Yesterday the angels appeared to me in the form of three young girls, thickly cloaked and gloved and hooded against the cold winds of downtown Bethesda Maryland. In front of them stood a card table on which they had spread cupcakes, cookies, and other baked goods they hoped to sell.
I had begun running (if that's the right term for my snail-like mode of locomotion) two and a quarter hours earlier near the midpoint of the Marathon in the Parks (MitP) route. My wife dropped me off as she and our daughter drove on their way to a chamber music practice session. A heavy rain the previous day left mega-puddle water hazards across the path; my socks were soon damp. In three minutes I reached the first landmark, milepost #10 on Rock Creek Trail. The temperature was in the mid-30's (Fahrenheit, ~1-3 Celsius) with intermittent sunbeams peeking between clouds. Occasional solitary snowflakes drifted down. My knit cap and my gloves, they comforted me --- as did the two pairs of shorts and two shirts that I wore.
Thus commenced my first experimental long(ish) run since the MitP test-to-destruction experience on 17 November 2002. I resolved to go slowly and baby my left knee, which still tends to become painful at times. As usual, however, in spite of fine intentions the first half dozen miles flowed by at an unsustainably rapid pace (9:53, 10:21, 10:19, 9:55, 10:39, 10:39). Finally, for the seventh mile, I got a more reasonable 11:08 split.
As part of my trial I religiously took a one-minute walking break every ten minutes. Knee stiffness began to be troublesome around mile marker 2.5, where the trail passes near Chez ^z. So there was now a decision to make: limp home and call it a nine mile day? Or soldier on at a reduced rate of speed?
Hitherto the journey had been fun, in spite of frigid breezes and mud wallows. My path unexpectedly overlapped a real roadrace in Kensington, a combo 10 and 20 miler which had started a couple of hours earlier. That gave me the opportunity to give cheerful chatter and encouragement to the runners who zipped past, including Christina Caravoulias (editor and photographer for the Montgomery County Road Runners; see http://www.mcrrc.org ). Then an old gentleman met me. He marched along the trail holding up a six-foot pole from which streamed a large American flag. I saluted as I jogged by, and he complimented me, "You've got the best beard in the race!" "Thanks --- you've got the best flag!" I replied.
With all that behind me, how could I stop now? I doubled the frequency of my walk breaks, to one minute in every five, and the old knee stopped hurting so much. Occasional high-stepping served to keep the joint mobile. The next hour went by pleasantly at ~5 mph.
My drinking bottle was almost empty now. It had started out full of dilute orange-juice-and-water solution, a concoction that was all that I could come up with based on the refrigerator's contents that morning. I refilled the bottle at a Ray's Meadow park fountain and left Rock Creek bound for Georgetown Branch, home stretch of the MitP course. Brisk winds blew into my face. A shower of seeds from a grove of trees rained down as the gusts hit, propellor-shaped pods spiralling around me in a local mini-blizzard of winter fecundity.
It was then, after ~12 miles, that I sensed "The Wall" looming. Hypoglycemia? Dehydration? Hypothermia? Cartilage inflammation? Glycogen depletion? Endorphin deficit spending? Whatever the reason(s), as I emerged from the tunnel under Wisconsin Avenue and faced the prospect of turning around to trek four more miles to my house, I felt my confidence start to sink into my soggy shoes.
That's when the trio of heavenly messengers materialized across the street from the bookstore. My eyes lit on their tray of thickly frosted cupcakes. "We're raising money for ..." one girl began. "Just a minute," I interrupted, my speech slurred with cold exhaustion. "I'll be right back."
I shuffled a hundred yards farther to the Capital Crescent Trail water fountain and once more filled my bottle. Back at the table of home-baked munchies I chose a pair of dense brownies as the optimal combination of portability and caloric value. "They've got chocolate chips and Butterfinger chunks in them," a young cook proudly and unnecessarily informed me. Then it was the girls' turn to get excited --- first as I fumbled stiff-fingered with my wrist wallet (they oohed over its velcro and zipper design), and next with the Sacagawea "golden dollar" coin that I gave them.
Those brownies saved my bacon. I took a bite or two every five minutes during walk breaks, and a couple of times awarded myself a bonus nibble while waiting to cross a busy street. My spirits soared with my blood sugar.
The feast lasted well over half an hour, long enough to get me most of the way home. The elapsed time was 3:09:36 when I crossed the line at the end of my driveway --- relaxed, happy, tired, but not exhausted --- quite a successful jaunt in my current state of decrepitude.