Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Near and The Far - Charleston Marathon Part V

Just past mile 20
I would not have given this runner much of a chance to finish this race had I been able to step outside myself at where I had been and how far I had to go. My thoughts were becoming more and more simplistic as the fatigue mounted and the mind focused on one thing: running.

Check your pump...still holding vacuum...I'll take my gels every 4 miles and fill my bottle whenever I can to make sure I have fluids at the end should they run out...I hear music...the next mile marker should be coming up soon...hey...I see a former coworker and her husband, Mariann and Danny Chritton.

And then at about the 11 1/2 mile mark something good happens. The steenkin' SAG bus has stopped completely. I see runners coming from the other direction, marathoners who have run about 8 miles further than me on their way out to another part of the course. For a moment I am not certain which way to go, but then a police officer and some volunteers indicate I should go to the opposite side of the road where suddenly the course becomes very lonely.


Into old North Charleston and I hear the Mike Wolk Jazz Group playing. Mike is 'in the groove' and I cannot get his attention, but think if he's still here on the return trip I'll try again.

We outbound marathoners are few and far between, many more on the other side of the road heading for the barn. We are now at mile 12; they are over 19. My pace has slowed from the great bus chase and I try to conserve energy as much as possible, shorter stride, run relaxed, one mile at a time.

For the next few miles I am able to make the 26.2 an abstraction, for if I consider how far I have to go I think it would overwhelm me. My brain is shirking all extraneous thoughts. There is no "Eye of the Tiger" playing in a loop. Occasionally I think "we're gonna get there soon" or "nobody said it would be easy" but not often. It's run as best I can, eat, drink, and eventually another mile peels away.

keep. moving.  forward.

It is a welcome sight to come upon the aid stations and jubilant volunteers. I drink in their enthusiasm and support and always take in some fluids. In the back of my mind I have that woebegone SAG wagon haunting me and wanting to make sure I keep my hydration level high.

I have not seen much of this part of North Charleston, there are some depressed areas but I love the older neighborhoods, 50s era housing, and mature landscapes. I am also becoming aware of weariness of the body and wonder how long before I will be reduced to walking. My answer comes at mile 17, when I decide I should start with 30s and see how it goes.


My prosthesis feels sloshy but otherwise doesn't threaten to fall off and leave me hopping about on one foot. I pull up my shirt sleeves as I grow warmer and remove my gloves. I am finding the half mile my watch "lost" earlier offers a trick that has been making some miles go by quicker. If I look at my watch and it says 16.3 miles, I am closer to 16.8 miles and the next mile marker. I try not to play this mental trick too often but I am convinced it does help.

Back through old North Charleston and I see Mike again and get his attention. His wife Judy is on the other side of the street walking their dog Wilson. They offer words of support and I speak to Wilson, who gives me a nod of approval. I hear ya brotha. Dog tired I tell ya.


Now at mile 20, the thought flashes in my head and I allow it to burn there a while.

I am going to do this thing. I am going to finish this race.

Into Riverfront Park, quite scenic, but with some uneven surfaces that I take care not to trip on. The band lifts my spirits and we exchange waves and words as I pass. The invigoration lasts for a few more minutes when I feel compelled to walk again. I know I am now climbing The Wall.

I ran the 5k through this part of the course last year, my fourth race as amputee runner, I won 2nd in my AG and gave that trophy to Ashley Kurpiel at G2T camp I wrote about here. For most of this race I have kept my emotions in check, otherwise I would have been dehydrated after the first few miles. In my mind's eye I picture Ashley waiting for me at the finish line, her smiling, joyous face, and even though I know she will not be there in person, I keep take that image from my head and place it in my heart.

Just past mile 21 we enter a 5 mile out and back where runners are on both sides of the road again. There is a good sized, vocal crowd and many people are cheering on their runners. Jato and I make our way down the road, very rough with broken pavement and many railroad tracks. Many throw inspirational words my way and I try to respond with a wave or a smile.

I realize with every step now, it is further than I have ever run before as an amputee, my last long run was 21 miles at the end of November. On the plus side my right hip flexor has mostly kept its complaints to itself, but my left foot is starting to feel a little sore. Nothing bad, just a little 'hey, I'm doing all the work here, that other dog cannot speak!'


At mile 22 the fatigue brings his concrete-shod friends to the party. I am walking for longer periods now, run when I can for as long as I can before the legs demand more rest. I see Carolyn Murray, who calls my name out twice before my brain awakens to hear her. Carolyn is a news reporter for local TV station Channel 2, and she was going to do a story on Ashley until the Atlanta area weather intervened. I was very sorry this did not happen because I knew Ashley's story would be compelling and I so wanted others to hear it.

I trudge forward. These last 4 miles were hard. Very hard. I have never been on my feet running (or run walking!) for over about 4 1/2 hours in my life. I have refused to look at the total time on my watch because I do not want any source of discouragement. This race is to finish. I am going to get there. We are going to get there soon.

There is a curious, squishy noise coming from Jato...there is sweat squirting out of a port on the vacuum pump. My leg is awash with perspiration in the liner and some is running between the socket and the frame and through the pump. If this was not happening there would be no way to avoid stopping as the prosthesis would just be too loose.


And then running shows me something new, something I have seen but not really known, just like the difference in seeing an amputee and being one. We runners are at the very back of the pack. I have been there in high school but that was different, a shorter race with fewer participants.

Some are able to run, some manage a walk, some step aside to stretch a cramping muscle. All have run 5+ hours, all are moving forward, and nearly every single one is encouraging their runner brother or sister on. As tired as I am and unable to process the flood of emotion, it is one of the best feelings as a runner...hell, it is the best feeling as a runner as I've ever had.

It is the sheer magnificence of the human spirit that will not be stopped. I think if we could treat each other like this all our lives in everything we do, how little room there would be for anger or dispute. Each moving forward, each helping the other to that same place: the glory of the finish line.


My face is set to a grim and determined expression. I speak in all modesty as I say this, but I discovered at that moment that I have a fierce will to live. It's not something evident, in my experience. Some of us give up on life with only a resigned sigh. Others fight a little, then lose hope. Still others - and I am one of those - never give up. We fight and we fight and we fight. We fight no matter what the cost of battle, the losses we take, the improbability of success. We fight until the very end. It's not a question of courage. It's something constitutional, an inability to let go.

- Pi, from "The Life of Pi" (Yann Martel)


I am so tired. I am walking more and more. I pass some, walk, they pass me back. Back and forth. Back and forth. Someone says "we've got to stop meeting like this" which makes me smile.

I can only run short periods, maybe 200m at a time, when the legs simply stop running. The mile markers come with excruciating lethargy. It is becoming an effort to speak to other runners who talk to me. In relative terms, these last 4 miles have taken as much time as the first 22. Oh god I am tired.

keep.  m o v i  n  g.         f o  r   w   a    r        d  .

There is an amazing volunteer some distance before mile 25. She chants words of 'You didn't quit! You are such an inspiration! I am so proud of you...' and on and on until I am out of earshot and my eyes are hot with tears.

Come on. You can do this.

The crowds are gone from mile 25 to 26 that were so boisterous on our way out. There are a few groups of families and friends waiting for their beloved marathoner to come into sight. I see no one I know, but they applaud me and I try to run as best I can.

oh.  oh.  sweet baby jesus     this is hard.

the brain is emptied, there is nothing left but a few running steps, walk. walk. walk.     run.

A left turn and I see the mile 26 marker. I kiss my fingertips, reach up and plant it on the sign. Where have you been all day my friend?

There is a volunteer ahead who motions me to the left. 'Been a long day at the office' I say, knowing my friend Joe would know the meaning.

And there it is in the distance. The banner. Our home. The finish line.

Now I will turn the miracle into routine. The amazing will be seen every day.

- Pi, from "The Life of Pi" (Yann Martel)


I allow the waves of emotion to sweep over me as I pick up my pace. I flash on the those who are there and not there. Jennifer is there and friends Cal and Jannette. I see someone else's broad smile. Ashley, we did it...we did it...we did it...

There are no words for what I am feeling. 
It is everything and nothing. 
It is death and rebirth. 
It is the near and the far.


I cross the finish line, hold my arms up to embrace the day, this gift. Tears of loss and of pure joy. I am home. I hear the words, "Richard Blalock...from Mount Pleasant..."


At moments of wonder, it is easy to avoid small thinking, to entertain thoughts that span the universe, that capture both thunder and tinkle, thick and thin, the near and the far.

- Pi, from "The Life of Pi" (Yann Martel)


My hands are on my knees, there is nothing left. A few steps forward. Hands on knees. Yes, thank you, I am okay. Finish photo. Out the back of the chute.

Jennifer finds me. I do not know if I would have been able to finish today without her help way back at mile 8. I am overcome with gratitude as we embrace and embrace with friends and the tears fall again.

I have finished my first marathon.



  1. What a great story of determination, Richard. Thank you for sharing it. I can no longer complain about the final 6 miles.

  2. You are most welcome, John.

    Those last 6 are hard for all of us, I have never felt good at any of my able-bodied races over that stretch either.

    But there's always next :-)

  3. Richard, I've been holding back for a day or so trying to come up with the perfect thing to say to let you know just how proud of you and happy for you I am.

    Perhaps, that is all that really needs to be said, as I know that "you know" how I feel about you.

    So inspiring Richard, you Sir are the man. I will have you with me through all the tough miles at Austin in three weeks.

    I will have you in my heart when I see that finish line and promise that no matter what the time shows on the clock I will rejoice that it is indeed a good day to run.

    Best to you Richard! Congratulations!

  4. When I told the volunteer the 'long day at the office' comment I recalled your picture with Dom. I must have managed a smile.

    I know you give running your all...that is not an easy thing to do, especially when things do quite go as we expect.

    Best of luck in Austin, I know you will have another friend there urging you to the finish line. He is not forgotten either.