What a day—I flew overnight from New York to Belgium and was transported by bus to the Intermezzo Music Festival. After helping some fellow students carry their very heavy luggage up many stairs to our rooms (an act of kindness my legs would soon regret), we all went to explore the charming town of Bruges on this lovely estival Sunday morning.
We soon found Old Town and was drawn to a large crowd congregating in front of an immense medieval Cathedral: the Bruges Marathon was just about to begin. Trying to impress the pretty students, I thought "This sounds fun! No matter that I didn't really eat or sleep last night on the flight, or that I've never ran more than five or six miles my life--it can't be that hard!". The girls agreed to meet me at the finish line; I ran home and back to change (another mile at least!), quickly paid and registered, and made it just in time to join the race at the very back of 1,750 competitors. I asked someone next to me how far it was, but he only said "10"....I didn't know if he meant meant miles, or kilometers. or the percent chance he thought I could finish, but the start signal sounded and we all began running! I hoped maybe it was 10 kilometers which was easy; I sprinted past everybody and was soon in the lead pack of about 100 runners.
The streets were lined with people from the whole city, cheering and yelling, drumming and dancing, and handing out water. After a while, maybe thirty minutes, there was a big sign with the number 5. I didn't know for sure what it meant: 5K line, 5 mile line, or 5 of either left in the race, but I just smiled and ran faster--I had hardly broken a sweat and I wanted to WIN!!
The marker numbers ascended at intervals that seemed to be 8-9 minutes (I was singing my piano pieces in my head to keep rhythm) so I figured these must be mile markers after all. I was still passing most people, but by now my legs were really starting to burn from the lactic acid. However, I saw marker 9 ahead so I sprinted again. I could hear screaming and yelling ahead and it felt great.
Finally! I passed the 10 marker!! I was completely exhausted but finished running a ten mile race and did great!!!...but nothing happened. Everybody around me kept running. I suddenly realized with acute hopelessness that what I had breezily calculated were miles were merely kilometers; of course there wouldn't be Mile markers in Europe! I had no idea how much longer this race would be...
I almost died. My legs were locked up and my head pounded from dehydration, but mostly my spirit sank. Every second I wanted to give up but couldn't bear the shame, because 1: there were plenty of older runners ahead of me, 2: maybe the girls were still waiting at the finish line, 3: I knew that if I stopped running my legs would hurt even more, and 4: besides all that, I was stuck way out in the countryside of Belgium somewhere. As many of the runners I had previously passed overran me, my shame ebbed and surrendered to my fear for survival: I have no food in me, I shouldn't have carried all that luggage up the stairs, I didn't drink any water, I have no idea how much farther this race will go, my joints are destroying cartilage by the second, I just have to stop, I have no energy left...
But suddenly I remembered!!! My sweet wife Megan cooked me a big fat ribeye just a day ago, before the flight from New York!!! I could feel distinctly the rich iron steak starting to flow through my blood. It was a Miracle from Heaven. It was The Terminator finding an alternate power source. It was Rocky at the Philadelphia Art Museum. It was the Finale of Mahler Second. It was the fabled Second Wind.
My pace began to increase, and I will never forget how inspiring a few words of compassionate encouragement from friendly Belgians running nearby meant at the time. My legs were still paralyzed with pain, and my parched throat could hardly breathe, I could hardly breathe with a parched throat, and some of the better runners were sprinting way past me, but I ran as fast as I could, and could see the markers increasing 13, 14, 15... --
I finally passed the finish line! The crowd cheered--for everybody, but in my delirium it sure felt just for me. My friends had long since left, but I met the MC. When I told her I was from New York, she invited me the award stand and told my story to the audience -- It was my first race running with professionals, I had entered on a whim after flying all night, and for fun they awarded me an honorary medal for being the Fastest American Runner in the Guldensporen 10 Mijl van Vlaanderen with a time of 1'20" (which solved my mystery: it was about 8 minutes a mile and there were 16 markers for each kilometer.)
It sure felt great to be honored so kindly on my first day in such a beautiful city as Bruges. Later that night at the Intermezzo Music Festival opening dinner, I was introduced as the pianist and tried to tell my story---but I could hardly stand up and had to walk without bending my knees, and so my name was Michael Frankenstein all summer.
I've never since began an endeavor without at at least asking what the goal is, but I did learn that when it seems impossible to go on, just keep running!!!