A friend at work, one who is relatively new to long distance running, approached me to ask what counts as a marathon: the distance or the event. He completed his first marathon event at the end of last December, and I’m proud to say I was the one who suggested it to him. He had been training, and I encouraged him to register for the race. I was already planning to participate with my long-time long-distance running buddy, Sally, and I asked him to join us. It was a thrill to be there at the start with him, though I didn’t get to see him finish, as he beat me by about thirty minutes. Since then, he has traveled 26.2 miles six or more times all by himself. No course volunteers, no port-o-pottys along the way, nobody standing on the sidewalk saying, “Looking good!” or “You got this!”and no finish line with an oversize clock letting him know his unofficial time. It was just him and his chronograph, and he wanted to know from me if those runs “counted” as marathons. The question caught me off guard, as I’d never thought about it before, but I knew what he wanted to hear. I assured him that a marathon is 26.2 miles, so his solitary journeys certainly count. Since then, I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit, and I’ve decided that, for me, a marathon is about the event. I’m not trying to take anything away from my friend, and I won’t metaphorically strip his non-existent finisher medals from those solo flights. He covered the distance, and that’s an accomplishment to be proud of. But for me, I like the officialness of crossing a finish line and getting a medal. It’s an unequivocal symbol of accomplishment. It’s proof that a screen shot of my chronograph posted on Facebook doesn’t quite provide. I’ve run 26.2 miles more times than the six events would suggest, as my early training routine had me completing the full distance before I toed an official starting line, but I’ve never counted those training runs in my personal running ledger. If I did, I could certainly add significantly not only to my marathon total, but also to my total number of half marathons completed. I’ve covered 13.1 miles dozens of times while training for marathons. I’m probably close to a hundred 10Ks by that reckoning. Hmm. Maybe he’s on to something.
While, personally, unofficial 26.2 mile runs don’t count as official marathons — or halfs, 10Ks, 5Ks, etc. — the miles I put in certainly count for something. To me, they symbolize perseverance, determination, and, on occasion, absolute misery. My twenty mile training run last Saturday is a good example of the latter. I’m deep into preparations to be a pacer in the upcoming Capital City Marathon, and rarely have I been as miserable on a long run.
I headed out on the cool morning with a light rain falling and hoped for the best while fearing the worst. I joined up with Sally about a mile in and learned that she was tired from a long week of travel that included lots of walking and pushing her temporarily wheelchair-bound husband around the streets of Southern California. I was weary from a week of trying to get over a cold. It was just a head cold that, thankfully, did not creep into my lungs. By Saturday morning, I was largely decongested, if a bit drained from a week of sedentary nose-blowing. The first few miles passed uneventfully, as we distracted ourselves from our respective weariness with conversation about work and family, but by the time we reached mile eight, we were starting to wonder if it would ever end. To add to our distress, the previously light rain had started to fall with conviction. It wasn’t a cold, biting rain, but it was preternaturally wet, like standing in a shower. Rivulets of water tumbled from the bills of our caps, and puddles formed in our shoes. If we had felt better, it might have seemed funny, but our mutual exhaustion had us questioning our life choices.
It was around the halfway point that it occurred to me I had a song stuck in my head. Once in a while, I’m blessed with an ear worm that I enjoy, such as a good Slayer song, but on Saturday, it was the Bee Gees singing “How Deep is Your Love.” I have no idea why that particular ditty was on replay in my mind, but it was unshakeable. I won’t deny an appreciation for the Bee Gees music. Saturday Night Fever was an important movie from my youth, and the soundtrack is undeniably danceable, but I haven’t intentionally listened to that music in thirty years. Despite my general avoidance of disco, ten miles into our soggy run, I couldn’t even think of another song. Again and again, for the entire almost-four hour trek, the Brothers Gibb inquired about the depths of my affection, and I found that those waters were getting shallower with each step. Four miles from the end, in desperation, I called up a YouTube video of the song on my phone to see if getting the song out of my head and into my hand might be a way to cast the disco demons out, but to no avail. I was living in a world of fools for twenty miserable miles.
The ark-inspiring rains did finally stop after mile fourteen, but not before my rain jacket had lathered up with laundry detergent that clearly had not been sufficiently rinsed out of the garment in my washing machine’s rinse cycle. I was foaming, and Sally found it quite amusing, but I was too tired to be embarrassed.
At mile fifteen, I was ready to quit. I considered suggesting to Sally that we could stop and call one of our spouses for a ride home. I thought we could run the last five miles the next day and call it good, but I figured she either wouldn’t accept my reasoning, or, perhaps worse, she might agree with my proposal. Despite my anguish, I knew that if we quit now, we would be pissed at ourselves for giving up. We had a twenty mile training run to complete in preparation for the marathon in which we would be official pacers, helping others achieve their goal of a five hour finish time, and no excuses would make up for a lack of training. Our long forced stagger continued.
Approaching mile sixteen, I was getting disturbingly close to running out of water, and Sally suggested we stop in to a 7-11 along the route to see if I could refill my water bottle. We stood in the store looking, I imagine, like homeless tweakers, waiting for the cashier to help a chatty young woman buy a pack of cigarettes. When the transaction was finally complete, he said the soda fountain didn’t have any water, but we could use the sink next to the coffee machine. It was one of the least convenient water stations I’ve come across in a long run, but thankfully, there was no charge, and I thanked him for his generosity. Nice people rule.
The last three miles were a mix of excitement and depression. We were finally running towards our homes instead of away from them, which gave me an emotional boost, but I was in pain. My muscles were clenching and my shins felt like they were going to shatter. I said it would take a team of medical and psychological professionals to assess my overall health in that moments. I wasn’t sure if I was actually dying or simply desirous of death as an alternative to putting one foot in front of another for three more miles.
With one mile to go, we parted ways, and I was on my own. My only goal was to get home. Whether I walked or ran didn’t matter, as this was a matter of survival. When I did arrive at my house, it was all I could do to climb the steps to my bedroom to strip out of my clothes — which was no easy feat given my physical condition — get showered, dry off enough to collapse on the bed, and hope I wouldn’t die. My wife asked how it went, and I asked her to order me a pizza. Pizza was what I needed, and I spent the afternoon eating slice after slice while sitting on the couch. The only time I rose to my feet was to walk out the cramps in my calves that plagued me the rest of the day.
On Monday, at work, I complained to a friend with significant marathon experience, and he said, “Oh yeah, I saw you Saturday morning…running.” His pause made it clear that he had seen me near the end of my adventure when my form was somewhere between running and crawling. He was driving by and worried that I might trip over a curb based on my inability to raise my feet in anything resembling a running stride.
So why do we do this? Why do we suffer these occasional bouts of misery voluntarily? It’s because the miles matter, and the payoff is pretty huge. Perseverance, determination, and accomplishment are ideas that we sometimes forget about when staring at our phones or TVs. It’s good to be reminded what we are capable of as humans, even if it hurts sometimes. I’m looking forward to getting another medal hung around my neck and, hopefully, to see the smiles on the faces of the people that follow Sally and me, the official five-hour pacers. Pretty cool.
My running habit is not unlike the way I feel about writing. Sitting at my keyboard clickety-clacking my ideas onto the screen is a much less physical human expression, but it usually features similarly long stretches of misery capped off with elation at having accomplished something. Completing another book or clicking publish on this blog site or is a sweet reward. This is my 200th blog post, five years in the making. If you’ve been along for the whole ride or are new to this forum, thanks for joining me. Let’s go for a run sometime, and I’ll tell you all about the journey.