Nik decided at the beginning of the year to set some goals for herself. Among them was “Train For And Finish A Marathon.” This is a lofty goal for a girl whose doctors have told her the congenital herniated disc in her spine prohibits her from running. I like to tease her that this should pave the way for an awesome nickname like “Zombie Bait.” Not out loud, to her face, of course. That would be suicide. What I say to her face is, “It’s okay that you can’t run. If the zombie apocalypse is ever upon us, I will stay with you and we’ll be devoured together.”
I say this because by decree of a loving, sensitive wife she has to reply, “No! I’d have to be the bait so you could get our daughter to safety!” Then I can just look at her like I’m unconvinced but inside I know I’d totally hand her the shotgun and flee to the super awesome treehouse fortress Callie and I set up and I’d look back to see Nik taking down two, three dozen zombies in a really badass way with that shotgun and a tear of pride would slide down my face because let’s face it, shotguns are really loud and she hates loud noises. But she’d brave it out. For me. For us.
But I was talking about marathons. The vague goal that Nik set out to accomplish turned out to be vague enough to permit her to accomplish it with a few added specifics: namely, she would only do a half-marathon because full marathons are the same punishing distance as half marathons, twice. Also she would walk it because she doesn’t frequently adhere to doctor’s orders but when they say, “The next time you run you may snap your spine in half and spend the rest of your life in a wheelchair,” Nik is moderately more likely to take them seriously. It does pain me a little that her doctors know the only way to get her to listen is to over-exaggerate like that (at least, I assume it’s an over-exaggeration because a weakness like that sounds like the kind of thing that would offset a super-power, such as the ability to melt steel with her eyeballs or draw a perfectly straight line without the aid of a ruler).
Still, walking a half-marathon isn’t a watered-down goal. I realize some of you may be thinking, “Dude, that is totally a watered down goal,” which is fine, no one is policing your thoughts. But if you actually come right out and say that to me, I will devise a sinister contraption that forces you to walk and I will use it on you for thirteen point one miles and you will have no choice but to agree with me that walking a half-marathon is Serious Business.
I know this because I walked the half-marathon, too, albeit accidentally.
What happened was that Nik spent weeks training for this thing. I am not exaggerating in the least when I say that at one point she walked nine miles in driving, icy wind and rain. She came home that day soaked to the bone and took the hottest shower I’ve ever conceived of (I know this because the steam alone in the bathroom when I went in to check on her an hour later scalded me). She walked up a hill so steep that its several hundred yard length was specifically designed by the training directors to equate to an entire mile of the course that week. She got out of bed before nine in the morning. On Saturdays. She was devoted.
As for me, I slept in and hung out with Callie. You want to know what we were doing while Nik was fighting the sleet and hypothermia and possible ankle ligament damage? Wait, did I mention that the week before the training began, Nik sprained her ankle? Yeah, that totally happened. She was on crutches with an air cast the week before she started training. It didn’t stop her. But while she was fighting with the elements and her body to achieve her goals, Callie and I were eating Cocoa Puffs and watching cartoons. In a way, I felt like I was showing support. I have no idea what way that was, looking back. It probably seemed like I was showing the opposite of support. I really seems now like I was showing… I dunno, what’s the opposite of support? Neglect. Yes, I was showing neglect. Although I wasn’t neglecting our daughter. Maybe that’s where I was coming from? It seems really fuzzy now. You know how it is when you get too much sleep.
Anyway, Nik trained and I watched cartoons with Callie. And then the big day arrived and we all got up early and drove over to the course where the marathon would take place. I knew Nik was nervous and it didn’t help that I decided to be a colossal jerk the night before. What happened was that we were in Target, which is a store that I… well I don’t hate it. I don’t like it, either. I mean, it’s a store. I can’t really direct strong emotions toward it. But let’s say this: It’s a store that Nik thinks of as a kind of second home, like a combination of Mecca and Disneyland. She can spend hours there. Days. I think the highlight of her year to date (and I’m including meeting this lofty marathon goal in the equation) was when they opened a new Target, a few exits down the highway from the old Target. She was so excited when she walked in she was buzzing. She made plans—plans!—to visit a Target in San Diego when she went down there. This is a town that boasts one of the most famous zoos and waterpark/aquariums in the country, and she’s made sure to put, in ink, Target on the itinerary. My point is that she takes her Target shopping very seriously. So we were in Target so she could get some appropriate marathon-walking pants. And I got cranky.
I always get pretty cranky when I’m shopping. I just don’t like it. I don’t like spending money, I don’t like not knowing exactly what needs to be purchased when I step into the store, I don’t like the fact that shopping with a toddler is kind of like going to the DMV with a rabid wolverine tucked under your arm. It bugs me, and Nik and I shop in completely different ways. By that I mean, Nik shops and I walk into a store and scowl at everything. So I was in a bad mood and Nik was stressed and nervous because it was getting late and she still hadn’t found the perfect pair of marathon-walking pants so we started quarreling and didn’t stop until long after Callie had gone to sleep and the clock was saying ridiculous things like, “Hey, Nikki, you have four hours until you’re supposed to trek 13.1 miles and you aren’t asleep yet, and in fact you’re still arguing about whether or not it is perfectly reasonable to spend $13 on a tarp to keep the neighborhood cats from pooping in your daughter’s sandbox!” Our clock is pretty much a punk.
We had sort of kind of smoothed it over at some obscene hour and we were all kind of under rested and tense but we got to the park on time. Nik had her cool little number bib on and her time-marker strip laced into her shoe and her new (admittedly very fetching) marathon-walking pants. Callie was blearily rubbing her eyes while I looked on proudly. Then the announcer guy got everyone started and Nik took off. We watched the crowd disappear and hung out for a few extra minutes before I told Callie, “Okay! Let’s go get some breakfast and then we can go find a spot down the path to watch Mommy go by and cheer her on!”
To which Callie replied, “No!”
I laughed and walked out to the parking lot. She’s two, so her answer to most things is, “No!” It’s actually cute the way this is such a default setting for her that you can ask her something where the answer is clearly yes, like “Hey Callie, do you want to eat candy for dinner?” And she’ll say, “No—um, yes!” So I didn’t think much of it. Until I got to the car.
“Okay, up you go!” I said, trying to get Callie out of her stroller and into the car seat.
“No! No drive! No car! No!”
I tried to reason with her. “Well you can’t stay in your stroller all day!”
“No drive! No leave Mama!”
I kind of understood her concern, since her mother had just wandered away with a crowd of strangers, but it’s not like she’s so attached that she has some kind of crippling separation anxiety, so I tried to explain again the concept of a marathon, of Mommy doing something important for herself and to raise money for the American Heart Association. And I tried to reiterate the idea of breakfast, which was really where my heart was at in the initial plan. She was steadfast, and she broke down in tears.
True, saying a toddler broke down in tears when she didn’t get her way isn’t exactly headline news. But amid her blubbering, snotty, red-faced and mostly incomprehensible fit, I caught the notion that she felt she would be abandoning her mother if we left. It didn’t matter how much I tried to explain that we were actually going to go ahead in the route so we could do the opposite of abandonment and could in fact cheer for her and encourage her to keep going, she was steadfast.
Now, I outweigh my daughter by some hundred and (murfle murble) pounds, so I could have forced the issue then and there, plunking her down in her car seat, trying to block out the wailing protestations and gone and gotten breakfast. This was my first inclination. But I try to be reasonable with her, try to encourage her to feel like she’s a part of the decision making process so she can take pride in her choices and we can all live together a little more harmoniously. So, looking for opportunities like that, I made a terrible miscalculation. I said, “Honey, our only option is to go try to find a spot to see her pass by, or try to catch up with her.”
Sometimes it’s freaky how a child who will ask, “What you say?” as if she is a foreign exchange student who has memorized but a single phrase in an English dictionary when you tell her to clean her room or get into bed or brush her teeth, will suddenly have a very comprehensive grasp of diction and implication when it serves her purposes. “Yes,” she said enthusiastically, “catch up with Mama!”
I laughed, because that was absurd. Nik had been gone for well over thirty minutes at this point and I was wearing jeans and a long-sleeved shirt. Plus, Callie was in her umbrella stroller which I had already had to fight to push across a three-foot stretch of recently mowed grass. “Anyway,” I said, “we’d have to get in the car just to go home and get the stuff we need to try and catch up with her.” A couple of things should be pointed out here. It had been discussed previously, the possibility of me doing the half-marathon in an unofficial capacity. I didn’t really want to bother registering or fundraising. Wait. That sounds bad. It’s not that I didn’t want to raise money for a good cause. But Nik and I have been together for so long that we don’t really have social circles that don’t overlap. So if I had to try to raise a certain amount of money on top of what Nik was raising, we’d be double dipping into our same friends and family. The point is, this wasn’t something I needed to check off my bucket list, but it was possible I could support Nik in a direct way by going along with her. In the end we had decided not to because Nik had plan A which was to walk with a person she met through a friend who was also in the half-marathon and she had plan B which was to enjoy her carefully crafted playlist as she went head down and got into the zone for the whole course. Besides, we didn’t find anyone to watch Callie and we weren’t sure how she’d do for hours in her stroller.
So the idea of me going on the walk itself wasn’t fully out of the question, it was just that it didn’t make sense at the time.
And then I saw my gym bag.
It’s significant to note that my gym bag is never in the car. As in, this was probably the first time it had been in there since I brought the bag home from the store (Target, natch). It is also worth noting that it was improbable that not only was the bag there, and fully packed, but the workout clothes inside were unused. The bag was there because Nik had picked me up from work the day before and the items were still laundered and usable because I had brought the bag to work intending to go to the gym but hadn’t made it due to some work crisis or another. And by work crisis I mean that when I got to work Friday morning I threw the bag on my desk and walked upstairs to the rest room and took a nap.
I should clarify that the “rest room” is distinct from the “restroom” because the latter suggests that I took a nap in a public toilet. That’s actually maybe not all that out of character for me to sleep while sitting on the can, but in this case my work has this room with a fully reclining leather chair that has no windows and can therefore be made pitch black. It’s called the rest room and it’s awesome. Way better than the gym, that’s for sure.
So it turned out that just by happenstance, I have a fresh set of workout clothes (ideal for walking a half-marathon) and a jogging stroller. Now, I make it a point not to lie to my daughter. About anything, really. I know that it makes my life more difficult, especially when you get to the grey area of half-truths and make-believe. For example, it makes Christmas particularly dicey because Nik insists that Christmas isn’t Christmas for a kid unless Santa Claus is involved. However, I refuse to go through the theatrics of perpetuating the illusion of the existence of Santa for some nebulous benefit of my daughter. My thought is, how can I tell her down the road to believe me when I say that promiscuous sex and drug use are bad and she just has to take my word for it when she could say, “Yeah, like I took your word for it that some fat guy could bypass the sanctuary of our home security to eat our snacks and drop off some unknown packages? This was a post-9/11 world, Dad! Anything could have been in those boxes!” It makes it difficult because I see the appeal of a happy holiday tradition but I don’t want to set a bad precedent. And here I was again, facing the choice of whether to admit to my daughter that we didn’t actually have a valid reason anymore to get into the car, and could actually do what I had suggested, even though at the time I hadn’t really meant it as a viable option.
In the end, I did what any reasonable parent faced with the prospect of changing their pants in a parking lot and then walking thirteen miles pushing a jogging stroller would do: I tried to talk her out of it. The crux of my argument was this: If we started down this path, if we actually tried to catch up with Mommy, she would be stuck in her stroller for hours. Literally, stuck. For hours. Because we have one car, which would be back at the starting line, and once we got to about the five mile mark, it would be functionally no different to us to simply finish the entire looping course as it would be to turn around and head back. Plus, I reminded her, that would be cheating and against the spirit of what Nik was trying to accomplish. It was a solid argument, I think. But she was unswayed. “Yes,” she decreed, “catch Mama.”
So I took off my pants in the parking lot, transferred Callie to her jogging stroller, collected as many bottles of water and random snack food as I could find in the trunk (which was actually a lot because Nik is like a super mom wrapped in a Boy Scout with all her preparedness… and I just now heard that simile the way most of you probably heard it and realized how icky it sounds so let’s just move on and forget I ever said that), and set off. Now, it should be noted that by this time Nik had a forty-five minute head start and it took me quite a while to figure out exactly where the course was because they had altered it to accommodate the fact that the starting line is also the finish line. So I wandered around a bit lost for another fifteen minutes or so and finally got on course about an hour behind Nik.
My thought was to run as much as possible until I caught up, but I had also forgotten an inhaler and for whatever reason the primary triggers for my asthma are (in order): running, laughing, cats. I love laughing and we own a cat, so the only one I can usually ever really avoid is running. In this case though I felt it important to at least make the effort to try and catch up with Nik before she reached the halfway point and turned around. Even still, I assumed I would probably just meet her coming back and since I wasn’t wearing one of those timer loops on my shoelaces, it wouldn’t matter if I went the full distance or not. But then as I was half-walking, half-jogging the trail, I sent a text message to Nik and after a few status updates on my progress, she decided to stop at a rest station around mile four and wait for me.
It still took me close to an hour to catch up with her, even with my half-jog, which she explained by saying that she had been in power-walk mode until I told her I was coming up behind her. I mostly took it to mean that I am a really slow runner, although I got to blame a lot of it on having to push Callie.
Once reunited, we started walking together and although Nik kept saying how glad she was that I decided to join her, I wasn’t so sure. I mean, I was afraid that I was kind of trampling on her accomplishment, you know? Like, she trains for this thing for weeks while I watch cartoons and eat cereal and then on the whim of a persuasive two year-old I decide to just do a half-marathon for no real reason as if it were the kind of thing I randomly decide to do all the time. Like, “Oh, hey, I have eight hours to kill, why don’t I just swim to Petaluma?” Let me tell you something: That has never happened. Actually, I don’t even know if that could happen. I’m surprisingly dense about my regional geography. Also, I’m pretty sure that the coastal areas near me are all marshy, salt ponds. But I’m getting off the point. The point is, deciding to do feats of physical endurance—unless you count eating three bags of Fritos in one sitting or playing World of Warcraft for sixteen hours straight physical endurance feats—is not my modus operandi.
I’ll spare you the step-by-step re-enactment of the trek, but let’s just hit the highlights:
- Callie did get bored and sick of the walk, as I feared. All told, she did pretty good although I think we were aided by the fact that she got up really early and for a long stretch in the middle of the walk, she napped in her stroller. Nik and I were brutally envious of her and if we could have devised a way for us both to fit in the stroller, or even to take turns, I think we would have done it.
- Callie’s favorite part was the “candy stations” where they passed out water and M&Ms or Skittles to give runners a small carbo-boost, or toddlers a mini sugar high to hold them over on the repetitive walk.
- The biggest physical challenge mid-walk was our hip flexors. My right one was pretty sore most of the time (but not my left, suggesting I have a goofy, asymmetrical stride) but both of Nik’s were killing her and on the second half of the journey she had to make stops about once every half mile or so to stretch them out.
- The biggest physical challenge post-walk for me was the ruthless sunburn I got. For all of Nik’s preparedness, she didn’t have any sunblock in the car and I underestimated the amount of shade that would be available along the route. The walk was three weekends ago and I’m still peeling. For Nik the biggest issue afterward I think was the incredible number of blisters she had on her feet. Somehow I didn’t get any, but she ended up with a dozen I think. It’s kind of a wonder she doesn’t resent me more.
- The very end was incredibly difficult. Around mile 10, novelty is long gone and yet the finish feels painfully far away. Three miles isn’t really a nothing distance to walk to begin with, but when you’ve put three plus of those walks behind you already, you kind of want to stab whoever it is that forced you to undertake this torture. Then you realize it was you who chose to do this and you kind of want to stab yourself. Then you think that self-stabbing is probably less painful than walking thirteen miles and you resolve that the next time you get the bright idea to do something for charity, you’ll just have a stab-a-thon instead.
- It does feel pretty good to finish it, though. The smile on Nik’s face as I took a weary picture of her wearing her completion medal is genuine and justifiably proud.
The absolute best part about walking a half-marathon though is that it burns like 1600 calories, which means that even if you account for the several hundred calories in carbs and granola and stuff that you have to eat along the way to avoid collapse, you can basically eat a huge meal that day for free. Also, you don’t even have to feel the least bit bad about taking a lengthy nap when you get home. We did both of those things.
The one thing I will say for Nik is that, as proud as she is of her accomplishment—and she is proud of herself, which I’m happy to see, because I’m used to being proud of her but she seems to not always find it easy to take pride in what she does—she’s incredibly honest. Having crossed the item off her list of goals for this year, she told me, “Now that I did it, I don’t think I ever have to do that again. I don’t think I’m the kind of person who just does marathons.” And that sounds perfectly reasonable to me.
Of course, then she followed it up with, “However, I could see myself doing something like a 10K…”
Callie shot me a look that I interpreted as, “You start the cartoons; I’ll get the cereal.”