Running Stories

Checking Boxes – El Paso Marathon – February 24, 2013

I was in New Orleans for the 2013 annual meeting of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Mary flew in to join me on February 19th. We enjoyed a great Vince Gill concert followed by dinner and a walk down Burbon Street.

The next day, the meeting ended at noon and we got in a rental car just a few blocks from our hotel. We followed the interstate for a couple hours then decided to try and find a “mom and pop” place to eat off the beaten path.

There were signs for towns but as we drove on the back roads of Louisiana, we seemingly couldn’t find them. There were buildings but no central communities. It was a little strange. Hungry, we drove by what looked like an old gas station that had some cars around it but also looked abandoned. Finding nothing in two different directions, we ended up back at the abandoned looking buildings on the corner to find the Cabin Restaurant cleverly hidden in the middle.

We actually ate our meal in the building that was the slave cabin on the former Monroe Plantation. This was the first plantation in Louisiana. The corn bread was fresh out of the oven and delicious. I had a huge plate of beans and rice with a chunk of sausage. The picture I took on my phone was not visually appealing but the food sure was. We checked the box on hometown cooking in Louisiana.

A few hours later, we arrived in Houston, Texas amid rain showers. We found our hotel on the south end of town and settled in for the night. We slept in on Thursday because we had a date to meet with our niece, Jennifer Fletcher, for a 10 a.m. breakfast.

Jennifer was the firstborn child of Mary’s oldest sister, Patricia. Thus, she was also the oldest of almost 4-dozen grandkids belonging to Mary’s parents, Francis and Anna Reinbold. Over the last 25 years, we had probably seen Jennifer maybe 3 times. When she was a teenager, she and her brother Aaron helped us move from an old trailer home to a new one while living on my brother’s farm in South Dakota. We treated them to a night at the drive-in that they still talk about. We had last talked to Jennifer at the funeral of Mary’s dad a couple years earlier.

We enjoyed a great time hearing about her life in Houston managing a theater and overseeing more than 50 employees. She showed us pictures of the new house she was buying, updated us on her dad’s successful battle with cancer, mom’s work, nieces and nephews of her own and her life in general. The time was short but it was a rare family event that was very worthwhile. Our niece was doing great. Checked that box!

A short 3-hour drive later found us in San Antonio. We decided to stay the rest of the day there after we found a reasonable hotel close to the river walk and the Alamo.

Our hometown of Traverse City, Michigan is a great “foodie” town and has a main street shopping district that has its own “vibe” that Mary and I have always enjoyed. While wandering the country on my 50 state mission for Big Brothers Big Sisters, I like to look for this small town “vibe” in other cities. With a high bar to reach, many towns and cities across the country have fallen short over the years.

This would not be the case in San Antonio. The river walk below the street and the Alamo all by itself creates a great atmosphere. The small, unique specialty shops and the wide variety of dining establishments were as close as we had come to home in a long while. We strolled the river walk in the daylight and after dark. We agreed, this could be a home away from home. There was indeed some “life” in Texas. We checked yet another box.

We put San Antonio in the rear view mirror early on Friday morning. It was a sunny, blue sky, beautiful day on the wide-open spaces of Texas as we drove west on Interstate 10. It was an 8-hour drive to El Paso with no major towns and very little traffic to deal with. We were pleasantly surprised to discover a speed limit of 80 mph on the Interstate!

The scenery rolled by hour after hour with little change. There were more small scrub brush type trees in the first couple hours that gave way to sage brush, cactus, hills and rocks. I guess I was most amazed by the gravel like surface of the landscape. Often over the years, while watching a western movie, Mary and I would joke about the desolate landscape that looked like it could not sustain any livestock or humans for that matter. For the first time in our lives, we were looking at the real thing. Cowboys and Indians really did survive in this part of the country. Checked another box!

We arrived at our downtown El Paso hotel well before dark. El Paso is located on the western tip of Texas, New Mexico and Old Mexico. Spanish Conquistadors arrived at the banks of the Rio Grande in 1598. We learned that the area had also been home to famous outlaws including Pancho Villa, John Wesley Hardin and Billy the Kid. We just wanted a place for a couple weary travelers to find some local food.

Downtown El Paso contains sky scrapers, a regional bus station, convention center and plenty of places to work but the hotel staff quickly informed us we would need to drive at least 3 miles to find a few local places to eat. Puzzled, we simply shrugged our shoulders while climbing into the free hotel shuttle. We wouldn’t be checking any boxes for the hometown “vibe” of El Paso.

Our driver recommended the Rib Hut for a taste of authentic Texas ribs and barbeque. It was an A-frame building with picnic tables inside and very much had a small town bar/restaurant feel. The ribs and barbeque did not disappoint. The food was rich, plentiful and reasonably priced. Jennifer had encouraged us to try the barbeque while in Texas. We checked that box off on very full bellies.

The race website had described El Paso as having 305 days of sunshine each year. While slightly windy and a bit chilly with early morning temperatures in the 30s and 40s, the sun did not disappoint. We looked out of our hotel room at blue skies and the Franklin Mountains in the distance. For two people from northern Michigan where there is very little sun in the winter months, it was awesome.

It was a short walk from our hotel to the Judson F. Williams Convention Center where the race expo was held. The vendors were few but well stocked. The packet pickup line was short. The marathon field would be small with approximately 450 runners registered. The half marathon would have close to 1,100 participants.

Outside the convention center and near the finish line area for the race, local artists and crafters were holding a small art fair. Mary spied a cute, brightly colored apron with individual crayon holders filled with crayons of many colors. With our first granddaughter due to arrive in early April, Grandma Mary couldn’t resist and Grandpa didn’t even want to stop her. We had another gift for little, yet to be born, Amelia. Checked that box.

The marathon starting line would be at the top of the Franklin Mountains on Transmountain Road. I had read about a tramway that goes up to the top of the mountains so we went out in search of it. We got to the gate and were disappointed to learn that it was not in operation. This was the “big” attraction in the visitors section of the race website.

While the city of El Paso is vast, we really didn’t find anything else of note to look for so we headed to the Sunland Mall. Mary did a little shopping but not any buying. After that little bit of “excitement”, we found a theater, a bag of popcorn and watched the movie “Live Free or Die Hard”. We could now check the box on every movie of the Die Hard series.

The prerace pasta party was actually just a discounted menu at an establishment called The Garden. While skeptical because the hotel staff assured us there was NOWHERE to eat in the downtown area, we were surprised with a quaint, modern restaurant within walking distance of the hotel with great pasta at even better prices. I checked the box on an evening pasta meal.

After the meal, I made a call to my sister, Debbie, in Tucson, Arizona. It was after 8 p.m. and she had just gotten off work. I hadn’t seen her in at least 10 years and she was getting on a bus after midnight. She would be in El Paso around 6:30 a.m. on race day. Luckily, the bus depot was a short walk from our hotel. Mary would meet her and they would then find me out on the marathon course.

Up early, I was sitting on a school bus shortly after 5 a.m. While the half marathon would start and stop in downtown El Paso, the full marathoners were being bused to the top of Transmountain Road. A half marathon runner would have to be awful slow to be passed by anyone in the marathon. This would make the finish line area easier to navigate but it would also remove many of the spectators from the route.

While waiting on the bus, I visited with a software engineer from Arkansas and an airline pilot who didn’t reveal his home of origin. The software engineer was in El Paso to take advantage of the downhill course in an attempt to qualify for Boston. The aging pilot was simply trying to survive one more marathon.

With high wind warnings and a dust storm in the forecast for the afternoon, I quizzed the pilot about how the local airport worked in such weather. He assured me that getting a plane up in high winds and dust would not be a problem. However, planes would have trouble landing if the dust was too severe. This news eased my mind a bit. I would worry about it more after the marathon.

At 5:30 a.m., the buses took off on the drive along the Mexico border and eventually up to the peak of the Franklin Mountains on Transmountain Road. Thus, the starting line would be at an elevation of 5,200 feet. This would be the highest elevation of any marathon I had run other than Pikes Peak in Colorado.

I stepped out of the bus for a bathroom break to find the temperature in the low 30s with a strong breeze. I found a short line and quickly got back on the bus to stay warm until shortly before the 7 a.m. start.

The sun came up over blue skies that were wonderful. Standing in the small crowd, I chatted with two young men who informed me they were in the army together and running their first marathons. I thanked them for their service and wished them well.

A local pastor performed a good hearted and well-intentioned acappella national anthem. He followed up this effort with a very nice prayer. Prayer at the starting line of any race is rare but certainly appreciated. While I do believe in the good lord above, I am not a devout formal church service participant. But, a prayer on a Sunday marathon atop the highest mountain in hundreds of miles just felt right. Then, the field was off while carefully crossing 2 very narrow electronic timing mats.

The first 4.5 miles down Transmountain Road contained an elevation drop of 1,584 feet. I found a 4 hour pace team and told myself to stay behind them. I had been injured in December, completed a half marathon and full marathon on one January weekend in Florida 6 weeks earlier and taken some time to recover in the weeks leading up to El Paso. I knew my training had not been the best and my physical weight was 10 pounds heavier than I would have liked it to be. I knew there would be no personal best on the day but I also knew my running base was solid enough for a respectable finish.

I am not sure the 4 hour pace group ever hit a 4 hour pace. The volunteers were running 5-6 mile sections before handing off to fresh legs. Glancing at my watch, I found them to be running 20-30 seconds faster than the 9:10 pace required. I let them go out ahead a bit but tried to keep within a block or so of them.

At mile 6, I spotted Mary and my sister. It seemed strange and familiar all at the same time to see my only sister once again. I gave Mary a quick peck on the cheek. Debbie, I gave a brief hug and rushed thanks for being there. Then, just like that I was off to chase the 4 hour group some more. I had reunited with my sister. Checked that box off in my head.

The struggle in my heart was another matter. How could 2 siblings go more than 10 years without talking more than MAYBE once or twice and not see each other at all? Then, when they meet once again, it is a fleeting “good to see you” while I literally run on by after a token hug.

We grew up together in a small South Dakota prairie town. First in a 10-foot by 50-foot trailer home where she shared a bedroom with our mother and I shared bunk beds with my brother. Later, we moved into a low-income rental home. So, we were always in close quarters. One would think that siblings confined in such a way would be closely united especially due to the common struggle of growing up without a father.

My older brother, Gordon, had a mentor in our grandfather who took him out on his farm on a regular basis. My sister had a special bond with our mother like moms and daughters often have. I was the baby of the family and certainly looked upon by all in a different light. My older siblings had actual REAL memories of our father. I had not one.

The difference is hard to describe still to this day. I think this created some natural separation for me. I took the battle of daily life without a father as something that was mine alone. Be tough. Be strong. Don’t need anything from anyone. Let Gordy have his time with Grandpa Rusty. He needed him. I could see it. Let Debbie have her special times with mom. They both needed it. I could feel it. I was “okay”.
My role in the family was to have the positive attitude, get good grades, excel in school and be the “strong” one. Debbie was a bit of work at times for our mother. There was drama with sports, boys and late nights running around. This upset me at times in a little kid playing an adult kind of way. But, I would simply work harder to come up with “look what I did” positive moments in hopes mom would worry less and know that at least she had one kid not to be concerned with.

I wasn’t totally made of stone growing up. At Christmas, birthdays and some days when I would see dads and sons together, I would find a quiet time to let the tears and frustrations out. Sometimes it would be with mom and other times, it would simply be alone. I don’t remember ever really letting it out in front of my brother and sister. While I was the baby of the family, I always thought of my role as the most responsible in the house and the one nobody needed to worry about. As the child I was grew, so did the divide between a brother and a sister.

So, really, the answer was obvious. It was now easy to see how I could go years without a relationship with my sister. As an adult, I had simply done nothing nor attempted anything to bridge the gap created by a difficult youth. I took care of myself as a kid and had continued to do so as an adult. Don’t need anything. Don’t need anyone. Keep everything in one box. Don’t check it off but don’t look inside either.

Crisscrossing through residential areas, I found Mary and Debbie once again at mile 9. The course was well organized with plenty of volunteers from Fort Bliss directing runners at corners and local policemen controlling traffic. However, with several miles within the boundaries of Fort Bliss, it wasn’t very spectator friendly. I would not see the ladies again until the finish.

I was still holding on to my contact with the 4-hour group as I finished the twists and turns of the residential areas around mile 11. At mile 13, I was right on the 2-hour mark. This is where the wind began to increase and I thought, “Crap, a head wind, this is all I need.” In reality, the wind never became a real problem.

Miles 13 through 15 went straight down Chaffee Road on the edge of Fort Bliss and an industrial area. There was some trash, tumbleweeds and very few spectators. At mile 16, we entered Fort Bliss and enjoyed some military families, groomed yards and buildings, a parking lot of what seemed to be hundreds of tanks and the biggest cannon I had ever seen. Checked that box!

Fort Bliss was in the past at mile 20. The Austin Terrace neighborhood and Radford Street took runners to mile marker 21 and then a turn to the east on Yandell led to mile 23. The 4-hour group was now a distant memory as I was into a mind numbing walk then run routine while trying to fend off the 4:30 group that my watch was telling me had to be lurking somewhere close behind.

Somewhere in this stretch, a lady at a water stop dressed in cowboy gear with a pistol in a holster and a cup of water in her hand asked, “Do you want me to shoot you?” My immediate thought was, “Where were you when I decided to run 50 of these things?”

The 4:30 pace group passed me early on mile 24 somewhere between Wyoming Avenue and downtown El Paso. I made a fleeting push to try and hang with them but my mind wouldn’t have it for very long. This was my fourth marathon in the last 5 months. I was simply mentally beaten down. The last mile had a few twists and turns in the downtown area. I gave a half hearted fist bump to some guy at the last water stop who was dressed in a heavy metal rocker type of outfit and actually cut my hand on the metal studs of his glove. This was a marathon “first”. Checked another box.

The wind really picked up on the last mile. It used the tall downtown buildings to created a wind tunnel of sorts that carried a lot of dust. I crossed the finish line on Anthony Street in front of the Union Plaza Park with dust in my eyes. The now 40+ mph winds had people scattering for cover. The finish line area was emptier than anything I had ever experienced.

I finished in 4:36:08. This was very consistent with my last 2 finishes so I felt good about that. I placed 179 out of 322 finishers. I was in 178th place at mile 13 with a halfway split of 1:59. On the second half, I was 175th with a time of 2:36. A consistent day, I guess.

It had been a good tour of El Paso. I saw lots of residential architecture unique to the area, a military base, yards full of rocks and cactus and 2 yards with actual grass and sprinklers. Volunteers and traffic control were great. While the field was small, El Paso didn’t cut corners on service.

Trying to get the dust out of my eyes, I located Debbie and Mary. Mary and I had a plane to catch and Debbie a bus. We skipped the post race area and walked the mile back to the hotel. I actually didn’t feel too bad on the walk back to the hotel. This was another indicator that my struggles were mental and not physical. The past 5 months had taught me a little about my marathon limits. Checked another box.

After 10 years, I only had 90 minutes to visit with Debbie. We packed as much in as we could. I learned more than ever about her family, life and work. I thanked her for making the trip but didn’t really feel my thanks were worthy of the fact that she got on a bus at midnight, rode for 5 hours, stood around a marathon course for another 5ish hours and all for a 90 minute conversation.

We dropped Debbie off at the bus station. We both said, “I love you.” Then, we hugged so tightly that there was nothing left to say. A brother and a sister were handed some heavy baggage at very young ages. Both dealt with it the best they knew how at the time and as adults were still learning. With tears glistening in my eyes, I looked away into the dusty skies of El Paso and thought about the dusty cloud of loss that has shaped so many lives and moved me to this marathon journey.

Is it worth it? The daily grind of running can be difficult at times. The body gets beaten. The mind grows weary. Marching forward with a daily crusade of raising awareness so kids today have a better support system and improved opportunities in their lives can seem like an endless uphill battle. Did I choose a path or was I handed a direction on a fateful night way back in 1963? What will my path become if I stop running?

Now, I have this hug from my sister. I believe life is made up of small moments that answer the question, “Is it worth it?” With 25 marathons completed, I have a growing list of small moments, brief conversations and private thoughts that answer this question. My heart knows this journey will not end anytime soon.

A hug, aching body, tired mind, another marathon and a little more awareness for kids finding their own direction – Is it worth it? Check that box – Yes. Yes, it is.