I used to live along the route of the Boston marathon but I never went to cheer. I don’t like crowds, not even the sound of the crowds outside my apartment on marathon day. That was before I moved to “Tracktown USA” — before I realized I’d been a runner my entire life without ever putting on sneakers. So when my alarm went off at 4 a.m. on Sunday morning, I threw on sweats and Asics (and a lot of vaseline) and headed out for a day of pretending I don’t hate crowds.
My first run was an accident. My roommate, a man who says things like, “Can you drive me to my first marathon of the season?” suggested I grab some shorts on our way out the door. He thought they might have a 5k I could walk. Some 16 hours later, at the butt crack of dawn, I found myself standing in front of a registration table and pulling money out of my Velcro wallet. I was a bit short and one of the volunteers — thank you, Ben Cardenas, wherever you are — pitched in.
That’s the story of how I ended up running a half marathon one deceptively serene morning in Idaho – having never run before in my life.
That was almost exactly a year ago and I’ve run more than a half dozen half marathons since. I’ve also run seven marathons, six 50k trail races and finished my first 50-miler last month. There were some others but those were the highlights. At one point in these adventures, I told my cardiologist that I didn’t have an off-switch and she asked me to install a dimmer. I have not done so.
But running started a long time before that first race. For me, it started with PTSD and the symptoms that go along with it. Things like debilitating depression, insomnia and the kind of nightmares that follow you throughout the day. Running was an obsession long before I had a place for it or a pair of proper shoes. Running, before I named it and saw it take shape, was how I put one foot in front of the other every day and somehow didn’t die. I should have. But there was running.
There is running.
The Eugene Marathon didn’t necessitate a 4 a.m. wake up call but I was volunteering at one of the shuttle stops beforehand. Actually, I was participating in the entire event as a volunteer. I’d asked the coordinator if I could “sweep” the race — going at the pace of the last runner and ensuring everyone gets through the course. She was elated by the offer and surprised someone was interested in volunteering to essentially walk a marathon. She didn’t know how many times people had done that for me, literally or metaphorically.
I met up with my last runner about 10 miles in and stayed with him for the duration. He was 68 and running his first marathon after only deciding to bump up from the half to the full two days earlier. There was something familiar in that.
We talked about life and love and the pursuit of happiness. We spent more than 15 miles engaged in accepting one another and embracing the journey before us. There was no discussion of political leaders or election tampering; when it comes to truly knowing another human being, those things simply aren’t important. Near the end of the race, he asked me why I was compelled to do these runs, the ultras through swamps and mountain trails and the marathons I finish even though I’m usually last. I told him what I will tell you:
I run because I can’t fix my life. I can’t take away the damage of my past. I can’t change the dice rolled by the gods on my behalf. But I can do this: I can choose to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
He understood that better than most.
I know I normally write about politics and constitutional law and the world at large, but this is too important for me to spin some b.s. and tell you it’s beautiful. Life is messy. Life is hard. Everyone needs a little bit of running – by whatever name you choose to call it. Call it yoga or sudoku or Netflix marathons of “Bojack Horseman.” Call it baking bread or reading novels or swimming in lakes on cool afternoons. Call it whatever you want, but find that thing and hold on. Because things don’t always get worse. Because depression lies. Because there are more books to read and more mountains to climb and, well, because running. There is always running, here in “Tracktown U.S.A.”