The Legacy of Luke, a Very Good Boy

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I’m writing on the sad occasion of the passing of our beloved family dog, Luke. While we are heartbroken to lose our companion of 11.5 years, please know that he filled our life with more joy than we could have imagined. And for that, we are forever grateful.

I hope you enjoy reading a little bit about what he was like.

We first met Luke (the shelter knew him as Charlie) as a 3-ish-year-old in January 2008 in Arizona. Our other dog, Shanna, and he had a visit and hit it off, and before we knew it, he was in the car headed home.

The first night we baby-gated him in our master bath, and he made it known that was not acceptable, groaning at us all night. So we let him on the bed instead, and that’s where he spent nearly every night of his life with us, except for the last couple of weeks, when cancer made him too weak to make the leap (and he wouldn’t let us pick him up and place him anymore).

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That first week he had a bad case of kennel cough and wasn’t eating, and there were times we weren’t sure he would make it. We fed him high-calorie pumpkin purée to get him by. The prescribed medicine also worked its magic but made him lethargic and nose-drippy for a while, to the point we called him Lucas Mucus.

Lucas Mucus got better! This first nickname evolved to many others over the years: Lucas Mookus (just Mookus for short), Lukie Mookie (aka Mookie or Mookie Boy), Luka Mooka, Mookus Maximus, Mookus Head, Moose Head. (OK, Moose Head makes sense when you consider his long snout and frequent mopey head hanging.)

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Our kids called him Lukie, and I think that one suited him best. Lukie Boy was a good boy.

I also called him Handsome Man, and was he handsome. Light golden fur with a striking dark shepherd-like face. He had a unique pink coloration on his nose, and black cat eye makeup markings around his soft brown eyes.

I loved how his too-big ears would perk up and rotate like satellite dishes to track an interesting sound. If he heard something worth barking at, he rarely ever barked. About the only time he did was while playing with Shanna or telling her to calm down, and dutifully protecting his family pack at the park or on walks.

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Luke loved a good walk! He had boundless energy in his prime, but he didn’t bounce off the walls at home. He seemed to save it for the leash. The boy needed to be out in front of anyone walking with him. He would pull us along like a sled dog. We bought a gentle leader and he would pull through it, driving a deep indent into his snout. He never seemed to mind.

Luke was so strong! He had a barrel chest on a thin but muscular frame. For his size, he had dainty feet.

The boy loved to eat, and after he’d have a particularly yummy meal, I’d cheer him on as he’d go rub his face on the carpet and roll around in apparent celebration.

His favorite place to relax was the nearest couch, preferably with a person already there. Existing space for him on the couch was not a requirement.

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On the floor, he seemed to enjoy sitting upright and splaying out his back legs like a frog. On the stairs, he’d have a seat like you and me, naturally.

A medium sized dog, he’d come up to me and I’d kneel down, and he would fit perfectly under my arm for full-body hugs and face smooshes. No other dog fit me quite like Lukie Boy.

Perhaps what I love most about Luke, and why I’ll most miss him, is how perfect he was for me and my family. That is Luke’s legacy.

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He was calm and peaceful and patient and affectionate and loyal. His one-of-kind temperament had a lasting effect on anyone he met.

Luke was about 6 years old when our son was born. Like any new dad, I was terrified how my dogs would react to a newborn in the house. If things didn’t go well, obviously the dogs would have to go. But I quickly realized that was never an issue with Luke.

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IMG_3178.jpgIMG_1450The moment my son came home, Luke went down one notch in the pack order. It must have been hard for him, but you’d never know it, the way he continued to love on my family. Same deal when our daughter came home a few years later.

Luke endured many years of baby shrieking and ear and tail pulling and too-hard petting from the kids, but he never—really, never ever—got snippy or reacted with anything but complete and unconditional affection.

I remember one time my 4-year-old son sat on the tile floor and piled couch pillows on top of Luke. The good boy just sat there and let it happen, without a hint of annoyance.

He was such a people person. The times we had to pen him up, if he was within earshot, he groaned at us in objection. Whenever he was allowed to be with guests, he would quietly work the room to get his pets in. And how could you not pet such a good boy?

Luke was the permanent chairman of the welcome committee, eagerly tail-wagging and butt-wiggling to greet us at the door when we returned home.

As my children grew older, they learned to love Lukie Boy as much as my wife and I did. And I just knew that Luke loved it, too. On nights he wasn’t taking his share of space at the end of our bed, he was curled up in the chair in my son’s room.

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Mookie. Lukie Boy. Handsome Man. I thank God for bringing you into my family. And while I won’t ever know why you had to leave us when you did, I have no doubts that you made the most of your short time with us. That is a dog’s life very well lived.

You were an original, Luke. You had a kind and gentle soul. We’ll remember you always. We love you, good boy.

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Area Man Stops Running for a Week and There’s Nothing Physically Wrong with Him or Anything

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Early Monday, Matt Morgan’s absence from the streets of Northbrook raised little concern among the parents driving their kids to school and the people rushing to catch the Metra train downtown.

By Tuesday morning, with no sign of the man in his moisture-wicking T-shirt and awkwardly short nylon shorts, rumors began to fly.

“I thought he had the flu or got hit by a bus or something,” one woman told us on condition of anonymity. “Just about every morning, I can count on him darting out in front of my car through the red ‘do not cross’ sign at Pfingsten. I mean, he thinks he can hold up his hand at me like ‘sorry’ and that makes it any less dangerous to run all willy-nilly into oncoming traffic. When I didn’t see him at all by the end of the week, I knew something was wrong.”

It turns out he is not sick or injured. He’s simply chosen not to run. In fact, it’s been a full week since Morgan has jogged anything more than a mile.

He did run a little bit on Wednesday, but only to participate in Global Running Day, which is an annual holiday made up by runners to congratulate themselves on running, and really, he only ran that day for the purpose of posting a running selfie on social media.

Members of the I Worked At Northbrook DQ Facebook group, who first reported him missing from the neighborhood sidewalks, wondered what could be the cause. If he were injured, they surely would have heard about it, because runners who are hurt will constantly tell you they are hurt as an explanation for why they aren’t running and post pictures of themselves doing things they normally don’t have time to do when they are running so much.

Aside from the isolated, shameless selfie self-promotion on that made-up running holiday this past week, Morgan hasn’t told many people about his running hiatus aside from his co-workers and church friends, who have heard him go on about it multiple times a day.

“I needed a break. I’ve run like six days a week for about a year. I mean, running a hundred miles a month takes a toll,” Morgan said, seemingly unaware of his intense humblebragging.

He went on for a few minutes, using words like “splits” and “VO2 max,” but nobody wants to read about that stuff.

What does a man who runs nearly every day do when he’s chosen not to run anymore? It defies logic.

“I’ve been staying up till like 9:30 at night, reading and sewing on buttons that fell off a couple shirts,” Morgan said. He declined to comment further.

Top 7 Running Experiences of 2017

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It’s hard to look back on a year—whether it’s running or anything else—and not measure it.

(How many miles did you run? How many books did you read? How many pounds did you lose?) That’s how many of my annual reviews have gone. (OK, so I ran 1,202 miles and averaged 8:02 minutes per mile, I read about 1,096 books if you count the children’s variety, and I actually gained a little weight—can we talk about something else, please?)

But running, like life, is so much more than numbers. It’s what happens between the GPS data points—the people you talk to, the scenery you take in, the deep places you dig to find the extra oomph you need to get where you want to go.

Here are my top seven running experiences in 2017. Were you there for any of them?

7. Instagramming.

Instagram is, well, Instagram. If you’re reading this, you probably you have an account and know what it is for you. For me, it’s an outlet for relatively safe, running-focused expression—a place that I can put my too many selfies and actually get support for running at 4:30 a.m. instead of getting eye rolls. (Well, maybe the eye rolls are happening, too.)

I’m proud to have extended my reach in Instagram in 2017,  connecting with some super-interesting people and growing my account by about 30%.

6. Running Ragnar Chicago.

Well, the actual running part of this was awful—I had GI issues the whole time. But the overall experience was memorable, as always. Plus, I ran with TEAM PAWS Chicago, my charity running group, and got to know some pet-loving people better.

5. Cheering on friends at the Chicago Marathon.

I planned to spectate this race instead of run it, and doing so surpassed my expectations! What an amazing feeling supporting my TEAM PAWS Chicago teammates and other friends among the 45,000 participants. I did stand in one spot and yelled for five hours, which might have been as exhausting as running! Plus, I still have PTSD from the cowbell I continuously clanged near my ear. Worth it.

4. Rocking an ice beard at the Frozen Gnome 10K (Crystal Lake, Illinois).

I’m only partly kidding when I say I grew a beard for this express purpose. I’m still not sure why the ice beard was so glorious when the conditions were similar to what I’ve run in before. I haven’t been able to duplicate it since.

I’m glad a race organizer was around to take the picture (and later send it to me), because my phone had died from the extreme cold. (I joke that my phone is acclimated to Arizona.)

3. Running Ragnar Michigan.

I owe my presence at this event to an unserious comment to a runner who lives 1,700 miles away. I’d already run Ragnar Chicago a few months before (see #6 above) and scratched my Ragnar itch for the year. But I wanted the Double Medal for running a second relay around the Great Lakes. I heard that a friend from Arizona was captaining a team going to Michigan, and I asked about an opening. Sorry, it just filled. Then, not long after that, she said a spot opened up, and, after some leaning, my wife was gracious enough to let me go.

I have experience jumping on Ragnar teams with strangers. I’ve heard from others that doing so can be a crapshoot, that one bad seed can spoil it for everyone. I’ve been lucky to avoid that in all of my Ragnars so far. (It helps to not be the bad seed, just sayin’.)

What I loved most about this one was our van. Cool people! The six of us were from five different states, yet we fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.

2. Crushing a PR at the Phoenix Marathon half (Mesa, Arizona).

I’m calling this my best. race. ever.* I ran my fastest half-marathon by more than two minutes. I felt I could have gone even faster, but I’m not upset about it. Shoot, it was just plain fun. Shouldn’t it always be like this? I trained hard, and it paid off.

I remember carefully managing my pace throughout, then getting to the final miles and accelerating. I didn’t worry about burning out, because I knew I had enough left to get me to the end. Heck, I pulled my phone out and took a selfie, which I definitely don’t do when I’m struggling or worried that I might. After the race, I felt great, like I could have run another half (or something like it). Perhaps that meant I could have gone faster. Well, I can test that another time. The bar has been raised.

The *asterisk* here is my gross underestimation of waiting in the cold before the start. They had lots of heat lamps, which was fantastic. But it wasn’t enough to keep me comfy in my singlet and shorts. Why the guy who moved from Arizona to Chicago to come back to Arizona unprepared for the cold is beyond me. I spent 45 grueling minutes in 35 degrees, standing in one spot, clenching my arms around my body, gritting my teeth. No joke, I was worried all that time spent shivering would drain my energy. Thankfully, it didn’t.

1. Running the New York City Marathon.

How could this, the largest marathon in the world, not be on the top of the list for everyone who ran it? It was epic on so many levels.

First, it was my first trip to the city. First romp around Central Park. First trek to Times Square. First skyline view from Top of the Rock. First look at Lady Liberty. First (and, ahem, second and third) time getting lost in the subway system. That’s all before race day!

Race day’s epic needs no explanation.

I saw a shirt that said “Took a train to a boat to a bus to run 26.2 miles.” Just getting to the start line on Staten Island from my apartment in Manhattan was an accomplishment! (I’m glad I’d gotten lost earlier so this key commute went smoothly.)

The race moved me more than I ever thought it would. Through every borough—Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx, Manhattan—people lined the streets in droves to support us. People of all abilities, nationalities and ethnicities cheering on runners who were equally as diverse. All in an amazing pursuit of human achievement. It’s overwhelming in the best of ways.

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I can’t stop thinking about this race—and really, this moment. I enjoyed my strongest 20 miles ever at the @nycmarathon and felt as though I unraveled so much in the last 10K. To see this strong, composed runner crossing the finish line, after all of that, boosts my confidence greatly. . . . BTW, a PSA: This is one of my fave race photos ever, and I almost missed out. It wasn’t in my original official shots from the race—it was in the miscellaneous bin! Peeps, always check the misc bin. There might be a gem in there … . . . #running #run #runner #runchicago #runchi #marathon #marathoner #marathonrunner #training #igrunners #runstrong #werunsocial #instarunners #instarunner #instarun #runnersonig #runnersofig #runnersofinstagram #runitfast #runalways #gorun #runitfast #monthlymiles #novembermiles #tcsnycmarathon #nycmarathon #nycmarathon2017 #gomattmorgan

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Why This Runner Sets the Alarm for 4:30 in the Morning

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Ding ding dong dong. The bell tower alarm goes off, like it does almost every morning. Only it’s 4:30, not my usual wake-up time of 5 or 5:30. That half-hour makes a lot of difference, and at least right now, I’m really missing it.

Eyes half closed and brain still half struggling to comprehend what’s up, I fumble to press “snooze.” But there will be no more snoozing. When I have my wits about me, I focus on the phone, swipe a couple of times to shut off the alarm, and roll out of bed.

For runners like me, these are moments of truth.

Three days a week, I wake up and lace up and head out the door. What started years ago as a means to an end—I ran primarily to perform well in an upcoming race but didn’t really enjoy any of it—morphed to become an indelible part of me. I identify myself as a runner now as much as a husband, a father, a churchgoer, a creative director.

Even with my love of running, I need a goal to maintain motivation. Usually, it’s a race. These days it’s to finish the New York City Marathon on Nov. 5. No—not just finish it. Set a personal record. And like my shoes won’t put themselves on my feet, this goal won’t happen by itself. You can either do the work when it needs to be done, or you can continue snoozing.

My training plan calls for 8.5 fast miles on this particular weekday, as it did the previous two weeks. Those last two efforts, however, did not go well. They weren’t total failures, but they weren’t successes, either. Started out too fast? Didn’t eat well enough beforehand? Or was it that I didn’t eat well enough the night before? Did I not hydrate properly? These questions rattle through my mind as I allow my body to ease up, about halfway into the run. This happened two straight weeks. Ugh.

The plan has this fast 8.5-miler for six of seven weeks, so if I want to hit my goal for the workout—heck, if I want to hit my goal for the marathon—I’d better figure it out. I can either deal with this demon or give in. And I’m not getting up at 4:30 to give in.

The day before the third, pivotal session, I hydrated well and ate a carb-tastic dinner (chicken and ziti). When I got up, I scarfed more carbs and good fats (whole-wheat bread with peanut butter) in addition to my usual banana. Perhaps as important as these food and drink tweaks, I prepped my head to be in the right state to wrestle a run I’d repeatedly struggled with.

After a check of essentials—headlamp, watch, water, gel—I venture out.

These fast paces seem easy for the first few miles. That’s nice, I tell myself, but stick to the program. Rein in the pace. Keep the breathing steady and relaxed. The hard stuff is coming, and you’ll need those feel-good reserves. I often visualize my body as a steam engine, with the carbohydrates in my system serving as coal in the fire, and like a shovel-wielding train engineer, I’m continually assessing the fuel situation and ready to react: How’s the power right now? Need anything to keep it up? No? OK, then, let’s push on!

Some days, the stars align and I have a fantastic run. Other days, even when conditions seem to be the same, things can go well and then very suddenly fall apart. I might have an inkling why, or I might not. Experience has taught me to appreciate the good days and not agonize (too much) over the bad ones.

This particular day, at oh dark hundred, the stars aligned. The first few easy miles gave way to a gut check in the middle stages, and then a push past halfway—over the hump!—until I could sense the downward momentum and practically feel myself finishing strong, well within my time goal.

With the sun only starting to peek through the trees in the neighborhood, I cross the imaginary finish line at the end of my street, and I stop my watch. Resting my sweaty hands on my fatigued, sweaty knees, I exhale forcefully a few times to slow my heart rate, then I straighten up. Endorphins flood my system. As I turn to walk home, I reflect on what this success feels like. I savor it.

People ask me why I do this. Why I run crazy distances at crazy paces at crazy hours. Why I run at all. This is why. I’ve hit a high point for the day, and for all intents and purposes, the day hasn’t even begun. It’s worth setting the alarm for 4:30 a.m. now and then, knowing you’ll be missing a precious half-hour of sleep, and getting up in the black of night, to test your limits in pursuit of something you want. You should try it.

How 14 Failed Runs Got Me to the Chicago Marathon

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I was still running high after a successful winter of training and a mammoth marathon PR in April. But an unusually cold spring quickly gave way to an unusually humid summer, and by the second week of July I knew something was wrong.

July 5 was a buildup run: Hold pace for a couple of miles, speed up and hold pace for a couple of miles, speed up again and hold pace again. I burned out after the first section. I just didn’t have it. The next week was the same run and the same result. That weekend, another failure.

Weeks of this turned into months. I stopped enjoying my training. I started hated it.

I was discouraged. I’d never struggled like this in all my years of running. But I was not defeated.

Every running morning, I got up, laced up and headed out. I slogged through many a workout, alternating walking and running after the running part failed. I forgot about my pace. At worst, I could manage only a tenth of a mile of continuous running. I take that back: At worst, I stopped my watch and walked home.

It was the slogging—continuing past the point of needing to walk, of feeling like a failure—that prepared me for where I am now, oddly confident on the eve of the Chicago Marathon. Every run since my 20-mile disaster (it was supposed to be 22) has been good to great. My stride has returned along with the cooler weather, and just in time.

Despite all my failed runs—14 of them, I counted—over the last four months, I am finally (FINALLY!) ready to take on this iconic race, just not how I imagined it. I may not have it in me to achieve my original goal (cut the gap to my Boston qualifying time in half), but I’m feeling good about my fallback plan (PR).

If a new PR isn’t in the cards, that’s OK, too. I’ll forget about my pace like I did in all those failed training runs and simply enjoy racing through one of the country’s greatest cities. Win-win.

Why I Spent $24.95 on This Awful Race Photo

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I received the email with my official marathon photos. You know the one. I clicked the link to access the proofs, knowing full well I wouldn’t like what I saw.

In this case, it was proof that I was indeed suffering during the race. This was January 2013.

One particular image so finely epitomized my experience that I grabbed a screen shot of it—though I couldn’t bring myself to pay for the download. The screen grab stayed where I saved it, on my computer desktop, for over three years. Occasionally I’d call it up and look at it, and I’d recall the misery of that moment.

It was past mile 20, after I’d hit the wall. I’d given up on my plan to walk only through the water stations and was instead willing my body to keep moving at all. I’d also given up on my time goal, cursing my failure to achieve what I worked so hard for. I hated the taste of my gels. I hated a lot of things. I was past the point of exhaustion—physical and psychological—and I had an eternity to go before I could be done with it all (and, not surprisingly, go directly to the medical tent).

I look at the picture now, and the pain is as real as it was then.

This week, I finally paid for the digital download. $24.95 on my credit card. Three years after the fact.

Why in the world would I keep the screen shot on my desktop for so long—or maybe more curious, why would I ever spend hard-earned cash on such a forgettable photo?

Because I don’t want to forget what happened. I don’t want to forget how I failed, or how I felt. Ever.

Two weeks ago, I ran the marathon of my life, and I have all the happy pictures to prove it. (I bought them right away.) I’ll cherish these photos, along with the memories they evoke, for as long as I have room for them in my brain and on my hard drive. But I’d better not forget that awful 26.2 in 2013, either. And now I’ll always have that picture to look back on—in unsightly 300 dots per inch. I want to zoom in and see the anguish in my face and remember the wall and the water stations and the wayward goals. I want to remember what went so terribly wrong on the racecourse that day.

It’s by reflecting on our failures—and learning from them—that we lay the groundwork for improvement. I’ve elevated every aspect of my running since 2013, I’m pleased to say, and with this awful picture now in my possession, I’ll know by exactly how much.

 

Race Recap: 2016 Big Sur Marathon

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The 2016 Big Sur Marathon is over. Cross this race off the bucket list. But let’s not move on to the next thing yet. Let’s savor this one for a while.

I close my eyes and breath in, taking it all in. My senses are full. In this quiet moment I’ve made for myself, I recall THE POUNDING.

THE NERVOUS POUNDING of my heart in my chest as our bus approaches the start line.
We’d ridden the entire 26.2 miles of the marathon route in reverse to get there. It’s an interesting backward preview, knowing on foot you’ll be covering all the ups as downs and the downs as ups. What I remember for sure is there were a lot of each. (When the day was done, I gained more than 2,000 total feet of elevation.) I look out the window. It’s dark at 5:30 a.m., and with no visible scenery to occupy my mind, I reflect on my training. That was a big downhill we drove just now, which means a big uphill later. At what mile will that be for me? Did I do enough hill training for it? Will I push too hard in those early stages and not leave enough for the rest of the race?

THE FUTILE POUNDING of my fist on my iPhone, because the battery has conked out AGAIN.
I pull the phone out of my belt to take a picture, and I’m greeted with a frustratingly familiar black screen. Ack! I know there is juice, even though the phone has been searching for a signal for hours. No, this is because it’s too cold outside. My phone would frequently do this during training runs in Chicago. I usually joke and tell people it’s because my phone was purchased in Phoenix and it’s not acclimated to the weather. Only I’m not laughing now. There will be no more midrun selfies, at a time when I wanted them most. I’m really glad I got some shots early on, because I’ll need to rely on my memory and the official race photographers to preserve my effort for the rest of the morning. I make a last-ditch attempt to power up right before the iconic Bixby Creek Bridge—no luck—and holster my phone for good. Well, this is fate telling you to get your mind off the technology and make memories with your brain. Focus on the moment.

THE RHYTHMIC POUNDING of the taiko drums at mile 10, a traditional signal to begin the 520-foot ascent over the next 2 miles to the highest point of the course.
The drum line is strategically placed there at the base, at the Little Sur River bridge, I’ve read, for just such an effect, to plant the rhythm in the mind, the body and the soul. So much is written about that couple of muscle-busting miles to Hurricane Point. What they don’t tell you about, or at least what I missed if they did, is the wind. Gusts had been buffeting me and the other runners for miles, and nearing Hurricane Point, when we were at our weakest from the climb, the wind was a double slap in the face. I’d already cinched my visor down on my head earlier, and the bursts here were enough to blow it clean off. Thankfully, it stuck when it hit the pavement and didn’t continue skittering off the road and down into the Pacific below. Why am I even wearing the visor, I wondered, except to have something to aggravate me? The sun had barely broken through, and it wasn’t raining, which are my two main reasons for the headwear in the first place. I took it off to carry for a minute, realized I didn’t like having it in my hands, and then wriggled it back where it belongs. Don’t let the killer hill or the assailing wind or the floppy visor get you off your game plan, man. There’s too much race left.

THE UNRELENTING POUNDING of my feet on the pavement, especially around mile 20, when I can finally allow my mind to comprehend the finish.
A few days earlier, I watched the Boston Marathon on TV. We followed the lead pack in the men’s and women’s races, including some of the best distance runners in the world, and one of the commentators said that by mile 20, marathoners—yes, even these elite athletes—get fatigued and must rely on mental toughness to finish well. Mile 20 has significance for me, too. Not only is it near the limit of any of my training runs (22.5 is my longest, and that didn’t go so great), but it’s also the spot where I hit a wall in two of my three previous marathons. So how was I doing now? After a mental check head to toe, I realized my right ankle was sore, and my quads, especially my right one, were screaming. Most of the course, the southbound lane of Highway 1, is steeply sloped toward the ocean, which takes a toll on the body’s frame even if you make a point to find the flatter spots. Could that explain why my right side hurt? At any rate, I’m feeling like I have enough left. Only 10K to go. Which is what, 45 minutes? You can take 45 minutes of pain. Let’s call it discomfort. You can take it. You can make it.

THE SWEET, SWEET POUNDING of the massage therapist on my right quad, and my left one, and my adductors, and my calves, not long after the race.
I hobble through the finishers chute to the VIP tent, having just enjoyed a decent kick to the end and also having totally shattered my PR from three years ago. (“No one PRs at this race!” people would tell me later, in amazement. But I did, by 50 minutes.) I grab the first thing I see, a berry smoothie, and the thing I see after that, a big ol’ chocolate chip cookie, and make as much small talk as I have breath for. The party organizers point me toward the free massage area. I’m thinking it was an excellent idea to spring for the VIP treatment. I’ve never gotten a massage after a race before, but don’t mind if I do. I take off my space blanket and my medal, which isn’t actually metal and has already become my most coveted running memorabile, and manage to hoist myself up on the table. I lie on my back and as my muscles cramp up, I’m surprisingly relaxed.

I close my eyes and breathe in, taking it all in, and reflect on the Big Sur Marathon. My senses are full. In this quiet moment I’ve made for myself, I smile.