The Last Half

Submitted into Contest #235 in response to: Make a race an important element of your story.... view prompt


Creative Nonfiction Contemporary

Wake up at 5:30 AM. Downstairs to the kitchen. Coffee. Water. Wolf down a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for fuel. Back upstairs to the bathroom, once my body decides it wants to leave yesterday behind. 

Some days it takes a second cup of coffee.

Take a shower. I feel better, more awake. I also want to be nice to the others in my pace group. I run hot, and generate a lot of sweat. 

Don’t want to start out smelling like a wet dog.

Put on running clothes set out the night before. Grab a bag with extra clothes. A spring half-marathon means winter training and layered clothing. Extra clothes let me make a game time decision on the layers to wear, and give me something dry to change into for the ride home.

I left a running belt by the front door. There’s a water bottle in the rear holder. The water is mixed with electrolyte powder. There’s a packet of energy gummies in one of its front zippered compartments. The other compartment is big enough for a small cell phone. I use it to carry a small amount of cash.

“Time to go!”, my wife tells me. “Did you remember to charge your GPS watch last night?”

“Yes,” I tell her, grabbing my keys and running belt.

 We leave early enough to have time to park and make a quick bathroom stop before the start of the 7:30 AM Sunday long run. It's a group run organized by the training program we paid to join.

It’s still dark. It’s really cold out.

If anyone had told me while I was in high school that I would be training for a half-marathon at age sixty, I would have told them they were nuts. Back then, running was something I did in the off-season if I was trying to get in shape for basketball. 

Nothing like wearing worn high-top basketball sneakers for a run on a hot summer day.

Today’s meeting place is a coffee shop in a trendy neighborhood. We’re early enough to have time to chat with some friends after waiting in line for the bathrooms. Then we split up.

My wife and I are incompatible. We train with different pace groups.

Here and there I see the running spouses. They’re not married to each other. But their personalities and running abilities are well matched. It is rare to see one running without the other. They’ve trained together for years.

“I saw those two shopping for groceries together yesterday,” someone whispers.

Today’s run is on the back half of the full marathon course. We’ll never see it on race day. We follow the course behind the full marathon pace groups for a while, then return to the start before they do. 

There’s ice on parts of the course, so we slow things down. I trip over something and fall on the sidewalk.  Less than a quarter mile later, I lose my balance starting to cross a busy street. I fall near the curb.

“I’m okay, I’m okay,” I tell the worried runners around me as I get up. 

I make it back to the start with no more stumbles. My wife comes to check on me. She knows about my falls. She has friends in my pace group. They called ahead and told her about my concrete and asphalt diving while I was still out on the course.

We go home. Shower and change. Big brunch with home fries, turkey sausage, and eggs. Carbs and protein. Get sleepy in front of the TV. Nap time.

We’re three weeks away from the peak mileage on the long run.

This is our second year in a row training for the half-marathon. Last year, I started cramping at mile 9. Guess I went out too hard. The last half-mile was especially tough. Had to walk past the finish line. Couldn’t sit in the car normally on the way home. My calf muscles were cramping, twitching like crazy. Painful.

I am determined to do better this time. To do more to prepare. Like speedwork and stair climbing.

Earlier in the year, I signed up for strength training for endurance runners. 

“You don’t have any serious arthritis, do you?”, the head trainer asked when I joined.

“No,” I told him. I had seen an orthopedic doctor to get feedback about my knees. Not sure I gave the doctor a chance to give me an answer I didn’t want to hear.

My wife was already in the strength program. The head trainer told me she was doing well. He offered to arrange things so we wouldn’t have to do sessions together.

“I don’t care if my wife shows me up,” I told him.

Strength training made a difference. I ran a 10-kilometer race that fall faster than I had run in a long time. That’s misleading. I had a couple of long stints, like ten or fifteen years each, without running. 

I keep up the strength training, do the weekly mileage in the training program, and make it to the peak mileage run. The head running coach picks a course with lots of elevation changes to prepare us for race day.

Sometimes I think she likes to torture us with elevation.

Tough run. I survive.

One week after the peak mileage run. Everyone is pumped up for the Sunday group run. We’ve been in the tapering phase. One week until race day. Thinking that I can go out and knock out four to six miles on any given day.

We’re feeling good. A little fatigued, maybe. 

We’ve been involved in the running community all year. Organized group runs on weekends. Sometimes, informal group runs during the week. Met many nice people. It’s been fun. There are events throughout the year, but the city’s marathon is a big deal. 

Race day is here! 

Wake up early. Need to get downtown in time to park and to walk to the starting line. Not too different from a long training run day routine, except that we have race numbers on our running shirts. Just more excited and more nervous. 

We park a mile away, near a stadium across the river. It’s getting light outside. It’s going to be sunny on the course. 

We follow the crowd of runners over a bridge to the starting area. There are dozens of orange and green portable toilets lined up in the street near it. 

I need a bathroom stop.

We hang around with friends until it’s time to line up at the last two corrals for the 7:00 AM start. Those corrals are for the slowest runners. No course records here. Most are just hoping for personal bests.

I just want to finish running, not walking.

I meet with others in my pace group. My wife does the same. 

We wait for the starting gun with 30,000 others. The street is littered with empty packets of energy gels and discarded clothing. There’s a hum from the crowd. It’s a party atmosphere mixed with hope, anticipation, and anxiety.

The gun goes off.

It takes a while to get to the start line. The music gets louder as we get closer. We walk and run over the two strips laid out on the street for electronic timing. 

We’re off and running!

Except there are thousands of people jamming the street in front of us.

A friend is running next to me. We had agreed to stick together. To be running spouses that day.

“Let’s go easy at first,” she tells our group, as we try to find space to run.  There are seven of us. Sometimes we have to hop on the sidewalk and then back onto the asphalt in order not to run into the back of people. Going out faster is not really an option. Not yet.

“One mile down!”, one of the women from our group calls out with excitement as we pass the first mile marker. She’s met with unhappy responses from the others. 

“Don’t do that!”

“Too early for a countdown.”

“Yeah, calling out every mile’s going to mess me up. Wait until we’re close to the end.”

“SORRY. Just happy to be here.”

Things start to clear up in the next two miles as runners spread out. A runner speeds up and leaves our group at mile 3. It’s her first half-marathon, but her training has gone well. And she’s thinner than the rest of us. 

I watch her slowly peel away. Good for her.

My partner and I are no longer part of the original group by the time we get to mile 6. It’s just the two of us in the middle of hundreds. I’m doing okay. Been hydrating and chomping down gummies on schedule.

The sun’s out. She’s suffering from the heat. Women pass us wearing lightweight tank tops that expose their midriffs. She’s wearing a short-sleeve tech running shirt. She

kids around about taking off her top and continuing in just her running bra.

I say nothing. In the end, she tells me she’s not that kind of woman. 

I would have been supportive had she decided to do it. Totally.

What are guy friends for?

Mile 9 comes. No leg cramps. By mile 10, I’m slowing down. Having trouble keeping up.

My running spouse notices. She asks if I am okay, but tells me that she has to maintain her pace or she might have trouble finishing.

Then she dumps me at mile 11.

I run across the finish line, two minutes behind her. Our partnership lasted for just under two hours.

A volunteer puts a finisher’s medal put around my neck. I pick up a bag of salty potato chips and bottled water. Pose for photographs.

My wife and I have enough adrenaline in the afterglow to meet friends for brunch at a nearby restaurant. She improved her time, but is not satisfied. She vows to do better

next year. We go home, shower, and the fatigue catches up.

We crash.

“Go slow, run easy for a month or two, let your body recover.” That’s the advice from one of our running gurus. Have to take it seriously. She’s a beast. She’s done Boston

multiple times.

I don’t want to, but I cut back. 

Spring and summer and fall go by. There’s a 10-mile race in the fall. My best time ever.

Winter comes. Time to start half-marathon training again. Maybe think bigger. 

I have a problem with my right leg during a mid-week lunchtime run at work. Don’t think it’s a big deal. Go stair climbing the next day. The leg gives me problems on the next Sunday group run. Have to walk the last mile.

The following Tuesday at work, the leg tightens up. It’s bad. I’m in pain. It’s hard to walk. I’m not sure I can make it out of my building in time if there’s a fire alarm. I tell my boss what’s happening and that I have to leave early. Have to borrow an umbrella from a longtime co-worker to use as a cane so I can make my way to my car. 

She offers to assist me. I decline.

I get an appointment with a physical therapist. He works on my leg. Stretches it out. I feel better.

“Do I need to go see a doctor?”, I ask.

“I don’t think so, not yet,” he tells me.

It’s my birthday, but I am not celebrating.

I work with the therapist to see if can rehab the leg and continue training. Leg curls on the physio ball, leg work with exercise bands, ankle weights, foam roller. I go to the gym and walk/run on the treadmill. He gives me a recovery program he found online. 

“Make sure you can complete each phase comfortably before moving to the next,” he tells me.

I try running on a cinder track to test the leg. I run short bursts. Strange things happen with my knees. Maybe I went too hard.

I go see a doctor. 

I get to his office. They take X-Rays. He comes in after he looks them over.

“I want to know if I’ll do any damage if I keep running,” I tell him.

“The damage has already been done,” he tells me, showing me the X-Rays. Osteoarthritis. Both knees.

“But I wanted to try for a marathon.”

“Sorry, but no” he said, shaking his head. “We have physical therapists. We can give you knee injections. We’re here to help, if you need us.”

Not what I wanted to hear.

I punt on trying to rehab for the half-marathon. I dump the physical therapist. I switch to a different doctor based on a recommendation from a marathoner I know who works down the hall from me.

The new doctor orders an MRI. Informs me that I have a torn meniscus. The cause? Seems like wear from, well, old age. He orders more physical therapy. 

“Don’t give up,” he tells me.

I like this doctor.

Nothing like going to physical therapy early in the morning on the way to work.

Different group of therapists. One has a PhD. After several sessions, she tells me, “Therapy doesn’t always work. Maybe you should see if there’s something else the doctor can do.”

Knee injections, every six months. Still can’t run. Not normally. I favor the right leg, and much of the work is done by the left leg when I try to run.

I don’t give up. I start another physical therapy program. It’s designed to allow patients to run again. I complete it. The program leads to a strength and conditioning program. I join it.

But I stop when I start having problems with my left leg.

Eventually, I stop running.

It's been a while.

That last half-marathon is a good memory that’s fading fast.

The long period of time trying to recover from the running injury was frustrating. There are things my body cannot repair, even if I were to give it ten years of rest. No doctor that I saw could offer me any mainstream medical treatment that would undo the damage. That would turn back the clock.

For a while, I joked about physical therapy being my new sport. I kidded about having found a way to spend less money on cushioned running shoes. 

There are days when I miss it. Feeling fit. Going out on a solo run. The camaraderie of a group run. I still have remnants of a runner's mentality.

I went to the gym earlier this week. I walked on the treadmill. I wanted to see how long it would take me to complete 3.1 miles. Took an hour.

Wonder how I can improve on that...

February 02, 2024 02:15

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Patricia Casey
14:23 Feb 06, 2024

Hi Conrado, I, too, am a runner, and I enjoyed your story. I hate it when I can't run. I am 65 years old, and I seemed to have less knee problems after I changed to a whole-foods-plant-based diet. Also, swimming is good to keep up your strength when you cannot run. Your short sentences in your opening paragraph give the impression of a race, setting a good pace for your story. I prefer flat roads, too. "Sometimes I think she likes to torture us with elevation." "We wait for the starting gun with 30,000 others. The street is littered with...


Conrado Maher
15:06 Feb 06, 2024

Thanks for the feedback Patricia. Glad you enjoyed. I did try to give the story a “go-go-go” type of feeling. My swimming is getting a little better and I am trying to do more of it. I am (as it happens) trying to incorporate more vegetables and fruit into my diet. Don’t think running’s in the cards right now but I (gulp) went stair climbing recently. I was surprised that I had no knee pain.


Patricia Casey
17:26 Feb 06, 2024

Thanks for the update, Conrado.


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