It’s Sunday morning, overcast, nippy. I’m up at 6:00, most definitely not my favorite time to rise. But today’s the day that Al is running a 5K obstacle course race with his hospital co-workers at a track out in Western Massachusetts, and we need to be there by 8:30.
Al informed me about this a few months ago when he and his fellow social workers decided this would be a great team building activity, plus a good way to raise some money for a local charity, while they were at it. I didn’t give it much thought. As a marketing director, for years I would take my staff out to all kinds of unusual places—the Arnold Arboretum, a glass-blowing studio, a youth concert by the Boston Symphony—to strengthen us as a collaborative working group. So the basic idea sounded fine to me.
That is, until Emily came home for the summer from college and looked at the race track website. “Mom, have you seen what he’s supposed to do?” she asked, incredulous. I had to admit that I hadn’t bothered to look. I was in denial. But the man is going to be 62 at the end of October. He has a pacemaker. We agreed that she would urge him to do more than his usual morning workout to get in shape. “He’ll listen to you,” I said. “He’ll just ignore me.”
So she did. Al started swimming after work. Emily went back to school in early August.
A few weeks later, Mindi came home from Israel for a month’s visit. “Mom, have you seen what he’s supposed to do?” she asked, after checking out the website. We agreed that she would push the pace when they hiked up Mt. Monadnock that week. “He’ll listen to you,” I said. “He’ll just ignore me.”
So she did. They made it to the top of the mountain in good time. Al started running after work, and Mindi went back to Tel Aviv in mid-September.
The week before the race, he was running a full 5K around our neighborhood without stopping. I’d resigned myself to the fact that he was going to go through with it and that the weather forecast was crummy—chilly, with a chance of showers.
We’d discussed the possibility of my staying home, because we were both concerned I would get numb waiting for him to finish. So I decided to find a Starbucks nearest to the racetrack, in case it was raining or too cold for me to stand outside for hours. I finally checked out the website to get the address. And freaked out.
This was no ordinary obstacle course. You had to crawl in muddy water under strings of barbed wire. You had to hop from pylon to pylon over more muddy water. You had to squirm through dark, wet tunnels. You had to run up and down mucky terrain. You had to jump over a fire pit.
When Al came home Friday night, I said we needed to talk. We sat in the living room and I let loose.
“Have you looked at the 5-week training program they have on the website? This isn’t just about running. It’s cross-training! If I’ d realized what this was all about when the girls warned me, I would have tried to talk you out of it. You could really get hurt!”
Al said nothing. After nearly 28 years of marriage, he knew enough not to interrupt me when I was on a tear.
“I don’t care how cold or rainy it’s going to be on Sunday, I’m definitely coming with you. What if you sprain an ankle? What if you break a leg? What if you get a concussion, I thought. What if you have a heart attack? How will you get home?”
He kept listening, his face frozen in a tight grimace.
“I know how important it is for you to do this, I get it that you want to prove to yourself you can, and I know you’d never listen to me if I tried to talk you out of it. So I want to support you, but you have to promise me you will skip any of the obstacles that you can’t do. Don’t be a macho hero!”
“I won’t do anything stupid.”
“Okay, but what does that really mean?”
“It means I won’t do anything stupid!”
We went back and forth for a few more minutes. Al suggested that maybe I should stay home, because it was going to be too cold for me. No way.
“If you’re going to be stupid enough to do this, than I’m going to stupid enough to stand there in the rain and watch you and make sure you get home okay!” He agreed. Truce.
* * *
I take on the elements dressed in jeans and an old short-sleeved cashmere turtleneck, under an old long-sleeve cashmere v-neck, under a fleece vest, under my mid-weight down winter coat. I am armed with my fleece wrist warmers, gloves and a hat, and I have my umbrella. I look ridiculous, but I don’t care. I can’t take a chance on my Raynaud’s triggering for the next three hours.
At the track, we find Al’s co-workers—three trim women, all at least half his age. Everyone‘s in high spirits as they don their purple tees with the hospital logo and their names on the back. A couple of athletic-looking boyfriends join the team, too.
Music pumps from two huge speakers. Other running teams sport everything from multi-colored unitards to chartreuse tutus, from Batman and Wonder Woman costumes to princess tiaras and centurion helmets.
To get to the starting gate for their 10:30 race, everyone has to climb over a four-foot-high plywood barrier. Al tells me later that he thinks the guys ahead of him are just showing off when they jump the wall. Then he realizes he actually has to get over the thing.
Smoke fills the air beyond the starting gate. An announcer juices the crowd. A siren blasts. And they’re off.
I find my way to a good vantage point midway through the course, a spaghetti-like dirt trail that winds up and down, back and forth through the muck. And wait. After about 20 minutes, I catch sight of part of the team running up the far side of the track. But no Al. A few more minutes pass. Then I see him, trudging slowly up the incline behind his young, spry supervisor. She pauses until he catches up. Okay, she’s making sure he’s doing all right. Good. I snap some pictures.
After another ten minutes or so, the team reaches the muddy sinkhole in front of me. I yell encouragement and snap some more shots. Al pumps his fist in the air as he wades through the guck. He looks exhausted, but he seems to be having a good time. I click away as they all hold hands down the giant slide into a mud hole, as they roll over red-and-white poles laid across muddy water, as they slog up and down.
When I can’t see them anymore, I head to what I think is the final obstacle, a huge pit of muddy water before a steep, gloppy incline. The sun comes out. I unzip my coat and vest and put on my sunglasses. Guys do cannon balls, flips, belly flops. Most of the gals just jump and wade through. One woman in a tutu drags herself to the side with an injured leg and is quickly picked up by the paramedic crew. But no Al and company. I keep watching and waiting.
Suddenly, there’s a hand on my shoulder. It’s Al, grimy and smiling. “We’ve been looking all over for you! We finished a while ago!” Oh no, how could I miss it! They crossed the finish line together, holding hands, he tells me. We head back over so I can take his triumphant portrait.
Al is ecstatic. “I really did it!” he beams. He gets his free beer and we grab some veggie burgers. We say our goodbyes and head to the car. On the way home, he tells me more about the obstacles. He did every one, except the pylons. Too much. So, he kept his promise.
“It was hard,” he admits as we drive back east on the Pike. “But the anticipation was worse than the actual race.” I agree. You never know what you’re capable of, even when your body doesn’t work so well anymore. Unless you try.