I am not at all the kind of person who should be running obsessed. I drink, I smoke, I eat more fried food than a Southern Baptist. I went to art school. I am in no way graced with the runner’s physical frame, and with the exception of Bay Area baseball, I am beyond ambivalent about competitive sports. And yet, everything about my brain is designed for running very slowly over very long distances. Like the beef jerky in my meditation retreat suitcase, the punk rock t-shirts I wear to yoga class, or my post-MFA path to being a college registrar, it is my great paradox. It is my not very hip and terribly demanding friend who, try as I might, I just can’t live without.
I started running way back in junior high when my dad convinced me to tag along on a few of his short runs. He had begun running marathons as a hobby, and I suppose when he saw me slipping full steam ahead into puberty he wanted to instill a sort of physical hardiness that could help me keep hold of my center (or maybe it was just a convenient way to fit dad-daughter time into his workaholic schedule). I would trod along beside him, inching along the arroyo rim that overlooks the Rose Bowl as he repeated his same advice over and over – push yourself just hard enough, keep your moves relaxed but precise, slow and steady wins the race – advice I try to follow even now, more than twenty years later, in both my running and in my life.
By the time I hit high school, I had taken up smoking and a certain overstressed, overworked approach to my education that kept me from committing wholeheartedly to anything extracurricular. I ran a year or so of forgettable cross-country and a half season of hurdles before starting an almost full time after school job, at which point I finally quit everything else outside of studying and sleeping here and there and trying to make it to school on time.
But still I ran. Not often and not well – just rarely and poorly enough to injure my Achilles tendon and squash most efforts at sustained activity for years to come. I found a new use for my running shoes when I traded track for techno (who needs intentional exercise when you can burn a thousand calories dancing the night away?), but ultimately something was missing. I suffered through a few false starts trying to bring running back into my life, but the same old injury kept coming back. I tried days off, tried custom shoe inserts, tried special stretching and endless chiropractic adjustments. And then I stopped trying altogether.
The years in which I didn’t run (and didn’t otherwise supplant those endorphins with dance dance euphoria) may very well be described as the worst years of my life. I didn’t make the connection then between my lack of locomotion and my lack of sanity, but looking back there’s really no other way to explain the darkness I was living through. Stress, migraines, sickness. Lack of motivation, lack of joy. I vacillated between pushing myself too hard and not pushing myself hard enough. I was tense and totally directionless. When the running had gone away, so too had the lessons running had taught me.
And then I got a dog. A strong, fast, energetic dog who didn’t just want to run, she needed to run, and in her need to run, she reminded me that I needed to run, too. But this time I knew I had to be smart about it. Slow and steady, relaxed and precise, pushing just hard enough to get my body back into shape. I wasn’t without pain, but I was all out of excuses.
Almost overnight my life looked better. Felt better. Was better. I was better. And other than a break during pregnancy, I haven’t stopped running since.
This weekend I ran a half marathon. When I decided to do this, most people I told were really impressed, but I thought that they were overreacting – it’s just a half marathon, I told myself, not like it’s the real thing, not like I’m even a real athlete. I run ten miles for fun every couple of weeks, another 3.1 tacked onto the end couldn’t be that big of a deal. And as much as I want to report that it wasn’t that big of a deal, it turns out that it was. Those last three miles – or if I’m really honest here, the whole second half of the race – were really, really hard. Totally exhausting. And absolutely exhilarating.
The exhausting part I assume doesn’t need much explaining. It was 13.1 miles run mostly on trails, with more than enough hills, on a morning that went from perfectly cool to way too warm in a matter of minutes. I hadn’t trained enough, the route was harder than I had anticipated (like the VERY steep 100 meter climb up loose dirt and rocks), and I came in about 10 minutes slower than I had been hoping. All in all, not much of a success. And yet it was one of the most memorable mornings of my life.
Which brings me to the exhilarating part. Why did I choose to run a half-marathon when I knew I was likely to be underprepared? Because it was a race run around that same arroyo where I started running twenty-odd years ago, and because that guy who got me started on this lifelong labor agreed to race with me.
This time the tables were turned, it was my dad who was trotting to keep up alongside me. He paced me for the first few miles, gave me equal parts guidance and distraction, then fell back to let me find my own way. And just when I thought I wasn’t going to make it to the end, there he was waiting for me at mile twelve, like a tugboat waiting to pull me in for the final few moments of my journey, to the Koukla waving and cheering us on just past the finish line.
The symmetry of it all seems a little too easy, but ultimately that’s what running has always been about for me – distilling my life down to the essentials, clearing out the crud so I can enjoy the things that really matter.
Thankfully it doesn’t always take a half marathon to have this effect. And thankfully I had my dad to show me the path.