To a non-runner, going out and spending your weekend pounding pavement, trail or snow ...just so you can (hopefully) get back to where you came from uninjured makes no sense.
But to anyone who’s ever tried it, from the nagging knees and popping hips and breathing hiccups at the beginning, to the feeling of euphoria that comes just after you want to give up in the middle, to the just one more mile/I can’t go one more mile bargaining at the end, there is one thing runners have in common: They are, as a cohort, just a bit little off.
More accurately, runners have discovered two things that you can’t find by going out for bottomless mimosas, queuing for a Sunday matinee or hiding under the covers until the dog/kid/your significant other finds you.
They have found, 1) The quirky little athlete who resides somewhere buried underneath all the conference calls and carpools and dinner and drinks in all of us. And 2) The story teller they never thought they could be.
As far as the first one goes, a runner soon finds out he or she is not the fitness model and not going to become one either. And that guy who wrote the book saying he can do ultras training four hours a week or the steel-gazed celeb jogger featured on the back page of Runner’s World—not gonna happen.
No, the running athlete that is us, the one who emerges daily as if from a chrysalis of so many sweaty layers of wicking blends that need to be washed with that special detergent, is just plain you but with more pairs of worn out shoes. Doesn’t matter if you gain weight or lose while you train. Doesn’t matter if you don’t want peanut butter and a half bagel and a banana anymore, it’s what you get. Doesn’t matter whether you look like a bird in flight when you do it or like a rusty hinge falling off an abandoned fence post yawning in the breeze of an empty field, it’s you being you being you out there that counts.
The second part is a bit more nuanced. The runner storyteller is the little rock star inside you. A sheepish Kurt Cobain hiding behind his watery blue eyes and bangs dripping over his full lips. Singing all scratchy while not bothering to look up to see if anyone cares, because you know, deep down, they don’t. Or if they do, maybe it’s only because they’re secretly laughing at you.
I’ve found most runners I know have at least some introvert qualities. And yet, there is something inside them, maybe someone inside them, that wants to speak and be heard. That wants to share. Who knows, at one point during this battle, me against myself, against the ground beneath, and then back to me again, that the stories—they do unfold.
When I set out to write this post, none of the above stuff came to mind. It was simply going to be five or six bullet-pointed all-time classic runner's tales from a marathon. Because a marathon is the great equalizer and the ultimate test. Whether it's your first of 500th, whether you’re negative splitting for a BQ or just trying to break six hours something ALWAYS happens out there. Twenty six miles and change is a lot of ground for one human to cover in a concentrated amount of time—and usually on an empty stomach—and so, everyone EVERYONE not only has their story of the race, but the ones they don’t tell.
But when I approached folks from my running groups, friends or even family to share their one precious story that isn’t auditioned for years in front of willing and not-so-curious audiences until it is whittled down and polished into a shiny pristine nugget, they had two general responses.
1) The fecal encounter: “I can tell you about the time I had to go so bad I had to veer off course and ended up getting locked in a gas station bathroom, which is why I didn’t PR that day.”
2) The sort of made up story that no witnesses are around to call you on it: “I toed the start with Meb and the only thing I could think to ask was “Are your shorts that high or are your legs that unnaturally long?”
...Which is all fine and good. But what about the real stuff? That crazy/brutal/self-effacing/making-promises-you-can’t-keep/I-can’t-do-this/I’ll-never-do-this-again stuff ...Along with, let’s face it, those just wrong thoughts that pop up in there while racing seemingly insurmountable distances. Most of them, I’ve found, the feasibility of living on a van by a beach and selling necklaces to tourists.
So I went back to my people and (promising nearly everyone a condition of at least partial anonymity) and repositioned the question. Here then are some of the best one-liners on what running long distances in a race bib does to your brain.
Once more, some names have been altered to protect the sanctity of their careers and family:
- Something caused me to veer off course during the first three miles of Big Sur and just started embracing this tree. It was a redwood. I felt it vibrating and I said “i love you. I love you tree.” I was going through a breakup at the time and it really helped me get through the race. I think of that vibration today, a lot. I can’t tell anyone though because I’m the opposite of a tree hugger...even though that's I guess what I am. — Denise L. (San Mateo, Ca)
- 2001 San Diego Rock N Roll, nine months after the birth of our son. The only way I got through the last few miles was the vision that my family and friends who had raced the marathon with me would be waiting for me, cheering, at the finish. Instead, I reached the end, and had no one. I finally found my crew gathered about a quarter of a mile from the finish, lounging on the grass, drinking free beer. Though I didn’t recognize it then, this is when I learned that if you are thinking about running a marathon, you really have to want it for yourself and no one else. At the time, I was just pissed that they ditched me and didn’t even both to grab me a beer. (Elizabeth E. Davis, Ca)
- I was running the St. George Marathon and these LDS guys were there at like mile 20 handing out books of Mormon with water. I thought it was a mirage. And I just wanted to ignore them. But then I realized by the looks on their faces, how sincere they are about their faith. Nothing was going to stop them. It was a low point at the race for me but that really picked me up. — (Dan S. San Rafael, Ca)
- Nashville Marathon this really cute girl with great legs and really pretty blond hair passed me about mile eight. She had a really good kick and I ended up doing that kind of stalker/following thing the rest of the race making up all kinds of stories to tell her at the finish, you know, thinking we’d end up getting married or something. At about mile 22 she stopped for water and I slowed down. It was, of course, a very very attractive guy in his early 20s with probably the best hair I’ve ever seen on a dude this side of Thor. (Nate L. Castro Valley, Ca.)
- I ran the New York Marathon next to this guy who looked exactly like Ethan Hawke. Then around mile 13 a camera got in his face and some reporter started asking him questions, it WAS Ethan Hawke. That was the moment I realized it sucks to be a celebrity. (Janice C. Palo Alto, Ca.)
And then this one:
- Even if I am racing for a PR, I will take time on the course to high-five an enthusiastic spectator, to cheer for the band playing on the corner, to thank a police officer guarding the safety of the runners on the course, and to encourage a fellow runner. I will never, ever, regret those moments on the course. They are what make a race great. (Elizabeth E. Davis, Ca)
So there you go. Give a hug and a high five and the pain will soon subside.
...And if that human contact fails, always, always, always remember a spare pair of dry socks fixes everything!