I wrote yesterday about Gabriela and her determination to finish the 1984 Olympic Marathon. As I was typing, I didn’t think once about my own marathon experience. How strange.
Sometime in the early 80’s, I ran the Calgary Marathon … well, part of it. Around mile 21, I hit the legendary Wall. My breathing was still good, but my leg muscles gave up. They clamped down, harder and harder. I slowed to a trot, then a shamble. And then the vices tightened some more. I stopped in the middle of the road. When I tried to get going again, I couldn’t walk. No Olympic heroics here – I was at a standstill, a thoroughly painful one. And the sadness descended. How I wanted to complete a marathon. But it didn’t happen that day.
I trained hard in early 1985 in preparation for the Vancouver Marathon. I took the bus from Lethbridge, Alberta and was ecstatic when I stepped onto the downtown streets. I had lived in Vancouver twice and I was thrilled that part of the route followed the seawall in Stanley Park.
The night before the run, there was a carbohydrate loading meal for the runners … plates of spaghetti piled high. I looked around at my fellow athletes, some of them elite and some just ordinary folks like me. All those smiles, all that pent up energy, all those months of training now in the rear view mirror. I was part of something big. I was proud of myself.
The next day, probably at 8:00 am, hundreds of us were crammed into a downtown street. Someone fired a pistol and we were off. I made sure not to go out too fast and soon I was settled into a good rhythm. People were cheering us from the sidewalks. Volunteers reached toward me with full cups at the water stations (really Gatorade, as I remember).
Up ahead in my mind loomed mile 20 and the dreaded Wall. Would my legs say no? When I got there, they piped up with “Let’s keep going, Bruce. This is fun.” So I did. The breathing was getting a bit laboured and the muscles were moderately tight. As mile 20 yielded in favour of mile 21 … 22 … 23 … 24, I realized that I only had two more miles to go. I also realized something else: my chest was hurting.
“Hey, Bruce. It’s only an inconvenience. It’s not like you’re having a heart attack.” Well, I wasn’t so sure about that. Oh, how I wanted to see that finish line, to accomplish something truly exceptional.
4:12. As in four hours and twelve minutes. My arms were up, the crowd was cheering, and I was done. Actually, very much done.
I was a bit staggery but no big deal. And no, I didn’t need a massage from one of the volunteers, nor a dip in the hot tub. I went into some room, changed into my street clothes, hoisted my backpack and walked back out into the sunlight. I don’t think anyone noticed my unsteady gait. “Nothing wrong with you, Bruce. You just finished a marathon!”
I still had three hours before my bus left for Lethbridge, so I decided to explore some of my favourite downtown streets. In my earlier youth, I had loved strolling down Granville, Robson, Burrard. Except on that late afternoon in May, 1985, there was no strolling to it. My chest was banging, my breathing was so heavy, and I thought I was going to fall down.
Up ahead, somehow detected by my blurry eyes, was an empty bench. I stumbled and flopped onto it. I was lying on my back … dying, as far as I could tell. Commuters rushed by and I knew it was true – death was near. There was no replaying the 36 years of my life, just this great sadness amidst the heart pain. I was saying goodbye to Jody (my then girlfriend), to other loved ones, and to my life.
Someone was leaning over me, asking if I was all right. I said no. “I’m taking you to the hospital,” said the cab driver. Minutes later, I was on a stretcher in the Emergency Department of St. Paul’s Hospital. That building was my home-away-from-home for the next two weeks. As you can tell, I lived. Turns out I had an inflammation of the walls of the heart called pericarditis. A month later in Calgary, doctors sent a little camera through a vein, from my groin into my heart. The verdict? No permanent damage.
I am so blessed to be alive thirty years later, to have made a contribution to many people’s lives in the time between. I do believe I’m on this planet for a purpose. And may that become ever more clear to me. Just no more running, please.