Tuesday, August 6, 2019

“It’s Not How You Start…” by Donna Guzik

I used to hate running. Track and field was never my thing. In fact, pushing myself in any way was kind of terrifying.  I kept starting and stopping things. Like fencing class. Or the Brownies when I was eight. Pushing outside a comfort zone was not something I was raised to do.  I was raised with a loving mother, who didn’t’ think I could accomplish much, so best not to try. The self-esteem movement came after my time.
     So I wouldn’t have become a runner if it weren’t for my ex-husband Charles. I was in my late twenties, married just a few years, and I got tired of listening to him wax nostalgic about his running days. How much he missed it. For a decade, starting at age fourteen, he had been a competitive five and ten thousand meter runner, along with marathons. I mean a serious competitor.
     He was trained by Fritz Schaumburg, an Austrian who was forced to compete under the the German flag in the 1936 Olympics. Hitler’s Olympics. Schaumburg eventually came to Canada, changed his name and trained a bunch of up and coming Canadian kids.
     Charles was working towards the Moscow Olympics. The boycott of those games shattered his dreams. And at 24, he quit running altogether. Four or five years later, and now married to me, he wouldn’t stop talking about how much he missed it.
     “So start running again, why don’t you?’ I was getting tired of hearing about it.  
     So he picked it up again, and after about a year, I figured I needed to get in shape and I asked if I could run with him. If he could teach me how to do it properly. I used to watch him around the track. The grace and ease with which he could pick up speed, without even trying. I marvelled at the smoothness of his stride. You could balance a book on his head, and no matter how fast he was going, that book would never have fallen off.  
     So I started to join him at the track at Toronto’s East York Collegiate, where we lived at the time. This was not fun at first. I was pretty out of shape. But I finally got into a groove. Just a few weeks later, Charles signs us both up for a 5K race.
     I vacillated as to whether I would do it. I wasn’t sure if I could. It was too soon.
     But on race day, there I was. I did some warm ups as instructed. I looked around at a sea of  lycra legs, bobbing up and down, a few people sprinting for a warm up.
     Holy crap I thought. What have I gotten myself into?
     My adrenaline was pumping.  The gun went off.  Thousands of runners, jostling for  position, pushed forward. I started out too fast. Like I was running for my life.  
     The first kilometer was OK. Just barely.
     “I don’t think I’m gonna make it.” I was already breathing heavily, painfully aware of the herd of runners pounding past me, wondering where the slow lane was.
     “What? No, no you’re doing great.” Charles was jogging around me in circles. About a kilometer and a half in, he keeps talking to me. Trying to encourage me. To get me focused on something other than my discomfort.
     “Shut up. Shut the fuck up. I’m going to fucking kill you,” I spat out the words.  My lungs were on fire. My legs molten lead.  And now I have the mouth of an angry trucker.
     At the halfway mark I felt done. I couldn’t go on.  
     “I can’t. I want to stop. I can’t do this. I need to stop.”
      Oh god, I wanted to stop and walk. And it would have been another thing I didn’t finish. They say whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, either way you’re right.
     “I can’t,” I said, barely audible.
      “Yes you can. You’re doing great. Swing your arms. Breathe.” Charles was doing his best to encourage me. “Actually, if you pick up the pace a little, it will go by faster.”
   “ARE…..YOU….KIDDING…ME?” I wanted to whip my running shoe at him.  
    He tried a different tactic. “OK, see that house just up there? Just make it to that point and let’s see how you feel. Just a little farther.”
     “Just….stop….talking.”  I was pretty sure the only thing more painful that this was giving birth. Oh my god, I’m never having children, I thought to myself. Especially not with this guy.
     “Great. Doing great. Now…see THAT house? Just make it to that house. Then if you want to stop for a bit we can stop. But there’s just 1 kilometer left. Almost there.”
     After another minute I see the 3K mark. That means TWO K to go. All I can think of is that I’m dying, my husband is a liar, and I’ve rediscovered a potty mouth I haven’t used since high school.
     “OK, see that red house up there? Just make it to the last one. Slow down if you have to but don’t stop.” My head was swimming. He continued a light jog around me. “Doing great. You’re doing……
     “STOP….TALKING…TO…ME.” I looked at him with daggers. He hadn’t even broken a sweat. We passed the 4K mark. Miserable doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt. Pain. So much pain.
     To limit the amount of abuse flowing his way, Charles would jog up ahead a bit, then turn around and run back to me, where I was staggering more than actually running.
     “I’m just going to run back and check in on some other people I know doing the race.  You’ll be fine, you’ve got less than a kilometer to go.” 
     “Good. Go. Piss off.” I’d had enough of him at this point.
     I rounded a corner, and saw both sides of the street thick with spectators, all clapping and cheering the runners on. Yelling encouragement that we’re almost at the finish line. I willed the concrete blocks at the bottom of my legs to keep going.  
     Then I looked up and saw it.  The clock. The seconds ticked down in big red numbers. Counting down to an achievement. I straightened up, and kicked it. A full on sprint like I was being chased by an axe murderer. Although Charles had never taught me this tactic of sprinting to the finish, I’d seen him do it many times in his own races. Running is a mental game, after all.
     Although it felt like I was sucking air through a straw, I pushed like I had never pushed my body before. I looked up and watched the tick, tick, tick of my digital destiny.  I pumped my arms harder,  the blurry seconds disappearing one into the other, as my eyes filled with tears.
     With arms held high I passed through the chute and crossed the finish line. A volunteer put a medal around my neck. And I promptly doubled over in agony. Charles had missed my big sprint, but soon found me bent over, hands on knees.
     “I think I’m going to puke,” I said, mortified by the thought of being sick in public.
     “Garbage can. Over there.” He grabbed my hand to lead me.  Oops. Didn’t quite make it.  
     “You OK? You did it! You did great! I’m so proud of you!” He gave me a big, sweaty hug. I grasp my little medal, and realized I had the stupidest grin on my face. A feeling of elation.  The endorphins had kick in.  
     “Oh my god, that was AMAZING! Let’s do it again!” I felt awesome.
     “What? The race?”
     “No! Another race. I want to do another race. This running stuff is amazing!” I clutched my medal as we started to walk to the post-race festivities. My lungs and my comfort zone both expanded.

Donna Guzik is an accidental business broadcast journalist. She currently freelances as a nationally syndicated business columnist with CBC Radio and occasionally takes to the stage as a humorous storyteller. Donna enjoys running, photography, cooking and a good glass of wine. She lives in Oakville, Ontario.
“It’s Not How You Start…” was originally published in the Globe and Mail. For information on submitting an essay to the Globe and Mail’s “First Person” feature – plus 21 other places that want your personal essays, see here.

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