His coach always said, “You make your best strides in sand, not on the track.”
As often as possible, Ben’s training included runs at Pine Island. The area just off the ocean provided him the softest, whitest sun-bleached sand to run on; challenging him with steep, wind-carved dunes that beat any stadium steps. The sand wasn’t easy to run on — well, “in” — since it’s softened dryness swallowed every footstep. His feet sank deep, forcing his weary legs to burn lactic acid as he sought to yank them free for another step.
It wasn’t just the great workouts that Pine Island provided. The location gave him the solitude he needed ever since his mother had died. Breast cancer. Amy’s struggle to fight the disease for nearly a year had both tortured and inspired Ben. His mother had been his training partner and coach after he’d left college to take up ultra-distance racing. He watched her retch in agony as chemicals decimated her athletic body. Heard her softly crying at night, in her recliner, blanket wrapped tightly about a body that was crumbling under the weight of treatments, lost income, and ebbing hope.
That was the torture.
The inspiration was gleaned from those rare days when she pulled on her pink running shoes, refusing to allow cancer to steal every instance of good from her life, and ran beside him. They knew those short loops, at a pace microseconds faster than a walk, meant nothing to Ben’s training. But those runs filled him with a resolve, to be as good … no better … than what Amy dreamed for him. She never set outlandish goals for him, nor criticized race results, and not even once did a negative word emerge from her mouth. She filled him with positive reality.
So after Amy had died, Ben took her pink running shoes with him to every workout. If he set out from home, they sat neatly paired on his front steps. When his training took him from home, the brilliant pink shoes hung, or sat, in a spot he knew he would be passing, or returning to. Those months running the Blue Ridge Mountains, the shoes hung from a tree somewhere along his circuitous routes. And in the last two months, as he trained on the sands of Pine Island, the shoes hung on the weathered snow fence. In most cases, no matter where he was – the steep white dunes or sprinting the shoreline – he could see the shoes.
Those pink shoes were a beacon of strength and confidence for Ben. Every time he reached the pinnacle of another dune, he would turn to the shoes and raise his arms in triumph. If he felt his resolve waning, his body growing painfully weary, he would peek at the shoes and mutter in between gulps of sea air, “Okay Mom, I can do more.”
It wasn’t that he needed those shoes to go on, to feel motivation. His mother’s death had certainly hurt, and he thought of her often. But she had stressed, during numerous talks they’d had traveling to and from races, “Ben, I don’t have to be here, beside you, to be with you.”
At times, Ben just shook his head at the simplicity of her rationale. Yeah, I know, Mom,” he mumbled once.
“Ben!” his mother snapped. “When you are out there on the race course, miles from the start or finish line, am I beside you? Huh? Am I?”
“Well no,” he said, “but I know you’re back there, waiting for me to come back.”
“But I’m not there telling you to keep going, to dismiss the negativity, or even to get your butt moving,” she stated. “So if this cancer gets me – and it probably will – I won’t be there.
“But I’ll be here,” she said poking at his head and chest. “There’s nothing I haven’t told you or said to you that’ll need to be said the day after I die. Nothing!”
“You are you because of you,” she added. “You know all I’ve taught you, but you’re great because of you and your strength. Be you and you will succeed.”
The shoes reminded him of that conversation; of his mother’s will to live; her gift of confidence and inspiration. So they went with him; a subtle reminder.
As he stood atop that hill of sand, grinning, he looked toward the fence where brilliant pink flashed in the late-day sun. “Yeah Mom. I’m moving my butt.”