These Boots Are Made for Running

By Gwen Sinclair
Librarian, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa Library

If you had told me when I was 25 or 30 that I would run my first marathon at age 42, I would have rolled my eyes and asked, “Why would anyone want to do that?” I could not fathom running even 10 miles, much less 26.2. I had been a casual runner for many years, but I’d avoided distance events. Too hard!

I found many reasons to keep running in the watershed year of 2004. For starters, my sister was diagnosed with lymphoma and endured a whole year of grueling chemotherapy. Although I wasn’t close to her, I felt very helpless, and guilty, too, so I signed up to do the Honolulu Marathon as part of Team in Training, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s fundraising program. All you have to do is run a marathon — and raise thousands of dollars for research. It turned out to be harder for me to ask people for money than it was to get up early every weekend for the 16-mile training runs. To my surprise, the donations poured in, which of course put me in the position of absolutely, positively having to finish the marathon in December 2004.

My free time revolved around marathon training, so on Saturday, October 30, 2004, after my husband Steve and I had seen a mediocre movie at the Varsity Theatre, “What the Bleep Do We Know?” I’d gone to bed, planning to get up early the next morning for the usual Sunday training run.  

Indeed, we didn’t know bleep. We got the phone call after we were already in bed, around 10:00 p.m. “There’s been a flood at the library,” reported Steve’s boss Jean, an administrator at Hamilton Library. “How bad could it be?” we asked each other as we got dressed. Steve was the building manager of Hamilton Library, so he was used to dealing with these little disasters. A couple of inches of water on the floor — we could handle that. We’d dealt with many leaks and minor floods, like the time the asbestos removal company had flooded the basement with water, or the day a construction worker had cut into a pipe without checking to see whether the water was turned off.

It was difficult to see anything amiss when we drove onto campus. The flood had evidently made the electricity go off, so there were no street lights to illuminate our way. In the dark, the first thing we noticed was a motorcycle on its side and a couple of cars that were sitting on the Maile Way median. “How did they get there?” we wondered, our hopes fading.

Everything seemed normal when we first entered the library, except it was dark. Only a few emergency lights illuminated the interior. We heard the distant high-pitched ringing of the fire alarm panel (it always went off in damp weather) as we stopped at Steve’s office to get a flashlight. As we made our way down the gloomy stairs to check things out in the basement, we could see dark water pooled at the bottom. We were afraid to go any further — maybe we’d be electrocuted! — so we retreated and made our way to another set of stairs where we could look down into my department, Government Documents & Maps.

First we noticed the elevator. One of the doors was akimbo, as if King Kong had tried to rip it open. There was a line on the wall next to it, about six feet up, showing how high the water had risen. Where was the wall between the book stacks and the hallway? It had collapsed, so that you could see into the room containing rows of bookshelves. Only they weren’t upright; they were bowed like trees in a hurricane. The contents had fallen onto the floor, so that books lay everywhere in great heaps. I learned later that when books get soaked, they expand, and eventually they are so fat that the shelves cannot contain them and they explode, like Mr. Creosote in “Monty Python’s the Meaning of Life” who has eaten one “wafer-thin morsel” too many.

Piles of muddy government documents. Photo: Lloyd Tsukano, 2004.

Although it hadn’t been raining particularly hard that night, Mānoa Stream jumped out of its bed and ran straight through campus. In its wake it left stinking, silt-filled, muddy water, and not just that: frogs, snails, insects, and all manner of detritus coated floors, walls, furniture, and hallways. Thirty-two buildings on campus were flooded, but due to its location at a low point on campus, Hamilton Library received the worst damage by far.

The water punched through windows and doors, turning the basement into a filthy swimming pool swirling with books, desks, and computers. The stream water flowed straight through the building, leaving books, maps, and aerial photographs strewn all the way to the quarry parking on lower campus.

In the days following the flood, we braved the mud-filled, stinking, moldy basement, trying to salvage books, maps, photographs, and our personal belongings. Every day, I wore a uniform of sorts: a brown Merrie Monarch t-shirt, a pair of hiking shorts, and olive green rubber boots. Oh, and there was the ever-present face mask to protect me from the mold. When I didn’t have it over my nose and mouth, it sat on top of my head like an ersatz cap.

Gwen washing aerial photographs. Photo: Lloyd Tsukano, 2004

You might think that when my life shifted to full-time disaster response mode, I would have abandoned marathon training. But I owed that race to the LLS donors. And, strangely, running is what saved me from drowning. When I ran, I forgot about the depressing scene at the library and the years of recovery work ahead. I thought about my sister, who was so exhausted from chemo that she could hardly put her shoes on. I focused on how I needed to raise money to fund the research that would put an end to the scourge of cancer. I ran, and I kept my head above the water.

Gwen after completing the Honolulu Marathon in 2004. Photo: S. Pickering

Work Cited

Monty Python‘s the Meaning of Life. Directed by Terry Jones. Universal Studios, 1983.

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