The middle way

It was still dark and cool when I rose. 5:15 am in a house against the bush on the outskirts of Greymouth. Half an hour later my mother in law Trish, her sister in law Marie and I walked out into the misty air, got in the car, and drove to Westport. The sun rose part way along the journey, with the blue crashing sea on the left, and the dense green forest on the right.

We drove up the Buller Gorge, past the buses dropping off half marathon runners, to the start of the full marathon. There were not many people when we got there but the crowd increased quickly. Trish and Marie said goodbye and headed into Westport. I was alone, nervous and excited. A couple of hundred runners stood in groups or walked around stretching. The sandflies were terrible, but the people were positive and friendly. As I queued for the portaloo I got chatting with a guy in his early 50s for whom this was his 13th Buller Marathon. He was warmly encouraging and told me a bit more about the course.

With a few minutes to go we gathered at the start line, the air charged with energy and people grinning at each other excitedly. Then we were off. The runners stretched out quickly, with none of the jostling and pushing in bigger city races. I ran at what my legs new was the pace I’d planned, but it seemed so slow. My blood was pumping and I wanted to sprint off, and pass people. I felt unstoppable. I heard Dad’s voice in my head “at the start you’ll be jumpy, but just stick to your own pace, stick to the plan”. Each kilometre I checked the clock, it felt slow but it was 5 minute kilometres, exactly what I’d trained at. The adrenaline was coming under control but I was still a bit hyper.

We ran up the Gorge for 8k, then turned and started the 34.2k back to Westport. There was a man just up ahead of me who had been keeping the same pace for a while. I drew even with him and said gidday. We started to chat. His name was Kim, he had long curly grey hair, four kids, and this was his second marathon. We ran together for about 10k, he had a GPS watch and we were hitting bang on 5 minute ks. We talked about a whole range of things and he was such an enthusiastic, friendly guy I was really enjoying myself. He was over from Christchurch with a running club. Most of his mates were faster than him, but he was just happy to be there, running to finish and to enjoy the day. It was warming up, the sun coming over the hills, the cicadas chirping in the bush and the magnificent Buller river swelling and flowing to the right of us. I couldn’t imagine anything better in the world to be doing right then.

A women in her early 40s with short blond dreadlocks joined in with Kim and I and we all got talking. They had both run the Kepler track before and decided I should do it next year (it’s 67k, over a mountain…). Not long after Kim decided to drop back, so the woman and I agreed to run together for a while. Her mother had just died and she was running the marathon for her. We talked about death, and grief, and faith as we ran in the sun, the lush West Coast bush on the hills around us.

At about 24k we parted company. I was sticking to my pace and she wanted to go just a little slower. Alone again I let my thoughts and feelings drift, seeing where they’d go. I bounced between feeling unstoppable, and being terrified I wouldn’t finish. I was right on the pace I’d set, but the course was hilly, and I’d trained on the flat. At about 30k my calves were starting to feel sore. We came out of the Gorge and into more open country. At 32k I was in uncharted territory. I’d never run further than this before. The water in my backpack ran out. My toes started hurting and it felt like a blister was forming on my right foot.

I stopped and put a plaster over the sore spot. As I started back up another hill I got a strong sense Dad was thinking about me. He’d trained me, told me how to run the race, and now he was encouraging me. It felt like his body was overlapping mine, his strength and experience flowing through me. I kept at it.

Earlier on I thought that once I got to 5 or 6k to go, if I was feeling good I’d pick up the pace a bit. Out in the open fields, the sun beating down and the road still hilly I passed the 8k mark. I was still at 5 minute ks but I knew there was no way I was going to go any faster. My thighs were hurting now and my thoughts were getting fuzzier. By 6k to go I couldn’t do the sums in my head to see if I was on pace anymore. I was worried my legs would give out and I wouldn’t be able to finish. I stopped caring about what time I ran the race in. Everything else feel away but one question I kept asking myself “what am I looking forward to?”. The picture I got back was getting back to Greymouth and seeing Bridget and the kids. Then even that fell away, and there was just the running, just the pain, just the fear I wouldn’t make it, and the belief that I was going to do it. In the last two kilometres coming into Westport there were groups of supporters clapping and giving words of encouragement. It really helped. Then suddenly we went round a corner, through a big gate, into a park, and there was the finish line.

I’d run the marathon in 3 hours, 32 minutes and 31 seconds. Bang on 5 minute kilometres. Some of the way I’d shared the journey, some of the way I’d run alone. I’d trod the middle way, between exuberance and dispair. When I’d needed it people had been there, handing out water, cheering me on, running with me, or holding me in the light. And when I’d needed it I’d been there for myself, afraid but steady, excited but patient, taking it one step at a time.

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2 Responses to “The middle way”

  1. Michael Sampson Says:

    Wow, good on you. Thanks for sharing. Congrats on doing it.

  2. pete Says:

    Great journey. Good on you for your endurance, and pacing. Beautiful that there were people close by at the right times. Do the Kepler!

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