The Loneliness of The (Slow) Long Distance Runner
By: Chelsea Biondolillo
It is mile ten-point-something and I am beginning to think that the Oreo I ate at the last water stop was a bad idea. The rest of my group is pulling ahead, and I just can't seem to lift my legs high enough to power up the short but steep hill out from the freeway underpass. By the time the ground levels back out, the other five runners are a little over half a block ahead. We won't see each other again until we are back at the Rogue headquarters at the end of this 14 miler. My mp3 player lasts another 5 minutes before the battery dies. The next 45 minutes will be spent with nothing but my inner monologue and the sound of my breath and pounding footsteps to keep me company.
Each run, I expect it to get easier. Instead, it just seems to take longer for me to ask myself what the hell I am doing, but I'll take that as improvement. All of this activity is new for me. Athletics were never a part of my life until a friend talked me into training for a triathlon about three years ago. I had just learned how to ride my bike and wasn't even sure what the “freestyle” swimming stroke was. And now unbelievably, just a couple of years later, I find myself training for a half marathon.
And sometimes it is hard. There are days when my butt hurts in a remarkably persistent way from the hill workout the day before; or nights when I would rather go see a friend's band play downtown instead of rest up for the 7 AM run I have in the morning. Yet, I keep coming back. Even with the occasional discomfort and shuffling of activities, I find myself longing for these mornings with just me and a few team mates and hours of route unfolding slowly before me.
Watching the houses slide by slowly in my peripheral vision, my mind is having a hard time staying on task. I find myself staring at the ground as the sun begins to rise in front of me. It was dark when I left and I didn't bring sunglasses. I adjust my visor down, so that I can lift my chin up. There is some factoid I should be able to recall about keeping my head square, something about aerodynamics maybe? I make a mental note to ask one of my coaches about this later. There are also persistent rumors about endorphins on the forum and in the training meetings. I could really use some of those here on miles 11 and 12, but most likely I used them up about an hour ago.
Two years ago, I dropped out of half marathon training because I hated being last on every long run. It was embarrassing; I felt conspicuous and out of shape. It bothered me that people were having to wait for me to get back. But several races later, I don't seem to care as much. It helps that I am in better shape, and am now usually second-to-last or even (joy!) third- or fourth-to-last.
I have also figured out ways to feel better about my very slow pace. Mentally, I race all the people who are still in bed, or groggily staring into a bowl of cereal while they sit on the couch and watch morning news. Each house I pass is a potential runner I overtake. I even race myself from the week before, when the long run was shorter by a mile or two. When I pass my previous mileage, I imagine that I am dashing past myself like a cheetah.
I count the number of steps between each whooosh of an exhale. The coaches have talked about rhythm before, as well as those elusive endorphins, and I try out different breath/footfall patterns, counting in my head. Just as I realize I have started to hum to myself, I stop. I try to sing in my head for a few verses, but I can't think of any songs that I know all the words to. A red light is a welcomed break, and I stand on the curb, curling up first my right then my left leg, stretching out my aching quadriceps. The light changes and I jog into the intersection, already forgetting where I was in the song I was trying to remember. I go back to counting my breaths and steps.
Should I be more focused? My thoughts wander away from my rhythm after only a minute or two. I replay a conversation from earlier in the week that I wished had gone better. If only I had had a better comeback! I try out a few different lines, suddenly aware that I am making faces. I blush, even though it is early on a Sunday morning and no one is awake to see me mouthing sassy one-liners like a method actor. I wonder again if I should be more focused.
Most of the people who hear that I am training for a half marathon say something about how they could never do it themselves.
“I can't even run around the block.”
“You must be in really good shape!”
“I don't have enough time for all that training.”
It is easy to come up with reasons not to get up and run. I am incredibly slow. Nearly everyone in my training group beats me back to headquarters on our Sunday morning long runs. My body, so unaccustomed to regular training, protests each new threshold with aches and stiffness.
But there are payoffs, too. I lost 40 lbs last year between running and triathlon training. My legs look great and are surprisingly strong. Most nights, my sleep is deeper and more refreshing. I know so much more about my body's ability to work hard and exceed my expectations.
There is another benefit too, one that is harder to concisely describe. In the last twelve months, I have crossed six different finish lines. Crossing a finish line does something remarkable to the average person's psyche. I am not talking about professional athletes (whose motivation I can't even begin to imagine), or even the hardcore enthusiasts who run races all year, trying for personal bests and elite-level times. I am talking about the newbies, amateurs, part-timers, and weekenders, like myself. How many conceptual finish lines do we create each day, week, month, year? When will this day be over? I will take a vacation when I complete this project. We will get back to our routine after the holidays. But finishing these tasks rarely has the same sense of finality and success as crossing a painted yellow line and hearing the official clock beep in your finish time. How often in daily life does someone drape a ribbon and medal around your neck for accomplishing your goals?
As I run past the Capitol building, I can feel the past mileage beginning to weigh heavily on my shoulders. I have less than one mile to go; in my mind's eye I picture the map of the final few blocks through downtown. I imagine myself as a little dot, moving past the hotels and restaurants like Pac-Man. I fight the urge to hum the Pac-Man music.
Now that I am running past store-fronts instead of yards and houses, the urge to turn and look at my reflection becomes overwhelming. I finally give in, and regret it right away. I have started to hunch over, and do not look as svelte and athletic as running 13 point something miles has led me to believe I must. I look a bit beat, to be honest. This sudden unneeded dose of reality slows me down a bit and my steps falter. It would be so easy to give into negativity, to start in with the “Just what the hell do you think you're doing, anyway?” Instead, I start humming the theme to Rocky very, very quietly. I fight the urge to raise my arms up in the air. Then I do it, immediately turning my Stallone into a shoulder stretch in case any one is looking. This is the farthest I have ever run. And I am still running. My legs are killing me in new and strange ways. Still running. I feel a raw spot-a blister maybe on the back of my neck from where my shirt tag has been rubbing for over two and a half hours. Keep running. My toes are numb and my fingers feel slightly swollen. Just run.
When I see the arch over the finish line on race day, and pull an ounce of extra energy from I-don't-even-know-where and sprint forward, it doesn't matter that I am not the fastest, record-setting runner in the race. I win by crossing that line. It is such a cliché and is so cheesy, that it's hard to explain to the people who say they don't have the time or the energy or the natural ability. I usually just try to be as earnest and engaged as possible when I tell them, “Look, if I can do this, anyone can.”
As I round the corner onto 4th Avenue, I start estimating how many yards are left between myself and the end-point at the Rogue headquarters. I arbitrarily say it's 1600 yards and then start to subtract yards as I cross streets. When I pass under I-35, I can see the end. I imagine a finish line arch in front of me and run toward it with everything I've got.