A little over a week ago, I ran my 43rd half marathon. Sometime in the midst of the run a recurring thought popped into my head, the thought of wanting to be done already. This thought and others like it occur fairly often during runs of all types, not just races. Why do I do it then? Why do I devote so much time, energy and money to something I frequently just want to finish and be done with. In this post I will attempt to explain something I have thought about for years, a feeling nearly indescribable, something that has hooked me so well, I just can’t quit.
To explain, I have to look back. My number one strength is context, after all.
Growing up, I both loved and hated running. i loved the sprints like the 50 yard dash at field day in elementary school or the sprint to first base after hitting an infield ground ball in softball. I loved the idea of accomplishment, of beating everyone across the finish line or beating the throw to first when everyone assumed that it was an automatic out. I disliked the prolonged effort of running the mile in junior high and high school. Others beat me routinely. My junior high P. E. teacher sat on the bleachers while we ran. I distinctly remember how much we all disliked her for that. I felt out of shape and lacking in the athletic gift department. A homeroom full of jocks in eighth grade helped little. In the end, I internalized these negative thoughts and believed the lie that athletic endeavors aside from recreational softball weren’t for me.
Then steps in the achiever in me. I often obsess over goals, anything from reading a certain number of books in a year to completing 26 races before my 26th birthday. I started running because of the thought of adding the tantalizing title of “half-marathoner” to my list of accomplishments. Many times over my first few years running, doubts dogged me through every single run, especially those leading up to my first half and full marathons. I wrestled with doubt throughout the races until I crossed the finish line. Why did I keep going then? Pure stubbornness, pigheadedness. I made a goal and I determined to keep it. When did it switch? When did it become something I do for the love of it rather than an extrinsic and sometimes self0created reward?
This came on gradually, lacking a specific aha! moment. The longer I ran, the more specifically I trained, the fitter I became. My body leaned out, becoming thinner but not lighter. My speed increased which led to a climb up the rankings. I no longer felt out of shape when I ran. I often finished runs feeling exhilarated, thrilled with my effort and hungry for more. Often I felt highest when the run had challenged me the most. I felt the lowest when I gave in to the negative thoughts and cut the run short or walked in a race.
Why running then?
Running suits me. The long minutes and hours stretch out like a canvas primed for the paint of my imagination. Running suits my introvert nature. I can go for a run whenever. I have no need to scrounge up other people to form a team. I tasted success much more quickly with running than with sports that required much more upfront investment.
Where do these thoughts of being ready to finish come from then? I have thought them from the moment I started running; I love a good countdown. These thoughts stick around because running still challenges me. I push to the uncomfortable point, expecting the due reward at the finish. The thoughts come from the struggle. The payoff comes with the finish line.
That is why I continue to run marathons and chase my Boston dreams. I hurt like no other time than in the throws of the marathon, all of the miles that come after mile 19 yet I push forward because that marathon finish line bestows a high like no other. Even when my time expectations got the better of me, I cross that line and smile form ear to ear.
This past Sunday reminded me of both the struggle and the victory as I watched Shalane Flanagan pull away from three time NYC Marathon champion, Mary Keitany and end her professional career, likely, with her first world marathon championship, the one thing lacking form her stunning pedigree. I watched her run, her stride strong and steady and wanted to get out there. I thought about her dedication to her training and wanted to step up my own efforts. I watched my all time favorite athlete, Meb Keflezighi give absolutely everything he had in his final competitive marathon, his 26th at age 42, and collapse at the finish line, utterly spent. That feeling surpasses all others for me, that feeling that comes after leaving everything on the course. Then I watched a little of the footage of some of the 50,000 other runners there that day, all running the marathon and thought back to the amazing sensation of camaraderie I felt in Chicago last month.
All these words still do not come close to an accurate picture of the runner’s high, the thing that keeps me running even when I start a count down. I run for love of the run, for all the reasons I delineated and the intangible ones that elude my tenuous grasp on the English language.