The unlikely half-marathoner (and that would be me)
It doesn’t matter how many articles I write or races I run. As I stand at a new starting line or sit down at my desk with a story in mind, nothing ever feels certain. I want my words to grab people and shake them awake. I want to run until my mind becomes as clear as a chanting monk’s. I what I do to matter, but honestly, I also just want to get through it.
I was feeling a hazy mix of all this last Saturday morning as I waited for a half marathon to start out at Tellico Lake near Lenoir City, Tennessee. It was hot, even at 7 a.m., and part of me wanted to quietly slink back to my car and escape. I could hear those familiar whispers of doubt in my head, asking if I’d trained enough or was hydrated enough or if I even wanted this enough. I had no answers, and I never do at the start of races. I usually feel a little awkward, actually, trying not to be obvious as I listen in on other racers’ giddy conversations. Many young people come to races in packs and dress in a trendy, intentional way, with cute little shorts and often a tailored singlet. I’m the one alone, wearing oversized man swimming trunks and whatever shirt was handy that morning. I’ve been running 20 years, and I swear that I come to each race looking like a street urchin who snuck in.
This outsider feeling was ramped up that morning, as I stood around an especially hardcore and color-coordinated group of suspiciously upbeat runners. They were chatting about gear and past races and what a bummer it was that this one had banned headphones. I was just trying to get my game face on and my enthusiasm up as the race’s start kept getting delayed. Finally, with little fanfare, someone shouted, “Go!” — and we did.
A play-by-play of all 13.1 miles wouldn't really matter. What counts is that this race was hard, right off the bat. We ran mostly along a stretch of state highway that hadn’t been blocked off, which meant that cars whooshed by us as we climbed and descended rolling hills. I guess the wooded, unchanging landscape was tedious, but I didn’t notice. I was too focused on the task at hand.
And besides, I had found a friend in the trenches.
Her name is Stephanie, and she looked about my age, with red hair and long pants and a determined look on her face. She’d pass me, and then I’d pass her, but it wasn’t as if we were racing. We just happened to be in the same place at the same time. After a few miles of this, we got to talking — the way you can when your body is too shut down to move quickly. I have no memory of what she said, just who she is: a 34-year-old mom of four running her second half marathon ever. As we panted past mile 6, 7, 8, and so on, she told me how she used to be 300 pound but had lost half that weight in recent years. She’d done it simply through diet, exercise and a desire to take control of her life. This race, and running in general, was all part of it. I was immediately humbled and inspired— and I got to thinking about how many amazing stories you can hear if you just get a chance to listen. In an off-handed way, I also spent a few minutes worrying about whether she liked me, as I tend to do with anyone I’m impressed by.
Then came mile 11. My ability to fret or think clearly about anything, really, was zapped away the moment a volunteer nonchalantly sent all us racers down a steep gravel hill. The sun was bright and aggressive by then, and it beat down on us as we plodded down — and then back up — trying not to slip on the baking, uneven ground. I passed Stephanie and then lost her completely as I headed down a dark road in my own mind. I was hot, dehydrated and unclear of how much farther I had to go, as the mile markers were missing. I would like to say I reached some kind of nirvana in those painful final minutes, but no. I was angry and frustrated and tired — adjectives I don’t usually associate with the spiritually realized. I was in a bad way but kept going. I knew if I stopped, I was done.
Then, like magic, I turned a corner and saw where I was. There, in the distance, was the lake and my truck — and the finish line. I smiled for the first time in miles and ran toward the only thing in the world that mattered. After 2 rough hours and 37 exhausting minutes, I burst across the finish line and quickly sank to the grass. After a demolishing a bottle of water, I watched Stephanie cross, too.
When she had caught her breath, she surprised me. Speaking tenderly, she thanked me. She said she’d done much better than she thought she would, and that I was probably the reason. She had prayed for help on the run, she said, and while she didn’t want to sound corny, she thought I was the answer to her prayers. I told her she was exactly what I had needed, even though I hadn’t known it. We gave each other heartfelt, sweaty hugs. I walked back to my truck stunned. Most of my romantic relationships haven’t achieved that level of intimacy.
Days later, I’m thinking about how funny it is to get scared at the start of anything momentous. I’m smiling now because, ultimately, I have so little control over where the universe takes me. Of course I have dreams and desires, but I can only keep running forward, even as the sweat drips into my eyes and little blisters appear under my toes. I have to keep on keeping on — and just hope I meet some nice people along the way.