I haven’t known what to write lately because I’ve been stressed and I think stress shakes up the brain like a long run. I never run very far, but I’m in my own kind of marathon between school and work and wedding and this week feels like mile 22. Most marathon runners don’t train beyond the mileage of my lucky number. If you run further than the 22nd mile during training, veteran marathoners say you’ll dread the actual race. You won’t believe you can actually make it 26 miles if you train for 26 miles. The training run will hurt way worse than the real race which brings the greetings of adrenaline and momentum and, maybe most importantly, witnesses.
I was one this weekend for Pizzo’s first marathon. I rode a turquoise bike with a hard seat while she chugged up 7th, down Downing, around Wash Park, across Logan, and straight on to Civic Center Park Sunday morning. Sometimes, mostly on the uphill parts, she stayed pretty quiet, which is when I talked about candy, shoes, and how great she was doing.
"I hurt all over," she said at one point, while we bumped across the uneven pavement on Speer. We were in front of my old apartment and I missed the way the sun came in over the golf course and through the wrought iron window frames. I like marathons because you cover a whole town in a single morning, slowly enough to remember the parts of your life that have happened on those same corners. Marathons, when I watch them, make me think of my best friends who have done them in different cities, and as sentimental as it sounds, long distance races make me proud of human beings.
I think part of what makes people run is you think in a different way when you're willing yourself through your body's physical resistance. The snow looked wet on the sloped side of Mt. Evans and the trees blinked red and silver in the sun, but Wash Park didn't really feel like Wash Park, Denver wasn't really the same workday Denver. Races can make you hate or love a place, but for me, they always make me see that space like it's being poured out, layer by layer, and you're stepping into each memory or sidewalk or streetcorner with an awareness of those past miles and how your mentality will effect the present ones.
I asked Peez where her favorite place in the world is, and she said a cavern off the side of the Grand Canyon that looks a like rainforest in the middle of a red desert. I thought about my favorite places. A gelato place in Trastevere. The blue and yellow, chipped mosaic table Kate and Ashley and I used to sit at on the corner of my porch in New Orleans. My parents' kitchen when it's early and the Sunday paper is still one unruffled chunk on the counter. Groups of men turned around with their mouths open and congratulated Sarah when we passed them, me on my bike, cheating and thinking, and she in her day-glo gear.
At Mile 22, Peez looked a little white and unsure when she looked over at me and said, "I’ve never felt like this before."
Teenie, who had joined us, said that at the worst point during one marathon, her sister asked another runner, “How many miles are in a marathon?” and the other runner replied, “Shoot. I don’t know. 22? 23? I really have no idea.”
How do you explain that?
Mile 22 also presents to the hopeless runner a catch-22. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If you stop running, it will all be for nothing; if you keep going, each step means more pain. Joseph Heller's book, Catch 22, where the term came from, was a book I didn’t totally get when I read it in high school. I remember Major Major Major Major and little else. I felt like I was in a catch-22 when I was reading that book. Keep reading and I will be more bored and lost; stop reading and I might never understand. In Catch 22, the catch-22 is when a paradox in rules makes a character a victim, but they can’t do anything about it. What if you put yourself in that helpless position, regardless of definitive rules? Is it still a catch 22? And is there really such a thing as a catch-22 if everyone either quits or keeps going? I've had a lot of 22nd miles, but no true catch-22s; I grew up with a mother who taught me that hope will always push you out from between the rock and the hard place.
My favorite number is 22 because a girl I used to dance with named Emily opened my eyes to all the 22’s in the world. “Once you start to look for it, you’ll find 22’s everywhere,” she said. Emily’s dad died when we were young, and she kept a t-shirt and a tiny black comb that smelled like him under her pillow. Her mom had a mini grocery cart that held their apples and bananas near the kitchen sink, and we used to swing from a knotted rope into the Highline Canal behind her house after Saturday dance practice when the summers brought enough rain to fill the channel to its grassy banks.
Because of Emily, I learned about cherishing objects and numbers and people. I did start to see 22’s everywhere. I was assigned number 22 for soccer. Cars in front of me had a 22 on them more often than not. I could convince myself I’d see a 22 in the next 22 minutes and I would—on the front of a house, on a sheet of wayward paper, on a digital clock. I even turned 22 once. That year, the year Katrina hit, felt like a much worse 22nd mile than the one I'm at right now. “I’ve never felt like this before” is the only way I might have put it.
I don't remember moving a single thing into our house in the Garden District with the dusty camping chairs and the pigeons that roosted on top of the pillars. I don't even remember the drive back to the city after the hurricane. I wonder what it is about stress that makes us lose our memories. Sometimes I feel like I'm running after the blurry snippets of my past all day and all night in a race I'll never finish.
People who run marathons don't finish single trains of thought, prayers slip into daydreams, and songs become single line mantras. I'd like to do a test on marathoners and talk to them at 22 and see what they remembered. What does the brain do during all those grueling, stretched out minutes? Does it go quickly or slowly? If I can remember all the songs on my Mariah Carey tape from 8th grade, shouldn't I remember my more current, maybe more important footfalls?
The memory is like a choosy little person with tight fists. Sometimes you can get her to open her hands, but only when you catch her unawares. I know my own memory doesn't remember myself as well as others, but I'm glad. I love the snapshot insights that stick with me from all my favorite people. And if you gave me a choice, I'd rather be the witness than the runner.
Just after the 22nd marker, Sarah said, “Well. I have about a 5k left. I can do that.”