Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The sweetest thing...

This blog entry comes with a cautionary statement: this one is about me running.

So if you couldn't care in the least about running, if you didn't cry at the end of the movie Rudy, if the theme from Rocky doesn't get your blood pounding, this blog entry is probably not for you.

On Saturday evening I went with Graham to join up with his running group, the Dubai Road Runners. For a pittance of 5 Dhs you are timed on either a one or two lap run (3.4 or 6.8 km) around Safa Park.

Beforehand you sign up on the 1 or 2 sheet and predict what time you think you'll get. The person who gets closest to their guess in each of the two groups wins a bottle of wine. (A particularly nice prize for those of us unlicensed to purchase alcohol!)

I put my name on the "2 Laps" sheet, and put myself down for a 44:08, a pace of about a 10:30 minute mile, considering the heat and humidity. (The :08 part was just to be quirky.)

I was one of only three people there not wearing the red colors of the group of 40. The men were mostly friendly and interested in talking with me, at least for a moment. The women were more reserved. There was one young man who stood out, wearing a "Vertical Marathon" T-shirt, glasses, and the expression of one with Down's Syndrome. I have a soft spot for developmentally disabled folk, kids in particular, so I began to talk with him.

It was a great choice. He was funny and sweet, told me that his name was Owen, though his nickname was "Mango", but that he didn't like that name. He told me, oh, nine or ten times that he was in the Road Runners, and told me all about his brother, "Skinny Boy" who, I found out later, it a very talented young runner. Owen was wonderful to converse with, and I enjoyed his company.

Graham called everyone over, said a few words about a fellow runner, Ann, who had recently lost her battle with breast cancer. The runners were quiet. There was nothing to say; we got ready to run.

Graham introduced me to the group "Natalie-joining us from America." I flipped a wave and smiled, got a few nods.

6:30 and the run started for the 2 lappers. I set out on the soft track doing what seemed to be a reasonable pace, and settled in near the back of the other 15 runners. There was something definitely amiss. Despite the very fit women I had seen congregating around beforehand, I was the only one running 2 laps.

Please keep in mind that it was just the other day Bethy came up to me, put one hand on either side of my thigh, pulled them away holding the measured distance as though she was telling a fish story and said, charmingly, "Mom, your leg is this wide! That's a pretty big leg, Mom!"

OK, so Mom is not exactly built like a tall carrot stick runner. More like a cupcake. A cupcake with a waist. I mean, I'm not a troll or anything. But, Graham and I had run 2 laps both times we came out here before, so the bar had been set, cupcake or not.

I asked a few men around me, jokingly, where are the other girls? They replied that as the weather cooled and people returned from vacation that more would join us. In the meantime, it was just me representing the double-x chromosome pattern.

Parrots flew overhead, their long tails streaming as we rounded the first corner, and I could feel the breeze off the desert. The breeze off the Gulf is hot and wet, so getting a hot, dry breeze was great, at least in comparison. I could smell that were coming up to the animal enclosure, the camel, donkey, and Arabian horse standing placidly in the heat, as we wove through the walkers and occasional jogger coming the other direction.

Two minutes after we set off the one-lappers began their run behind us. I kept waiting to see one...and waiting, and waiting, as we kept going. Willow boughs hang down onto the path, and you duck and weave, taking care not to knock over any traditionally dressed women swathed in black.

We came to what I have mentally and not at all affectionately christened the Dead Zone, a stretch of path where the air is still and furnace hot. Gulping down some water, (solid ice only 20 minutes before) I muscled through that and kept going.

About 12 minutes into the run, as the Burj Dubai came into view, the greyhound 1-lap leaders flitted past one at a time, 5 men, Skinny Boy, and one woman, each before, 5 1/2 minutes later, I reached the 1 -lap mark and doggedly kept going while they collapsed on the grass or walked in small, tired circles, guzzling liquids. The rest were behind, somewhere.

Graham had called out 17:29 as I went past. That couldn't be right.

That was a 8:16 mile pace. Not a 10:04 mile pace. Nuh-uh. Perhaps that explained the double-sided side ache. Normally I would put my arm on whichever side up to help relieve a side ache, but trying to run with both up in the air wasn't terribly feasible, so I alternated like a kid in school with a question and inattentive teacher, pumping both arms by my sides when I felt like I was starting to falter.

I also made myself slow down. There was no way I could maintain a pace like that under those conditions and live to tell the tale. Sheer stubbornness kept me running...until the Dead Zone.

The blast actually made me gasp. This was not fun, this was stupid. Now, stupid is usually something that I equate with fun if those running shoes are on my feet, but this time stupid meant just that, falling somewhere between brutal and seppuku. I had to walk. I couldn't believe it.

Walking, I kept going, counting thirty steps before starting to run again. I began making mental deals with myself, bargaining with God, bullying myself, whatever it would take to just keep going and not give up.

Rounding another corner I slowed to a walk again, holding my water bottle on the sides and back of my neck, gasping like a fish out of water, wiping burning sweat out of my eyes and ears, feeling like I was drowning in heat. Damn, damn, damn. Well, at least, I rationalized, my final time would be closer to my predicted one if I walked for awhile. Perhaps a shot at that wine. It was a bitter consolation, truly sour grapes, and I knew it, plod plod plod.

Some other 2 lappers had slowed, starting and stopping and not looking all that good as we all tried to negotiate our way. I was determined to make a good show at least. I was representing me. I was representing dumb, deluded American women. I had signed up for 2 laps and I would run across that finish line, even if I had to cuss myself out all the way there. I dumped the formerly-known-as-ice-water over my head.

Back to running. Past the freeway, past the mosques. I would not fail. Think of Lance Armstrong pain is temporary...arrrgh...think of Saturday Night Fever stayin alive stayin alive...think of the Olympics...argh gack...

In the growing dusk I could see a small group of four walking ahead of me, folk from the Road Runners group. I could see Owen in his brother's green shirt and I called out a greeting as I went between them. Keeping myself upright, determined to put up a good show and fight, I kept going, knowing the end was coming, whatever end that might be. Within a moment or two I heard heavy floppy footsteps thumping up behind me. It had to be Owen. It was Owen.

He was going to run with me.

"Hi!" he said in his slow accent. "You're a very good runner."

If I'd had the energy I would've high-fived him.

"I'm just trying hard" I told him, so, so grateful to have a friend. He stayed with me, chatting at me for maybe a few hundred yards and abruptly stopped and dropped back. His effort was one of the coolest moments of my running life.

And I kept going. There was the congregation of red shirts and running shorts, there was the grassy hill, there was Graham and his stopwatch... was done. I didn't quite know what to do with myself, but my feet took me to the restroom where I doused myself with the potty sprayer, not caring about the hygienics of the situation any more.

Back outside, I staggered around, knowing that if I sat down too quickly I'd be in trouble. Finally I took off my shoes, plopping down on the grass, feet pulsating with heat, head throbbing. Owen and his family had crossed the finish line and were sitting nearby. I had to thank him, but I couldn't make myself get up. He saw me, popped up and ambled over.

"You are very fast, you are a good runner."

"Owen," I said, "thank you for running with me. You helped me a lot. I think you're wonderful."

And he is.


Jean said...

There is crazy. And then there is plumb crazy. Anyone who runs in Dubai must be plumb crazy. But good on you for showing them what a determined Yankee woman can do.

Natalie said...

Graham said the reason there weren't any other women running the 2 laps was that women are generally intelligent.

Isn't he sweet?

I told him that it was all his fault for setting me up in the first place. I think the look he gave me was supposed to be innocent.

I shall take "plumb crazy" as a compliment, thus proving both your and Graham's points. :)