Complaint Department is Closed for the Season.
As I began to read the story, “Once upon a time”…I couldn’t help but notice the empty bed in the back corner of the room. My heart sank for just a moment and then I quickly regained focus and continued on hoping that my slight pause and forlorn stare was imperceptible to the younger minds that surrounded me. As I continued on with the story I scanned the many smiling faces that greeted me. Did they know? Did they understand? Perhaps an empty bed was so commonplace to them that they had grown accustomed to its cold, rigid, lifeless outline.
I don’t remember being 3 years old but I have had the honor of living with a very smart, intelligent and healthy 3 year old for the past 8 months. I watch her run and play and carry on like a majority of young people. She seems to be having fun all the time. In my comparison, she lives a life of bliss and harmony. She eats with utensils and has a thick head of flowing brown hair. She is surrounded by many who dote on her. When I see her smile, and watch her father smile back at her my mind imagines this is how I grew up. A few less dolls perhaps and I probably tore through my sneakers more often. Some things don’t change. I believe her thoughts are more representative of what most 3 year olds think about. What new toy can I play with or, perhaps, is it snack time yet?
I finished reading the story and told them each, by name, a quick goodbye. The room was full but they each needed to see by my touch and in my eyes that I was not afraid either. A small round of applause, by those who could, leapt from their tiny hands. “See you next time Mr. Engle.”. My body shook with chills and I stood on my seemingly hollow legs. One last glance back into the room and I could not stop my eyes from scanning those faces as if to capture each one in a picture for fear that I would be visiting one more empty bed soon. The optimism of a young child is so boundless. They were all so happy to just smile and listen to my reading.
The sterile indoor air gave way to the crisp fall wind that greeted my tear stained cheeks as I walked to my vehicle. In minutes I would be changed and floating on two healthy legs through the wooded trails and soft crushed stone of my local park. My mind raced as I thought about those young minds and how I was able to share just one brief moment of my life with them and I hoped it would somehow ease their pain. I could walk away from the hospital when I wanted. For many of the children, they would never walk, much less run again. Yet each one smiled through the pain and certainty of the inevitable. I was amazed at their remarkable candor through operations, chemo treatments and even on days when it was told them that hope was fading. Perhaps it was naivety and innocence that kept them from complaining about what I saw as unjust and unfair. With such little time on earth, I think they took in each minute and absorbed it deep into their souls. They seemed to have an appreciation for people and time. Even when the news appeared bad…I watched a young man of about 6 smile and say “well then we had better get busy having fun, right?” Clearly these would not have been my first words. I would have mentioned the injustice and unfairness and that more should have been done and that this just wasn’t right. But, in that moment I wanted to see my life through his eyes and it would have big rewards for the weekend. This young man of 6 years didn’t know it but he had eased my pain. His outlook toward today was one that I had overlooked for some time.
We seem to be in a time of pessimism and negativity where most people don’t publish a news story unless someone is maimed or killed. It is hard to have a conversation with most unless they complain about how something didn’t go 100% their way. I am not Mr. Optimism by any means. But, having seen this young man’s remarkable attitude caused me to stop and think about where my cynicism existed and how much I voiced that dark side of my life openly. Would I approach a death shroud any where near as jubilantly? What had this man of 6 years showed me?
I was unable to sleep much that night but managed to wake just in time to catch my flight to Baltimore. I drove to packet pickup at Charm City Run, just north of Baltimore in Timonium, with my window open. After my previous days visit to the hospital, I opted to leave the window down and appreciate the wind in my face. I was shocked to find out that my 70 dollar entry fee not only allowed me to run the race, but I was also handsomely rewarded just for entering with fleeces gloves, fleece hat and a new fleece blanked all embroidered with the NCR Trail Marathon Logo. I took a quick purview of the course as I was warned of some steep hills going out the first two miles and then climbing them during the last two miles of the out and back course. The course was heavily wooded and crushed stone as advertised. It was a beautiful canopy of oak and maples that lined the old Northern Central Rail Road route. I ran a brief 6 miles on the course to let my feet digest the surface. A few bits of loose gravel here an there which I decided were just enough to keep it interesting. Dinner was at Carrabba’s Italian Grille where I sat alone slowly digesting my penne and thoughts. I clambered into my plush queen size bed and with very little energy left from trying to absorb each experience.
The late 9:30 race start allowed me ample sleeping time and a hearty breakfast of oatmeal, eggs and OJ. This was a far cry from the liquid diet I had seen in the hospital.
For some reason when I arrived at the starting area I kept hearing people nag about minute things. “This is all the toilets they have” I heard one guy say. I was excited to see that they had toilet paper. Another gentleman was griping about things that happened at last year’s race. I needed to get away from it. I found myself cuddled up next to the wall in the gym when I struck up a conversation with several positive runners who had just finished a 50K at Mountain Mist. With a smile returning to my face I headed out to the starting line and passed about 10 port-a-potties that must have been overlooked by a few less observant runners. At this point I just realized that some people just like to complain about something. Even if the course, which is called a trail run for a reason, has a few loose rocks on it they will still gripe about the footing. I heard one other runner complain that there were no spectators. I was there to enjoy the run and just soak in the day. I was so busy watching deer, squirrels and talking with other runners that I hadn’t noticed the spectators or possible lack thereof. Again I am thinking trail marathon…not Chicago or New York City. While I was a little hesitant at the firing of the gun, I heard last years winner state that he had gone 2:03 for his 20 miler the weekend before. That’s all I needed to hear. The first mile was almost entirely down hill and clipped by at around 5 minutes and 10 seconds. A little fast but due to the extreme downhill I anticipated a quicker first mile and I new the extra minute would be of value on the return ascent. The rest of the secluded trail would ascend gradually up the old railroad trestle with about 300 foot of total climb. I settled into a comfortable pace and just enjoyed the silent woods. The mesmerizing sunlight flashed between the trees and lulled me into a rhythmical pace as I began to let my mind take snapshots. I was soon joined by a marathon relay runner, last year’s winner and Rory Jenkins. Rory and I casually chatted about how great the course was and I told him I was just getting busy having fun. Knowing full well he must have thought I was loon.
Just prior to mile 10 my bladder came calling and I surged ahead and made a quick pit stop. I reluctantly gave up about 25 seconds on the three runners. I quickly resumed my pensive running plan and soon found myself on the heels of these three runners. I made one quick surge and heard last year’s champ tell me “you are going to burn out” followed by “I will see you again at mile 18. In any other previous race I would have offered some witty quip but today I just listened and took it as a statement of insecurity. Soon Rory and I found ourselves alone as the relay runner quickened his steps and our verbose friend had seemingly faded slightly. Rory told me he was happy to run with me and said he felt great. I told him he would feel even better as the trip back down the trestle would only hasten the pace. By mile 11 the relay runner was almost out of sight and I was motoring down the trail in absolute silence barring the slight pitter patter of my running shoes. I continued to inhale the sights and sounds knowing that soon I would be back at the hotel showering wondering where the day had gone. I made the turn around near Bentley Springs and ripped off a few 5:50’s and 5:45’s in the steady decent back down the trail. In my daze I heard a few shouts of “Go Junkie” and “Maniacs” but I was wide eyed and sailing alone on my romp through the forest. I was busy having fun. I so completely enjoyed my solo flight back to the turn off of the trail that I felt a bit selfish. The lead biker was just far enough away that conversation was not possible. Each minute was going by so fast that I found myself slowing gently toward the final miles of the trail to savor it as long as I could.
The final climb back to the finish area at Sparks Elementary was stifling. My last mile was nearly 7 minutes and the last two tenths were over one minute and twenty seconds. My avalanche-like run back down the trestle gave me nearly a 4 minute negative split as I finished in 2:37:28 amidst a round of applause. The temperature was perfect. If I focused, I could probably conjure up some really despicable comments about why I did not run 2:31 or better. But my goal was to have fun and really enjoy the day.
It will hopefully not be my last marathon…but I absorbed every minute, every footstep, and every breath as if it were my last. I think I like racing that way.
Regardless of your ability, talent level, or physical challenges…..I hope you are getting busy having fun. IT STARTS TODAY.
See you at the races!!!