At The Back Of The Pack

The weather threatened a hurricane off the coast. It circled oppressively and storm fog rolled in from the brewing sea. But, forecasters had promised the worst would hold off until later in the afternoon – the race was on.

About 13 years ago, I made my second attempt at Mattapoisett’s 4th of July Road Race. I do not run and even back then I barely jogged, but I could and did walk pretty fast. Have you ever seen a speed walking race? The racers look rather funny and awkward in their movements. Well, that is what I sort of looked like.

Then the years went by. The demands of industry and commerce – aka, making a living with frequent multi-state travel, overseeing my Father’s care, being Gramma’s taxi and loving childcare service, running a home, and not least of all being a wife – just didn’t leave much time for exercise. Walking about three times a week and/or mounting the NordicTrack (remember those – do you need one?) was the only physical movement I really got for quite some time.

When I retired, exercise was at the top of my to-do list. I was a little slow in actually committing myself to this cause, but I have a rather compelling reason to stay moving – osteoporosis. The progression of this silent, debilitating disease I could no longer deny.

Decades earlier, I had taken my Mother for a bone density scan and our doctor ordered one for me as well. Both my Mother and her only sister, Margaret, had already been diagnosed with osteoporosis, so it was necessary that I get tested. When the results came back, I thought the clinic had made a mistake and mixed up the results. But that hope was quickly dispelled by the doctor who plainly said, “You have osteopenia; we have to deal with this.” I was only 40.

For the next twenty years, I more or less faithfully took the once-weekly medication and continued with my wimpy exercise regimen. When you don’t feel the impact of a disease that is slowly robbing your bones of their ability to regenerate, denial is easy and very stupid. But deny I did, and stupid I was.

In the meantime, my aunt’s spine became a tortured bent hook and my Mother began her long descent into an altered medical universe. She fell many times, breaking both ankles and her collarbone, suffering multiple bruises and chronic unrelenting pain from small fractures in her spine. These sisters weren’t physically able to exercise sufficiently to make much of a difference in their quality of life. By then, they had spent a lifetime being overweight and fairly inactive. Now in the hour of their need, and in spite of an expressed desire to lose weight and move more, neither of them seemed able to do so. As more research and information on ways to cope and improve ones chances after developing osteoporosis became available, I sat up taller and started to take notice. It was time to get real with myself.

Every chance I got, I walked my flat feet in a quest to keep my bones alive. I know every nook and cranny of North Street between my house and Crystal Spring Road. Walking this gauntlet of speeding vehicles can be a death-defying experience, but I take my chances. We also invested in a treadmill that I faithfully use when the weather doesn’t permit outdoor activities.

My doctor recently changed my medication from a once-a-week pill to a twice-a-year shot, and three months ago I added more movement to my walking schedule. The disease has progressed from the less scary osteopenia to osteoporosis. I simply don’t have a choice any longer. I must keep moving.

Today, I’m actively engaging my body through the paces of ZumbaÒ Gold for seniors (yeah, right, you try keeping up, it ain’t so easy), cardio-fit exercises at the local council on aging, and walking my faithful pup, Harry. Oh yeah, “I like to move it, move it.”

So as the annual 4th of July Road Race got closer this year, I remembered those glory days when I could walk the course in 63 minutes, besting others who were jogging. It was game on. Me against Me – a true win, win. I didn’t even really mind that the category I fell into on the race form was that of “Super Senior” – ugh.

The hurricane became a blessing to all those who participated in the race. Not too hot, and with a fine mist to cool the skin, Mother Nature provided a pleasant backdrop. In previous years, I had made the mistake of inserting myself in the middle of the pack where the real jocks jockey for position. Not this time. It was the back of the pack for yours truly, and I was proud of it.

Around my neck, I wore a small pendent I’d received in 1979. My friend, Ilene Pasillas, had given it to me as a going away gift when I left California and returned home after a failed wanderlust adventure. She fought a brave battle against cancer that she lost in 1985, but on this day she was with me. So were Ma and Dad and a few others whose passings have left holes in my universe. They were all there inspiring me.

But my greatest inspiration came from the living. I walked because I can and to honor those who can’t – those friends and a couple of relatives whose health challenges render such activities outside their reach. I did it for them. I did it to remind my granddaughters that sometimes simply believing you can do something makes it possible. Not easy, but possible. I did it to prove to myself I could.

The excitement is palpable at such times; it electrifies the soul. So I walked to my 1-2-3-4 peppy beat in my head and the sound of the ambulance engine in my right ear.

As I reached the corner of North and Church for the first time early in the course, there arose a sound so sweet as to draw tears to my eyes. There was my 15-year old granddaughter and her friends, race volunteers, passing out water and cheering me on saying, “You go, Gramma!!!” A dearer sound I could not have imagined. I didn’t have a partner in this event, yet I had visible and invisible loving supporters.

As a member of the back of the pack club, you find yourself with folks who are in the same boat as you, just wanting to prove they can finish this race. The people along the course were all very encouraging, clapping and smiling and saying they were proud of us: the slow, old, weak, wounded, and brave. A noble bunch were we, even if I do say so myself.

Heading back from Ned’s Point to that North and Church intersection for the second time, I knew I was going to make it. My body had found its rhythm and my brain wasn’t revolting. It was all systems go to the finish line. And there were the girls screaming their approval with hoots of joy. They knew, too; it was going to be OK.

As I pulled away from them and headed towards the corner of North and Water, my granddaughter called to me, “I’m joining you, Gramma” as she and a friend ran to catch-up. I said, “See that lady in the white shorts? I’ve been behind her the whole way. I’m going to pass her.” They said, “Go For It!” At the last possible moment, I did jog past the unknown walker with a spring in my step. I’d done it, and it felt so good. Seventy-three minutes was five minutes better than I had predicted when my loving husband dropped me off earlier. I placed 999 out of 1026. I wasn’t the last, and that’s good enough for me.

I’m still riding the cloud of endorphins produced from the effort and now plan on doing the race every year that I’m physically able to do so. And maybe, just maybe, next year I’ll have a partner or two, but I know I’ll always have those who I remember by my side. As the song says, “I’m not as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was….” Amen, and can I get a witness!

Before I forget, here’s a special shout out to the two soldiers who ran in full gear and packs – I salute you and thank you for your service.

PS: Dear Race Officials, you folks did a wonderful job making sure there was plenty of water and directions along the course. And who doesn’t love fresh fruit? That’s a real treat after a race. One question/suggestion: Could the dismantling of the finish line equipment wait until all participants have had a chance to cross the finish-line? As a member of the ‘back of the pack club,’ our personal best may be very different from the front of the pack, but it is just as important nonetheless.

By Marilou Newell


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