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  • Writer's pictureWILLIAM HAZEL

The Storm



It's 7 a.m. It is still dark and just above freezing. I'm standing in the middle of a four-lane street wearing a trash bag. It is pouring rain. Pouring. Rain. Pouring fucking rain. A bone shocking rain. And wind. Thirty mile per hour wind. Northeast winds. 


I am about five miles from the comfort of my home. From my hoodie and sweats. From my coffee. Five miles away. I am standing instead in a classic nor'easter. The wind direction is why the meteorologists have named these kinds of storms nor'easters, or North Easters. The direction means the winds are coming from over the water. The ocean. The biggest weather maker on planet earth. Winds swirling from the cold Canadian Atlantic currents are mixing with the warmer Gulf Stream and pounding the coast with raging rains and storm driven gusts scheduled to last for the next 24 hours. My only shelter, the other runners standing in the street with me. Ten thousand of them.


We are packed like soon to be slaughtered swine in corrals stretching a quarter of a mile. I'm in Mindy's corral. I'm going to move up to mine before the start, but right now, I'm sharing the stress with my wife, supporting each other with laughs and hugs for warmth. We discussed running together, but knew we'd skew each other’s pace. It was a first half marathon and we agreed to run on our own. The energy is raw, supercharged, and soaked with a mix of pre-race high and winter's rage.


The storm scene is completely surreal, with every face showing the pain, the fear, the frozen ache already cloaking our bodies. The Virginia Beach event is known simply as “Shamrock,” a local tradition near St. Patrick’s Day. I'm about to race in the modern version the J&A Racing team has turned into a massive event for both running and tourism. The biggest crowd is right here, in the half marathon. Another 6,000 runners are going to leave shortly after us on the Marathon course. Patty Day themed costumes are prominent. Tutus. Crazy running skirts. Painted faces. Headbands of decorated antenna. Full blown leprechaun outfits. Giant top hats, vests littered with buttons, necks covered in necklaces. The huddled mass looks more a misplaced parade than major road race. The horrible weather hasn't dampened the costumed enthusiasm in any way.


I'm deeply thankful I look like many of the other runners. We're in various running clothes plus over-sized sweatpants or hoodies to be discarded at go time. Several runners have no gear. One stands near in only his short shorts and racing tank. He is soaked through, shivering with a lower lip high speed quiver. I'm pretty sure I can hear his teeth chattering.


I've gone for running pants, long shirt, and a lightweight running jacket in a laughable attempt to shield me from the wind. I've pinned my crooked bib to my jacket, not giving any thought this cruel winter's day is going to let me take it off. I'm temporarily cloaked in a trash bag. I've gone for the full 55-gallon drum liner and I'm glad. I see other runners in their lawn and leaf digs already losing hope. I've calculated this northeastern devil is going to be in my face all the way past mile nine. In other words, I'm about to face plant into the frozen nor'easter for at least 90 minutes. Whatever is left of my spirit when I'm finally south bound will need to stay with me for at least another hour.


“I think I need to go home.” The woman behind me says exactly what I am thinking. It's like she's mouthed it from my mind. She is crying. Her friend is holding her. Her friend is crying. Her sniffling voice talks her stressed mate into at least starting the race with her. She explains they will warm up once they start moving. Things won't be that bad. Just try it for a little while.


It's clear to me, right at this moment, I need to get my head away from the crowd and focus on the task ahead. I decide there is no way I will leave this unfinished today. I have worked hard these past weeks to be at this starting line. Yes, the weather is going to be bad. Yes, this isn't going to be comfortable in any way. Yes, I wanted to do this for myself. I wanted to take my body and my mind through this first distance experience and know what it is to be on the other side.


Mindy and I kiss each other for good luck, and I slog through the humanity towards my corral. First light is breaking fast, though the sun will remain invisible. There is an eerie quiet as the National Anthem plays. The speakers are soaking wet, and the canned music keeps cutting in and out. I've been looking for the 2:30 pace group since we've arrived. I've decided to run with the pace group at the beginning to keep from breaking out too fast. I might be able to stay with them, but I'm doubtful. I can see the 2:15, but the 2:30 pacer is nowhere to be found. I never find them.


Holy shit. There is no place to run at the start. My only thought is to not trip, tumble, and be trampled by the mob. Every step is a chore, weaving in and out, moving forward and back. The staggering goes on for many minutes until I claim a small bit of moving real estate as my own. My original thought of running with a pace group shattered, I begin searching for other runners who seem to be moving as I. There are hundreds near, surely, I can figure out this pace thing before the mile posts come into view.


I can't. The girl is too fast. Those guys are way too slow. I find a chap who seems to be moving reasonably but he dashes forward like he's a mile from the finish. People all around me seem to be sprinting, trying to warm frozen bodies. I remind myself to slow down. Just slow down. Just relax. By the time I conclude to abandon the pacing idea and just run my own race, I'm past the mile two marker.


As the road opens, I become acutely aware I'm soaked through. My head is soaked. My beanie is soaked. Rain is pouring off my nose. My gloves are completely wet through. My feet are soaking wet and freezing. Being wet is one thing, but today is about being soaked. Soaked and freezing in ferocious winds. And I'm heading towards the point of the Chesapeake Bay where with winds will be worse. My only thought is to keep moving. I'm almost at mile three and need to just keep moving.


“This will be funny later. We're going to laugh about this.”

“This is never going to be funny." I overhear two runners as I pass them. The women are keeping each other company through the misery. I envy them. It occurs to me I could just stop and wait for my wife. At least that might be fun. To hell with self-discovery, this suddenly seems to be about survival. 


The first turn at mile three is bedlam. The water stop overcrowded with runners moving along dozens of tables. Literally, hundreds of runners trying to get a drink at once. Volunteers are adding to the crowd, leaning with outreached hands offering grabs on the go. The scene wreaks of port-o-potties, with lines of runners 30 deep at each one. The sounds of plastic doors slamming and opening. Paper cups are everywhere, as the howling wind strews them across the streets. Volunteers scurry in desultory tracks trying to pick them up as best they can. To add to the stress, a DJ has covered his speakers in plastic bags, stuffed them into the back of his SUV, and is blaring disco sounds from the seventies. People in line for the bathrooms are hopping to Donna Summer, trying to get warm and not piss their breeches. The all-forward flow from the start is gone. Devolved into some weird mix of rest area, local carnival, and horror film gone wrong.


I grab a water, move myself way over to the far side of the road, slow to a fast walk, and take a gulp. It's brain freezing cold and painful all the way down. So painful I fear taking the next sip. I take smaller sips and get it down. I'm already stiffening in the cold and need to get my ass moving again. I force the cup in one of the trash cans in hopes the wind won't carry it down the street.


The turn west brings a sudden change to conditions. With thick woodlands now blocking the wind, the air grows calm and strangely quiet in contrast. Mercifully, the rain has eased. Less rain, less wind, and the clapper of hundreds of runners on wet pavement. Runners fill the road, and they fill the woods. Dozens and dozens who couldn't wait are relieving themselves in the forest. The area is swampy wetlands hiding under pines, and I see many stepping into ankle deep mud. Standing or squatting, many in full view, giving their bladders to mother nature. Some are so close to the tree line I can hear them peeing into the underbrush.


I come within one stride of slamming into a young woman who suddenly stops. Stops now. Stops from moving at race speed to not moving at all. In the middle of the course. Her phone is raised high for an early race selfie. I veer right to avoid injuring both of us. Note to self: don't follow close behind. Be aware of phones. Be very aware. In the next mile I pass a number of runners doing the same thing. 


The turn north brings the mile six timing strip. In a pure state of adrenaline-fueled race daze I've already made it about halfway. This is as far as I've ever raced, yet I'm still only halfway home. I feel good. Like I can finish.


And then the rain starts again. And the wind. Most of us are wincing, turning our head away from sharp gusts that never end. The scene feels post-apocalyptic. A volunteer post is abandoned, a “go runners” sign broken in half, wedged against a tree. There are no people other than us. There are no vehicles in sight. At mile eight, another water stop, paper cups make the adjacent field seem snow covered. Thousands of cups. I make eye contact with the young girl holding out my cold refreshment. She is shivering. Her lower lip quivers, her hat soaked over her ears. I imagine I look the same.


My right foot turns into pins and needles. It becomes harder and harder to put weight on it. Maybe I'm limping, maybe I'm not. I don't know exactly. I just keep moving forward. The thought of walking begins to invade my mind. The voice to stop getting louder and louder in my head. Drowning out the crowd. Walk. Walk. Just walk and try to get the pins and needles to stop. And now I'm walking. I shake and wiggle my foot. I'm stepping, shaking, wiggling, stepping, shaking. The walk and shake send waves of cadaver stiffening through both my legs. The feeling more terrifying than not being able to feel my foot. Holy shit, don't lose this. Get moving. I think I may have said it out loud.


I start running. I'm still a hundred yards from the mile 11 flag.


I remember a nurse's face from the ICU. Focused green eyes, a jaw that probably came from her father. I hear her soothing voice asking me how I am doing and telling me to hang in there. I had just gone through another one of those low blood oxygens, set all the alarms off events that brought the whole staff. I see the Doctor's face the day I was discharged. He stood at my bedside telling me I might not be the same after I left the hospital. Not the same. The doc was right. I'm not the same. I'm better. I'm going to finish a half marathon.


The turn onto the Virginia Beach boardwalk brings a body blow of freezing wind. And the ocean. I can see the ocean. Hear the ocean. Smell the ocean. I have always related the smell of the ocean with being home. I am almost home. Though the rain has eased again, the wind is much worse along the sea. At long last, looking down the concrete walkway brings the finish line into view. I try to speed up to the end but feel neither my right or left foot now and speed is, well, elusive. Thousands of people are cheering. Bells ringing. As I get closer to the bouncy house, I can hear giant pulses of music and the announcer's voice again.


And then it's done. I'm across. I've made it. But I'm still running. I realize I can stop now.


The finish line is organized chaos. Volunteers are handing out goodies as hundreds of runners keep pouring across. I get a medal. I get a hat, a banana, and a bag of potato chips. I step far off to a designate spot to wait for Mindy, who I know isn't far behind. I thought I'd be hootin' and hollerin' and jumpin' and shoutin' for joy at the end, but all I feel is cold. There is a strange emptiness about it all. I feel hollow. There's no elation or wanting of grand celebration. No one warned me about the it's all over, day after Christmas let down at the finish. It seems after all the worrying about finding the pace group, I've managed to run the race in a little over two and half hours anyway. I do feel good but start wishing I did better.  Almost immediately, I'm thinking about how I could have done it better.  Gratitude is hard sometimes. And I suck at giving myself the credit I deserve. And here I am standing in the cold still sucking at it.


I stand shivering with a new hat and bag of chips. And as Mindy comes into view with her new hat and bag of chips, we go together to ring the bell the organizers have staged on the beach. You get to ring the bell if you've bested your best time.


Or in my case, became a half marathoner today.




The above essay is a book excerpt from Running to Zen - A Marathon Journey 

Available at Amazon Books.


Running to Zen - A Marathon Journey, is available on Amazon Books.

© Copyright William Hazel, 2024


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