Last Saturday, as the latest round of California wild fires burned on in cities nearby our home, we waited anxiously to see whether the Pasadena Marathon would be canceled. For seven months I’d trained for a half marathon, enduring physical pain, spiritual drain and trying to raise money for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation in a damaged economy. Halfway through the day, we learned that all direct routes to Pasadena from our house were shut down, blocked by the fires and the crews trying to contain and pt out the blazes. With the quality of the air in question, there was a good chance that the race would be postponed or even scrubbed altogether. One thing was for sure; we wouldn’t be driving to Pasadena and spending the night in that lovely city.
Sophie and Jacob were greatly disappointed, as they had looked forward to having a weekend getaway, even if it was just 20 miles south of our home. Yet, even if the half marathon was canceled, a sense of obligation told me that I would be running the next day, whether it was in Pasadena or in our own neck of the woods.
It wasn’t that I’d done all of the training; no, it was that I’d made a commitment to run for the CF Foundation and for all victims of the disease. I’d made a commitment to run for my son. Furthermore, the day the race fell on, November 16th, was chosen because of its proximity to Jacob’s birthday. I felt it was a sign to be running for CF so close to his special day; it meant more to me. And the truth is I couldn’t go on training. My soul was tired and my shoes had literally broken down. They were on their last legs. So, I decided to map out my own 13.1 mile course, just in case there was no Pasadena Half Marathon the next day.
Jacob and I hopped in the car and drove around town, noting landmarks for each mile until a 13-mile course was created. As we drove around, Jake dozed off and I listened to some of the inspirational songs I had programmed into my iPod to help get me through the run, starting off with Eddie Vedder’s “Hard Sun.” If you’re unfamiliar it this number, it was written for Sean Penn’s moving adaptation of the Jon Krakauer book Into the Wild. The book, and the movie, follow the real-life adventures of Christopher McCandless, a college graduate who gave up all of his possessions and went up to Alaska to live off the land. Vedder’s song perfectly evokes the longing and searching of McCandless, as portrayed by Emile Hirsch in the film. The folksy approach he took to the score of the movie is no less potent than any of the hard rock songs Vedder writes with his band, Pearl Jam. His passion is what makes him on of the most dynamic singers of my generation and one of the most important songwriters of the past twenty years.
Yet, like any great song, “Hard Sun’s” meaning transcends its connection with the source material. Like any great song, its message feels more universal even though it was inspired by the book and the film. The first line of the song is what says it all for me:
When I walk beside her, I am the better man
I can only think of my wife Julie. Through 15 years of marriage, she has brought out the best in me. When I’m with her, I want to be a better man. As much as I had been training to find a cure for Jacob, I would also be running for Julie, to ease her pain. As much as I suffer from fear and worry, I know that she suffers more. If I could do just one thing for her, I would cure our son. But I’m no doctor; I’m no scientist. The best I can do is run.
Saturday night, we went to bed without any news about the Marathon. We learned that a mass e-mail would be sent out at 4:00 AM to determine if the race was still on. If it was still a go, we’d load up the family and drive to Pasadena (the roads had since opened). If not, I’d probably get a couple hours of extra sleep before running my own private race. At 4:15 Sunday morning, I stumbled down the hall, tripping over our damn cat and flipping on the light to the office. As my half-closed eyes slowly focused on the computer screen I read that mass e-mail: the marathon was canceled. With a slight nod, I wandered back to bed.
By 8:00 I was up again, going through my preparations to run my half marathon. There was no doubt in my mind that no matter how poor the air quality, no matter how hot the temperature, no matter how windy it would be, I would be out there running, earning every dollar that was donated for my fundraiser. Julie and the kids gradually made their way out to the living room as I donned my worn-out running shoes, adjusted my grungy shorts, and pulled on my Jacob’s Joggers hat. Around 8:30 we all drove over to the parking lot of the local Hollywood Video, my starting line. On the way over, I visualized the course Jake and I had laid out the night before, I began to recall precious moments to get me through the difficult moments of the run, and I imagined completing the run and collapsing into my family’s arms.
Up above, a big hard sun beat down and I found myself feeling anxious, as if surrounded by thousands of runners at the staring line of an actual marathon. And even though there wouldn’t be a starting gun or a medal waiting for me at the end, there would be a better reward: the excitement in my kids’ eyes and the smile on my wife’s face.
I was ready. I gave Sophie a hug, I squeezed Jacob tightly and I kissed Julie goodbye. Then, I listened to Eddie Vedder singing and took off running.