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An Ode to Running: Past, Present, and Future

December 11, 2012

God, I love running. That sounds weird to some people, but it really is great.  Running is good for you.  Running feels good.  Running helps you clear your head.  I started running every day about 3 years ago, and I honestly haven’t had a cold since then.  That’s no small accomplishment for me.  I’m allergic to everything, I have an evil set of tonsils, and I have asthma.  Through college, I literally walked around with bronchitis about 9 months out of the year.  I had no energy.  Granted, I drank too much and ate too much, but I also desperately needed exercise and I wasn’t getting it.  After graduation, I was chubby and unemployed.  My priorities may have been a little skewed back then, because I lost 30 pounds long before I got a job.  After just a couple months of jogging, I realized I was hooked on running for the long haul.  Naturally, I wanted to race. And  maybe a little unnaturally, I set my sights on a long race in September 2010, just 9 months after I started running: the Tupelo Marathon.  I’m going to explain that experience in a bit, but first I need to go way back to 1st grade to explain how I came to crave the long run.

When I was pretty young, I was hospitalized a couple of times with near-fatal pneumonia.  Of course, I didn’t know it was near fatal, but everyone around did and apparently it was some BFD that scared my whole family.  Between the ages of 5-8, my mom would have to hide my football or soccer schedules from me because I was insanely competitive but was often too sick to walk, much less go play out in the cold.  My lungs were crap, plain and simple.  As I got older, there were emergency room visits and appointments with allergists and all that fun stuff.  I gave up cold-weather sports for good in 8th grade. My junior high football coach wrangled about 15 undersized kids one day after we had practice and told us that we were not exactly welcome on a team that was supposed to be inclusive to anyone that stuck out practice.  That short little PE teacher telling me to go play rec ball never left me.  I felt completely dejected.  I should have just been able to let it go.  But I couldn’t for a long time. It felt awful, and I vowed to never let something like that happen again.

Fast forward to high school, where I was engrossed in baseball.  I wasn’t big, but I was decent enough.  I worked all year, every year to get better.  I sat a lot my first couple of years, but kept working to get my shot.  My high school brought in a new coach my last year.  I had worked all year to get a chance to pitch.  He called me into his office to discuss my role on the team just before the year started.  During that meeting, I was informed that my role would consist primarily of motivating younger players and keeping morale up.  I was to be a glorified cheerleader. I sucked it up, completely humiliated but still hopeful.  10 games into the season, I still hadn’t seen the field and our team sucked.  I had 4 months left in high school, and I made a difficult choice: I went into his office and turned in my uniform.  I never put on a uniform again.  I felt like a quitter, and for whatever reasons I thought about that for a long time afterwards.

When I was a junior in college, I bought a book on running.  I got new shoes, new gear, and started logging short miles. My dad was ecstatic.  He was a good runner on a fantastic high school track team.  He wasn’t the fastest, but he was good enough to run at big meets.  He loved to run, but he had gotten away from it when my sister and I came along. I was in decent shape before I reveled in my senior year and lost my  edge.  When I moved back home, my dad encouraged me to get back into running.  I believe his exact words were, after I squeezed into a pair of 35″ khakis on Christmas Day,  “maybe you should have asked for running shoes.” I got the point, and starting logging miles.

I ran a lot of long, lonely runs that year after I graduated.  I was depressed about being at home and unemployed. I didn’t feel like I could control much.  But I knew everyday that there was a choice I could make: be a wimp or go log the miles.  4-milers turned into 8-milers.  Those turned into 15-milers.  I picked up a running buddy along the way and we started logging 20-mile runs in preparation for the marathon in Tupelo.  It was flat and fast, just the type of road race for a marathon beginner.  We figured we could sign up late and still get in.  I mean, how many people can actually have the urge to run 26.2? Turns out, there were a lot.  I got a text from my running buddy a couple weeks before the race. “Tupelo is full. What should we do?”  I panicked.  I scoured the web for nearby races.  I found nothing at first.  I dug around for days.  And then I found one. I knew from the get-go that this wasn’t going to be pretty. This was not the easy coast I had envisioned for my first long race. I sent my friend a message. “Found a race. It’s bad. Small race up the side of a mountain in Boone, NC.  You in?” His reply sealed our fate. “Yeah, I’m in. Why not?”

It was really cold at the starting line.  It was still dark.  There was no band, no big sponsors, no fancy tech T-shirt.  There were 30 people, about 6 organizers, and some gatorade stands set up by a local sorority.  I threw up behind a car. I questioned my sanity.  I tried to talk myself out of it.  And then the gun went off. And then I just ran.  I ran for a long time.  I ran up massive hills. I ran past terrifying dogs.  I walked a little.  I almost quit.  There was no shame in walking off at 20 miles in.  It wasn’t a matter of shame, it was a matter of principal.  On all those long miles, I saw those guys that told me I wasn’t an athlete.  I could still hear them telling me to focus on something else besides sports.  It drove me.  More that the love of running, more than the notion of kicking a marathon off the bucket list, those naysayers from my past haunted me.  On those 20-mile runs through Georgia heat in July, I saw their faces, heard their words.  Quitting again was not an option.  No one could tell me that I couldn’t finish that race but myself.  And that just wasn’t happening.

More than 4 hours after I left the line, I crossed it.  In the days leading up to the race, I imagined some cathartic experience as I finished the race.  I imagined my doubters from childhood standing there, middle-aged and overweight, staring with astonishment as the kid they dismissed completed one of the most daunting feats in the sports world.  I thought I’d cry.  I thought I’d scream.  I thought I’d do something.  But I didn’t. I just crossed the line, got my medal, drank some juice, then drove home. 

I was pretty down for a few days.  I was expecting some sort of personal revelation to occur just after the race.  It didn’t happen, and I needed to know why.  So I did what I always did when I needed answers: I ran.  And sure enough, I got my answers.  That race was totally insignificant. I had busted it for 6 months getting ready.  I knew I would finish, and the run itself was a formality. The lessons were in those miles that I ran in my hometown.  The problems I solved while out there. The joy I felt during the peaks of a run and the lows I drudged through were far more valuable than being able to tell people I had run 26.2. I didn’t need validation, I had my validation.  It just so happened that it was already with me when I went to Boone, not on the course for me to find and collect.  I ran more than ever after that race with the Boston marathon in mind.  After a couple injuries in the winter and some bad times in shorter races, I shelved the marathon aspirations and focused on staying in shape, not training.  The injuries and bad races had me down about Boston, but it was out of my control so I accepted it and moved on to things like starting my business.

A couple months ago, on my dad’s 57th birthday, I asked him what he had in store for the year.  He said he’d like to run a marathon.  He’s been running a little the past year, and he’s still got that knack, although he hasn’t run anything longer than a 5k in years.  I told him that the only way that I was going to let that happen is if I was right there with him.  And so the quest for 26.2 has begun again.

In Mid-March, barring injury, my dad and I will pull ourselves across the finish line at the Publix marathon in Atlanta.  My training is going well, as is my dad’s.  My focus feels so different this time around, though.  I know I don’t have anything to prove to myself or anyone else. I know that I won’t break through to a great marathon time.  I know that this isn’t a real stepping stone to achieving the ultimate goal of running in Boston.  And I feel great about that.  Because I know that crossing the finish line with my dad will be better than any of that stuff. He gave me my love of running, and together we will both start and finish this race as a sort of ode to friendship, family, and love of the sport. Give me crossing the finish line with my dad over running alone in Boston any day.  Alberto Salazar once said of the marathon distance, “Standing on the starting line, we’re all cowards.”  There is some scary truth to that.  But there is beauty in it as well.  To stand there knowing that you are about to challenge yourself to an extreme degree is difficult.  But it’s fulfilling and it’s exciting and it makes you feel alive.  The pinnacle of human experience is sitting there waiting to be grasped.  To achieve, to conquer, to defy odds is the essence of the human experience. The marathon is unforgiving, brutally honest.  You will make mistakes out there, you will hurt, you will face mental and physical barriers.  But to welcome these things and confront them is sublime and utterly fulfilling. To grasp that opportunity is courageous and glorious.  These opportunities and hardships and triumphs are what make life beautiful. And that is the beauty of the long run. 




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One Comment
  1. Leslie waycaster permalink

    Very well put. Only people who actually do the long miles understand why you get hooked on it. There is no team. There is mo coach and there aren’t any cheerleaders to push you on. It is just you and the road. It teaches you self-reliance and good results from hard work. On a lot of days while the rest of the world is going nuts I choose to run and escape. It isn’t for everybody but for many it is no less essential than love or we breathing. As crazy as it sounds, I can’t wait to finally do aeration and to do together will be a dream come true, but man is it gonna hurt! Love, dad

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