I make it to the mid-day meal most years, but I generally arrive by car, with a pitcher of iced tea and some cut cheeses. Many people arrive at the mid-day meal this way. Citywalk is a tradition that doesn’t just encompass the walking. It encompasses the support team, too, which includes heroes such as Bri’s parents who responded to a six in the morning phone call with a pot of coffee and trays of baked goods. Heroes such as Leora and Eric, who were in charge of pick up for when people had had enough, as well as periodic check ups and water refill spots. Also, Appa the dog, who walked with us and lended an exuberant air of “OH MY GOD CAN YOU BELIEVE WE GET TO GO FOR THIS GREAT WALK I LOVE WALKING WE ARE SO LUCKY!!!!” that was badly needed.
That said Appa brought a distinct downside with him, as a big part of walking city walk as a female is spending many hours trying to pretend you don’t have to pee. Appa the dog did a lot of flaunting his freewheeling peeing ability.
Gary joined us, too, clearing Anthony to continue walking on his injured knee, and even walking alongside us all for an hour.
I have always been a part of the support team, for city walk. Even this time, I only joined because Anthony wanted me to. My plan was to walk with him until he tapped out.
We’d discussed other possibilities of course… If one of us couldn’t go on but the other wanted to finish, they should. If we both finished, Anthony was to cross the finish line first. But these were just theoretical ideas, because in City Walk’s 24 year history, nobody has ever finished alongside Mike. The realistic projection would be that I’d tap out with Anthony sometime before noon, then return again late at night for the post-sunset hours that are so gruelling, to walk beside Mike and offer upbeat chatter.
My primary support skill is upbeat chatter. I excrete more of it than Appa does urine.
But, at noon, Anthony was still going strong. And so was I, which is kind of miraculous because I do not do the sports. I do the lunch. I show up with extra pairs of socks and yell encouraging things and post on Facebook from the sidelines.
It’s not just about the sports, either. I am not the one with the career—I am the one who takes care of the kids and cooks supper (but only on the nights without guests). I am the one who volunteers on the campaign… but without a central role. I am the one who runs crowdfunding campaigns for projects that are not mine.
I am support staff.
It did not occur to me that I might be more than that, until James asked me, over lunch, how far I was planning to try for. In my brain a tiny Liz stood up, stomped her feet and howled “ALL THE WAY, MOTHERF—" which surprised the heck out of me, because I did not know that tiny howling Liz existed. Or had been in there training this whole time. I told her to sit back down and be realistic.
At around the thirty kilometre mark, David had started taking off his socks at each stretch break, and tending to worn patches of skin. By 40 kilometres, Mike was starting to give David and Bri the speech about respecting your body’s limits, and feeling proud of making a good showing. Mike, who has walked with many, many aspiring finishers, can tell when the end is nigh. And he knows how to turn “tapping out” into a moment of triumph. We walk side by side, but each person is running their own race.
Sometime shortly before the 45 km mark, amid fist bumps and cheers, Bri and David piled into the support car.
And Anthony looked up at me with wide eyes, and whispered “I‘ve beaten David’s record!”.
Of my four sons, Anthony is--to this day--the leader (nobody had, of course, beaten Bri’s record).
Every step Anthony took was propelling him farther into uncharted territory of GrootJames family legacy.
But every step was getting harder, too.
“There reaches a point,” Mike said to Anthony, “Where you have to be really grateful to your body. You have to recognize the amazing things it has done, and take care of it like it has taken care of you.”
He inserted this casually into conversation, but I could see him quietly changing the shape of his encouragement from “keep going” to “you define your own finish line”.
Sure enough, at the 49 km mark, after walking for 14 hours straight, Anthony made a final entry in his video journal to mark tapping out. After exceeding every single person’s expectations and earning the record position among his brothers, he fist bumped us, grinned at our cheers, and climbed into the car.
“If we hold our pace,” Mike said, “We won’t finish until three in the morning. I’m not walking that late.”
I realized what a terrible support team I’d been. Without all of us, Mike would have made way better time.
“I can walk without you, if you want to go on ahead,” I said. Mike shook his head no.
“The thing is,” I said, red faced with exhaustion and self-consciousness, “I want to… try to finish.”
“Want me to post to Facebook for people to walk with me, if you can’t walk any more once it gets late?” I asked, misinterpreting his limping as the beginnings of his defeat.
Mike gave a shout of laughter, and told me how much he loved my arrogance.
I don’t generally think of myself as arrogant, but I decided to pretend that I was. It gave me something to do other than whine about my painful hips—an activity that had become a lot less satisfying since Mike had started using the lap function of his Apple Watch to log how often I complained about things.
“Liz,” Mike said. “You’ve supported me year after year. The least I can do is keep walking with you.”
Then it hit me. I wasn’t being the Worst Support Person ever. I wasn’t being a Support Person at all.
I was being a Racing Person.
And it felt fabulous. Almost fabulous enough to allow me to ignore the pain on the bottom of my feet that marked the beginnings of blisters. Not little, inconvenient ones, but searing ones that force you to adjust your gate until your muscles give out. We stopped, and I tinkered with my socks. Unable to slow the forming of the blisters, I instead busied myself with trying to figure out how to turn them into a metaphor.
This was not as effective as I'd hoped. My limping worsened.
“You’ve covered a huge amount of distance today,” Mike began. “And it’s important to be grateful to your body for—“
I cut him off with a hoot of laughter.
“You’re preparing me for my own failure” I said. He laughed, and nodded. Then, he took exception with my definition of the word “failure”.
“How long do you think I have left?” I asked him.
“A maximum of 10 k, if you’re lucky.” He said. My heart sank. We had well over twenty left to go.
But I wasn’t tapping out yet. We were just getting to the most beautiful part—my lovely riverbank. Because the edges of city reach far beyond the last bridge, there is a good ten kilometres where we walk into the city along one bank, cross the bridge, then retrace our steps on the other side to get back to the same point.
“Hey, look” Mike gestured to the left, to a construction zone that stretched down to the river. It was abandoned. Mike’s eyes lit up the way they always do when there is Adventure To Be Had.
You know, the way they lit up before he and Anthony climbed that big hill that Anthony fell off of and injured his knee on.
“Do you think it’s possible that there’s a way across?” he asked.
I did not. But, since Mike had stuck by every last one of us, the least I could do was roll the dice with him on the outside chance that there might be. Even though it meant travelling a massive distance out of our way, I rallied for my brother in law.
(Note: I went back later and checked, and the massive distance was about a hundred feet).
Ahem. I will not go into the boring details of this part of the story. I will not explain exactly how we got across the water without doing the massive step retracing into the city, because who did what or what the legalities of it were are not the point of my story.
What matters is that about five minutes later, Mike and I stood on the opposite bank with our jaws hanging open at our good luck. And with a good couple of hours taken off of our time.
My feet began to experience Faith Healing (the Atheist version, anyway). Seriously. In those magical last 15 k, it felt like God was steps ahead of us, removing obstacles and forging just the right path just as we needed it. With each tiny miracle, I felt like I was supposed to finish this walk. And that growing conviction began to transform me, step by step, into a person who might be able to do it.
We walked in silence for a while.
Mike maintains that there was no expanse of silence, but I know there was.
I walked thinking about how, for all of my life, I have told myself a story that I am the support team. The story that I am not the type to run in the race. I know my place.
Well, I did know my place. Until I lost it. Until I was not sure who I was, if I didn’t define myself by who I was supporting. Until I couldn’t find my footing, and everything felt like a poor fit, grating on a raw blister.
What if I didn’t lose my place? What if my place was just changing? What if blisters don't mean broken? What if blisters show the spots where you're getting stronger?
“I’m really struggling,” Mike said at around the 60 km mark, shaking his legs to try and reboot them.
“Are you going to make it?” I asked, stunned with the idea that maybe Mike’s body, too, had limits. But… that couldn’t be right.
But, Mike doesn’t struggle. Mike always makes it.
This is the first time it occurred to me that Mike always makes it, but that doesn’t mean he always makes it easily.
What if so many of the struggles aren't the things that prove you aren't a racer? What if they're the things that prove that you are?
What if I finished the walk?
I wondered this pretty much straight, for the last 10k. I wondered it as we walked up to the finish line--David and Bri's house where Eric and Anthony were sleeping over. (I'd envisioned a triumphant finish line crossing, but everyone had gone to bed at 7:30 because they’d walked more than 40k that day and by some peoples’ standards that’s a lot of walking).
What if I finished the walk? I was still wondering this, as I drove home in the dark. The fact that I'd done it didn't compute, even as I held the knowledge tightly in my chest like a happy glowing ball, that proved... what?
What if I finished the walk? What would that mean?
Well, I began to realize, it would mean that I hadn't been right about the stories I'd told myself about where I belonged, and what I could and couldn't do.
What if I finished the walk? I wondered, days later, as I began to submit article proposals that I'd previously not even considered reaching for.
What if I'm... a... kinda audacious person? Sometimes?
I am going to make t-shirts with the "City Walk 2019" logo. They will be great for this year, and for next year.
Underneath the logo, they're going to say "The blisters show the spots where you're getting stronger".