56. Recovered Memories

56. Recovered Memories

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Runners

Recovered Memories

It’s surprising how much of memory is built around things unnoticed at the time.
~Barbara Kingsolver

I’ll always remember 1979 as the year Janine and I ran our last marathon together. Running tech, (technology, technique and training), was a far cry then from what it is today. Good running shoes were as rare as Spandex and just as expensive. Janine and I usually saved the good stuff for races, training in bargain-store sneakers and cut-off jeans, whatever we could fish out of the laundry basket.

Sunday runs had replaced Sunday mass for this fallen Catholic and Gatorade had become my holy water. I gulped it with salt tablets to replenish my electrolytes (whatever they were) and wolfed down plates of spaghetti before every big race. Carbohydrate loading was the mantra of the moment, the best and blessed buzz words of runners in the know. At least that’s the way I remember it. After years of washing down my racing pasta with Chianti I had more than a few of my own buzzes going on, so who can know for sure?

Janine didn’t enter her first marathon until 1975, a time when running’s Dark Ages were just coming to an end. Our daughters might be shocked to learn that the Boston Marathon didn’t lift its ban on women runners until 1972 and probably wouldn’t have lifted it then if not for the negative publicity Beantown’s event garnered a few years earlier when a race official-turned-bouncer tried to manhandle Kathrine Switzer off the course. Luckily, Switzer’s boyfriend was running beside her and did a better job of manhandling the official. Kathrine finished the race, shaken but unbowed.

Like Switzer and her beau, Janine and I were running side by side in the ‘78 and ‘79 Maryland Marathon. Our times in both races were about three and a half hours, not too shabby for a married couple trying to sandwich daily training sessions between slices of sleep and full-time jobs.

Don’t think I didn’t catch your half-mumbled “so what?” or the thump of a forehead on the coffee table. This old writing teacher is savvy enough to recognize the sound of a reader nodding off mid-paragraph. But bear with me, pour yourself a cup of coffee and take a NoDoz if you feel the need. I promise you we’re getting to the story’s hook.

I’ll grant you that if the ghost of Phidippides kept a ledger of every marathon ever run there’d likely be enough married couples running races together to fill a phone book. But don’t go looking for Janine and me in that book because we won’t be there.

We were married all right, just not to each other. Janine and I didn’t even know each other then… and wouldn’t for more than a quarter century.

She showed up in one of my writing classes a few years ago, umbrella in hand (to remind me it was raining outside) and wearing spike heels with her jeans (to remind me how French women dressed… did I mention Janine was born in France?). Until that moment I’d been the consummate pro who’d never forgotten a lecture. But now I found myself speechless for a moment, summoning the courage to pull a shopworn pick-up line out of mothballs, when Janine beat me to it.

“You look familiar,” she said. “Do we know each other?”

We both knew it wasn’t a pick-up line because we both had the feeling we’d seen each other before, not once but dozens of times. The nagging question was where?

That evening I noticed an old photograph gathering dust on my mantle. Framed in one of those clear plastic boxes popular in the seventies, the photo showed me nearing the finish line of the ‘78 Maryland Marathon. I picked up the frame and slid out the cardboard backing. Don’t ask me why. I peeked inside. Behind the photograph was my sweat-stained race number and a folded edition of the Baltimore Sun with the race results. I was more than a little startled to find Janine’s name just a few lines below mine on the finishers’ list. Our times were less than 2 minutes apart.

Months later, over coffee at Starbucks, I told Janine of the list I’d found behind my photograph and how we’d competed side by side so long ago. She smiled and produced a photograph of her own, showing a group of runners training on one of the hilly roads winding through Maryland’s Loch Raven Reservoir. I recognized the road immediately and why not? I’d run it hundreds of times. Janine was in the foreground of the photo, surrounded by an elite group of runners, including the great Olympic miler, Marty Liquori.

“Recognize anyone?” she asked.

“You must be kidding,” I said, handing back the picture. “I know who Marty is.”

“Recognize anyone else?”

“The woman looks familiar,” I said, glancing at the photo. Janine wasn’t buying into my sarcasm, so I looked again. I noticed a bearded figure in the background, wearing a threadbare green ski jacket. “I had a jacket just like that,” I said, my chair beginning to resemble a dunce stool.

Now Janine and I understood why we’d looked so familiar to one another. We’d trained on the same roads and ran the same races for years, probably passed each other a hundred times. Yet we never said hello. Or maybe we did, just didn’t remember.

A psychologist might call the sudden flood of “Janine” images coursing through my temporal lobes a case of recovered memory, while the cynic might call it wishful thinking. Maybe it was a little of both.

Eventually Janine divorced her husband and I separated from my wife. Our children are grown. These days we’re living a Nights in Rodanthe kind of life on North Carolina’s Barrier Islands, writing our books, collecting sea shells and feeding the gray foxes and feral cats.

My knees and I gave up running years ago but Janine still runs every day through the little village near our home. Although she’s always been the better runner, Janine knows I can still catch her now and again.

If I’m on my bicycle.

~Mike Sackett

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