When I was 11 years old, I wrote down a list of 100 things I wanted to do before I die. As an adult, I always thought that was a morbid thing to think about for an 11-year-old, but then I had my son who always wants to talk about death and what it means and I no longer exclude children from those kinds of concerns. We’re all always preoccupied with it, no matter how deeply (or not) we conceive of its meaning. We’ve all read Where the Wild Things Are.
Number seven on the list was the phrase “run a marathon.” But I don’t think I knew it was 26 miles, 385 yards. I just knew it was an accomplishment and that it was something grown-ups did. I just knew I liked to feel the wind on my face as I passed every kid on the playground. I just knew my dogs liked to chase sticks and Frisbees. I just knew running was fun, a marathon was far and that it seemed to deserve a place on the list near “swim in all the world’s oceans” and “travel to all the continents.” (Yes, I still have the list.)
I ran track in high school, intermittently, but I went to school in a small town where fundraising hadn’t been completed to build a new track, so we ran on the roads near the school instead. I didn’t really try because I didn’t really care. I don’t think anyone did. I ran because it felt good and sometimes I’d win, but I didn’t try to get better or work on it in any way. At home, I ran along the hills and valleys near my parents’ hobby farm trying to outrun the deer flies that chased me; their shadows diving toward my head in the long, golden, late-summer light. I ran because it was fun. It was something to do. It cleared my head. I ran to be alone, too.
As I considered colleges, I spoke a few times with the track coach at one of the potential liberal arts schools in the running. She was enthused about my times and thought I could make a good addition to the team, but I didn’t pursue it because I was more interested in writing and reading poetry and going to see live bands. I was interested in self-expression, not sports, and I thought they were mutually exclusive. I couldn’t figure out how to be an artist or artist-lite while also running, so I decided I’d drop it. But still, I secretly ran miles and miles between classes and jobs and Winston Lights. I always felt like I had to hide it; like it was the vice and not everything else.
I ran throughout my 20s to relax and for exercise and would occasionally slip in longer runs (eight or 10 miles) to test my limits, but I didn’t have any goals in mind. It was an escape. I ran through breakups and job changes; with my dogs and alone. For a while, my husband joined me, but then he started riding bikes and it was just me on the pavement again. I ran through puzzling symptoms of an illness I’d not yet had diagnosed. I ran through pain and confusion. I ran from myself and toward myself. But I still didn’t call myself a runner.
If I believed in a cause, I’d do a 5K, but it wasn’t until around my 30th birthday that something switched and I realized running could be more. Someone (or maybe a few different someones) told me I could definitely run further if I decided to – that I should do a half marathon and, once I did that, I could do even more. I’m sure I looked at them with skepticism, but then I signed up and everything changed.
Somewhere along the way, I had decided that runners were the kinds of jocks I hated in high school, and I let that poison idea stick with me even though I’d let so much else from that time fall apart in the wind. In my first half marathon, I saw all kinds of people all out on the rolling hills together. I saw old ladies and teenagers, all ethnicities and backgrounds, blue hair and tattoos and military haircuts. I saw myself. And I knew I wanted more.