I don’t spend much time down on Dune Road, unless a hurricane has just passed through and I need to report on the damage. The ocean terrifies me. Leisure time terrifies me. Once upon a time I took a laptop to the ocean to get some work done and it ended up getting filled with sand and I had to throw it out. I deserved that for trying to work at the beach.
Now, with my silly performance in the Shelter Island 10K in my rear-view mirror, I’m “in training” for the half-marathon version of the inaugural Suffolk County Marathon this September.
Right after the 10K, I convinced myself I’d run at least three days a week — more than 10 miles on a weekend day, a 10K run midweek and one other, shorter run, just to remind myself what running feels like, sometime late in the week.
This strategy has been laid to waste by the mercury in the thermometers of the East End, as I was afraid it would.
I started out, just after the 10K, with a burst of energy. Every run I took was a personal record. Everything felt easy and accomplishable. I must have been on a high from the relief of finishing my first-ever race. Then, in early July, the reality of 13.1 miles kicked in.
It kicked in at one of those places I rarely go: Dune Road in Hampton Bays. The radiator in my son’s car exploded in a hot Hamptons commute, so I drove him to his morning shift on a recent Sunday morning so he could wash dishes for the breakfast crowd at the Meadow Club in Southampton.
He wouldn’t be working long enough to justify going home before I picked him up. It was 8:30 a.m. and it was already more than 80 degrees. I headed down over the Ponquogue Bridge, hoping a sea breeze and a flat road would make my first 13-mile run bearable.
Now the Hampton Bays end of Dune Road is one of the most beautiful, desolate places you can imagine: marsh grasses hide the remains of old bungalows, and this place belongs to the birds. There are abandoned beaches and dunes and strange wooden walkways to the water’s edge. It’s like being in another country.
I started out strong, even though my body was asleep. Everyone has different patterns to their runs — my pattern seems to be that it takes me a couple miles to wake up before I can really start to chew up the miles of asphalt before me. But the magic of the surroundings egged me on.
Sometime in the past month, I realized I could tolerate this sport for the long run. My hips stopped aching and I found I could last an entire run with my head held high and an efficient pace.
But something happened down on Dune Road. I began panting like a dog who can’t sweat. I sucked down an entire bottle of water, and then checked my phone to find I’d only run three miles. I began walking, and then I began forcing myself to run whenever I saw another runner or bicyclist on the road.
I was delirious by the time I reached some vague spot between the abandoned dunes and East Quogue, where the shoulders of the road were suddenly manicured and hedges hid well-maintained houses.
Cyclists and runners were talking with little effort as they passed me. I drowned in the snippets of conversation.
“I thought she said they paid $50 million but they paid $500 million….”
“I’ll tell YOU what I think is a teardown….”
“Sally’s been working for a media company in Manhattan but I told her she’d better get out and make some real money in public relations…”
“I can’t ever afford to retire…”
I begged God for shade and I found it in a towering privet that blocked the sun. I’d made it 6.6 miles down Dune Road, but it had taken nearly two hours. I stood up and began limping back to my car, somewhere beyond the hedges.
By the time I returned to the wild, desolate section of Dune Road, the Ponquogue Bridge in the distance was like a mirage.
Red winged blackbirds alit on spartina grass and cocked their heads at me, letting out little cackling “cheeps” before flying away. I kept walking but the bridge never looked any closer. Hours passed like minutes. My body shook.
I stopped at a pile of busted up concrete and put my head in my lap. It was then that I noticed that there was no one else recreating on this road anymore. It was nearly noon and Dune Road was deserted. I limped to Road K and the parking lot was jammed with beachgoers.
I limped back to Ponquogue Beach. My car had been one of three in the parking lot when I set out. By the time I returned, there wasn’t an empty spot in the entire lot.
I opened the back door to my car, took off my hat and grabbed another bottle of water from the cooler and poured it over my head. I began sobbing. All around me, people were asking if I was leaving so that they could have my parking spot. I grimaced, shut the door and then blasted the air conditioning.
There was only one way to spend the rest of that Sunday: doing something I actually know how to do — type on a computer.
When I got home there were two email alerts waiting for me. One was an air quality alert from the National Weather Service warning people not to recreate in the hot sun. The second was an announcement that North Shore-LIJ would be providing medics at the Suffolk County Marathon.
I sure hope that the morning of Sept. 13 breaks with that great cool September back-to-school breeze, because that might be all I have going for me when this race comes around.