When you finish a 13.1-mile race, smiling volunteers hand you a beribboned medal, a banana and a bottle of water.
They ought to slip me an adult diaper, too.
The first time it happened, while I was training for Philadelphia's annual Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon, I figured the extra sogginess was just sweat. I'd run a vigorous eight miles on Forbidden Drive, the romantically named, packed-dirt-and-gravel path that winds through the woods near my home.
To stay hydrated, I'd gulped extra water at dinner the night before and slurped a bit more before leaving the house. I didn't carry a bottle, though, for the same reason I don't run with an iPod: I don't like encumbrances. For me, running is liberation—from errands and to-do lists, from the incessant buzzing of my cell phone and the mind-bending ping of email.
Unlike my partner and her thrice-weekly running pal, I'm not an especially social creature on the trail. I wave at familiar, perspiring faces, but I'm too restless to stop and chat. My eyes and muscles are fixed on the prize—covered bridge 1.5 miles from the start, rustic café at the halfway point, the gentle slope that means I'm almost home.
I look at my watch when I begin, and again when I muster that last shred of stamina to sprint past the hanging menu at the Valley Green Inn. In between, though, my mind loosens and wanders. I notice an aria of birdsong, a chipmunk darting across my path, a man fishing the Wissahickon Creek in thigh-high waders.
I think about the last words my father said to me before he died. I muse about the novel I'm reading and the movies I'd like to see. I think about mundane things (Should we have veggie burgers tomorrow night? Is it time to change the pillow cases?) and more profound ones (Why are some people so fearful? What does it take to bring about real change?).
I run as hard as I can. And then, when I've pounded out the last steps, with my quads screaming and my feet throbbing and sweat drizzling between my breasts, when I've glanced at the time and done some swift division to calculate my pace-per-mile, when every part of my body starts to shift back toward normal, some muscle down under lets go, too, and I pee. Just a little. Or a little more than a little.
Like I said, when it happened the first time, I figured it was sweat. Except it didn't feel like sweat. It felt like what I imagine a wet diaper feels like to an infant—surprising and uncomfortable. It made me want to walk bow-legged, to avoid the squidgy sensation.
Was this the inevitable descent of midlife or was it just a weird fluke, brought on by the physiological stresses of a strenuous run? I asked my partner and her running pal—women a bit older and a bit younger than I am, respectively, but all hovering around the half-century mark. Turned out I was in good company. We all peed at the end of a run.
"Sometimes during," they stage-whispered.
"And when I sneeze," my partner said.
"Or cough," added her pal.
"Sometimes when I'm startled."
"Or when I can't stop laughing."
Maybe it was the power of suggestion. Or maybe it was just the encroaching years. But I started to notice tiny trickles—nothing to write home about, mind you—on all those occasions my women friends had noted.
I thought about infants, how we expect a fair amount of moistness to come with the package: They cry, they pee, they eat, they poop, they do it all over again. And how do we react? We soothe their tears, we swaddle their bottoms in Pampers (or, if we're environmental sticklers, in organic cotton diapers that have to be wrung out in the toilet).
How about extending that same patience, compassion and product-development ingenuity to ourselves? You wouldn't expect the timing belt in your car to remain tautly elastic for half a century, would you? Everything has a shelf life, even the muscles that hold all those messy, salty fluids inside the sack of our selves.
I find, in midlife, that I cry more readily than before. It doesn't take much: a commercial for cell phone service; a riff of a James Taylor song; a flash-forward to my daughter's high school graduation, still four years off. Here's the upside, though: I laugh more easily, too. At life's craziness. At myself.
Not long ago, at a family gathering, my aunt told the coffee can story once again. It's about the time I convinced my city-loving parents, along with my aunt, uncle and two young cousins, to try camping.
In the middle of the night, I had to pee. My aunt got up with me—she shared the urge—and together we crept out of the tent in our footed, flannel, buttoned-to-the-neck pajamas. It was too cold to peel our PJs down from the shoulders, so we decided to use the handy "trap doors," wedge empty coffee cans under the fabric and between our legs, then use them as makeshift toilets.
Except that it's not so easy for a 12-year-old girl and her grown-up aunt to maneuver 32-ounce Maxwell House cans into the crotches of their jammies. We unbuttoned and wriggled and giggled and peed. But there was no plinking sound. There was no sound at all. Just a wet spot that started on my instep and spread rapidly up to my ankle.
My aunt started to laugh. I started to laugh, and of course laughing made us shake and miss the coffee cans by an even wider margin, until we were both soaked from the waist down and gasping so hard we couldn't speak.
When she told that story for the zillionth time, just a week or so ago, it didn't matter that her listeners—my mom, my cousins, myself—had heard it all before. It's an ageless tale, about being human and being ridiculous, which often amounts to the same thing.
She told it, and I shamelessly pantomimed the coffee-can maneuver right there in her kitchen, and we laughed until—dare I say it?—we leaked a little at both ends.