Lynn Gaffney's training for an Irish marathon meant a lot of time walking alone, time to think about her family, her friends, herself. Today, she feels ready for the event. And for the rest of her life.

CROSSING THE LINE

October 21, 1998|By PATRICIA MEISOL | PATRICIA MEISOL,SUN STAFF

An article in the Today section yesterday gave an incorrect walking pace for marathoner Lynn Gaffney. She usually walks one mile in 12.5 minutes.

The Sun regrets the error.

The day -- Monday, Oct. 26 -- has been on Lynn Gaffney's mind for weeks. What it will be like. All the people who will be there -- 4,000 or 5,000 of them. The 26.2-mile loop through the city of Dublin, crowds lining the streets, cheering her as she takes a corner in her long stride.

Her decision in May to tackle a marathon was swift; her doubts afterward many. But tonight, five months later, Lynn Gaffney will board a plane for Ireland sure she will complete the race. And sure of much more. She'd been ready for a challenge, but totally unprepared for all she'd learn when she decided to cross the line.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Until this spring, Lynn Gaffney wore the girlish look of a 20-something partier, her long blond hair in a ponytail, her body smothered in a bulky old sweat shirt. Her friends said she had a "settled" look; everybody assumed she'd marry the guy she'd been dating for seven years. Rather than bliss, though, she felt only ennui. Ending things, she knew, was inevitable but scary.

Was it the right thing? She was the only one of six or seven friends not married or engaged, and it bothered her. But she made the decision, and in its awkward aftermath, she cut short the blond mane she'd worn since grade school. It was the most visible sign that Lynn had entered what her friend Rose would later identify as her "first-quarter crisis."

Lynn Gaffney is 25. She lives with her family on the Middle River in Essex, but she considers herself a Highlandtown girl, having spent virtually all her life there around her family's steamed crab carryout. These days she manages the place, Gaffney's Back Fin, seven days a week, from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. It's hard work, but she has three months off a year.

During this spring's off-season, she opened the mail to find a flier from the Leukemia Society of America about a fund-raising marathon taking place in Dublin.

"I was like, Ireland, really cool," she recalls. She'd always wanted to visit the land of her ancestors. The marathon wasn't until October, when crab season winds down. And it was open to walkers as well as runners. She could do it!

The Leukemia Society would provide a trainer, a mentor, an inspiration -- a child in recovery -- even potential training partners and ideas for raising the steep minimum fee. All she had to do was raise $3,200 for cancer research. And start walking.

May, June and July were a blur. Four miles, six miles, sometimes 10 miles a day, Lynn walked in suffocating humidity. There was no relief; from the swelter of the street she entered the steam bath of work.

Seven days a week, sometimes after walking three hours, she'd sort crabs, stun them, steam them for 20 minutes, bag them for customers waiting at the front counter, take phone orders, start all over again.

Lynn wasn't a stranger to exercise. But some days, in the thick of the summer when people stood five deep up front and she was in the back steaming crabs and downing water and listening to people get impatient -- ugly, really -- she didn't think she'd make it.

"I thought I would die," she says.

Whenever she could, she'd steal out with a sack of crabs, store it on a plastic mat on the seat of her black Grand Cherokee, and make a delivery to a regular. Customers would open their doors to find her soaking wet, hair plastered to her head. "Bad hair day?" one teased.

The physical demands of walking and work meant Lynn couldn't party until 2 a.m. every night as she had the previous summer.

She was changing

Since she wasn't "in a boyfriend thing," a couple of friends disowned her. She was stunned; some had been her friends since high school.

Maybe, though, she had signaled a need for her own space. It occurred to her that her friends were experiencing their own crises, adjusting to what she was doing, who she was becoming.

By July, though, she was sweating over something else -- raising money. She'd put off mailing solicitation letters, and October was not that far away. Her excitement gave way to anxiety.

"I have to do what today?" she asked herself waking up one hot July morning. "I just want to read a book."

Maybe she'd skip the training and just show up for the marathon. Maybe she'd just drop out; a lot of people did. Then she stumbled upon a story in Readers Digest about a woman with multiple sclerosis who finished a marathon, even though it took her 18 hours.

"If somebody who can't walk can finish a marathon," Lynn thought, "I can do it."

She compromised, walking fewer miles than her training

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