86. You Can Go Home Again

86. You Can Go Home Again

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Runners

You Can Go Home Again

Youth is the gift of nature, but age is a work of art.
 ~Stanislaw Jerzy Lec

As my plane approached the outskirts of Warsaw, the rural landscape of farms and haystacks gave way to a collage of multi-colored roofs clustered around the jutting spires of the Palace of Culture, rekindling memories I thought had been extinguished. I pressed my hand to the cabin window, gaping through my fingers like the wide-eyed little girl who left Poland so long ago for a better life in America.

I thought I would never return to the Iron Curtain land of my youth. But here I was, forty-two years later, determined to run the Warsaw Marathon.

Once on the ground, I took a taxi to my hotel. Decades of capitalism had altered the city to such an extent I hardly knew where I was most of the time. An endless array of high-end department stores, wine merchants and fast food restaurants greeted me as my cabbie wheeled his Mercedes down the tree-lined avenue. I was both pleased and a little overwhelmed at the changes prosperity had wrought. Had I made a mistake in coming here?

As a fifty-something veteran of fifteen marathons, I knew my best performances were behind me. The Warsaw race was serious business, dominated by fast men with endurance, such as local hero Grzegorz Gajdus and the Kenyans, Richard Rotich and Reuben Toroitich. Who was I to run with the likes of them?

Two days before the race I picked up my entrant’s packet in Stare Miasto, a restored section of Old Town in Warsaw’s historic district. Arriving at Castle Square, I saw the marathon festivities were already in progress. Local humanitarian Marek Szuster was running on a treadmill, trying to establish a new world record to raise awareness for sufferers of multiple sclerosis. Caught up in the moment, I found myself joining in as schoolchildren chanted, “Marek, Marek, Marek is our hero!” adding a silent chorus under my breath of, “Janine, Janine, will you be a zero?”

On Saturday, a day before the race, a host of volunteers served up a pre-marathon dinner in Podzamcze Park of pierogi, kielbasa and pasta with marinara sauce. It was all washed down by pitchers of carbloaded beer, the runners’ beverage of choice the night before the race in lieu of the usual vodka.

Marathon day was picture-perfect, encouragingly sunny and crisp, with temperatures in the low 50s. The race started in front of Castle Square, a picturesque spot at the entrance to Old Town. As I stretched and paced, the narrow cobblestone and brick streets reminded me of Paris’ Latin Quarter. The cobbles were as picturesque as they were hard on the feet, as I would learn near the end of the race.

The starter fired his gun and the crowd erupted in cheers as we began our journey through history down a wide, smoothly paved street, shaded by tall buildings with flowers cascading from balconies.

Nearing the Palace of Culture, we passed the only palm tree in Warsaw, (plastic of course). The city center was a place of broad boulevards with sidewalks wide enough for cars to park three deep. The route took us past the museum home of Madame Curie, (Maria Sklodowska, to us Poles), then on to John Paul II Avenue and beside statues of Copernicus and Frederick Chopin. I felt small beside these giants of science, faith and art, as though I might be Thumbelina in gym shorts, running on an enormous postcard of Slavic culture and history.

As the sun rose higher above the skyline, the temperature rose with it. Schoolchildren dressed as clowns, fairies and princesses lined the streets, offering us drinks, fruit and chocolate and cooling our overheated bodies with wet sponges.

A little boy holding a bucket of water above his head offered to douse me. I answered his politely shouted, “Moge?” (May I?) with an equally respectful, “Nie!” A sweet offer but I didn’t relish the thought of finishing the race in soggy shoes. Much to the lad’s delight, I tossed him my gloves as I passed by. From the look on his face I may have created the first of many racing memories for a budding marathoner.

On the last leg of the race we crossed a bridge over the Vistula River with a panoramic view of the ancient city. The last four kilometers included a foot-pounding descent on a cobblestoned hill, leveling out along the river bank and finally a sprint to the finish in Podzamcze Park.

Nearing the end of my stay I managed a visit to the little village of Novogrod where I grew up. Strolling by the banks of the Narev River I happened to meet Marcin, a young man sporting a pair of running shoes nearly identical to mine. No sooner had we traded knowing looks than we simultaneously dug into our pockets and proudly displayed our finishers’ medals. I could barely suppress a giggle as his eyes bulged and jaw went slack. “Yes, it’s gold,” I replied to the question he couldn’t bring himself to ask. “I finished first place in my age group.” He shouted to a group of friends and before I knew it I was a minor celebrity in the village I left so long ago. Basking in the warmth of their good wishes, I felt my eyes welling with tears.

My long overdue return to Poland had proven beyond a doubt that you can go home again.

~Janine Fleury

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