Today is the three year anniversary of the death of a good friend. Actually, he was more than a good friend. He was someone I ran with.
We make friends throughout our lives and we lose them, usually when we change jobs, or move, or simply make new friends when our interests change. Some friends we stay in touch with sporadically through the years, some we rediscover through Facebook or chance meetings, and some we wonder why we never made more of an effort to stay in touch. We make new friends, we move on, and life continues. The friends we lose to death, however, are the ones whose memories visit us late at night, and the ones we can’t forget.I met Arshad through running. We had a mutual friend, Rich, and both caught up with me early one Saturday morning on a nine mile loop around the lake. We discovered we were all training for an upcoming local half marathon and decided to meet during the week for a few runs together. Arshad and I were both relatively new to running and had never run a half marathon before, and we knew that training with someone else would be easier. Also, I came to discover Arshad was the type of runner who enjoyed socializing and meeting new people more than he did running, so it made sense. Even though he was tall, lean, and naturally fast, he would purposely hold back because the companionship was more important than the running.
So we trained together. Rich had run a marathon before (which was something I could never fathom doing at that time) and he was our biggest cheerleader. He liked to run a few steps ahead of us and keep the pace. Rich was also tall, so keeping up with the guys was good training for me. We jokingly called ourselves “The Dream Team” and logged many miles together in preparation for the race. I found out Arshad was from Bangalore, India and had gone to school in Chicago for engineering. I got to know him as a person, and he was always happy and in a good mood. We made plans to visit India one day with Arshad as our guide.
There’s something about pushing yourself physically with another person that bonds you to them. Running mile after mile, through every type of weather and temperature imaginable, at impossibly early times in the day, you really get to know a person. All your differences melt away with the miles you log together.
The day of the race arrived warmer than expected, and finishing was tougher than I thought it would be. I made stupid rookie mistakes (eating something different for breakfast and going out way too fast at the start) and seriously considered bailing at mile 10. I finished in 2:03 and Rich in 1:56. Arshad finished in1:49. I couldn’t believe how fast he had run his first half marathon.
I joined the Dallas Running Club and talked Arshad into joining as well. Our goal race was the Oklahoma City Half Marathon. He didn’t want to run another race so soon but trained with us anyway. I noticed that Arshad would run with any group, no matter the pace, and could usually be found in the back of the pack talking to any one of a number of pretty, young, female runners. He always adjusted his running speed accordingly.
Rich was training for a full marathon, and sometimes the groups would converge and run together. I was in awe of the full group and the distances they ran each week. The seed was planted for me, but Arshad said no way, he’d rather stick to half marathons and run them really fast. The months and the miles passed, and I noticed Arshad seemed to be running with the same group—and one girl in particular, Elizabeth–each week. I was happy for him, but never got the chance to ask what was going on.
Arshad’s lease was up on his apartment and he decided to move to my complex on the other side of the lake. I talked him into running the OKC Half Marathon with the group and we talked about reserving seats on the bus the running club had chartered. During that same time his parents came to visit from India. On our Wednesday night run he asked if I would join them and a few other friends for dinner and a movie on Friday. I met his mom and dad, his ex-girlfriend, Jen, and some friends from church. We had a great time, though he took some grief for the movie, an ultra-violent film festival entry about the war in the Middle East. He said he thought his mom would like it.
The next week, just before our scheduled Wednesday night group run, it started to rain. Arshad called to ask if I was going and I told him no. Fifteen minutes later the storm passed and my phone rang. Tempted to ignore it, I picked up and told Arshad I would meet him at the gate, knowing how guilty I would feel if I didn’t run. The dark evening was beautiful, and everything at the lake glowed from the rain. Arshad ran fast that night and it felt good to keep the pace. When I made a random comment about hating to run into a headwind, he remarked, ever positive, that he liked it because it kept him cool. He talked about how beautiful the trees at the lake were, and how it was his favorite place to run.
It was the last time we ran together.
We had made plans to drive together to the local train station for the start of our Saturday morning group run. When I got up early the next morning I noticed a message on my phone. It was Jen, telling me to call her as soon as I got the message. Even though it was six o’clock in the morning, I immediately called. She told me Arshad had been in a car accident the evening before, and it was fatal. His mother was also killed, and his father was in critical condition.
He died on a busy street I travel on quite often, and it was a long time before I could drive past the spot where a manufacturing defect in one of his tires caused his death. Two weeks after his death I ran the Oklahoma City Marathon without him. I ran faster than I’d ever run, because I knew he couldn’t. When I crossed the finish line and the medal was put around my neck by a bombing victim’s family member, I cried and asked if I could have another medal for the friend I had lost who hadn’t made it to the finish line with me.
His death made no sense to me, and it never will.
Today, three years later, I think about him. I can still hear his silly high-pitched laugh, and see a smile light up his face. I remember his earnest curiosity of what made people who they are, and his love of deep conversations. I remember the new running clothes he bought just before he died, and how he worried about what he looked like in them. I remember his carefree approach to running that I am still trying to emulate. He is in my thoughts every single race I run, especially the marathons I never had the chance to talk him into running. More than anything else, I just miss him.
His friends got together and donated a tree and a plaque in his name at the Celebration Tree Grove at the lake. We all think of him when we run past the spot, which is on the same route we ran that rainy night, days before he died. A little bit further up the road is the place where it is always windy. It took me a long time, but now I smile when I think about how he could put a positive spin on everything, even running into the wind.
Rest in peace, Arshad Ahmed, and know you are not forgotten.
It seems this is the year to have a great marathon. Last year was the opposite. At least that was the case for me and my friends. I ran my first marathon last December in Dallas. I trained for 23 weeks, even pacing a group with the local running club, and I was more than prepared to have a good race. Perhaps I was overconfident, but I was truly hoping to come in under four hours and qualify for Boston right off the bat. That, however, was not the case. All the hours of training meant nothing against the weather. On race morning, we got hit with a temperature of 64 degrees at the start, 80% humidity, and winds from the south at 30 mph. At the 13 mile mark, once you came around White Rock Lake, the wind hit you full force in the face and was unrelenting. At mile 19 I was toast—and that’s where the hills begin. It’s also where I began walking. Up to that point I had managed to keep an 8:45 pace, but I had nothing left at mile 19. I finished in 4:16, which is respectable for a first marathon, especially considering how much I walked the last 7 miles, but I knew I could’ve done better and was disappointed in myself.
My second marathon in April of this year was even worse. After my experience at White Rock, I had no real desire to run another marathon. I was committed, however, to pacing another group to get them ready for the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon. My heart was just not in it. Race day was even worse than White Rock, with a starting temperature of 72 degrees, humidity at 78%, and wind gusts up to 45 mph. We were all completely disheartened walking to the start line. I actually walked a little at mile 10, and considered calling Michael to come get me. When we got to the lake just after the halfway point, and turned south, the wind hit us full force, and it was like running in a wind tunnel. I decided at that point that this was a race to just finish, and nothing more. The last few miles were up a long, gradual incline, directly into those 45 mph winds, and up to 90% of the runners were walking. It was a horrible experience. I cried at mile 23, and I cried at the finish line.
I seriously considered never running another marathon. What was the point, I thought, if it’s not even fun? The mere mention of OKC still makes me shake my head. I knew there had to be a good marathon experience out there for me, so my friends and I entered the lottery for the St. George Marathon. At least if the weather was bad I would still get to run through my favorite part of the country. There is no place in America that I feel more at peace than in the desert. Also, I wasn’t so focused on my finishing time as I was on having an enjoyable marathon experience. I knew I needed to have fun in this marathon.
What a difference the weather can make. The temperature at the start was 39 degrees with no wind, and I finished in 3:56:39. I finally had my Boston qualifier. Other friends have done even better in their marathons. Number one reason why: the weather. You can train diligently and do everything right, but come race day you are at the mercy of the weather every time.
But was it really the weather that made all the difference, or was it my attitude? I’m not sure. I know that I run better in cold, wind-free temperatures, but I’m starting to think that maybe deciding to enjoy the marathon, regardless of my performance, was what really made the difference. Perhaps battling the elements only makes us stronger as runners, but at some point you have to be willing to let go of your dreams of the “perfect” marathon and accept things as they are.
As difficult as those last three miles in St. George were, I can honestly say that I enjoyed everything about that race. I cannot say the same about White Rock or OKC, and I think it’s mainly because of the mental states I brought to the races. I was equally well-trained for all three races, but making the mental decision to have fun and enjoy myself, while still staying focused on finishing strong, made all the difference.