Part VI – The Definition of Agony
I had drifted off to sleep without realizing it, probably for 15 or 20 minutes, maybe longer. I tried to sit up and then roll up to my feet, but it wasn’t possible at first. My legs had turned to pain-wracked stone. Gasping, I struggled to my feet and took some wobbly, uncertain steps toward the track. All the muscles from my “glutes” down were stiff and they hurt beyond belief when I tried to work them in any way. The pain of trying to walk over to the start line caused me to pant. I was glad it was still too dark for anyone to see my wretched agony. I cursed bitterly under my breath at myself for having fallen asleep.
In all my years of running I had never experienced leg muscles so stiff, not even after my first day of track practice during my freshman year of high school, and that had been pretty bad. Just the same, my guy was already in the far bend of the last turn, and I was going to have to take the baton from him. There was nothing to do, but give it a shot.
I tried to jog in place to start the loosening up process, but managed only to shift awkwardly from foot to foot. I forced myself into a walk toward the onrushing runner barely visible in the early morning night, now chugging into the beginning of the final straightaway. I stopped 20 yards from the start and began a pitiful jog, back toward the start. The runner went into his finishing stride; with my back to him I heard his approach, his deep rhythmic breathing and urgent footfalls acting as sonar, letting me know the approximate rate of his progress. In utter dread I turned to take the baton.
With me hardly moving during the transition, he placed the baton into my outstretched hand, and for the first time, he practically had to come to a complete stop to do so. It startled him since I had taken off like a man on a mission during each previous handoff. Actually, I WAS still on the same mission, but now it was much modified.
I cannot come close to describing the sheer torment of the next few minutes. It hurt so bad that if I had been in any other situation I surely would have stopped and quit, but quitting was not an option. I felt like I was representing the entire Marine Corps, and quitting is not something marines do just because of a “little” pain. The USMC does a very good job of programming young minds when it comes to instilling the concepts of duty, honor and loyalty it seems. It worked on me. My fellow runners were depending on me just as I depended on them, so even the thought of trying to “walk it off” did not occur to me. No, I would “run” the entire relay and that’s all there was to it.
My gait finally began to resemble an actual jogging stride by the time I got to the 220-yard mark on the opposite side of the track. The toxins that I had allowed to settle into the tiny capillaries of my leg muscles were slowly being flushed out with every beat of my pulsing heart. Fortunately, they did not go into spasm, also called a “charley horse,” an agonizing contracture of muscle tissue that can cause even a full-grown manly man to fall to the ground and scream like a baby.
The first quarter mile was finally behind me and my split was dismal, almost 30 seconds slower than I would have otherwise hoped for. Still, as my legs began to loosen up I began to hope that I could salvage something from that infernal mile. I forced my pace to quicken, and then to quicken still more. To my relief, the pain and stiffness dissipated all the more, almost proportionately to my efforts to go faster. Even so, the damage had been done, and no amount of speed and willpower could totally force my legs back to normal. On the upside, I managed to put together a pretty good last half-mile, and finished the mile with an almost decent time of 6:21. As I handed off to the next runner, the sun peeked its way above the eastern horizon.
Looking now at the 29 year-old chart showing the mile times of all the 8 finishing runners of that relay, I feel the proudest of that 6:21, even though it was my slowest. I say that because when I woke up on the ground and found my legs paralyzed with pain, I forced myself to reach deep down for resources I didn’t know were there. Exhausted, famished and in agony, I kept going. For years, that nightmarish moment is what defined me; I compared it to all other tough times and nothing ever came close. Even my most difficult instance in bootcamp before my "hell mile" did not come close, since what happened to me in basic training was a dispiriting event, a time when I completely broke down – something I strove to forget rather than a time to be proud of. Still, I think I might reexamine it in a future post.
For me, the rest of the relay was humdrum, pretty much uneventful. I had experienced the roughest it could throw at me and survived. We were all going so slow from that point that I only had to run 5 more times before noon. In fact, my last mile ended just after 11 a.m. My times remained mostly faster than my running mates, and happily, they continued to call me “the machine.” A title I most certainly had earned since my average mile time over my 28 total miles was 5:44.2, a time that should have been closer to 5:30 if not for my "blowup" from falling asleep. Oh well, as I said, that “mistake” caused me to have to do something that became very important to me, and strengthened me for most of the rest of my life.
George, always the showboat, saw to it that he ran the last mile, and he did it with the same flare that he had run the first one 24 hours before when he had kicked off the relay. Incredibly, he managed to dig deep and ran a very fine final mile, everything considered, in only 5 minutes 18 seconds. You gotta LOVE those Ortega’s!
After the relay I completely sagged. Back at the Ortega house I could only eat a little and fell asleep for a time on their living room floor. Ray wanted to get started back to Alameda, but before we left I copied all the times into my running journal and have it to this day. Blessedly, I lapsed into unconsciousness and didn’t have to experience any of Ray’s crazy driving while awake. In less than a month I would pack my bags and leave for another difficult experience, Marine Security Guard School, but that is another story.