CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE LAST KIND
This is a story about someone who had it wrong, got a chance to "get it right" and took it. It begins in the
hospital's cardiac care unit (from which I feel lucky to have escaped alive) and ends at the finish line of The
Avenue of the Giants Marathon five and a-half years later. The journey was a difficult one and there were
some serious obstacles to overcome but scattered among the obstacles was also an abundance of luck.
It has been ahnost eight years since I ran The Avenue and I think it's time to share my story.
At age forty-five a major artery to my heart closed and rocked the foundation of my life, eventually reducing
it to rubble. During a six-day hospital stay an operation to reopen the artery with a balloon was preformed but
failed when the artery closed again early the next morning. I don't quite how to describe it, whether I had two
heart attacks or the same one twice, but either way it wasn't good.
When I left the hospital I had one closed artery, the rest significantly clogged and a poor prognosis, pretty much the way I went in. Regarding the prognosis, I learned from my wife sometime later that a nurse had called her after the operation failed and told her it was unlikely I would survive my hospital stay. After she told me that, I could better understand the reticent behavior of the hospital staff, especially the doctor. It gave "going home after passing the treadmill" an entirely new meaning.
Once home I started on the long road to rehabilitation. Initially even short walks were difficult, but I walked longer distances until I could walk several miles at a time, sometimes in the desert foothills near my home. It was pretty depressing when I saw how lethal my lifestyle had been. I was going to have to simplify my life and on reflection it was not going to be an easy thing to do.
After two months off I went back to work and realized
early on that the stress was more than I
could hope to cope with. Depression, no doubt exacerbated by the medication, was a constant companion
and it became increasingly impossible to balance the demands of my job with my personal needs. There
was no question that my own needs had to have priority and after six months I resigned. Although it was
an extremely difficult decision, it was the right one.
Shortly after resigning, my marriage fell victim to
the stresses and strains generated by a
seemingly hopeless situation, I have sometimes wondered what my wife went through, living with a
husband whom she expected to die at any time. I can understand why she said her life would have been
easier had I died. From my viewpoint, there were long-term plans being made and I wasn't included.
There were stresses and strains on every level and it got much worse. When the smoke cleared, I found
myself heading West, bewildered and amazed at how fast my life had unraveled.
Although it was difficult physically, I worked temporary
jobs for several months until I gratefully
accepted an invitation from my brother to stay with him while I "got it together." What he offered was a
sanctuary, a refuge from the chaos initiated by what the medical community calls a "cardiovascular
accident." "Getting it together" wasn't a matter of taking a week off and then going back to work as I had
some serious issues to deal with. Even though I had given up all medications several months earlier, I was
still seriously depressed, at least forty pounds overweight and, I suspect, a prime candidate for another
My brother was an avid, long distance runner and I
joined him, walking as he ran. We explored a
variety of areas, sometimes running on the levees, other times following trails along rivers and on the
weekends we sometimes visited the lakes and forests in the foothills. Gradually I increased my walking
distances and after a month could walk for an hour or more at a time. My body began to respond favorably
to the increased activity and, like the Phoenix of antiquity, began to lift itself from the ashes of its own
Eventually, in a pair of borrowed running shoes, I
embarked on a journey which I could never
have imagined at the time. The first challenge was to run the distance between every other telephone pole
and even that was hard. Although I had quit smoking after the heart attack, I had smoked heavily for over
thirty years and that made breathing and running seem almost incompatible. Weighing over two hundred
pounds put a lot of stress on my body, especially my knees and as a result I wrapped them whenever I ran
for the first six months. There was some serious pain but in spite of it all I made progress. Within a month
I ran my first nonstop mile along a levee and through a fruit orchard. That was a significant milestone and
a genuine cause for celebration at the local pizza parlor.
At my brother's urging I ran my first 5K race, wrapped
knees and all, a month later. The time,
thirty-one minutes, wasn't remarkable but the realization that my perspective about competition had
changed was most significant. It was part of simplifying things, of looking inward.instead of outward and
it was a relief to be running instead of racing to a finish line.
Over the next six months I made steadfast progress and extended my longest run to seventeen
miles. I had lost over ten pounds, was eating more reasonably and had started taking a variety of vitamin,
mineral and herbal supplements. That November, two years after my heart attack, I ran my first I OK in a
cautious fifty-five minutes.
After nine months I left my brother's house, fully
aware that the time I spent there had been
critical to my very survival. I moved to the tree-filled foothills much healthier and fully engaged in living
again. Once situated, I started running on the back roads and trails and discovered thousands of acres of
forest land. During those runs I have seen wondrous things, cougars, bear and swarms of insects among
them. Surrounded by the forest, I bathed in its peace and quiet and realized that the environment, like
running, was also an important part of the healing process. Even though the commute to work was forty-
five minutes each way it was well worth it. The job was one I left at five o'clock and usually the stress of
the day was usually gone by the time I got home.
That November I ran the same I OK course as the year
before and shaved seven minutes off the
time, running it in forty-eight minutes. I ran the fist mile in under seven minutes and as a result, struggled
with the last five. When the finish finally cwne into view I tried to step up the pace but found I was
completely out of energy. It was an unsettling experience and I still shudder when I look at a photograph
taken just after the run.
After two years of running I increased my longest
run to twenty miles and had occasional thoughts
about running a marathon. I wasn't sure I would ever have what it took to run that far and I was a long
way from adding another six miles to my longest run, of that I was sure. It was a mirage, something on the
horizon that came and went but had no substance.
Over the next year I continued exploring the forests, running long runs but seldom over twelve or
thirteen miles. Some of the runs included theforest service lookouts with their spectacular views, others
were along roads the miners built to open the rivers and streams to the gold rush. I ran in all weather and
several times.1 started at the bottom of a hill in the rain and by the time I got halfway to the top the rain had
turned to snow. That November I ran the same I OK course for the third year and shaved a minute off the
year before, suggesting I was still making progress without pushing things to the extreme. From time to
time there was mention of a marathon and the idea began changing from a mirage to a remote possibility.
Over the Christmas holidays and after some serious discussions with my brother, we both
committed to running the Avenue qf the Giants Marathon that coming May. My brother had run it before
and said the course was a spectacular one, unfolding through giant redwoods, some of them more than a
thousand years old. There was the distinct possibility of rain to consider but we would run The Avenue
In January the training began in earnest and that
included running on my lunch hours to avoid the
evening darkness. I remember one weekend I got caught in a rainstorm and had to wade through water
almost two feet deep to get back to the car. Sometimes I felt like a child, just happy to be where I was,
doing what I was doing and enjoying life fully. Life was simple and I was still focusing my attention on
the details of being alive.
Once I declared my intention to run a marathon I got
advice from any number of people, some
advising me not to run one at all. I think the best advice was from my brother and it was simple - don't
do anything differently. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" was the idea and it was sound. There's no telling
what impact any change might have, especially during the last few miles when the body is under maximum
stress. During the training I saw my doctor, who was a runner himself, and he was encouraging. Over the
next few months I continued to run faster and longer runs and a marathon was becoming a very real
In April, the month before the run, I extended my
longest run to twenty-four miles, had eight runs
of thirteen miles or more, and averaged twelve miles a nm. My body got tired, of course, but it was an
exhilarating kind of tired that came from the rigorous training. Since starting to run I had lost over twenty-
five pounds, regained all my strength and had more stmnina then I would have thought possible. From all
appearances I was ready to face the giants of Humboldt County.
The day before the run, as we were leaving for a campground
near the Avenue's staging area, my
brother presented me with a gold pendant. It was embossed with the figure of a runner and the number
twenty-six above the niunber three hundred eighty-five. I said he should have waited until I finished the
run but he said he was sure I would do it. When we arrived at the campgrounds, and much to my surprise,
we met my oldest daughter, her husband and sister-in-law who had come from out@f-state at my brother's
surreptitious invitation. Her sister-in-law was an emergency medical technician and I feft honored having a
personal EMT but hoped her skills wouldn't be needed. That evening, after we set up camp, we all went
to the grange where we enjoyed a pasta dinner with some of the other runners and their partisans. The
potential energy in that room was awesome!
After going over the marathon's route with my brother
we discussed a general plan for my ran.
Overall, I wanted to run it in four and a-half-hours or less, which was slightly less then a ten-minute-mile
pace. Thafs not a very fast pace but I wasn't foolish enough to believe it was going to be easy at any pace.
The key seemed to be the first leg, which was seven miles out with some serious hills. If I could run that
leg averaging nine minutes a mile and average eight and-a-half minutes a mile on the return, I would be in
a good position to finish on time. I would have to average twelve minutes a mile for the last twelve miles
but that seemed reasonable. There were some concerns, of course, but overall I was confident.
After a restless night I got up with the dawn and
ate a small bowl of oatmeal while looking at the
clouds in the sky. I looked back over my early days of running and smiled as I remembered my feelings of
accomplishment after running my first nonstop mile, years far in the past. After breakfast my brother and
I drove to the staging area and wandered among the gathering crowds. I overheard someone say that the
area had over ninety inches of rain already that season. After a mild wannup we found our way to the
starting @e with the other runners. When I looked up, I saw my daughter waving as she was coming
down the on-ranip toward the starting ]'me, j(yin g the other spectators as the countdown began. When the
gun sounded, the runners started en masse, each one having one strategy or another to help finish the last
and most difficult miles that lay ahead. For me, I had started on the most physically demanding journey of
I ran hard on the first leg and managed to average
the nine-minute pace as planned and was elated
when I got to the turn around, thinking the worst could be over. Still pushing, I stayed in the middle eights
on the return leg and crossed the Dyerville bridge in sightly ever two hours, feeling strong and on track
with twelve miles to go. The sun was out fully by that time and the surroundings took on a magical quality
as I headed south, no doubt my endorphins had introduced themselves.
After another mile I started to slow and it took over eleven minutes to run the next mile. That was
the first time I had ever nm at that pace for so long and I could feel the strain on my body and there was
no question it was going to get worse. Somewhere around the eighteenth mile I began to hear noises ahead
as the leading nmners began to appear on their way to the finish.
At the twenty-mile turnaround I started on the last
six-mile leg to the finish. I was still slowing
and it took over fourteen minutes to finish the twenty-third and twenty-fourth miles. With two miles to go
I could sense the end was within reach and, although really tired, I tapped my reserves and picked up the
pace. When I finally passed the twenty-six-mile marker my brother was there, cheering me on as I began
the last three hundred and eighty-five yards. Even though I was almost exhausted, I picked up the pace but
had to slow again almost immediately. I began to understand the significance of the number three hundred
eighty-five yards on the pendant my brother had given me. That's a long way to run when it's tacked on
the end of twenty-six miles. As the fmish line came into sight I again picked up the pace and crossed the
Dyerville bridge for the second time, finishing the run in four hours-and-thirty-seven minutes.
My family was there at the finish and they seemed
as joyous as I was. After running that far I
couldn't just stop and talk, so I kept moving until I was sure I wasn't going to turn into a hundred-and-
sixty-six pound human knot. It was a perfect day on a beautiful course and I earned much more than a
medal that day. On the way out of town I sent my doctor a postcard.
It has been thirteen years since my heart attack and
eight years since the marathon. On reflection I
can see that there were primarily two factors without which I could never have made it. The first one,
support, is obvious, Without the support of my family I suspect it would have been impossible to climb
out of the hole I had dug for myself. The second factor, which I mentioned earlier, was luck. I can think
of so many instances of luck that, by anyone's standard, I'm a very lucky man.
I'm still running and passed the ten-thousand mile
mark over a year ago at which point I took off
my watch and quit counting. If I'm asked why I run, I think the answer will always be the swne: "So I can
run some more." Having run seventeen miles through another redwood forest recently I'm beginning to
wonder if I could again meet the challenge of a marathon. It's something to think about.
Stanley S. Miguel
Copyright 0 2003