It all started more or less on a dare. Plans made over glasses of wine to someday take on a marathon, all from the starting point of not having run a step in years, if ever. I ran/walk/shuffled through a half mile run that February morning. It wasn't pretty, a little discouraging to be winded so quickly, but I kept at it. Three weeks later I ran my first event, the St Paddy's Day Dash, alongside a few other friends who had either thrown out the challenge, or stooped to pick up the gauntlet that had been thrown.
Running is generally a pretty solitary pursuit. Some run in groups, but I would guess some 95% of the miles are solo runs. Hitting the road alone after a day of work when the couch and TV tempts, sneaking off for an hour or more on the weekends when your family beakons. It doesn't feel lonely at all though. It is a time to clear your head and re-energize your mind. As the blood flow is diverted to the muscles in motion, it seems to take with it the garbage blocking the synapses in your brain. If you aren't completely focused on just getting your next foot in front of your last, you can get that free associating feeling normally reserved for when your head hits the pillow. You come back both spent and refreshed.
These solitary moments are a big part of running, but they frame some of the best experiences - running events. "What is the difference between a jogger and a runner? A racing bib." the old saying goes. All too simple as most old saws are. You can be a great runner without ever pinning a bib on, but I do think you are missing out on something.
For one, a finish line. There is something particularly satisfying, both emotionally and physically about taking that last step. A sense of relief, a feeling of accomplishment, the simple joy of completing something you set out to do. The reward for all those miles you put in, all those times you headed out when it was so much easier to stay inside.
While it is hard to beat the feeling at the finish line, there is definitely something magical about the start. One of my favorite quotes about running and running events is from the book "26.2 Marathon Stories" by Katherine Switzer and Roger Robinson
The prelude to a marathon is one of life’s strangest yet most vivid times. It is a time of intensity yet relaxation, apprehension yet resolve; a time of deeply introspective solitude in the midst of the biggest jostling throng most of us will ever join. So many people, intent on a separate inward commitment, but united in one common physical endeavor. Our motive is private, the context public. We are strangers who are instant comrades, competitors bonded by the shared knowledge that we are all about to undertake one of the hardest tasks in our lives. Ahead lie strenuous effort, weariness, and pain, but we will endure it voluntarily, for the sheer enjoyment of trying.Even before you take your first step, you are rewarded with the energy of all those around you. And though the road ahead will likely be difficult as you tap into all you have, to do your best, you know you are not alone in the pursuit. And as much as the finish line is a reward for your effort, this camaraderie is the reward for all those miles you ran alone.
I ran the Seattle Half Marathon a couple of weekends ago. This event was my first half marathon, and that first time was ten years ago. Both times I came in under-trained, though these days I have a base fitness that never seems to go away entirely (thank goodness). It turns out that even more important than the base fitness is the base belief in yourself that you can do it. All the miles not only trains your body, but it trains your mind as well. You develop a mental toughness by practicing not quitting, pushing through the discomfort and sometimes pain to keep moving forward.
In 2005, I ran the race alone. Well, not alone of course. I had a couple of thousand other runners keeping me company, but I didn't have anyone really to share the experience with. When I crossed that finish line, having run much farther than I had before, farther than I believed I could, I wept with joy and satisfaction. I broke down without reservation, and that may have been the first step toward feeling a part of something. To appear weak in a crowd of people and be proud and not ashamed.
Ten years later I headed to the start line with five others, four of us jammed hip to hip in the back seat on the drive in. Three were basically strangers, but it was race morning and all barriers were down amidst the nervous excitement. It was below freezing at the start, but it didn't dampen anyone's resolve. We would join in the battle together, and we would finish. We lost each other almost immediately after the gun went off, but we were joined by others, their drumbeat of foot strikes providing a rhythm to the morning.
I ran a solid race. The time was almost unimportant, though I found some satisfaction in the clock. I came in just under my goal time, and more satisfyingly, I ran the second, hillier half in just about the same time as the first. I found that hidden reservoir to keep pressing even as the road grew long (and steep). Afterward, when we had all crossed the line, we got to share in the victory, each understanding what the other had been through. Community through shared experience.
I still struggle to get out the doors some days, and there are often more ticks on the clock by the time I finish, but running still has power in my life. Power to detach, power to connect, power to challenge and power to succeed. The power to bring me closer to friend and stranger alike.
Ten years on, the finish line was (almost) as sweet.
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