A Forest for the Trees

Today’s post is a fictional piece that, like many of my stories, seemed to take over and write itself. I have completed a full 26.2 marathon (Indianapolis, November 2017) and that experience is part of the inspiration for this piece. To all of those that have run the Boston Marathon or know the intricacies of being an elite runner, I ask for your tolerance regarding the poetic license I used for the sake of the story.

I understood what it would take to win, to be number one, the victor, the champion, the best.  I knew that to be these things I had to focus and not let distractions keep me from my goal.  

It wasn’t unusual for me to hear bits of conversation that tended to swirl around me rather than be said to me, “He is very tenacious” or “ He never quits.”  I enjoyed these sound bites, knowing they were said in my praise, but I didn’t turn my head. Pride, being full of myself or listening to praise might slow me down.  I was on a mission and I appreciated that they understood, even when they didn’t.

Sleeping late on Saturdays was an indulgence that I could not afford.  Everyone knows that Saturday is Long Run Day. Contrary to how it sounds, it isn’t just a day.  It starts on Thursday,well, actually on Sunday, with the perfect blend of complex carbs and proteins, strength training and the study of split times and cadence.  Thursday and Friday’s menu is tailored to my body’s particular quirks rather than my pallette. Low fat, but high carb, shrimp, pasta with minimal seasoning and lowered fiber for the next two days.  The end of the work week is not celebrated with friends or a late evening with the wife or kids; 3:00 a.m. comes early. The weather is studied and clothes and shoes are set out for the morning. Hydration belt, headlamp, goos and portable carbs are tucked into my clothes designed specifically for such activity.  9:00 p.m. finds me sound asleep dreaming of things like heartbreak hill, and ancient civilizations in remote Mexico desserts where men run without science and can kick my ass without planning or GPS.

Saturday afternoon, while lounging in a tub of ice, I ponder negative splits and what it will take for a new PR. The study of the mechanics and the plans are as intricate as blueprint. A glorious nap follows while the wife and kids take in the latest Pixar at the matinee show.

Sunday, I plan the rest of the week making time for the necessary work that ends in a paycheck.  Distance, pace and mathematical formulas that provide the best odds for winning. Things like the 10% rule, ice baths,tempo runs and fartleks grab my attention. The average person doesn’t realize much less comprehend that to run 26.2 miles at a pace of 4:53 per mile that the man will log an average of 100-110 miles a week.  Even a newbie, that just wants to complete a full 26.2 needs to be at 30-35 miles a week to start training.

Patriot’s Day

We stand packed together like cattle in the corral, yeah, that’s what it’s called. Then we stretch or shift our weight from foot to foot and check our gear while we wait for the gun to fire and start the race.  I go through the motions of respecting my country and the flag during the national anthem but my mind is already on mile 20 and climbing heartbreak hill. There is a guy not far away that is carrying an ultrasound picture of his yet to be born child, he says this is his final race because God and family will always come first. A woman I passed earlier was chatting up about how she was running for charity, raising money for research for cancer or alzheimer’s or some other disease that would probably, regardless of how much she raises, take her life in a number of years.  I blocked it out, there was no room for that at the moment.

I think I hear the sound of my own child proudly shouting, “Daddy, my daddy is going to win!”  I don’t look, I can’t, I must stay in the zone.  

The gun sounds and my body knows what to do, my brain is along for the ride for at least the first 20 miles.  It’s job will be to get me through the final 6.2 miles including lactate thresholds from Hell and emptied glycogen stores.

At mile five my eyes try to turn to a cheering, waving, spectator that might be my wife.  I don’t blink even when I hear my name being chanted by voices that must belong to family and friends.  I stare straight ahead, looking could cost me a whole second. It isn’t worth the chance. There will be time after the finish line.

At mile 20 I start up Heartbreak Hill with only 3 men ahead of me and all of them in sight.  At the crest there are only 2 ahead of me. It is tempting to go all in but I resist. Not yet; not yet.

At the end of mile 23 runner two makes his break.  I could laugh or even smirk, but I won’t use any precious energy.  He lacks patience and at mile 25 I pass him without increasing my speed.  I start to gain, on number one but hang back, 5 strides behind. He can’t see me but knows I am there; he didn’t get this good, this elite, without developing the sixth sense of knowing exactly where I am and how much I have left in reserve. I evaluate his energy and fortitude, he won’t go down easy. 

I allow myself to fall in beside him, less than 6 inches in second place.  At 25.7 miles I summon my brain, my energy and even my faith and pull into the lead. I am going to win, I am going to receive the prize I have longed for my entire life. I can smell it and my mouth waters in anticipation of the rare flavor.

I break the ribbon as the world turns to shades of grey.  It occurs to me that I may pass out, but it’s okay, that no longer matters. I have won!  The grey images begin to blur. I see my family, my wife, my parents, my kids and many others but they are turning away, their heads down.  Are they crying?  

Don’t they realize that I won?  

I stumble on becoming increasingly confused but I find that there is a line forming comprised of other runners that have just finished.  I see a light ahead and move that way thinking it must be the podium where I will receive my winnings. Others are ahead of me in this line and while that is still more confusing I stand and wait my turn thinking it not all that unusual to be in a brain fog after such a feat and monumental victory.

I didn’t notice all the trees before but now the line seems to be weaving through a wide variety of deciduous timbers, and while I know it isn’t possible, there seems to be more trees everytime I blink or exhale.  I see the female winner at the front of the line. Words are exchanged and then she turns around, her expression is empty.  She takes two steps and when she stops she is suddenly no longer a woman, she is a tree. The same scene plays out as other runners get to the front of the line, then after a brief exchange of words with whoever is in the light, they too turn into trees.  Finally, only two runners in the line are ahead of me. I am suddenly terrified and I try to flee, but all of my energy is spent. The next person to face the light is the woman who was running for charity. The light is too intense, I can’t look at it straight on but I hear a strong voice lovingly say,  “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.”  The next person in line is the father that commented before the start of the race that it would be his last due to family obligations. He hears the same words as the woman before him and then steps into the light where I can no longer see him.

Understanding fills me with sick certainty. I fall on my face knowing that I am not worthy. Mercy is the prayer arising from my soul.  I plead, “ I worked hard, I wasn’t a bad man. I just wanted to win the race.” The voice of my God commands me to look behind me and to describe what I see there.  I obey; anything for a chance. “I see trees, lots and lots of trees.” “Keep looking” instructs the Lord. I start to notice the trees have words on them, the words are prayers.  Some ask for love, others for shelter or food, still others have prayers for peace or for safety. “Tell me what you see” commands the Lord. I weep as I say, “I see the woods, a dense forest full of people and their prayers.”  

“Yes,” said the Lord “and you ran past each one ignoring their needs, their hurts and their unanswered prayers.  My child, you didn’t see the forest for the trees.”

I wail, “But I just wanted to win the race!”  

 My limbs stiffen as my body turns to wood, roots sprout from my feet digging themselves into the soil below, anchoring me in place.

The last thing I hear is my creator explaining, “It wasn’t a race; it was never a race. It was your life and now the real prize will forever be very close, but always just out of reach.”  Just before my eyes seal themselves shut and become covered in bark someone hangs a winners medal on one of my branches, I try unsuccessfully to shake it off as the aroma of acrid wood smoke fills my nose.

*Matthew 25:23, Holy Bible, KJV

Thank you for reading. I appreciate the following for the use of their photographs; Chase Clark, Jakob Kriz, Matt Howard, Tikko Maciel, Joshua J. Cotten, Jennifer Birdie, Shawker and Natalie Desirre Mottet.