Da Vinci and the Accidental Half Marathon

Virgin of the rocks
I am a master of avoidance. Last Saturday, for example, in an effort to avoid making any progress on my current “European Travel Journal” writing project, I ran a half marathon. That’s right: it seemed preferable to spend two hours running rather than face my keyboard and tap out words about Paris. I couldn’t stand the thought of describing the Louvre. The run wasn’t an organized event; I just ran thirteen miles. I had spent the morning avoiding writing by watching TV, and, as mid-day approached, I decided to assuage my guilt over my literary lethargy by going for a long run. I wanted to see if I could run ten miles and rationalized that a physical challenge would karmically balance out my avoidance of a mental challenge of writing. I forgot how much mental effort is required for double digit mileage.

Over the past two years, my runs average about three miles, sometimes stretching to five. It was a comforting routine, with little thought required, but I had been thinking about stretching it out. My new social circle of runners has been prodding me to run a marathon again, and the idea was taking root in my head and giving me new opportunities to avoid writing. When I left the house at noon, the autumn air was cool, but the sun was shining on the rusty leaves falling from the maple trees along the route I had chosen. It was a beautiful day for a run, and I felt good, strong. Once I reached the five mile mark, I began thinking I might want to go beyond ten miles and make it a complete half-marathon. From that point on, I could think of little else and obsessed about whether I could run that far, how I was feeling, how far I had gone, how far I still had to go, what my options were for cutting the run short, if my knee was feeling o.k., if I had enough water left, if the pressure on my bladder was enough that I should stop to pee behind a tree, etc. At each mile marker – it is a well-marked path – I walked for 30 seconds and drank water. Over the last four miles, I stopped every half mile to take a 30 second walk break. My legs began to reach a state of petrification, my feet hurt, and my arms and shoulders slumped. The soreness was comprehensive. For the last mile, I ran 90 seconds and walked 30 until I found myself turning the corner into my neighborhood. Home is particularly sweet after slogging through a half-marathon. I felt great emotionally, exhausted physically, and incompetent mentally. I had achieved the goal of running a half marathon and ensured I was unable to form complete sentences. After taking a shower, including letting cold water spray on my legs to cool the burning of my quadriceps and calves, I posted my accomplishment on our running group’s Facebook page – the only writing challenge I was prepared for – and wallowed in their congratulatory replies. The rest of the evening was spent on the couch watching TV, gently moaning, and not writing.

On Sunday, once I had recovered my mental faculties, I began thinking about what lessons I could take from choosing, on a whim, to run an absurd distance rather than write about traveling to Europe. It’s my particular mental illness that I have to try to make sense of the choices I make and how they might apply to other parts of my life. It can be maddening, but I’ve come up with three ideas to reconcile long running and writing:

The Obvious and Cliche Lesson: “Just do it.” Just as I decided to go for a long run, I should just start writing again. With all due respect to Nike, that’s too simplistic. It implies that happiness will arise from simply taking action, which ignores the inevitable suffering.

The Slightly More Realistic Lesson: “Just do it, despite the misery.” Running a half-marathon last Saturday involved a lot of misery. It started out fine, but by the end I was spent, and walking down the steps on Sunday morning was agonizing. Writing has it’s share of misery. The most painful part of the Europe journal, the part that has made me want to avoid writing another word, is trying to describe the places we visited. I hate being descriptive in my writing; it’s big pain in the ass. That bit, in an earlier paragraph, where I described the rust-colored leaves was a chore. I had to go back and add that detail because it seemed like the right thing to do, not because I was thinking about leaves. Pain. In. The. Ass.

The Possibly Over-thought Lesson: “Just do it, despite the misery, and enjoy the story of it, if not every step along the way.” I’m glad I ran thirteen miles on a whim. It wasn’t easy, but it was satisfying, and it gave me a story to tell: the day I accidentally ran a half marathon. I should remember that as I write about Europe by focusing on what happened in Paris, not what color the cobblestones were. I need to write the story of my eyes filling with tears when I saw Da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks, not the color of the walls in the Louvre.

In the last few days since I accidentally ran a half marathon, I’ve been writing about Europe again. It’s not loads of fun, but I’m getting the stories down on paper, and I feel good about that. I’ve also decided to run another marathon. It’s going to hurt, but I bet there’ll be something to write about but the time it’s done. Misery loves company…and a good story.

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