Friday, November 16, 2007

The Theory of Relativity

I was never the best science student. I took two years of it in college - biology and chemistry - before concluding that this particular course of study and I would be acquaintances but never lovers. I could appreciate its precision, work hard at the discipline, but like a pianist who is all thumbs could do a great rendition of 'Heart and Soul' but would never, ever be mistaken for Mozart. I still take pride in understanding the 'Heisenberg Uncertainty Principal'. OK, 'understanding' might be a bit of an overstatement; I can spell 'Heisenberg' as long as I enable spell check, and can remember that it’s a statistical probability of the location of electrons orbiting an atom. Or something like that. I have used it to describe the location of my children during the course of the day: I may not be able to say precisely where they are at any given moment, but I have a pretty good idea. See: esoteric scientific theories do have application in everyday life.

I can barely begin to understand Einstein’s "Theory of Relativity". I know that people often mistake it to mean E=mc^2, which I think – but am not certain – is a product of the theory. I know very broadly that one facet of it is about how time behaves with respect to motion and gravity - or something like that. I turned to Google for a more precise definition and found that the time/gravity behavior – Time Dilation – is a consequence of this theory. This definition, in its simplest form is:

Moving clocks tick slower than an observer's stationary clock

I read this and the first thing that came to mind was: Albert Einstein was full of shit.

I had plenty of proof to contradict his theory.

"Busy" is an understatement of an adjective to describe my typical day. With 3 involved kids, a full-time job, and a husband who frequently travels, my day is thin-sliced into small fragments of time. I know I can fold a load of laundry in 5 minutes, unless its whites. In that case we're talking HOURS of trying to match socks, and that Heisenberg principal comes into play again: I think I know where the match to this sock is… I swear I just saw it in this pile, I know its here somewhere… When I’m on a deadline, I’m praying for another 15 minutes. I race the clock on my morning runs, when I’m hosting book club or a party, or trying to get dinner on the table at a reasonable hour on weeknights. I have more than enough memory to know that when I’m racing through my day, my moving clock – unlike Einstein’s – ticks faster, not slower. When I try and remember moments of my days, they register more like a blurred photograph – the F-stop too wide and the shutter speed too slow - than a discrete image.

Last weekend my dearest friends, Robin and Franny, challenged my crossed-armed certainty of my own theory of relativity when they ran the Richmond Marathon.

I’d signed up for the race – the 30th Anniversary! - the year before, on the same day I’d staggered off the course just shy of mile 18, a victim of dehydration and the unseasonably warm temperatures. While hooked up to my second bag of fluids in the hospital’s ER, I vowed to wreak vengeance on the course the following year. It was not to be: 10 weeks before the race, a pulled hamstring derailed my plans.

Have you ever had this moment of clarity where you realize how lucky you are in one particular aspect of your life? I’ve been blessed in this regard when it comes to friends: I may not have a lot of them, but the ones I have are the best on the planet. I have a handful who are indelibly imprinted on my heart: they know who they are without my telling them. Robin and Franny are two of them.

Robin swore off marathons forever; she’d done many – maybe 10? – and she had convinced herself that she’d done more than her fair share. Franny had done two: we’d been inspired by Robin and vowed to run our own, and trained together and finished the Shamrock Marathon in 2005. We followed up quickly – the three of us – with the 30th anniversary of the Marine Corps Marathon in October of that year. In both events, Franny and I started together but finished apart. As friends, there are few better. Robin is type A++: hardworking, organized, hard-charging, loyal. Franny is equally accomplished but with a different style: gentle, thoughtful, and with the patience of Job. I tease her and say I’m riding her coattails to heaven and I hope like hell they don’t do baggage screening at the pearly gates. She always finds the best in people, and in turn, people see the absolute best in her. These two friends of mine are rarities: without even trying they make everyone around them better.

On race day in Richmond, it was supposed to be Franny and me running this race. With my injury, Franny soldiered on, and Robin stepped up her training to keep her on pace as Franny wanted to qualify for Boston. A week before the marathon, she entered the race to guide Franny through the course. Think of that commitment and friendship: to run 26 miles with your friend for your friend’s sake. It boggles the mind, but is no surprise for those who know Robin.

Days before the race, I agreed to pace Robin’s husband, Carlton, through the 8k race run in conjunction with the marathon. It was loads of fun running with Carlton and their 12-year-old son Michael. I tried my best to navigate them through the crowd of 4,000+ participants. It was a nice change of pace, to be a coach, to think of others and be blissfully unaware of the ticking clock.

After the race and a quick cup of coffee, I ran the several blocks to my car and raced to mile 19.5 all the time thinking I wish I had 15 more minutes. Time was speeding by; I could not be late and let them down. I parked and ran on foot to the agreed upon meeting place. Within 15 minutes, I saw them approach in tandem, stride for stride. Shortly before they reached me, Franny’s brother, Joe, jumped in to accompany his sister; he’d drive in from Washington, DC that morning.

I was screaming and cheering and getting them pumped up. I jumped in with Robin who said Run with me. Franny has Joe. I told her I’d run her to 23, then run with Franny the rest of the way. It was my own way of playing King Solomon for the last 6.2-ish miles. I quizzed her about Franny’s current state: Did you keep her slow for the first few miles? Did she hydrate well? How did she handle the dreaded Lee Bridge? Robin gave me the run-down, and was chatty and smiling. More than once I remarked on how effortless and smooth she was after running 20-something miles. At one point I took a look behind me and Franny and Joe were nowhere to be found. I started to fret. At mile 23, I sent Robin on her way to the finish. The time and miles were flowing by. I had no concerns about her finishing; her stride and mood were light and fluid. I turned around and ran against the flow, cheering the other runners I met Looking good, you’re almost at 23, hang in there, keep it smooth… until I saw Franny and Joe.
Purgatory happens in the latter part of a marathon. The strength of the mind has to overcome the fatigue of the body and when I looked at my dear friend, her face was a study of pain. At mile 23, I re-evaluated Einstein’s – and my own – Theory of Time Dilation. She was moving, but according to my theory, the clock should be moving with equal or faster speed; I should have known better. When you run a marathon and you are beyond mile 20, you don’t so much count down the miles as you do the minutes: 4 miles to go… that’s about X minutes… and suddenly time slows to a crawl.

I join her and Joe. I hear her feet slapping on the pavement and issue my first command: You’re overstriding, shorten it up. Relax your shoulders. Think smooth. I ask her questions and her breathing is labored; she is in the long dark miles. She tells me she can’t really answer and I know what I need to do: distract her for about 30 endless minutes. I tell her about my running with Robin, I ask her questions that require nothing more than a single syllable. At mile 24, Joe and I start telling jokes; the look on her face tells me she’s hearing nothing. Joe strays a bit in front of us, and I bark an order at this Coast Guard Captain: Joe! Get right next to her! I’m on one side, you’re on the other. We’re guiding her in. We hit a hill and Franny starts to fade. I know how strong she is; I can’t bear to see her succumb. C’mon Franny: use your arms! Pump your arms! This is where is all comes together! This is where all those miles pay off! All those 800’s come home! Remember them all – every one of them! This hill is nothing – you OWN this hill! I look at her face – I think she is going to cry. I have a moment of fear: She can’t give up now. We’re almost at mile 25. She can do this. I say See the top of that building Franny? That’s the finish! You can see it! 15 minutes Franny! It’s over in 15 minutes!

It’s here that my time theory is turned on its head: I understand with perfect clarity just how long 15 minutes can be. On any given day, I beg for 15 more minutes. In these waning moments of this race, Franny wants this over now, but she keeps running on, with little or nothing in the tank. We hit another hill, and knowing nothing about these last miles I say with all confidence This is the last hill! This is it! Work it, use your arms. We turn a corner and in the distance I see the mile marker Look! Up there! 1.2 miles to go! That’s 5 laps of the track! I’m yelling, I can feel my throat getting sore. I want to believe that I’m helping, but have been in Franny’s shoes enough to know that my efforts are nothing short of window dressing. Look Franny, it’s just a couple of blocks, a couple of turns. A zig and a zag. You just need to get to that final turn. It doesn’t end at the finish, it ends when you can SEE the finish. The rest is gravy. We turn a corner and face another hill. Damn. I’ve lied. Franny’s face crumbles. I’m afraid she’s going to break down. DON’T YOU QUIT ON ME NOW! Alright Franny, it’s time to ANSWER THE QUESTION! Answer it, Franny, Answer the FRIGGING QUESTION!!!

One of my friends on a running forum has a little acronym that he uses in the latter stages of the marathon: ATFQ. Answer The Frigging Question. I guess it applies to any stressful point in life, and the question is pretty fluid: How bad do you want it? How much are you willing to pay? How much does it matter? Each of us has to answer that question, and the truly brave replace the easy answer that comes naturally with one whose price is more difficult to tender. I watched Franny do just that: she gritted her teeth and took that hill. She even tried to jokingly punch me out as I continued my useless loud bootstrapping. And when we turned that final corner, the finish line a quarter mile down the road, time ceased to exist: her 3 children were there with her husband at the top of the last hill. Her 10-year old twins took off, running their mom in, and I was laughing and screaming Leave it here, leave it all out on the course! She heard nothing: She saw only her kids, felt only the surge of joy and love that their presence gave and in that found her legs and another gear. I stepped off the course and marveled at my friend, cheered, laughed, cried. I knew Robin was already in, and could see this moment, was feeling the joy of what she had fostered with her training and last-minute race entry. And, as with all good friends, I realized that in my weak efforts to inspire Franny and Robin, I was the one left inspired and renewed. Franny flew down that last hill toward her best time ever. She may not have met that qualifying standard for the Boston Marathon, but it didn’t matter: She’d conquered the distance and her doubts in those last terrible, wonderful miles. My quiet friend loudly answered that question I had put to her and in that final sprint to the finish joyfully raced with her children and - in those short two tenths of a mile - left fatigue, despair, and Einstein’s theories in her wake.


JohnTheDork said...

What a great story Monica. I really love reading your wonderful stories that you have such a unique way of presenting as if we were there. I think you have to look at yourself as a great friend for sacrificing yourself also and for giving it all you had in order that your friend could fufill her dream.

It's very touching and doggone it, if I weren't a guy, I'd be using some Kleenex right now! One of these days maybe you could pace me and yell at me...but I still have to speed up a bit in order that the pacing wouldn't be too painfull on you! Congrats to you and your friend!

Betsy said...

I had tears in my eyes for your friend and you! Another inspirtional blog! I could feel your friend's pain...although at a much slower pace!

Gregory said...

Hey Monica,

Another thoughtful and amazing post! You had me sitting here at my desk cheering on Franny under my breath! What an amazing friend you are and there is no doubt your friends know that as well. Great story! :-)


John Fenton said...

Great story, Monica. You always manage to capture the emotional essence of an experience.

And I loved the application of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle to children. :)