The email came on a Thursday morning, as I sat at my desk, waking up. My friend, Nancy, was running the Santa Monica half marathon in three days and she wanted to know if I was interested in being her running buddy, to jog alongside her to make the 13.1 miles go by a little easier. More than a year had passed since I ran my last half marathon and the longest distance I’d covered since then was a mere 5 miles. Yet I had been a dedicated runner for over nine months, so the idea wasn’t implausible. Nancy would be run/walking at a ratio of one minute running to one minute walking. I figured I would be fine for at least nine miles; and then gut it out for the remainder of the race.
Nancy and I are more than just two people who like to punish our bodies; we both use these long races to serve as fundraisers for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Nancy has a son named Jacob, too, and he also lives with cystic fibrosis. This year Nancy raised $17,000! For all of the hard work that went into her training and fundraising (especially in today’s economic climate), I would certainly be her running buddy.
There was little I could do physically to get ready for the run; whatever endurance I’d built up in the past year would have to suffice. However, the physical aspect has never been the challenge. Instead, my downfall has always been the mental burden I place on myself. With one stray thought I can experience an enormous letdown that can ruin the run. However, the spontaneous decision to just be a companion was freeing; I felt younger and impulsive, like my carefree days in high school and college when I didn’t care so much about my actions because I felt invincible. Feeding the fuel of my attitude was my discovery of “Empire State of Mind,” Jay-Z’s rousing collaboration with Alicia Keys. It’s the type of song that can make even the most ardent rap hater reconsider.
Is it the tingling piano? The bravado mixed with sincerity in Jay Z’s rapping? Perhaps it’s when Alicia goes into harmony in the final chorus, right after the bridge. It’s all of those things, combined with an infectious drum and bass line. “Empire State of Mind” is the ideal song to pump you up for an early morning jog, or a half marathon.
Sunday morning came and I bolted out of bed around 5:00 AM. I barely slept the night before experiencing the type of pre-race jitters I hadn’t had since my first marathon in 2003. I found this strange because it wasn’t my race; it was not my fundraiser. I didn’t have anyone to answer to this time around. I was just a friend pitching in at the last minute. So why was I nervous? As I rolled out of my neighborhood and merged on to interstate 5 heading south toward Santa Monica, I must have listened to Jay-Z and Alicia Keys four or five times in a row before finally moving on to a new song. The commute was quick and easy as there was no traffic, save for the line to get into the parking lot. Once I found a space and got myself settled, I ventured out into the mass of people gathered on Venice Beach, searching for Nancy.
Nancy and I met back in 2006 when the two of us ran the Carlsbad half marathon. We were introduced by our running coach, Robert, the night before the race. That year my knees had been giving me so much grief that for my last month of training all I could do was walk and bicycle. During that Carlsbad race, my body nearly gave out and I considered quitting. Luckily I had Nancy as my running companion. She stuck with me even though she could have run ahead and finished with a better time. I’ve never forgotten that, which, I realized in that moment, standing with Nancy and Robert on the beach, was why I was in Santa Monica that morning. It was also why I was so anxious: I didn’t want to let Nancy down.
After a spirited rendition of the National Anthem, the Santa Monica half marathon began and the two of us took off and a nice, moderate pace. The weather was perfect: high 60’s, low humidity, the sun breaking through the clouds late in the morning. The scenery was nice, but I barely noticed it as I was so caught up in the conversation I was having with my old friend. We compared parenting notes, discussed how her oldest son was doing in college and how her Jacob was applying to schools (he’s in the 12th grade). We talked about the tough times my Jacob has when it comes to doing his breathers and how he’s starting to rebel. Nancy had some great advice about how to talk to both Jacob and Sophie, as well as advice about hospitals and what out options are. But it wasn’t all CF related. Nancy is also a writer, so she filled me in about the book she’s developing. Meanwhile, I gave her the lowdown on my own novel. And wouldn’t you know it, during the lulls in conversation, whether we were drinking water or munching on almonds, I had “Empire State of Mind” stuck in my head, that opening drum beat keeping me going, pushing me.
It’s comical, when you think about it, a fortysomething white guy shuffling through the streets of Los Angeles with a New York City song going round and round in his internal stereo. At one point, Nancy wished aloud that she could hear some music, just to give our run a little nudge (this was around mile 10). I made a very weak and pathetic attempt to sing like Alicia Keys. This effort lasted about two words before I decided, “Yeah, that’s not going to happen.”
We finished the race in under three hours. I was so proud of Nancy; it takes a lot of dedication and sacrifice to train for a half marathon. It’s even more difficult when you consider the obligation one feels having raised a large sum of money. Sure, you could accept the donations and simply say you ran. But it isn’t the same.
After working our way through the finish line crowd, Nancy and I made our way back to the parking lot. We said our goodbyes with hugs and laughs, unsure when we’d see each other again. I dragged my weary body into my car, where I downed a half bottle of Gatorade and cranked up my radio. I’ll give you one guess what I listened to first.
Put your lighter in the air and say “yeah!”