••• The International Writers Magazine: Life with Tyrel Nelson
From 36 to 63
One of the first things I did after turning 36 was pull a hamstring. In an attempt to prove to myself and my softball teammates that I hadn’t lost a step, I tried to shift into a higher gear while rounding the bases. I ended up a peg leg instead.
Sixteen days later, I am pacing back and forth in a park reserve. The Saturday morning sun shines bright. The fall colors are on the verge of peaking. My T-shirt and wind pants are the perfect attire on this 19th day of September. Many would say the conditions are ideal for a 5k, but I am preoccupied. I never train very seriously for road races — a few jogs rotated with a few hot yoga sessions at most. I wasn’t able to do much, however, besides go on short walks with the aid of a brace. So my endurance isn’t where I’d like it to be. And although my hammy has improved significantly since I gimped off the softball diamond, it remains quite tight.
Then again, nothing is going to stop me. Not only is this event to raise money and awareness for pancreatic cancer, but the 5k is also a way to honor survivors as well as those who have died from the disease. I have to do this for Dad, who passed away four and a half years ago.
I try to do some last-second stretches while the crowd thickens. I reach for my toes and come nowhere close. I stand up to notice my fiancée’s smirk. She puts her forearm on my shoulder. She stretches her quad.
“Will the faster runners please come to the front?” a man with a mic requests.
“Are you ready?” Alyssa asks.
“I guess we’ll see,” I sigh.
“You’re gonna do great,” she encourages. “You should get up there.”
I take a deep breath. I give her a kiss and make for the starting line.
“Open it up, Nelson!” Alyssa shouts.
The announcer’s countdown hits zero, and I begin at half speed. The ultra-tight wrap on my hamstring seems to be working, so I pick up the pace about a quarter mile in. I glide by several participants and fall in behind the handful of leaders. I fear that twinge I had in my left leg a couple weeks back, so I stay at three-quarter speed, which is fast enough for me to pass a couple more.
I am in fourth place by the first mile marker. My adrenaline is flowing, and I feel like I can run forever. My breathing is steady, my strides quick and light. I hit the hills of the winding course at nearly full tilt. I cruise by another person and key on the guy in second. He approaches a tiny table (the midpoint), which is an odd sight in the center of this vast woodland. He swipes a cup from the young man manning the station.
I reach the volunteer roughly thirty seconds later. The flyer ahead of me took water, so I figure it couldn’t hurt. I slow down to grab some. But I am not used to drinking and running. I struggle to swallow half the cup; the rest splashes over my face. I feel the water swish in my stomach almost immediately. I get sluggish.
I am in a bad place by the second mile marker. My perspiration is flowing, and I feel like I haven’t run in forever. My breathing is heavy, and the sprinter in second is nowhere in sight. I hear distant footsteps. I look over my shoulder to spot the last dude I passed. He’s gaining on me, and if I continue this nosedive, he’ll soon regain third. My competitiveness takes over. I get mad. I promise myself that, no matter what, I will not be caught.
I manage to recapture momentum. Even though I stare at the trail, my mind wanders off it. Gasping and heart pounding provide the soundtrack to a reel of my father. Scrolling down memory lane, I recall how he gave everything his all—I imagine him telling me to do the same in this race. I also remember him sick in bed, telling me how he wished he could help me with the chores around his place. Then I think of those currently stricken with cancer, and how they’d probably give anything to simply run again. A burst of speed comes on.
I am still in third by the third mile marker. A woman, who is standing next to the sign, claps loudly.
“You’re almost there!” she cheers.
I open it up. All I hear is wheezing during the final tenth of a mile. Tears begin to form. All I see is a distant balloon arch jolting up and down with my stomps. A yellow tent develops in the corner of my eye. I focus on the vertical “FINISH” banner next to the canopy. I can just about touch it! I lunge.
“Nice finish!” an onlooker screams.
I stumble for a lengthy stretch until I finally find my balance. Hands behind my noggin, I plod beyond the finish line, taking in as much air as possible. A lady suddenly appears.
“You placed third overall,” she says. “Congratulations!”
She gives me a bronze medal. A faint “thank you” is all I can muster. We pose for a picture. The lady suddenly disappears.
Proudly wearing my prize around my neck, I stand to the side of the archway to wait for Alyssa. I recognize her easy strides after a short while. I anticipate the explosion.
“C’mon Alyssa!” I yell.
She opens it up. Her smooth gait turns into a gallop. Her eyes burn holes through those in front of her. She pumps her arms with all her might. She looks powerful, twice as fast as the few people she passes. She crosses the line with a full head of steam. I meet her after her wheels stop spinning.
“Way to go!” I exclaim while giving Alyssa a high five.
“You too,” she replies, nodding towards my chest. “I knew you could do it!”
The next morning I wake up relieved. Even though my hammy is still tight, there is no additional pain. I mosey to the couch. I sip my coffee in comfortable silence. Reflecting upon yesterday, I eventually get up to fetch my hardware.
I lift the medal off my dad’s picture frame. I turn it over and over again in my hand. A strange mix of satisfaction and sadness hits me. There’s no doubt Pop would have been proud.
He also would have been 63 today.
© Tyrel Nelson February 2017
tyreln at gmail.com
Minnesota native Tyrel Nelson teaches Spanish and English in the Twin Cities. He and his wife, Alyssa, are always looking for their next adventure abroad.
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