Disaster in Detriot

“I hope this email finds you well…”

Such simple words, glowing off a dimmed laptop screen. I already knew what the rest of the email would say. The startling, terrifying events of the previous weekend were burned into my mind. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Just one nice, easy marathon to end the year of running that had already been so immeasurably epic and memorable.

Motown.

The sight of its skyline was once so familiar to me, as I had traversed the Ambassador bridge countless times between Michigan and Canada. This time was going to be different. All of those other times I had covered the distance in my car. This time, thanks to the Detroit Free Press Marathon, I’d make the journey to Windsor and back on foot. The idea of running across an international border was incredibly exciting to me. Living my new life as a flight attendant, fitting training into an absurdly undulating schedule can be insane, and I knew I wasn’t anywhere near the condition I’d been in a year before. I knew I’d not even get within a half hour of sniffing the back end of my PR. Still, it seemed like fun and a good way to end things. What awaited me was another thing entirely.

The weekend was going exceptionally well. I’d successfully managed to have enough time off to visit my little bro and the family in Windsor before the race, and when I say it was a blast, I mean really. Hard to believe a year can go by so fast. There was so much catching up to do. Everyone grows up so fast. Then it was back to Detroit to pick up my sister from the airport and head to packet pickup.img_5564

Our visit to the expo was a pretty nice one. One of the highlights to me was stopping by the booth for the USAF Marathon. My sister had run it just a month or so earlier, and I had volunteered at one of the aid stations. One of the people in charge of logistics was there, and we had a great time recounting the highs and lows of the event. As it turned out, he eventually recalled that he’d seem me. It was hard to miss me. I was doing anything and everything to get folks to take my water rather than anyone else’s. Trash talking, dancing, singing…it was a riot.

I really appreciate the moments I get to give back to the running community.

The next morning, dark and early, my sister and I headed for downtown. Traffic was abysmal, and pretty soon, she was freaking out about if we’d miss the start of the race. Finding parking in Detroit is bad enough, but add to that the road closures for the race and you have utter chaos. Nevertheless, we found a garage and followed the stream of people to the start line. That’s the thing…no one in their right mind is downtown that early on a Sunday morning unless it’s for a race, so you know where everyone is going.

It was a pretty non-climactic start as races go. They had waves starting every two minutes…but it gets to a point where people are tired of waiting for their wave. By the time the wave in front of ours started, we all just took off with them. The announcer was so confused why this wave was so much bigger. As we made our way down the dark streets, I could still hear him commenting over and over how this wave was never-ending.

The sun couldn’t rise fast enough. The streets were in bad shape. Well, it’s Detroit. I heard a few people behind me eat asphalt in the first mile. Nearly did the same myself. Before long, the massive Ambassador Bridge was in view. You just can’t appreciate how big and long it is until you’re on foot. It’s about a linear mile, end to end. The Canadian Border Patrol was so friendly, cheering for us all and welcoming us to Canada.

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Sunlight in the streets of Windsor, and I was feeling great. Body loose. Breathing smooth. I kept my head up as we turned a corner, and I saw a most beautiful sight…a Motor City sunrise. I just kept thinking to myself, “It’s a good day.” The forecast had a lot of us worried for the weekend, but what was once slated to be a miserable and wet day was looking beautiful. I struck up a conversation with a random guy all through windsor. He’d been running marathons for close to 20 years. We traded race stories and cracked jokes. Those people are the best. They keep your mind off the miles. Back through the tunnel to Detroit was tough. That gradual incline and the stifling lack of oxygen gets to you after a while.

Right near the middle of the tunnel someone had collapsed. There was a small group around the runner trying to help. Talk about the worst possible place to go down. Thankfully a bike patroller rolled by and then sped off for help. Nearing mile 8, as I was coming out of the tunnel on the US side, the CBP officers were running in with their gear. I took the first gasp of fresh air I’d had in a while, I hoped all was well with the downed runner.

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My fan club…Dad and Mom on the course.

To this point, I was ahead of the 4:20 pacer. “Just stay with them for the first half,” I told myself. I knew it wasn’t realistic to keep it the whole way, but I knew I’d get a half out. Sure enough, right around the 13-14 mile point, my legs told me it was time to gear down and lock in for the worst half of the course. The last half is usually rough for any marathon just because of how depleted your body gets after that distance and level of exertion. This race was doubly so. All the highlights of crossing borders are done, and you head out into a less populated stretch, capped off by trip to Belle Isle, where there’s literally NO ONE there to get you pumped aside from a single water station.

I wasn’t feeling great. Usually I’m a lot more jovial, joking with other runners out there and such. Something was different today. Something just wasn’t there. I tucked in with the 4:30s for a while and then let them go. The people cheering us on were few, but they were memorable. A man decked out in purple shouting to us and playing some Prince hits on a big speaker. Some people dancing Polka and handing out beer. And of course, there was the “wall” some folks had build with a little door we could run through as they told us not to hit the wall.

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The weather was turning sour quickly. Clouds filled the sky and a breeze kicked up. As I headed for the island, and steady drizzle set in. Twenty-two miles done. Just four more. The island water station was coming into view,

and that’s when it happened.

It started as just a little wavering feeling inside. I’d been pushing myself a lot, just telling myself anything and everything I thought I needed to hear. It was working, for the most part, but this feeling was different. Something was telling me to stop, but I didn’t want to. I’m all about a strong mind and I willed myself to keep moving. Then it hit me. It’s like when you’re trying not to cry and get a lump in your throat, but it was monumental. I went from full stride to a dead stop, instantaneously suffocating. I was doubled over; every breath in was like trying to inhale through a straw with a slab of concrete sitting on it. And the sound…the screeching, wheezing sound alone frightened me. Panic rushed through my body as my heart rate raced and each breath did less for me than the last one did.

I’ve done a lot of running in a lot of conditions…but even running full speed at 14,000 feet was nothing compared to this. I struggled to remain calm, which is saying a lot. I have not known a fear like this in life. There weren’t many runners around. A few slowed down to ask if I was ok. I couldn’t even respond. I couldn’t move. I have no idea how long I stood there. Slowly, the excruciating tightness around my throat loosened. I staggered to the water station.

Less than 4 miles to go. I started crunching numbers. How hard can I run? How hard dare I run? How long before I’m sure that if this happens again they can reach me in time? And then it started pouring. Soaked from head to toe, I started slogging the miles again. It was slow. It was painful. And always in the back of my head: the frightening thought that this could happen again at any second. I just wanted to be out of there. I’ve never wanted so desperately to be done with a race.

Purple Rain man appeared again, shouting encouragement. I tried to muster a smile, or the similitude of one. Each mile was an eternity. As the course ran it’s way beside the water and the skyline stretched itself from the horizon, as runners, old and young, passed me, as my lungs heaved and my heart raced another man was standing there. “Just like that!” he called out. “Keep that pace. Don’t go faster. Don’t go slower. Just keep the pace!” I wanted to cry. I have never run a longer mile and a half.

A final water station came into view. I didn’t dare to stop. I had to finish this. Half a mile to go, I saw my parents to the left side. I tried to put on a smile for them, but I didn’t have one. I didn’t have anything. All that filled my mind was one singular thought, one sole purpose. Cross that line. Now.

I felt it coming back.

I tried to fight the panicked fear that was beginning to grip me again. I couldn’t breathe. Again. The cramps I’d been fighting those last 5 miles were exacerbated by the lack of oxygen. The stride became a limp. I was barely aware of anything around me. I couldn’t even see the finish line in front of me. My throat locked. My quads stalled. My heart dropped. Doubled over. Blind. All I could do was hear people shouting louder and louder. Then there was a hand and a voice. I don’t even know what the voice said. But arms wrapped around me and raised me up.

I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t breathe. And from nothing came the machine. Movement. A shuffle. One foot and then another. It was weak and vacillating…more focused on maintaining an upright balance than fixed on a finish line…and not even doing that well. And then even that wasn’t enough. I fell to the ground. That was it. Fully emptied both of strength and will. Another stranger came to my other side. The two of them lifted me aright once more. Lifted again, my legs did what I have always forced them to do. Move forward. I couldn’t support my own weight, but I could still move forward.

img_9948I have no memory of the finish line. A wheelchair raced me from there to a medical tent. I don’t remember much of that either. Still gasping for breath, I tried to find words to explain I had never experienced this before and that it had just hit me, inexplicably, just a few miles earlier. I blacked out. I have no idea how long. And then there was my sister. I was breathing again. Soon I found my legs again, and they carried me out to find the rest of my family. I walked back up to the finish line to get my finisher’s medal. In the back of my head, I wondered what had become of the strangers that carried me those final feet.

A week later, I had an email…

“Hi Benjamin,

I hope this email finds you well.”

Her name was Andrea. She was the first to come to my side. She had been worried over what had become of me, and with the help of her sister, they tracked down Jim. He was the second to aid me. He also sent me an email. They’d looked at finisher photos to find his bib number and contacted him. He was then able to look through pictures his wife had taken to find my bib number which was obscured by the arms holding me up in the finisher photos.

img_5566People wonder why I run.

I don’t know what to tell them. Then, there are moments like this one. This is why I run. We are all strangers. Different genders, ages, races, cultures, religions, political views…different everything. But when we’re out there, no one gives a damn about any of that. We’re all a part of something bigger. The running community is a beautiful thing. It is a family, and we look out for each other. Andrea and Jim, perfect strangers, had my back that soggy day. That’s why I do this. When I’m out there, I’m giving. And when I’ve given my all and there is nothing left, there’s always someone else giving too. That’s what it’s all about. Giving. In this day and age, that’s a rare and beautiful thing.

7 comments

  1. Oh, Benjamin! What an amazing story of courage, determination and friendship. You gave it your all. You did your very best. You finished the course. Well done! You are an inspiration and a blessing to so many of us.

  2. Wow from a non-runner but have more appreciation after reading your story. God bless and keep you and all the runners safe~

  3. This was amazingly touching. Faith in our fellow man is difficult to find oft times, but incidents of this magnitude restore hope.

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