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Date: SUN 01/16/00
Page: 1
Edition: 2 STAR

Son's effort earns respect

By Melissa England

He's always got a new idea. This time it was about running a marathon (in San Antonio, last November). I listened, did the usual thing, took an inventory in my head of all the people who die attempting such a feat, decided it was almost impossible to train for a 26-mile jaunt in less than four months, and stated my opinion. An opinion was not what he was looking for. This was just an announcement of what he was going to do.

This kid, my 25-year-old, decided to start running. At 6 feet, 5 inches he was hard to miss, and his stride was wide but graceful as he touched lightly on his feet. Fine, I wished him well and asked if most people trained in about 100 days. He laughed it off; I'm young, he answered. He is, kind of. He was one of those children born old, and just now he's learning to play.

The phone calls were regular: three, five, now 10 miles. He sparkled over the phone. He liked pushing himself; he liked working for a goal. He liked racing the wind. A couple of his friends were runners, and he also liked the camaraderie of the sport.

I remembered reading an article that stated men over 6 feet tall usually suffer from heart disease because the blood has to travel much farther. Maybe a marathon wasn't such a good idea. I also thought maybe this wasn't a good time for Mom to do her "neurotic thing."

As the date of the marathon neared, he had a series of problems arise. He twisted his ankle, landing wrong and knocking himself off the jogging path. His knee began to ache, bringing back an injury he suffered in some previous manly sport. Lower back and hip joint pain began to be a regular part of his practice. I wondered if any of these symptoms would make him question his decision. He talked about his body taking a beating, adding that he was now running 15 miles at a time.

Still, I was quiet, hoping he would find another mountain to climb. Five days before the race he came down with a chest cold. His throat hurt and his head pounded. I said, "Surely, you're not still considering the race." He told me not to call him "Shirley."

Sometimes it's just no good talking to him. I called each night after work, checking his status. Friends were coming to watch him run. I work a revolving schedule and that was my weekend to work. Secretly, I was glad. I'm so close to him, I hurt every time he winces. I asked him to promise to listen to his body; I asked him to stop if he hurt. Stupid request - this is a kid who has always given his best. We laughed, and I reminded him I would carry my cell phone and I wanted to know how it went. I wished him the luck of the universe, prayed for angels to stay close to him, and then I went to work.

I watched the clock. The whole of Saturday turned into a microwave minute, the slowest minute in the kitchen. I called once just to leave a message, to remind him I was thinking of him. And I waited some more.

It occurred to me I didn't know the rules of a marathon. When was it over? Did they make people quit? Did they give out more than three places? I remembered he had told me his plan; he would run the race in less than five hours. It would be a good pace, and he would be pleased with himself.

Five hours came and went; so did six. I'd lost my usual good mood and began to replay his life in my head. He was my firstborn. When my labor pains were five minutes apart I went to the hospital, and 38 hours later a 10-pound child passed through my body, a huge pink, beautiful son. I was torn apart, out of breath and out of every ounce of energy, and then they laid him on my stomach. He was incredible, worth every moment. I never worked that hard for anything in my life, and he was worth it 1,000 times over.

I got the call. A voice I knew like I know sky, water and love began, "Mom?" His voice was soft. "Mom, it's Chris." I felt the back of my throat close up. I nodded, not speaking. "Mom," his voice dropped lower, "I made it."

In the silence between us, I relived the moment he played lacrosse when he was knocked into the mud and stood to play again. This skinny kid with the determined chin was knocked into the mud over and over again. I had to keep watching, as the opponents kept sending fresh uniforms to play against the smallest team in the league. As the minutes wore on, I watched my son take a beating from older, larger, fresher opponents. I wanted him to just lie there, but he kept getting back up. I stood in the stands, tears mixed with the rain, and then the final play. They lost big, only scoring once against Episcopal High. He walked off the field, just his eyes showing out of the mud, when the other side stood up to applaud his team's efforts. With those sky blue eyes he flashed those big, beautiful white teeth. He raised his arms to the crowd, and the swell of approval flooded our ears.

Tell me, I ask him, tell me what happened. His voice is raspy and shallow. "I was running good. At the halfway point I saw the first clock, and I had covered 13 miles in two hours and seven seconds. I smiled to myself thinking I was exactly where I had planned to be. You know, Mom, the control thing." I laughed.

"But something happened, I landed on my ankle wrong, and pain shot up my leg like I had stepped on glass. I leaned hard to my good side, but every touch jerked through my body. I decided to try to walk it out. I hated losing my spot as I watched other runners pass me by, but I figured I would make up the time if my ankle would cool off. It didn't get better. So I changed my stance leaning harder to my good side and trying to touch as lightly as possible on the other. I was twisting my back, and my hip joint wasn't cooperating, and then I crushed something in my knee. I didn't know where to lean, or what part of my foot to use. My friends looked worried.

"Andy walked alongside me for a while, telling me it was all right to quit. They could see how much pain I was in. He talked about what a good try it was, and how he'd like to take me to lunch. I just didn't answer him and tried to clear my head as I picked up my pace. Andy fell away, not saying any more.

"I had a lot of time to think, and mostly I thought of how much I wanted to finish. I tried to separate myself from what hurt; I tried to think of flying over the track. In the final curve, I saw the big clock over the finish line; it shocked me back to the race. It read five hours and 24 minutes.

"It was like electricity running through me. I had to finish. After five hours and 30 minutes, the race is considered over. Only those who cross the finish line receive a finisher's T-shirt and a medal. Mom, I wanted it. I wanted it more than anything."

He watched the clock and broke into a sprint, picking up speed with each pounding step into the pavement. As the crowd watched him, they also knew what he was thinking, and what he was running for. The crowd started chanting down the seconds. His friends were screaming his name, and people he didn't even know were screaming with them. Something changed in his body, and he couldn't feel his left leg hit the pavement at all. He pushed harder, bobbing heads taller than those around him.

He heard the sound, he heard his name, and he heard the 30th minute. The cheers were ferocious as his body rushed back to his head. He doubled over, unsure if he had finished, unsure if he could walk. "Did I make it?" was all he wanted to know.

Yes. Yes, he saw it on people's faces before he could understand it. He saw tears in women's eyes, and then he saw it in the men who patted him on his back and helped him to keep moving.

It was then the whirlwind inside him broke, and the dam that held his tears shattered, and my son, the marathon runner, sobbed, echoing the sounds of a place rarely touched by him.

I guess I could say I am proud, but I have always been. I guess I could say I love him, but I always have. I guess it's more like this: Chris defines himself by the effort, the trying and the attempt to give life everything he's got. For that, once again he has earned my respect.