Runner’s High

June 13, 2012 § 9 Comments

With Benjamin at the Proniño Marathon

There is an officer who faithfully guards the bank on my block. He does so wielding an intimidating rifle, the length of which approximates the height of a four-year-old child.

Instead of standing still and quiet, like one would imagine an armed guard might, the man has picked up the habit of narrating my life on a daily basis.

“Hey!” he shouts as soon as he sees me swing my door open. “He’s leaving the house!”

Depending on what time of day, the man will shout out exactly what I’m doing with the same excited tone of a sports commentator during a heated soccer match.

“There he goes!” he often yells. “Going to work, aren’t you? Working on the computer…right?”

Or…

“There he goes! More yoga! Always yoga! Always action!”

Or…

“Here he comes! You’re going to have lunch, aren’t you? More vegetables, right?”

Typically, I’ll engage the guard with an answer or two.

“Yes, I’m eating vegetable soup for lunch.”

“No meat, right? You’re a vegetarian.”

“Nope…no meat.”

“So no pork?”

“Nope…no pork.”

“No chicken?”

“Nope…no chicken?”

“No fried chicken?”

“Nope…not that either.”

“So just vegetables?”

“Yes…just vegetables.”

“So…no beef?”

The bank’s faithful watchman gets particularly excited whenever he sees me in my running shorts and shoes.

“There he goes! Running again! Looks like he’s going towards San Pedro Sula today.”

The other day after I left my apartment for my run, I decided to stop to engage the officer for a longer period than usual.

“Why do you like to announce what I’m doing every day when I walk by?” I asked.

The guard, a plump man in his forties, laughed and gave me a coy smile.

“I guess because you’re always doing something. Lots of action!”

“Do you like to narrate other people’s lives?”

The officer’s brown eyes shifted skyward. He tapped at his chin before shrugging.

“Not really. Just yours.”

“But…how come?”

“I don’t know. I suppose it’s just something to do. I’m here all day you know.”

The officer’s job isn’t one I’d like to have. He has to stand in front of the bank, fully protected with a bulletproof vest over his long-sleeved uniform. For most of the day the scorching Honduran sun, the unapologetically naked star it is, blasts upon him without a single cloud to veil it. Though I don’t know how, the guard never seems to break a sweat despite the circumstances and the 111-degree weather.

“I used to run too, you know,” the officer told me. “I won the San Pedro Sula marathon a few years back.”

“You did?” I asked. My eyes quickly scanned over the officer’s pear-shaped body. It wasn’t exactly the build I had imagined would belong to a marathon winner.

“I’m running that race in a few weeks,” I told the officer. “You should run too.”

“No, no,” the man said. He laughed as he patted at his spare tire. “Those times have passed.”

While on my run, I thought about the man and his achievement of winning the San Pedro Sula marathon. In comparison, my life seemed to be one defined by athletic failure after athletic failure. I’m pretty sure I still hold my hometown’s Little League record for the greatest number of consecutive strikeouts ever. The only time I ever won a tennis match in high school was when my opponent failed to show up and I claimed victory by default. And once, in my most stellar moment in recreational basketball history, I accidentally shot the ball into the wrong basket…and missed.

“MICHAEL! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” my father had shouted at the top of his lungs. He had been my coach.

Even though I was awful at every sport I ever tried, running was different. It was something I could do by myself without anyone having to watch or time me. I could go for as long as I wanted, thinking about life or singing songs on repeat in my mind while exploring new trails and paths and gradually conquering hills that used tire me out.

I didn’t start racing until 2009, when a friend in Chile practically forced me into running a 10K with her. I had survived the race with a fairly good time, but my legs were left feeling as stiff as two wooden sticks since I hadn’t trained properly. That was when I decided I would start training for a half marathon. The half marathon led to two full marathons that nearly destroyed me, but I finished each one.

The closest I had ever gotten to winning was a 16th place finish in the Connemara Marathon in Ireland. It wasn’t the biggest achievement in the world, especially since most of the runners were a bunch of pudgy Irishmen who had likely been out drinking the night before the race. Still, 16th was much better than 500th. Or at least that’s what I told myself.

At the same time, 16th place wasn’t really something to boast about. It wouldn’t get me much in terms of accolades if I told my father about it on the phone. If anything, he would just want to know why I hadn’t done better.

In light of the semi-achievement, I couldn’t help but think of what it might look like carved out on the surface of my tombstone.

“Michael Andrew Solis. Son. Brother. Friend. Placed 16th in the Connemara Marathon.”

There wasn’t any sexiness to the phrase. And it surely wouldn’t impress any of the passersby who might read the text of the deceased person. 16th place? they’d think. Why on earth would someone be proud of placing 16th in something? Let alone engrave it on his tombstone…

I was so lost in thought that I nearly fell into a large pothole on the sidewalk. Running through El Progreso is like being on a level in Super Mario Brothers. Traps are everywhere, with random holes to gobble you up when you least expect it. Instead of goombas and man-eating cacti there are evil dogs, squished toads, massive trucks, and sand flies. And of course, there’s the sun – which is ever present and far more sweltering than any fire flower Mario or Luigi ever found.

While running, I decided that I needed to land a victory and I needed to land one soon. That way I’d be able to tell the grandchildren, nieces, and nephews that I might or might not have that I had claimed a true victory in the prime of my youth. They would learn that my dormant athletic prowess had come to mean something after so many years of loss, shooting balls at the wrong baskets, and solitaire.

Fortunately, I had a chance to prove myself at a race that was being held by the Proniño Foundation three weeks prior to the San Pedro marathon. The Foundation is a home and rehabilitation center for former street children, the majority of whom grew up addicted to drugs and a type of glue that quells hunger called resistol.

I arrived on race day with a group of friends. The race was slated to begin in Las Mercedes Park at 8am. Of course, the kids from the foundation didn’t show up until 8:30am. Then two men and a lady got on the microphone and started blabbing on and on for an extended period of time. Before I knew it, it was 9am and the menacing sun was nearly straight above our heads, secretly mocking the miniscule runners below while blazing in the blue and cloudless sky.

While I waited for the speakers to finish their speeches, I scoped out my competition. There were only twenty official runners total with a crowd of younger walkers. Most of the runners were adolescents from Proniño.

Only twenty people, I thought. Looks like I have a pretty decent shot.

Of my friends, one was still recuperating from a knee injury. Another was recovering from a recent bout with mono, and the third admitted that he hadn’t run more than two miles in years. Chris, an American intern and soccer star at Princeton University, looked like he’d be my biggest threat. Luckily, he was new to Honduras, so I was banking on the fact that he might not be able to handle the heat.

The other runners were all kids from Proniño who I knew hadn’t been training. Many were also my yoga students, and I knew from teaching them that their resistance might not be enough to win the race.

So maybe this is finally my moment, I thought. My chance to actually win my very first race…

We waited for a stout woman to wave the flag at the starting line, which signaled the beginning of the race. The Proniño kids shot off at a sprint, zooming well ahead of me and the other runners, some of whom were already huffing and puffing after the first ten steps.

Having previously fallen under the trap of starting out too fast, I knew what was going to happen. One by one the Proniño kids exhausted themselves, with many slowing down to a walk. Keeping up my slow but steady pace, I overtook each one tortoise-style as I cruised along the busy highway. Eventually I made it to the dirt road that led to Proniño. There were only a few more stragglers to pass before I could claim the first place spot, followed by my inevitable victory.

After I thought I had passed all of the kids, I spotted a small figure running in the distance. The boy was tiny and he ran with a noticeable limp.

Is that…Benjamin? I wondered.

I picked up my pace, coughing against a cloud of dust that a truck had raised after passing me along the road. The dust never settled, since the traffic was fairly constant, but through the desert-like haze I could see that I had correctly identified the boy who was in the lead.

Benjamin was one of my yoga students. When he had started with me several months back, he had little control of his body or movements. Because of his use of drugs as a child, his body and mind hadn’t developed properly. The most notable problem was a crooked leg that prevented him from walking normally. When we had first started yoga, I wondered how Benjamin would respond to the classes when his peers were capable of doing the postures with such ease. But he kept up, challenging himself to perform the positions even when they seemed nearly impossible.

After a few months of yoga, Benjamin’s capacity to perform the postures improved dramatically. Suddenly he was able to touch his toes without bending his knobby knees. He was able to maintain the balancing postures for longer periods of time. And his attention span had morphed from that of a disinterested goldfish to one of a curious, engaged boy. Each week, Benjamin would arrive well before the other students to get more practice time in with me. And at the end of each class, he would ask me when we were scheduled for our next yoga session. Not only had his posture improved, but so had his capacity to walk. The changes were noticeable and inspiring.

Still, I had never imagined that Benjamin out of all of the kids at Proniño would ever be taking the lead in a long-distance race. In fact, he probably would have been the last kid I would have placed my money on had I been making bets.

It took longer than I expected, but eventually I caught up to Benjamin. He greeted me with an hola, but his pace was starting to slow.

“I can’t do this anymore!” Benjamin yelled.

“Yes you can!” I told him. “And if you can’t, I’m gonna beat you!”

Benjamin and I continued running side by side through the dusty road. We passed the Proniño Foundation, which would be our finish line as soon as we reached Villanueva in the distance and turned around to return in the opposite direction.

I looked behind me. I couldn’t see any of the other runners, which was a good sign. So many of the kids had worn themselves out early on, and with no cloud or tree cover, the others were likely suffering as they plowed forward beneath the merciless sun.

Unlike most races, this one didn’t have any water stops. I had been hoping to come across one on the way, but I quickly realized that the Hondurans who had planned the event hadn’t taken the runners’ need for water into account.

“Water!” Benjamin shouted. His pace had picked up, but judging by his voice I could tell he was struggling.

“We’ll get it when we finish,” I told Benjamin. “We’re almost there.”

We made it to Villanueva and turned around. The rest of the race was a slight downhill straightaway towards Proniño.

On our way back, Chris the intern came running in our direction, which meant he was in third place. He asked where he needed to go, but I didn’t have the energy to explain. Stopping wasn’t an option, since I was in the lead and was so close to claiming victory.

“We have to go faster or the Gringo is going to catch up with us!” I told Benjamin.

“I can’t!” Benjamin said. “I’m stopping.”

“You are not stopping!” I yelled. “If you stop, you lose!”

I encouraged Benjamin to breathe in through his nostrils and out through his mouth, slightly modifying the way we would breathe in yoga class. The pattern seemed to give him a bit more energy. After a few more minutes, the sign for the Proniño Foundation was in sight.

Benjamin picked up his pace, as did I. We were neck and neck as the foundation drew nearer. He’d sprint out a bit ahead of me. And then I’d sprint out a bit ahead of him. He grew tired again and complained that he had to stop.

I had been delaying having to make the choice until the very end. I knew I had two options. I could either take off and leave Benjamin in my dust, or I could be the noble adult who stepped aside and allowed the 16-year-old the chance to win something that might possibly mean the world.

Who cares about the world? I thought as the sun blasted upon me, charring my skin into a deeper shade of brown while the 5000% humidity caused me to sweat all over. I couldn’t help but envision the tombstone – my tombstone that would one day read…

16th place.

16th place.

16th place.

Son. Brother. Friend.

16th place.

16th place.

16th place.

I shook my head to rid myself of the thought. I had no idea why the situation was any cause for concern. I had known from the race’s beginning exactly what I was going to do, and I wasn’t going to let the competition get in my way.

I dashed forward a few feet in front of Benjamin. He growled and sprinted forward to catch up. We turned the gravelly corner towards the Proniño Foundation. The blue tape that was the finish line was in sight. Behind the finish line was a cameraman from Teleprogreso who was documenting our every move.

I pulled back just in time for Benjamin to slip and fall on the gravel.

“Nooo!” Benjamin yelled as he tumbled to the ground.

I was still running but feigned tripping over Benjamin’s fallen body and landed on my hands and knees. I turned and saw Benjamin scramble to his feet. I hopped onto mine and ran. I watched as Benjamin’s chest pressed into the blue ribbon, causing it to snap as he claimed his first place victory in the Proniño marathon.

An audience of screaming fans awaited Benjamin, who collapsed to the floor of the foundation’s main building. I yanked Benjamin off the ground and encouraged him to walk so his system would have a chance to recover from the strain of the race. Unfortunately, the foundation had also overlooked providing water at the end of the race, so we had to wait a little bit longer before either of us could quench our thirst.

The cameramen invited Benjamin and I to the side of the building for interviews. They questioned Benjamin first, asking him for his reaction after winning the race.

“I said I was going to win the race last night…and I did!” he said, still panting. “I won it!”

I bit my lower lip. If I was hoping to be acknowledged for my act of chivalry, I was apparently mistaken.

When I was interviewed, I spoke of how proud I was of Benjamin, one of my most committed yoga students. I also answered questions about the importance of Proniño in the kids’ lives and what it meant to have a family and support system when the other option was the street.

I couldn’t help but feel happy for Benjamin. I had just watched this kid who suffered from a severe physical limitation absolutely dominate in a race. I had watched him suffer but carry through to the end without every giving up. And I had watched him claim a victory that he’d be able to talk about for the rest of his life, just like my officer friend who guards the bank. The race will be Benjamin’s forever – a reflection of the glorious youth that he had come so close to losing as a child of the streets.

Suddenly my 16th place didn’t seem to bother me so much. Maybe I never would get the chance to win another race. But at the end of the day…who cared? I was probably just going to get cremated anyway. And besides, if winning races wasn’t in my cards, then maybe helping other people win theirs was.

The other racers trickled in one at a time. I was surprised that Chris, the Gringo, had not yet crossed the finish line, even though he had been the person closest behind Benjamin and me.

Oh crap, I thought. He never figured out where to turn after all.

I bid farewell to the kids at Proniño and set out to find Chris, who was probably halfway down the dusty road, roasting away as he ran erroneously in the direction of where the race had begun.

“Michael!”

I turned around and there was Benjamin standing in front of the entrance.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

“To find the lost Gringo. But I’ll be back.”

“Yeah, everyone says he kept going.”

“I better go fast then.”

“Michael…I just wanted to say…thank you.”

“For what?” I asked.

“For…for letting me win the race.”

I smiled and shook my head.

“This race was all you, Benjamin. But next time you’ll eat my dust.”

Benjamin laughed and returned to the crowd of kids who were still celebrating his victory.

And off I went to find the Gringo who was running with no purpose or end in sight. All he encountered was dusty road beneath the blazing sun and the high-pitched laughter of young boys who, upon seeing him, could not fathom why he would ever choose to run in the wrong direction in the first place.

Goomba

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