My Year of Running
Dripping sweat, with detritus I’d kicked up from the road stuck to my legs and dead gnats smooshed into my forehead, I was often especially gross in the mid-Atlantic summer of 2015.
Running is disgusting. Cold weather is no better than hot: lots and lots of snot. Tissues quickly turned into sticky balls. I stopped bringing any and just used my clothes.
“WHY ARE YOU RUNNING? IS SOMEONE CHASING YOU?” a guy called to me from the steps of a memorial as I jogged past below. I think he was trying to be funny. Someone often is chasing me, but it’s just in my nightmares. I ignored him and kept going, kept collecting more dead gnats on my face.
On a whim late in the summer of 2014, I entered my first race, the Across the Bay 10K, a newly revamped run across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which is known as one of the scariest bridges in the world. I had driven across probably hundreds of times when I was younger — in the dark, rain, fog, snow, winds — one reason why the fear of driving across bridges that had been creeping into my psyche was so annoying.
But crossing on foot was no problem. I was excited for the race. I made distance maps around my neighborhood and carved out time. That fall, I felt myself getting stronger, my stamina increasing.
November 2014. After a slow jog across the starting line, my friend and I walked. Being on foot on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge is something to appreciate — feeling it sway below me, peeking over the barrier down to the water, which I did so quickly it hardly counts.
At the top of the bridge, shortly after the porta potties, my friend and I parted, and I ran.
I took several weeks off until early 2015.
From the comfort of my warm car, I saw a girl running in January. It was evening, dark, and literally freezing out. She was wearing exercise pants and a vest. Nothing on her head, her ponytail flapping. I instantly felt envy and regret and awe. How is she doing that? and I should be out there too.
I got an entry code for the Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run and began training again.
As the spring wore on, I kept discovering things I was doing wrong, like running as fast as possible for as long as I could stand it. With this method, I took a lot of walking breaks. So I started slowing down. Slow and steady wins the race, I told myself, over and over. In the end, it probably all equaled out. Only once did I break a 10-minute mile in my tracker app. But there’s something about keeping going, at the same pace, for minutes and minutes on end, and then miles and miles, that was exhilarating.
In March, I entered the lottery for the Marine Corps Marathon. I never expected to get in.
I got in.
I have to do it now, I figured. No putting this off. I was 33, my palindrome year. It felt indefinably significant.
In March, also, I finally had a dream in which I escaped a pursuer.
An accident the morning of the race meant the race directors cut the course short, which we slow-pokes in the back didn’t mind at all. 10 miles for the price of 9.5! people around me joked.
I became aware of my knee hurting around mile 7 or 8. I successfully ignored it, but this would plague me for weeks until I started doing weird knee lifts, and began learning that almost every pain was because my body wasn’t used to it, not because something was really wrong.
Race weekend coincided with peak cherry blossom time, but unlike the Bay Bridge race, I didn’t savor it much. The whole thing is mostly a blur for me. I worried about being swept off. I worried about falling behind. I had two goals: finish and don’t be last.
I finished, and I wasn’t last.
Reading is more my speed in terms of physical activity, and that year I consumed many running and hiking adventure tales: Wild, The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances, Born to Run, Into the Wild, A Walk in the Woods. My running never really felt like an adventure, though. There were countless mild annoyances (catcallers) and a few major assholes (the douchebag who yelled “You’re welcome!” out his vehicle’s window when I apparently failed to thank him demonstrably enough for stopping at a stop sign). But nothing was exciting.
Yet, it wasn’t boring. The combination of my constantly moving body, my near-constantly moving mind, and the music pumping into my ears all kept me entirely occupied. I thought and pondered and thought and pondered, daydreamed, constructed elaborate movie plots in which I was the star. I ended up enjoying my own company quite a bit amid so much tedium and physical grief.
Portland, Maine in July is not quite as brutal as D.C., but by mid-morning, when I was done with the half-marathon, I was hot.
Highlights included my mother being interviewed by the DJ beforehand. I suddenly heard her voice come over the loudspeaker from the end of the slow corral and it was fortifying.
Also, the cop in full uniform. I was running around him for a lot of the race and couldn’t figure out what he was doing out there. He was racing. Duh.
Training took over my life. I didn’t do much of anything except run, plan runs, think about running, eat, work, and sleep. I didn’t swim all summer or visit friends. I had no lazy Saturdays on the couch. Anxiety about not finishing lurked in my mind for the months leading up to October. The pain from my once-broken foot and other minor injuries kept me laid up during times I could have been enjoying non-running things.
Some of the training was awful, the most hellish on a bridge near my house. One summer morning, I waited too long to start and became so drained under the relentless sun that I felt faint and had to sit. Another time, when it got colder, the wind was gusting so hard that I had to bob and weave to dodge the thick cobwebs blowing from the railing. The worst was probably my longest training run in early October: cold, windy, rainy. The bridge, usually so full of people on weekends, was near deserted. Again, I started late and hadn’t had enough sleep. It drizzled almost the whole time. I felt like a fool. Going across, I felt the wind whipping the droplets of rain so forcefully that for a few confusing minutes I wondered if it was snowing.
For cross-training one week I decided to try spin cycle, which was gym class-level misery. I wanted to leave after 10 minutes. My feet were strapped in and I was trapped. I couldn’t get out of the shoes when the class was over, and a grandma-type lady who had out-spun me the entire class had to help.
And on top of all that, I slowly gained weight. While training, I tracked calories consumed and burned, sugar and caffeine intake, weight, distance, pace, mood, sleep. All this data collection helped explain how I found myself, about 6 weeks before the race, 10 pounds heavier. My insatiable hunger was probably due to overtraining. I was burning thousands, but still much less than what I was consuming, which included a lot of crap, because I was optimistically overcompensating for my caloric deficit. I read all these articles about how training for a marathon puts you in the best shape of your life. Instead, I thought, I’m probably going to be the first person ever to gain weight while training for a marathon. (It turns out I’m not.)
Why was I keeping this up, pursuing something I had a near-zero chance of winning, or even doing particularly well at, that had long stretches of misery and was making me fat?
When I started, I had wanted an to do something physically gruelling, putting my body through what I had many times put my mind through in school. I wanted to outrun things. I discovered that I liked how my skins smells faintly burnt even after I shower. I wanted that feeling of keeping on, even when my legs were lead.
I discovered benefits too. I had ever slightly more patience. Things I would have stayed up until 1 a.m. to finish had to wait until tomorrow — or next week. Four hours waiting for my car to be fixed didn’t seem quite so long. And walking seven miles came to seem like nothing.
Also, training made me sleep, because I simply couldn’t go even moderately fast if I was tired. I was getting the most and best rest I’d had in my entire adult life.
In October, cleaning the Camelbak was bittersweet. I was relieved. The bladder was a pain in the ass to clean and store properly. The backpack smelled. It represented lots of the drags about running: the time commitment, the dirt, the expensive equipment.
Still, after months of running being near the center of my life, suddenly one of its most vital elements was going into storage, perhaps permanently.
The marathon was two days before my 34th birthday.
The morning was slightly drizzly, and I was actually thankful for my horrible training runs, which prepared me for crappy weather.
Highlights included early on in the course hearing someone on the sidelines under a bridge sing “You Are My Sunshine,” a song I always associate with my grandfather, a retired Marine. The Blue Mile was moving. And the donut holes at mile 22: I cannot overstate the importance of the donut holes.
I saw my family two times, but the third time at the finish line, I missed them. Apparently my father was stationed there for a long time, not to lose his spot. They were screaming at me, they said. But I was so out of it — there’s a hill at the end — and so achy that I didn’t notice.
I still dream of being chased pretty regularly. I doubt I will ever totally outrun my mind at night.
But during the day, in the real world, I have a shot.
Once, crossing at an intersection, I ran around a man and girl. “Why is that girl running?” the child asked from her stroller.
He said something, but I didn’t hear it.
I was already gone.