I hardly recognize myself.

I think that’s a good thing.

I have been writing, re-writing and editing this post in fits and bursts for the last four months.

——

My life is so very different from what it was six months ago.

On Sunday, May 6th, I participated in the Walk for Hunger. The Walk is a 20-mile route, open to all walkers regardless of the amount of funding raised, meant to increase awareness of the problem of hunger in Massachusetts. Official statistics tell me that I was one of 43,000 people who walked at least part of the 20 miles. The donations I collected online, for which I thank each and every one of you, contributed to the $3.6 million raised to fund meal programs and food banks in my community.

My goal for the walk was to get as far as possible before my legs, which had only managed to work up to a six-mile walk before the 6th, simply gave up and detached themselves from my body. I figured on that happening at, roughly, mile 10. I spent the vast majority of my time in the two weeks leading up to the event warning my teammates that they had better plan on dragging me.

I started out of the Boston Common with a handful of coworkers and acquaintances at 9 in the morning. We all walked together for five miles, which wasn’t so bad. We chatted, we joked, we stepped along purposefully and kept an eye out for all of the signs strung up along the walk route, which volunteers had painted and walkers were in the process of constantly signing and drawing on. We wove in and out of other groups of walkers to grab cups of water and get stamps on our pamphlets at the checkpoint stations. We bounced our heads to the barbershop quintet, the yodelers, the classical string sextet, and the other musicians who were scattered along the road.

By mile seven, my muscles definitely wanted frequent stretching but the throbbing I was expecting didn’t appear. Three of us stumbled uphill forever through Newton, a stretch of about four miles that seemed to defy the laws of physics. [Oh my god, who designed Newton? It goes on forever. There is no respite. My personal hell has been discovered and it is the endless uphillness of Newton, Massachusetts. The laws of physics say no. It’s like the entire state of Pennsylvania – sooner or later, you HAVE to go downhill! Physics says so! Not so in Pennsylvannia!! Not so in Newton!!!]

At the halfway-ish point (between 9.5 and 10 miles), one of my remaining teammates had to leave to go be in a wedding. Another who had slept past her alarm got a later start than the rest of the group and had been trying to catch up with us for the entire morning, so I made an executive decision to rest and wait for her before striking out again with my other teammate, whom I had met only three days before and for just long enough to exchange greetings and say, “Absolutely, you can walk with us!” When the truant found us, my sense of relief at having a familiar face to encourage me swelled. It immediately stuttered and failed when she informed me that she’d agreed to walk 10 miles and then return to the Boston Common to help out another coworker who was in charge of one of the volunteer tents.

It was the most demoralizing moment of the entire day.

I continued walking, more than somewhat awkwardly, with someone with whom I had only the barest of associations.  My social anxiety kept rearing its heinous head – there I was, in a crowd of thousands, doing something entirely alien to my usual existence, trying to remember if I’d put sunblock on my nose, wondering if I was making a terrible mistake in wearing the sneakers I’d bought five days beforehand, debating the merits of pausing and giving my feet time to swell while I wrapped my ankle in a bandage, trying to make small talk with someone I hardly knew, and the only thought I could really focus on was this stranger simply cannot be allowed to walk farther than me.

Mile 11.5 was the refueling stop. We sat and rested and ate freely provided sandwiches (read: a slice of American cheese, two slices of bread, cut in half, each half wrapped separately). We stretched, we stared at the sky, we thought about our options very, very carefully. He went home. I got up and continued to walk.

I can’t say what I expected to feel. I don’t remember my legs hurting terribly at that point, although I suspect that the pain receptors in my brain had been mostly overwritten by the euphoric haze of not bowing out before anyone else on my team, which was, frankly, an epic victory. It was at least another full mile before I realized that my left knee didn’t really want to straighten all the way, and hey, that kind of hurt. Another half mile or so down the road and I realized that I had blisters and they were speaking to me. I stopped, stretched, and decided to get to the next checkpoint before making any decisions.

As I passed the sign for Mile 14, the pain in my legs and feet went away completely. I realize now that this was probably a sign that my nervous system was shutting down in self-defense as my body reacted to the strain. I can still clearly hear the beats laid out by a drumming group near the checkpoint – with the pain out of the way, that thump-th-th-thump was free to invade and latch onto the section of my brain that was responsible for motor control.

I was a walking machine. With the new-found freedom and clarity of thought permitted by that fabulous drum line, I was able to finally lift my eyes up from the ground and take a look around. The crowd had thinned considerably but there was still a steady stream of moving bodies that stretched on into infinity in either direction. I was shocked and delighted to recognize a quartet of walkers I had noted with delight way back at the start line – Waldo, a giant chicken, Gumby, and a gorilla carrying a boombox. I drifted toward them in a completely nonchalant and totally noncreepy way and stuck as close to them as I could for the next couple of miles, letting the drums in my head change beat just enough to mesh with the Spanish techno radio station blaring from the gorilla’s stereo.

Feeling returned just before Mile 18.

Feeling sucks.

[[My true thoughts on the return of physical sensation at this interval have been redacted so that my mother will not yell at me. Feel free to fill in the blanks.]]

I realized that I was moving in a funny sort of duck waddle that rolled my weight around the acres of spongy, pain-laced blisters on my feet and kept my left knee locked in an unnatural curve. I forced myself to straighten my gait and ignored what I was sure was the feeling of blisters forming on my blisters. I lost the rhythm in my head and stared blindly ahead. I refused to let myself limp and I jerked my eyes back to the ground in front of my feet every time I realized that I was searching for the greenery of the Boston Common, which was impossibly far away, back on the other side of the Charles River.

Mile 19 marked the beginning of the Mass Ave bridge, euphoria, a premature feeling of accomplishment, and delirium. Delicious, delicious delirium. I knew I was grasping at shadows but the loss of the drumbeat had left me feeling bereft and I found myself directing an inordinate amount of brainpower to reworking the lyrics to “Doin’ It All for My Baby”:

Doin’ it all for my sehhhh-helf // ‘Cause I’m as fine as I can be! // Doin’ it all for my sehhh-helf // For everything I do for me!

I celebrated my conquest of the smoots by grinning like a madwoman at all the cars packed into the streets on the Boston side of the bridge. There were event volunteers stationed along the greenway of Commonwealth Avenue, volunteers who waved and cheered and handed out paper cups filled with orange quarters. I have to be honest – those were quite possibly the best oranges I have ever tasted in my entire life. They tasted of refreshment and victory.

I have walked the route from Kenmore Square to the Boston Common many, many times. Never have I been so fervently giddy while doing so! The ache in my knee was breathtaking and my feet hurt so badly that with every step I started watching for traces of blood squeezing out of my shoes, I was sunburned and exhausted to the point of tears. When I passed near a couple enjoying their oranges, I overheard the girl say, “Aren’t you glad we did this? I am so glad we did this!”

I couldn’t have agreed more.

I crossed the finish line onto the Boston Common, vision narrowed to focus on the tent housing the last checkpoint. The volunteer I stumbled up to grinned at me and offered a hearty, “You made it!” I grinned back, elated, as I collected my final checkpoint stamp and completion certificate. I stepped away and turned to survey the Common, thinking how nice it would be to have the energy to go join in the celebrations and activities still swarming the hill. I waved to an acquaintance at the tent my coworkers were managing but hobbled to the subway instead.

I was wearing the Walk for Hunger team shirt we’d designed, carrying a little sack filled with water bottles and extra socks, clutching my certificate to my chest and limping severely and I was surprised and thrilled at all of the encouraging smiles I received from other passengers and passersby. Even the bus driver in Somerville, a member of a breed of people who rarely offers anything other than scowls and scorn, grinned at me as he drove right up to the curb and lowered the bus carriage as if I were a grandmother.

When I finally reached my apartment, I had to crawl upstairs to my bedroom. The tears started coming as I gained the top landing and batted open my bedroom door. The hysterical laughter began as I leveraged myself into a hunched position and fell onto my bed. I lay there, gasping in pain and euphoria, tears streaming from my eyes, with one thought running through my mind: I did it!!

When I had gathered enough energy to wiggle around, I plugged my phone in to charge. I had had the brilliant idea of using an app to track my distance and the battery had given out just before the 11-mile mark. I booted it up to discover a flurry of text messages from family, friends and coworkers, all of which encouraged me on or congratulated me for pushing through to the end.

I called my mother. I don’t remember much of the conversation, except that there were laughter, congratulations and the ever-present tears involved. I’m sure there was also a fair amount of profanity on my part, because those are the only words I can think of, even now, to describe the both the physical agony and the emotional triumph I was experiencing. My mother, bless her, does not seem to have held my impropriety against me.

I spent the entire evening, up until the point I completely passed out, vacillating between tears and laughter in a prime demonstration of hysteria. At one point I slithered from my bed and dragged myself to the bathroom. This was true, visceral dragging. My legs refused to work even enough to allow a crawl. I have no memory of how I managed to get into the tub, although I suspect that it involved some blinding pain. I distinctly recall punching the surface of the water and shrieking, through my tears, “I did it! I walked 20 miles! I [[effing]] did it!!”

And I did. I walked 20 miles. I did it all on my own. I did it with my own thoughts, worries, fears and goals to accompany me. I did it without the distraction of an iPod, a podcast, or a conversation partner. I had no one to vent my complaints to, no one to tell me how tired they were, but I also had no one to urge me on.

Even now, several months later, I remember the sympathetic and amazed expressions I encountered at work the next day. No one, including myself, seemed to believe that I had managed to make it in. In fact, I had nearly missed the bus to the office but the driver caught sight of my rocking, inching hobble and mercifully stopped in the middle of a street to allow me to clamber on. Over the course of that day, the conversations I had about the walk did more to diminish my lingering physical pain than the copious amounts of ibuprofen I was consuming. Every congratulatory comment or sympathetic glance when I rubbed at an ache filled me with fiery joy.

A 20-mile walk? I did it because I could. Because I could. And no one can take that away from me. When my old inadequacies rear their heads, I find myself hitting back, rather than shrinking from my fears. I’m going to look silly walking down the street like this and people are going to laugh at me, the thoughts come. Then my victory crows, “This?! This is a body that has walked 20 miles! LET THEM LOOK!!”

I have a level of confidence, now, that I never would have imagined I was capable of. I’m likely to look at a challenge, whether physical or emotional, and decide that it’s no problem when compared to a 20-mile walk. I have endurance, determination and motivation, and I have proved such beyond any doubt. I was walking for a cause, to raise awareness of an issue that has, thankfully, never touched me, and I have been rewarded with more than a sense of compassion. The Walk for Hunger has fed my psyche as well as my desire to participate, in some little way, in my community. The walk devoured my doubts, my belief that I could never participate in a physical challenge. I’m still overweight, out of shape, asthmatic, and given to bouts of lethargy, but I no longer care so much how I measure up in comparison to other people on the street. I’d like to see them walk 20 miles!

Since the walk, life has brought its usual bevy of strife and disappointment, delight and fun. I’ve certainly had dark days of depression to contrast my periods of self-fulfillment and good cheer. The difference, now, is that when I falter and sulk and feel gloomy, I can look up at my bedroom wall to my framed Walk for Hunger display – my registration sticker, completion certificate, and checkpoint roster, which I bloody well framed – and remember that I can, in fact, do the impossible.

After all, it’s only impossible if you never try.

Starting saving up, folks. I’m going to do the Walk for Hunger again.

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4 thoughts on “I hardly recognize myself.

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