“We run not because we think it is doing us good, but because we cannot help ourselves.” – Sir Roger Bannister
I resisted getting out of bed at 7:00, but I knew I wouldn’t sleep any more if I stayed, and a headache would be the certain consequence of inaction. Outside it’s about as close to the definition of a perfect morning as we’ve had this summer, but I feel heavy and slow as I lumber down the stairs.
August 1. Decision day. I haven’t run much over the past ten days, just a few slow three-milers on the treadmill. I tell myself I’m recovering from a bout of sciatica that kicked in after a 6-hour airplane ride back from Seattle, but if I’m honest I know that I’ve run through much worse pain than I’ve been feeling lately. What’s missing now is the desire to run, and this worries me.
Running has been part of my life for ten years now. I like to say that God didn’t make me fast, but he did give me the ability to run long distances. To endure. In ten years, since I started keeping track while I trained for my first marathon, I’ve recorded 9,086 miles. There are many runners who’ve run much farther than I have, and many who are much faster than I am. I try to run a marathon per year, and so far I’ve finished eleven 26.2-milers. Last year I also finished a 50K, which was my first venture into so-called “ultra running,” and is the seed of my present madness.
Over the course of eleven marathons (twelve if you count the 50K race) I’ve learned a lot about myself. First, it’s much easier, and far more enjoyable, to run somewhat more slowly than you are capable of. My fastest race was in 2002, when I clocked 3:39:34 on a flat course with few participants. That effort cost innumerable trips to doctors, podiatrists and physical therapists during the year prior to and immediately after the race; it also involved four port-a-john stops during the race itself (my actual time spent running was something less than 3:30, which is tantalizingly close to the magic “Boston qualifying time.”) Since 2002 I haven’t come in faster than four hours, but my enjoyment of these races and of the time spent training has increased enormously. It’s difficult to recommend that anyone spend as much time and effort as what is required by a marathon if they aren’t going to enjoy the process.
It amazes me how few runners I know actually seem to like running. Most complain about the aches and pains, and getting up early or having to venture out in the rain and snow. I’ve coached a few runners to their first half- and full marathons, and while they seemed to enjoy the accomplishment they didn’t like the experience as a whole. Of course, there are exceptions, and these are part of what inspires me to continue. I’ll confess that I don’t like being around veteran runners because their talk is boring – it’s all about split times and low-fat diets and missing out on age-bracket victories by mere seconds… On the surface it’s friendly enough but whenever another runner asks about what races I’ve done and what my times were, I get the urge to change the subject. I always feel like I’m being auditioned or cataloged: if I’ve achieved faster times than the questioner, they might say, “Let’s run together sometime,” perhaps anticipating that I will drive them to a higher level. If I’m slower than the person asking, there often follows a self-satisfied recount of that individual’s greatest accomplishments. There aren’t many runners who just want to get out the door and feel their bodies moving – it isn’t much to talk about, at least.
The process and the feeling of running are what have brought me the most pleasure over the years. Marathons are a way to focus the effort, and they give shape to the year. They provide goals and have often served as vacation opportunities. What I find to be the most interesting thing about the marathon is that it provides a way to come to the end of one’s self. After eighteen or twenty or twenty-two miles (the first time it was after six), energy is low and there’s not much in reserve. The finish line isn’t close enough to motivate – it seems distant and perhaps unattainable. How does one go on? How do we make our bodies do what seems impossible? This is the real victory, and of the twelve times I’ve started a race of 26.2 miles or more, I’ve finished every one of them.
I look in the mirror and I don’t like what I see. My eyes are lifeless and my muscle tone seems far from that of a runner. Maybe I’m not a runner anymore? I’m closing in on 40, and I’ve been in the midst of a quiet mid-life crisis for the past two years. It’s not the number that bothers me, it’s that I’ve accomplished so little of what I thought I would by this point. I’m not the person I wanted to be. Last year I saw a counselor for a time because “thoughts of death” kept running through my head. I stopped when I thought I had a pretty good handle on things, but those thoughts never really went away.
I read once that finishing a marathon gives one a six-month insurance policy against a heart attack. Apparently someone did some research that showed nobody had ever died of a heart attack with six months of successfully finishing a 26.2-mile distance. I’m pretty sure it’s been disproven by now, but the fact remains that people who can finish a marathon are pretty healthy, on the whole. I have another theory, although I’ve never done any research to back it up. My theory is that people who finish marathons don’t kill themselves. After all, we know what it’s like to “hit the wall” and go on anyway. We know that regret always comes from quitting, from not getting out the door to begin with, from allowing obstacles such as aches and pains or bad weather to sidetrack us; we almost never regret actually taking a run, actually making the effort.
I know what’s contributed to the bloated face I see staring back at me from the mirror. I’m not proud of this, but it has to be said. I remarked recently that while I used to achieve a primal feeling of physical and emotional well being from running, it has been alcohol that has provided those feelings more reliably in recent years. I know that alcohol works against me in many ways as a runner: it provides calories without nutrition, it stays in my system for days afterward, and the feelings it provides are fleeting and elusive. Unlike running, there is a net cost to drinking that isn’t worth the benefits. Junk food and sugar are in the mix, too. These are another kind of drug that I’ll need to cut back if I’m going to do what I’m thinking of doing. The question is, can I do it?
When I ran the 50K last fall, I knew I wanted to run a full 50 miles. The course was a beautiful loop around a lake, and the day had been perfect. Participants had the option of running 50K or 50 miles – the 50K runners stopped after completing 3/5 of the loop. I’d had some energy left when I finished that 50K, the longest I’d ever run up to that point. I knew I didn’t have another 18 miles in me, though. I was 192 pounds, and breathing was starting to become tough. I made a mental note that I’d need to be around 170 if I wanted to run the full circuit next year.
My list of New Year’s resolutions for 2009 reads, in part,
- Only drink on 12 days in 2009
- Finish a 50-mile race
- Run the Boilermaker 15K in less than 70 minutes
- Weigh 170 pounds on average for the year
- Stop biting my fingers and fingernails
- Finish my MBA
- Rediscover joy
So far, none of these have been accomplished. Why not? Numbers 1, 3, 4 and 6 are pretty much out of reach at this point. This might be the worst I’ve ever done on resolutions; on the other hand I didn’t even make any last year. If I’m going to run a 50-miler in October, I’ve got to get going. I’ve logged 777 miles this year, and I know I can do a fall 26.2-miler without too many changes in my routine. I look at myself again. I get closer, and I look into my own eyes. Can I summon the courage and the desire necessary to do what I need to do to finish a 50-mile race? What would it mean to try and not succeed? What would it mean to not make the attempt?
In the end, this is what makes the decision for me. The attempt has to be made, because in the attempt is life. If there is joy to be rediscovered, I won’t find it in a bag of potato chips or in a bottle of wine. I lace up my sneakers and I head out the door.
August 1, 2009