Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Marathon Part 6: Grandma

This is part of a series that begins here.


Exactly six months before the Marathon, I thought I would practice on the Veyo Hill. Actually, it wasn't that well planned but that’s how it happened and I learned an unexpected lesson in endurance. 

The Department of the Interior Solicitor’s Conference was scheduled for Las Vegas, Nevada that year. Now that I was a supervisory attorney and even Acting Regional Solicitor for the past year and one half, I had to go. It may have been my idea or AA's, but we easily agreed that I would drive to Vegas with my old friend and former boss from Santa Fe. Even though I was now his boss at least in my acting capacity we have remained good friends. The plan was to drop AA off in Zion National Park the Friday before the conference so he could hike for the weekend while I stayed in St. George, Utah with my grandmother. Then I would meet AA at a designated spot and drive the two hours on to Vegas arriving Monday afternoon as scheduled. 

I intended to just drop in to see Grandma because my parents told me that you don’t want to tell her you are coming too far ahead as she worries about arrivals and schedules. My back-up plan was to stay with my Aunt and her husband who worked for the Bureau of Land Management, one of our Interior client agencies. The second backup was to stay with an old friend in town or at a motel as I had plenty of travel money, claiming personal vehicle mileage up to the amount my airfare would have been. The plan was simplified when my parents called to say that my aunt had asked them to come that very weekend and help Grandma move her furniture back into her condominium after the new carpet and paint. Grandma had spent the past few days at my aunt’s while the work was done. That was probably enough time together for both of them. Anyway, my services were volunteered which gave me the perfect excuse to stay with Grandma. 

Grandma was 92 years old and still living at home caring for herself. My aunt was absolutely right that you had to keep reminding yourself that Grandma was a 92-year-old woman. She seemed at least twenty years younger and would have been a very active 72-year-old. Nevertheless she was tiny and preciously fragile. She was so glad to see me having only learned that morning that I was coming. My uncle came for a few quick minutes the first day and then my aunt and cousin the next day to help carry in the largest pieces of furniture. The bulk of the weekend it was just Grandma and me putting things away and arranging Grandma’s books and all. I also made every effort not to be an extra burden on Grandma so I cooked, did laundry, cleaned, and brought in Chinese food and fresh fruit from the grocery so she wouldn't have to worry about serving me. I told her in response to her protests that she had been taking care of people all her life and it was about time somebody took care of her. 

The rearranging and all still wore Grandma out. She was recovering from a bad cold that hadn't quite developed into pneumonia. My aunt had taken her to the hospital earlier in the week to make sure. Grandma was waking up with a bad hacking cough bringing up the phlegm that had given her the health problem. I was concerned enough to check on her about 4:30 the first morning after listening to her for some time. Assuring me that she was all right and this was just part of her recovery, I decided to go run. 

An ulterior motive in visiting St. George was to check out the Marathon route. The first evening, amid Grandma’s animated discussion of all her travel brochures and newspaper clippings on history and points of interest in Southern Utah, I asked her about the route. She informed me that the Marathon came down Highway 18 and right down Bluff Street below her house to end at a city park near the Temple. So I thought it would be easy enough to take off up the road and check out a few miles of the Marathon's end. That way when I ran the big race I could get to those last few miles and hopefully convince myself I could make it to the end as I had run that portion before. 

Bluff Street is steeply below where Grandma very literally lived on Ridge Rim Way. I walked my way down the steep descent as a warm-up not wanting to ruin my knees at the start of the run. I checked my Mickey Mouse watch in the dark by the light of the Midas shop and estimated the start time at 5:20 a.m. I started off running up Bluff Street. 

It was less than a mile before the town ended and I was on my way up Highway 18 north. I was pleased to find an asphalt running trail parallel to the highway so I moved over on to it. The Marathon officials may not let you run on the side trail but I thought it was safer than the highway asphalt especially before dawn when the only traffic was the occasional gun-racked pickup barreling down the highway with a driver I imagined was not a friend to Marathon trainers. There was another advantage to the pedestrian trail in that it was not as evenly graded as the highway. It ran steeply up and down every dramatic rise and descent, more up than down on the northward route as the St. George Marathon is well known for being a “fast” Marathon with the elevation drop into St. George from the high country above. So this would be a good “hills” work out. And also when I actually ran the race on the more easily graded highway, I could look over and be glad I wasn't running up and down the steep side trail. There was a little concern when one SUV slowed and then stopped ahead of me on the highway. Then I saw a woman run out across the way with two water bottles she deposited aside my trail. I was relieved to know I wasn't the only one with plans for an early Saturday morning run 

Even in the dark I could see the beauty of this classy route. The lights of Santa Clara twinkled on my left as I approached Snow Canyon through the Red Rocks Desert Park. The mountains loomed on the right, a familiar comfort to me from my Albuquerque route along the Sandias. Even in the dark I could see the color contrast from the white desert to red to the night-black mountain peaks. 

The pedestrian trail while challengingly steep in places was smoothly paved and easy to navigate. I ran on and on unable to check my time in the dark because my Mickey watch had no lights or luminosity. Finally the dawning light brightened the desert enough for me to notice highway mileage markers. At approximately mile marker eight I could see my watch well enough to note I was coming up on an hour of running and planned to stop at the next mile marker or 6:30 a.m. which ever came first. Mile marker nine came near a little community with an LDS church house and I turned just in time. The two women who had deposited the water bottles were starting on the trail coming down and I wanted to be ahead of them. I could hear their voices talking behind me for some time as I made the return trip. But I was faster and eventually left them far behind as I swigged the water I had carried in my fanny pack and munched on my only energy source, some Easter-colored M&M peanuts my wife had sent with me for the trip. 

The descent was faster than the climb and now that the light was growing in the sky I could see how steep the trail actually was in places and how much elevation drop there was into the valley of the Virgin River. I watched the mileage signs through the twists and turns of the descent wondering how far I had actually come hoping for at least 12 miles total as that was my April goal for long runs on my own training schedule. Two additional miles every month would get me up to 20 miles by August. Then I could work on tapering or any modifications for September before the actual race in the first week of October. As I counted down the miles backwards I figured I would hit milepost three before reaching the street below Grandma’s. And I did right there at the Sonic drive-in. Twelve miles, just over two hours. 

Sunday was a rest day for both Grandma and me. We watched semi-annual church conference on TV which is part of the coincidence because the Marathon is always the Saturday of October conference just six months away. In between conference sessions, Grandma rested and I drove up the Marathon route from what I figured was the finish to clock the 26.2 miles. I ended up at the National Forest boundary just past the turn to Pine Valley. Grandma corrected me later that the start is right there at the highway junction where they build the big bonfires. 

Monday morning began even earlier with the switch to daylight savings time. Going to bed early on “Grandma Time” helped with the adjustment. Grandma did not cough like the last two mornings so I thought she must be improving and I took off for another run. I drove up the Marathon route having scoped it by car the day before. I had originally planned to start at the church house parking lot at mile nine and run up to mile 15 and back to practice the route a little farther. After seeing the Veyo Hill and hearing Grandma explain that it is the big challenge for the Marathoners, I thought I would take it on instead to know I could do it for the actual race. I noted on the way up that mile marker 19 was on the hill. Never being very good with simple math, especially early in the morning, I tried adding six miles to 19 to figure where I should start. As I was confusing my head with simple addition and subtraction, I noticed I was about out of gas and just reaching milepost 23 I slammed the brakes and turned to parked aside the roadway facing south. I had no money or credit card with me. Remembering that once past the Veyo Hill it was all downhill to St. George, I figured that after my run I could coast on fumes into town. If I didn't make it all the way I could walk or run that last bit I had practiced the Saturday before back to Grandma’s to retrieve my wallet and buy a gallon of gas. 

The run eased my mind of my empty gas tank, forgotten credit card and all other earthly worries. Scorpio shone bright in the southern sky with its gleaming red star Antares as I headed out. I ran easily down into the Veyo valley and crossed the one lighted intersection in this two-gas-pump town and on across the bridge and up the Veyo Hill. There was no pedestrian running trail on this part of the highway. That trail turns into Snow Canyon far below. However the roadway was only narrow at the bridge. On up the hill the highway was wide, probably not designed but convenient for the mass of runners on this only major challenge of the Marathon route besides the 26.2 mile basis of the whole thing. It was only about a mile total up slope. The hill was a breeze. 

The challenge came as I crested the hill and went into the Dammeron Valley. My outside temperature gauge in the Toyota had shown 50 degrees as I turned and parked the car at mile 23. But the Dammeron Valley is a little bowl a little higher in elevation on top of the Veyo Hill. As I ran down the slight incline into the valley bowl, the sky grew brighter but the temperature dropped. I could feel each degree drop through my thin “coolmax” t-shirt and shorts. It must have been 40 or below. I thought about turning around and just running an extra mile or two beyond the car but I figured I just had to keep running and I’d be warm enough. I also wondered if runners ever suffered from hypothermia. Remembering that one of the first symptoms was mental confusion, I tried to stay focused on something other than math. Eventually, I made it across the valley to milepost 17 and happily turned to cross the valley back towards Veyo. As I climbed out of the bowl to the crest of the Veyo Hill I could feel the temperature rise point by point to a comfortable level. 

They say that you can give your life direction by running. That was literally fulfilled on the return approach to the Veyo Bridge. There, on the ground, was an official Boy Scout compass. I scooped it up wondering only briefly if the Boy Scout was lost, still wandering those hills but the souvenir of the Veyo Bridge graced the dash of my Toyota for quite a while. I don’t know if it was the good luck of finding the compass but I was able to coast into town and get to a gas station. 

Grandma had a sense of direction to her long life. We had a wonderful weekend together talking. She told how Grandpa had never used credit coming from such a poor family and how they struggled through the Depression. In their early-married life they lived in a house off of an alleyway in Ogden, Utah. Grandma told how she worked in a furniture store and wanted so much to get an electric refrigerator instead of the old icebox they were using. It would be so much easier to keep fresh food. But Grandpa didn't want her to charge anything. She carefully calculated that with her employee discount and the sale price, she could manage the credit payments out of her pay and the family budget. She was always the one who kept the books in the family. She went ahead and bought the fridge on her own. When Grandpa came home he saw it and did not speak to her for a week. She explained that's how he was, he never yelled at her, he just refused to talk to her when he was angry. Finally, one day they went to the park for a picnic. He grumpily spoke and told her that while he was not happy she had charged the fridge, he was glad to have it. 

There were probably other times she got the silent treatment but I'm sure Grandma just waited it out. While Grandpa was a professional athlete in minor league baseball, Grandma was the real strength of the family. She dearly loved and cared for Grandpa and their four children. She faithfully followed Grandpa from Utah to eastern Oregon when instead of buying the grocery store according to plan he invested in the Olympic Club, euphemistically referred to as a “pool hall.” There were a few other interesting investments like the attempt to raise hogs. Later, Grandpa switched to the bowling alley to restore the family reputation to some degree. I remember Grandma in the back room for endless hours taking care of the books while Grandpa entertained the bowlers and us grandkids with his stories. I think she probably put up with a lot of others things as well. And to her credit, all four of her children went to college, married well and raised good families of their own. 

The last morning I was there she was more than worn out and worried about chest pains. She took a couple of nitro tablets, which is unusual for her. Since I was getting ready to leave to pick up AA and go on to Vegas, I called and left a message for ny aunt to check on her. Lying on the couch in her blue quilted robe, her beautiful white hair uncombed, also very unusual for her, Grandma told me that she recently spoke by phone with her one remaining sister who is a little younger but suffers from more serious health problems. They talked about how hard life is at this age and whether they serve any purpose any longer. I assured Grandma that they do if only to spend these precious times with loved ones. Grandma told how her sister had even been thinking of taking her own life. Grandma said she herself had never had the vaguest thought of suicide before but understood now how her sister felt and wondered if it wouldn’t be better just to end it. She went on to say how she had been reading in the scriptures. I thought she would refer to some biblical prohibition on the taking of life. She told me simply that she had read how we must endure to the end so that’s what she was going to do. 

Far from the extreme thought of ending it all, the everyday challenges of life still wear on me. Grandma said if she had known she would live so long she would have taken better care of herself. Seeing that she was still here you couldn't help but think she had taken very good care. The reality is that she hadn’t worried about herself that much because she spent her lifetime taking care of others. Maybe that’s the secret. My running should not be an end but the means to make me healthier physically and more mentally and emotionally at peace so I can do some good in the world. Grandma’s life will have meaning long after her passing into a better world because of her good influence on so many here. She not only endured, but persevered and excelled. And I will too.

Grandma and me about 2007. She passed away in 2009 at age 99.
The next chapter in my Marathon story was previously published here.

1 comment:

  1. Reading your post is making me miss running (and Great Grandma)! About 4 more months and I'll be back in the game.


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