My normal gait is returning after a couple days of stiff-legged hobbling. Sunday, I ran a 20 mile race traversing the entire, brief coastline of New Hampshire. Christophe ran it as well, though for him, it was to serve as his last long training run for the Boston Marathon. For me, it was to be an actual race. For 14 good miles I maintained my planned pace. I run without headphones, so I listened to the conversations of the runners around me: a barrel-chested, shirtless middle-aged man with long scraggly pony tail held forth to his female companion about lobsters and whether or not they are chordates (which he pronounced “cordites.”) They are not, and his companion expressed that opinion, correctly pointing out that lobsters have an exoskeleton rather than “the cord thing” (that would be the notochord). He was insistent in his erroneous thesis, and she backed down. So for two miles I pondered the nature of gender relations and male authority.
Around mile 7, I listened for a while as two married women in their 40s discussed husbands and jobs. Around mile 10, they were still behind me, and we were the only three people around when I got an unexpected ego boost. One of the women said to the other, “Look at her. She’s totally in the zone. Look at her rhythm.” “I know,” said the other, “she’s like a metronome. That’s awesome. I look like a horse.” I pretended not to hear them, but I got a solid three miles out of that praise, and the pondering of female self-image.
Before I lost contact with the two women, I heard them talking about marriage. Both had been married over a decade, and they were talking about some rough patches they’d faced. “It’s peaks and valleys, you know? There are some real lows. It’s not easy.” I know that’s the conventional wisdom, and certainly being married is not always a pure delight, but as the miles slid away on this flat, sea-level course, I was left pondering the relative ease with which I stay married to the man who was somewhere behind me on the course, clocking his own miles at a measured pace. The flat course was no metaphor for it, since there are high peaks indeed. But the low valleys, they haven’t seemed to come.
Around mile 11, Christophe passed me. Glancing my way he said, “Race ya,” and cruised on past. I assumed he was making a break for it and would soon be a dot on the horizon. But instead, he settled into my same pace, but only 40 yards ahead of me. This bewildered and depressed me, alone as I was on the course at that moment, and I found myself verging on tears. This is the kind of weird emotional outburst common to runners in the late-middle stages of a long race, and to women in hour 3o of labor. So he and I have been here before. It took me a mile to make up the distance, at which point I wasted considerable breath and energy sobbing at him. He fell in with me and we ran together for a while.
My legs cramped up at mile 15, feeling like they were being flogged from within by a knotted length of rope studded with nails. I had recovered my senses by then, and told Christophe he could proceed at his chosen pace guilt-free. I could see him weighing this, checking for traps, cautiously trying out the idea. Then, he declined, opting instead to stay with me. The irony had struck him, he told me, that he is running Boston to raise money for Casa Myrna, a domestic violence charity, and he was considering abandoning his wife by the side of the road so he could finish a training run marginally faster. That would be hard to explain.
So, we finished the last 5 miles together, at my curtailed pace, and with four or five walk breaks. The fair skies that had prevailed through the earlier parts of the race had given way to gray clouds over the boarded up pizza places and arcades of Hampton Beach. The course grew uglier, and the air colder. We went at my hobbled speed, my strides almost two to his every one, and crossed the modest and mostly abandoned finish line with our five year old jumping in for the last 50 yards. The metaphor that wouldn’t come finally did. The peaks and valleys, or the flat monotony of a coastline 20 miler–it’s the terrain itself that may be pitted and rugged, and the course difficult. But yoked together, shoulder to shoulder in a well mated team, it’s the harness that wears light.