42. Miracle on the Run

42. Miracle on the Run

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Runners

Miracle on the Run

Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.
~C.S. Lewis

We experience miracles every day, thing is, we’re just too busy to see them. But every now and then a miracle is so big and bold that it’s unforgettable. Truth is, most days aren’t mountaintop experiences, most days I find myself longing for miracles; days when I’m down and discouraged, crushed and cast off, days when I want to overcome but just feel overwhelmed — on days like that I remember days like this.

It was early summer, 2004. I was training in Murrieta, California — a town about 60 miles northeast of downtown San Diego. This training cycle was sandwiched between my 7th place finish at the Olympic Marathon Trials and my US Team appearance at the World Half Marathon Championships in India.

As a professional runner, my training regimen calls for both morning and evening runs. Once every 10 days the schedule calls for a glycogen depletion run. In laymen’s terms: I run until my accessible energy stores are totally zapped. This means a 25-30 miler at no faster than six-minute mile pace. Long run days are great because there’s no second run. One and done.

On this day, I woke, drank my coffee, read the paper and prepped for the run. Just before noon I walked my coffee out of the comfort of my 69-degree house onto my porch to check the conditions. When you live 20 miles inland in Southern California you never know when the warm winds from the Santa Ana Mountains will blow through. When they do, it feels like God left His hairdryer on. This day He left it on high.

I considered postponing the run until the late afternoon but not being one to let a perfectly good caffeine buzz go to waste, I figured I would brave the high noon elements. Most days I drive the course and stash bottles every three or four miles but out on my porch I had a thought — no, an epiphany — I could do this long run without any fluid support.

I realize most humans would never consider, much less attempt, running over 20 miles without fluids but as a professional athlete I am, at times, delusional and lose touch with my mortality. Now, through therapy, I can admit that I have a bit of a superhero complex. I mean, I can string together a series of sub 4:40 miles, I’ve run 50-mile races, I’ve run 25 miles with no fluids before — I could do it again. I can leap tall buildings; I can run through walls — you see how this superhero thing can prove problematic.

So I set out in my shorts, shoes and MP3 player, and despite the heat, I was in the zone. As every runner will tell you, every so often the stars align and everything comes together. On those days you can do no wrong, you can do anything, you feel like a superhero. I passed the mile in 5:19 — way too fast.

I hit five miles just under 27 minutes — three minutes too fast. So I did what any reasonable athlete would — I changed my music from the long run mellow mix to techno-Rocky and let her rip. I started hammering, faster, faster, faster.

On long run days I like to run out and back courses. This way I can’t cut it short. One way out and one way back. At the time, this route was pretty desolate. It traveled along Winchester Road and headed out toward a town called Hemet. I don’t know much about Hemet other than it smells like cows and it serves as a shortcut to Palm Springs.

I was hammering along the dirt shoulder and passed 10 miles under 53 minutes — right around five-minute pace for the last five. I reached 12.5 — the 25 mile turn around — but things were going so well I figured I’d run the full 15 and try and set a personal best for 30. I reached 15 in under 1:23 — six-minute pace for the last five. I was slowing, but still feeling good.

The next five passed without incident but the naked sun in the naked sky was relentless; the rays pounded my shoulders. I began feeling the effects of the heat. I reverted back to the slow mix and slowed the pace in an attempt to preserve the effort.

That’s when things started going wrong, real wrong. Anyone who has run in the heat will tell you, things can go from good, to bad, to worse, to you’re totally screwed in about the time it took you to read that sentence. Pardon the juxtapositional phrase but things tend to snowball in the heat.

I was still managing seven-minute miles but was slowing by the second; this was becoming a death march. My mouth was dry, my throat was dry, I tried to swallow — nothing. I couldn’t spit; I was no longer sweating; pasty white sweat covered my chest and arms — I was dehydrated.

I wasn’t a superhero — I was an idiot. Only a fool would try and run 30 miles in horrible heat with no water.

Reality: I am susceptible to the same natural laws as everyone else. People need water. Runners need even more.

I kept running, using the term loosely now, and began licking my arm. And before you laugh or cringe, don’t knock it ‘til you try it.

The wheels were coming off, there wasn’t anything around, and to top it all off, in all my years of training I’d never failed to reach my destination. My running rule, and life rule for that matter, is “keep moving forward.”

So, I started to pray. Nothing pious mind you, I was just talking. “Lord, I’m really stupid. I’m in a lot of trouble here. I still have a long way to go and if I don’t get some water I won’t make it home. So if you could hook me up I’d appreciate it….” I paused, then added, “Maybe you can have someone pull over for some directions and give me water.”

I run around 50 times a month, which over the course of the year makes for roughly 600 times I lace up the shoes and pound the pavement. Out of those 600 runs a passerby will stop to ask me for directions five times, maybe six on a leap year. People assume runners know the area, and truth is if you are looking for a street and it’s the runner’s home turf, they’re essentially a walking, talking MapQuest. So I figured offering the direction suggestion was a solid scheme to give the creator of the universe.

I continued running and for the next minute continued offering up all sorts of ways He could deliver me some fluids. “Someone could get a flat, one of my friends could drive by, a fan could stop for an autograph, a girl could stop for my number.” They were all solid suggestions and things that had happened in the past so I figured I’d give God a hand, you know, in case He was short on ideas.

A minute later a blue midsize pulled off onto the dirt. My water had arrived.

The car stopped about 30 feet in front of me. I stopped the music and slowed to a stop. A lady exited the car and approached.

When I stopped I felt a cold rush to my head and felt like I was looking through a zooming camera lens — in and out, in and out. I lost my balance and fell forward. Fortunately, my hands preserved my pride and I saved myself from falling. Of course, being an egomaniac too proud to admit he had fallen over, I played it off like I was doing a hamstring stretch. I stayed bent for a few seconds and waited until my equilibrium returned. The woman’s feet appeared in front of me; I rose out of my jackknife.

“Are you OK?” she asked.

“Yeah, just stretching.”

I should have said no and begged her for a ride but superheroes don’t need rides.

“Do you know how to get to Pechanga?”

Pechanga is an Indian reservation — a gambler’s paradise — think Vegas in Cali.

“What you need to do is head back that way, get on the 15 South, it’s the second exit, you’ll see the signs from there.”

“Thanks!” She started walking away. Apparently God forgot to tell her she was supposed to offer me water.

“Um, Miss? Do you have anything to drink?”

“Lemme check.”

She walked to her car, returned with a bottle. “I took a sip,” she said, “is that okay?”

I smiled, nodded, and graciously accepted.

She drove away. I walked to a tiny dirt cross street and took a seat on a small patch of dried grass next to a wire fence. I’d rest up, enjoy the water and rally for the last seven miles.

I thanked God for the hook-up and finished the bottle. I sat baking in the sun, trying to convince myself that once the water had a few minutes to absorb I’d feel better.

A minute went by, then two. I was fooling myself; I needed more water. So I prayed out loud, “Lord, thanks for the water but I’m going to need more, if you could have another car stop and give me a…”

As the words left my mouth a car turned onto the dirt road beside me. Chills ran over my body. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Oh great, I was hallucinating.

I wasn’t delusional; the car was real. I was so happy I could have cried, and probably would have if my body had any fluid left.

I stood, approached the car and the window rolled down, “Would you like some water?” the man asked.

Holy Shnikeys. I stared in disbelief. Crazy. Incredible. A miracle.

“Yes.”

He got out of his car, popped the trunk and the only thing inside was a lone six-pack of bottled water.

He handed me one; I drank it.

“Would you like another? I have six.”

“No, this will be fine.”

He smiled.

“Sir? Why did you stop?”

“My son has a soccer game on Diaz Road and I can’t find it.”

“I think Diaz is on the other side of the freeway.”

“Thanks. Have a good run.”

I should have asked him for the whole six-pack but I was dumb-founded. I sat, drank, stored the two bottles next to the fence, went on my way and although I didn’t break any records that day, I made it home.

Temperatures had topped 100. I stepped on the scale. I had lost 17 pounds — things nearly went very, very wrong.

That night I drove back down Winchester; my headlights caught the small green street sign next to the fence where I had sat — Keller Road. I grabbed the bottles as a reminder of my miracle on the run.

~Josh Cox

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