly offered.  After that, he took a digital scan of my feet, all of that would determine that I have high arches, but I am fairly balance so I should wear a neutral shoe.  Then I was fitted for insoles and with that bit of information another clerk brought out 5 different shoes for me to try on.  Waaaaaaait a minute…..what about the whole wall of shoes over there?  Sensing my confusion the new clerk assured me that choosing a running shoe is not about style but rather about what is best for your foot.  I surveyed the selection presented to me and prayed that the bright neon ones would be a bust. (Imagine how huge my feet would look in those.)  I tried each pair on and walked around. Reporting back to the clerk how each felt.  Some were to tight on the toes, others slipped in the back and one felt entirely to narrow. When I got to the gray and pink shoes, Brady sternly reminded me not to pick them out just because they were pink.  I assured him that they did indeed feel the best.  Things were starting to go my way.  The young clerk brought me a pack of sensible socks and congratulated me on completing my first step to preparing for a marathon.

Next step was to start training.  The blogger had suggested that I start with small walks, not concerning myself with speed and build from there. This was just walking for Pete’s sake, good grief how hard could it be. Everybody walks, we all do it everyday.  Going from here to there and point A to B, walking, walking, walking. So I would just go for it. Walk long and far with my iphone blasting out tunes and my gps tracking how far I had gone. What is the big deal?  By mile three I could no longer feel my feet and my legs felt like there was a small child clinging to each of them demanding a horsey ride. By mile four I had finally made it home. Sweat, one of my least favorite things, dripping down my beet red face. Brady looked at me and said. “You ok?” with a clearly concerned look on his face. I suggested we go for burgers and proceeded to devour a cheeseburger and fries from Dickie Joe’s. After which I came home and took and 8 hour nap.  Oh my, this is clearly not just walking from here to there and point A to B.

From there on out I decided I should take this training thing a little more seriously. I concerned myself with proper hydration and nutrition  Each week I successfully walked just a little farther than I had the time before.  A few walks were cut short to prevent injury but I felt myself learning about my own body and what I was capable of in a new way.  Two weeks before the big day and after 7 months of training, I had successfully walked 20 miles in 5.5 hours.  I choose to take the next week off.  Knowing I was as fit as I was ever going to be and like cramming for a test, any training I did last minute really would make little difference on my overall result. I would trust that the last 6.2 miles would come and the finish line would find me there.
The day before the big race I went to pick up my packet.  I sort of expected a big envelope of information but in reality I was just collecting my bib, which had my chip tracker on it and getting my marathon participant shirt.  I circled the downtown Hilton once and was lucky to snag a parking spot right in front of the hotel. The place was a buzz of excited runners and walkers. I followed the crowd like a leaf caught in the current of a river simply trusting that I would go where I needed to be. honestly I felt excited to be counted among them and part of an elite club that would tackle 26.2 miles.  I found my bib number and checked in, showing my id. The young volunteer handed my my bid and quickly reviewed how to install the tracker on my shoe.  Most of which I didn’t listen too.  I stared at the bid holding back tears, I had forgotten that I personalized it..that it read “FOR TUCK”.  A wave of pride mingled with grief and determination washed over me.  My excitement grew and I suddenly knew why I had made such a promise that day. This was something I needed to do for me as much as I needed to do it for Tucker.  I strolled the booths for a little bit and then headed home.  My mom cooked me a spaghetti dinner and I went over the race route with my dad. Selecting where he would meet up with me along the way.
I rose at 4:30, the race would not start until 7 but for the fact that this was my first race ever and the granddaddy of them all, I knew that I needed ample time to learn as I went when I got there.  I ate oatmeal and a banana for breakfast and avoided coffee because it could dehydrate me.  Really, no coffee, at 4:30 in the morning. Maybe I was being paranoid but I wanted to stack the deck for me and not against me. I parked in the closest parking garage I could find which was actually 5 block away from where I needed to be. Grateful for the sense of mind to give myself plenty of time I focused on clearing my head of worry and I followed the map on the back of my bib to the Gate W.  Once there I started to get excited for the day ahead of me.  People took picture and hugged their friend, for a brief second wished I wasn’t doing this alone. But then my phone chimed with texts from friends and family members. Wishing me luck and encouragement   I wasn’t alone entirely…this part I had to do for myself but I truly took with me an army of supporters along the way.

The crowd sang out the American anthem together as the first wave took off on their marathon journey, then wave by wave each group left.  The walkers were the last to go and by the time I made it to the starting line the race that was to start at 7 am was counting down at 7:26 am. 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1.  Walkers cheered and surged ahead.  I mentally coached myself not to start to fast, after all I had 26.2 miles to go. I walked steadily though downtown Portland. Strangers cheering and various musical act rocking out.  Signs of encouragement and glorious cups of water and energy drink lined the course.  Excitement filled the air and I was thrilled to be apart of it.  The city took on a new beauty I had never seen before.  Then at 17th street the half marathoners headed back into downtown and the marathoners turned and headed onto the rest of the course with not as many spectators or musical acts. Mind you, not because they do not care but in some cases simply logistics of the course.  But I knew I was headed for mile 12 and there waiting was my dad, Jay with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

I pressed on, honestly surprised at how many stops I had to make to…how should I say….tinkle….Really, I was worst than a nervous girl on her first date.  I didn’t want to turn down any opportunity to hydrate but this was getting ridiculous.  As my nerves settled into my pace, so my bladder did too….thank god! As I reached mile 12 I searched the small crowd for my dad. One part knowing I needed the fuel the pd&j would offer me but more in part to see a familiar face.  He snapped pictures and I surged toward him, wishing I could linger in his presence but knowing that I could not break stride.  I gobbled up the sandwich as I pressed on and dad promised to be at the St. John’s Bridge with a banana.  Notoriously the St. John’s Bridge is one of the toughest parts of the race. I knew that seeing him there would be crucial to my success.  Which as promised he was.

Meanwhile my facebook and text continued to pour out support as I and my sister Deborah posted updates of where I was at. Mile 4, 6, 11, 15, 17…. at mile 21 I burst into tears….this is the farthest that I had ever gone. Only 5 more miles to go.  At mile 21.5 stood two of Tucker’s nurses in their orange shirts (Leukemia Awareness color and one of Tucker Arnold Foundations main colors) with a “For Tucker” Sign and candy corn.  I ran to them and recharged in their hugs and support!

At mile 22 was my dad again, “You are gonna do this!” He said. At mile 23 the blister on my right pinkie toe burst and pain burned in my shoe.  Determined to not change my stride I  pressed forward for fear of straining something else by babying a baby toe.  “This is just a baby toe.” I said aloud as I continued to pass walkers that were tiring in the last few miles of the race.  “Try having a dialysis tube inserted in your leg un-sedated; try having someone put in, not one but two chest tubes un-sedated; try having a picc line place into your arm that is feeds through your main artery into your heart un-sedated. This is just a baby toe.” One of the walkers looked at me puzzled but I soon passed him determined not to reduce my speed simply because my toe hurt.  (I should explain quickly that as Tucker’s breathing began to get worse as he became to ill, it simply was too unsafe to sedate him for the procedures. So he was given a high dose of pain killer with a bit of an amnesic quality but essentially was awake during the procedures I just mentioned.)  At mile 24 a sign read shoot for the stars which reminded me of Tucker telling me that he loved me to the stars and I couldn’t catch up to that. His little way of winning the I love you to the moon and back. He always wanted to give or do more than anyone else.  By mile 25 all I could think of was that I was almost done…my toe was numb and I pressed onward. Then mile 26 and the crowd of strangers continues to cheer, once I saw the finish line I called my twin sister Deborah who cried on the phone as I crossed the finish line….. A marathoner…a keeper of promises…..For Tuck.

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