Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Long Run

I was five years old the first time I won anything.

The best I can recall, we spent the entire last day of kindergarten on footraces. The day started with a free for all. We lined up in the grass, eighty or so kids from the four kindergarten classes at Westmoreland Road Elementary. At a teacher’s ready-set-go, we set off running the length of a football field. I remembered my father’s advice about the difference between long runs and sprints. I paced myself, stayed with the pack until the final 30 yards or so when I sprung out ahead and won the race.

I told my father when I got home. My father, who I had devastated when I turned out I couldn’t hit a baseball to save my life. My success at running marked the second chance at an athletic career. In the weeks that followed, whenever the two of us were idly waiting for something, he called on me to run to some point in the distance and back--to the street corner, to the telephone pole, to the tree.

I was fast, but not in a record-breaking sort of way. In lieu of any obvious way to application for talents, we moved on. By mid-summer, my old man switched his focus to teaching me to read, using an elaborate system of homemade flashcards and the ever-imminent threat of hitting me in the back of the head with one of his beat-up old blue slippers if I got a word wrong.

You can’t make this stuff up.

But back to running, it was around that time that I joined my sister and the neighborhood kids in lining the side of the road to hand out water to runners of The Boilermaker Road Race. For those unfamiliar with The Boilermaker, it’s a 15K (approximately 9.3 mile) race, that today fields up to 13,000 participants. Each year, a number of world-class runners from afar join the race.

We handed out water and watched the people run by--professional runners, intense amateurs, and finally the everyday people who weren’t exactly running by the seven-and-a-half-mile point, mere footsteps from my front door, but who nonetheless had the wherewithal to still be in motion, still trying.

I told my mother that one day I would win The Boilermaker.

By the age of 17, I had no illusions of ever finishing in the top 1,000 runners for that particular race. But I did decide it was time to give The Boilermaker a try.

I trained.

We had a week off from school each April, so starting then, I hit the pavement. The first day, running for 12 minutes straight was nearly unbearable, and I relegated myself to laps around the block so I wouldn’t strand myself too far from home.

By the end of the week I could sustain a run for about 20 minutes.

By graduation, I could keep running for an hour or so each time out. This was before the days when every runner had a pedometer. Using markers from the local terrain, I estimated I was moving between an eight- and nine-minute mile clip.

Come July—the month of the race—I was holding pace for an hour and a half or more. In short, I was ready.

Four days before the race, I ate some bad pizza.

I was friends with a pair of brothers who hosted a get-together each summer. Ten or so of us would play basketball most of the afternoon, eat excessive quantities of food, and then end up in their in-ground pool as the evening set in. In the gluttony portion of this particular gathering, I ventured out of my normal comfort zone and ate a slice of mushroom pizza.

I’ve never liked mushrooms. I don’t like the texture, and the flavor has never been enough to compensate for that.

This--the time I willfully ate mushrooms--led to the single worst stomach virus of my life. (As a reasonably rational adult, I recognize that eating all that pizza without washing my hands after I played basketball probably had more to do with my illness than the mushrooms themselves. Psychological scars don’t always abide rationalism, though. I haven’t intentionally eaten a mushroom since.)

It started the next day at my summer job, working behind the counter at McDonald’s. I had trouble standing. I figured all that running, plus the day of basketball, plus an eight-hour shift on my feet were just taking their toll, and I’d get some rest when I got home.

When I got home, I puked my guts out.

For the two days that followed, I lay in bed, only getting up long enough to cross the hallway to the bathroom and ralph up whatever was left in my system. I’m sure I must have drank something and ate something over the course of those two days, but only certain of it because I must have had something more in my stomach to manufacture more vomit.

Then came race day. I couldn’t keep food down, but I was able to jog in place, barefoot on the yellow carpet in my room for a minute without feeling sick. And so I decided to run.

Jog may be the more appropriate term. While ten-to-eleven minute miles are OK to me in my advanced age, they felt like moving in slow motion at the age of 17. I stopped for a cup at the first water station. One sip of water and I was nauseous again. I chucked the rest of the cup and kept moving.

There are medics everywhere at The Boilermaker, ready to tend to folks who bit off more than they could chew running a 15K. I never expected to be one of the people who needed them. And, perhaps against all odds, on rubber legs, no food, and no water, I stayed upright. After about an hour and forty minutes I crossed the finish line.

Looking back, my mother tells me I looked like death.

I always intended to run The Boilermaker again someday, but I got a job with a summer program out of town the next year and ended up working with that same summer program every summer since (11 years and counting).

I went to college and kept running. A practical choice. I intended run The Boilermaker again. I was drafting a novel about a runner. Plus, there was the sheer principle that I’d gone from getting gassed after running a mile and a half, to running close to ten miles; I didn’t want to give up the conditioning. So I ran a couple times a week, three-to-five miles in an outing, and more or less maintained the regimen for four years.

I didn’t run in the years immediately following college. I worked my 9-5, I wrote, I took classes, I lived with my girlfriend. I had a full life.

I moved to Baltimore. After a longer winter than I expected after migrating south, there came an April day that was pure spring time. Sunny, low 70s.

I ran.

I explored my suburb for the first time on foot and developed a somewhat routine route, about four miles long. Some neighborhood kids took to racing me along the stretches of sidewalk outside their houses. I had fun.

For the first time since The Boilermaker, I registered for a road race, a mere 5K in the Baltimore Running Festival that autumn.

The day of race arrived about a month and a half removed from a four year relationship and about a week and a half after things ended with the next girl. I mention all of this because of the idea that dominated my thoughts as I approached the finish line:

This is what it means to be single. You run a race and find no one waiting for you at the finish line.

I’m not sure if it was that melancholy thought, or that I was starting to get more into weight training, or that the weather started to cool (in reality, it was probably the confluence of all those factors), but I stopped running after that race, not to pick it up again for well over a year and a half.

Then came the Army Ten-Miler.

How does one go from a 5K to not running at all to a ten-miler? Truth be told, I don’t remember the specifics; just that my friends talked about doing it and I got caught up in the romanticism of running again. April 1, 2010, I registered. Days later the training began.

The first time I ran with any serious intentions I was 17. A decade later, the results weren’t as pretty. My knees ached. My back hurt.

But I did it.

A week before race day I ran 10 miles and change. After a week of rest, I drove down to Greenbelt, caught the Metro into the heart of DC, and took my place at the starting line.

I took it all in and tried to enjoy that sheer experience of running. The good feeling of a sweat you’ve worked up and earned, rather than the sweat heat and humidity impose upon you. The way a breeze to your front can cool you off at just the right moment. The way a breeze to your back can feel as though it’s pushing you forward. The capacity to engage with your thoughts or to think nothing at all and simply do.

I took it all in for no other reason than because I had decided this would be my last long run. While I haven’t ruled out a return to The Boilermaker if I ever have a summer free again, I’ve decided that I’m otherwise done. The joint pain, the time investment--all of its made for younger people, or people who find greater joy in this sport.

I didn’t run again for nearly two years. This time, I had no qualms about losing my conditioning. I was at peace with it. I like to think that’s the nature of a good retirement.

Then, on a pensive birthday I had split between writing, Chinese food, and Batman movies, apropos nothing, I laced up my sneakers and started running.

I felt some of the joy again. The burn in my lungs was something like an old friend, not altogether unpleasant. I thought about my life and what I wanted. I plotted. I made choices.

I was only on the road for a half hour or so. I’ve run a dozen or so times since then. Unplanned. Unstructured. Exploring.

I suppose that idea of running never really leaves you once you’ve realized it. A sheer physical task that, in its purest form, has nothing to do with competition or chasing after a ball, but that is, on the contrary, its own sport, its own art, its own endeavor. It’s an escape from the rest of life when unread emails and voice messages fall by the wayside in favor of conversations with oneself.

At least that’s the way it is for me.

I run now for myself, without pressure, expectations, or goals. Not to or from anything, but, perhaps, for something that is all the more important for lack of definition.

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