In what follows I try to tell my story of being a runner as briefly as possible. I would welcome you to read it, but as I wrote it I found I was writing more for myself than for you, that more than anything I just wanted these words down somewhere visible and somewhat permanent. So I hope you enjoy but will not be offended if you don’t.
Shortly before my 16th birthday I got it in my head I wanted to go out for the Cross Country team at my small high school. The first practice involved a 3 mile run around a park and I remember being overjoyed that I completed the 3 miles without stopping, so overjoyed I called my dad to brag about it, which is really ironic today.
It didn’t even occur to my parents or me to buy a decent pair of running shoes, so I took my $10 pair from Wal-Mart. They barely met the minimum P.E. requirements for “exercise” shoes but they were what I had. After a week of running in them I had a giant blister that stretched from the ball of my foot to the back. Upon seeing the bright red patch of raw skin, my dad realized his grave error and took me to buy my first pair of legitimate running shoes.
My form was harder to fix. It was tight and awkward. At the time I equated “working hard” with moving as much of my body as possible. During one race I was “working” so hard that my head bent over to my waist at every stride. But I was passing people! My coach told my dad, “I have no idea how he is running so fast with that form!”
My dad replied, “That just tells me that when we fix the form he is going to get even faster.” How right he was.
I did okay in high school, worked hard at it, as hard as high school kids can work. I had no natural talent, at least none that was visible beneath that awkward form. I did have a strong desire to run faster and train harder.
Unfortunately I was told by a few teachers and several classmates that I would never run in college. I was too slow and too annoying and just did not have what it takes. I believed them because that was the state of my self esteem. The local university coach at the time didn’t bother recruiting me. He even told my dad he didn’t think I would make it. Little did I know he was in a bit of a conflict with the administration for such attitude.
Without my knowing the administration changed the coach and hired a guy from the next university over, a wonderful and compassionate former thrower who brought one of the distance stars from his university to help with the Cross Country side of things. Being new coaches, they didn’t have a conversation with me until Spring of that year when all of the scholarship decisions had all ready been decided. I was convinced I wasn’t worthy of scholarship money anyway so I wasn’t put out or anything. I wanted to just keep running.
A week later they mailed me the summer training program. At my high school a “long” run was a half hour. The pamphlet they sent wanted me to run an hour everyday and an hour and a half one day a week! I remember laughing hysterically at it, certain I could never do that many miles.
I didn’t follow the plan perfectly but when August 1st hit and the season was imminent, I found my inner motivation and began doing the hour a day. I woke up at 5:30am every morning and jogged until 6:30 so that I be to work by 7:30. And found the early morning runs not only doable but enjoyable.
3 weeks later I went to the training camp. I was very talkative and very annoying, so the fast kids ran me into the ground. I didn’t care. It was a mutually enjoyable experience. They were proud of themselves for dropping me after five minutes. I was proud of myself that I kept up for a minute longer than yesterday!
Then we started racing and I actually didn’t finish last on the team. I was able to hang with them and that was thrilling. All summer I had pictured them running a mile ahead while I trotted behind. I imagined their finishing times five whole minutes faster than mine. It never happened that way. The days they did beat me it was by seconds and most days I finished in front of at least 1 of them.
Then the truly bizarre happened. The coaches found a little bit of scholarship money left over and one sunny afternoon in late September I opened one of the most obscure but thrilling letters I have yet received. It was a financial statement saying that I owed the school $2000 less dollars. It had something to do with a checked box next to the words, “Athletic Scholarship.”
I literally cried. This untalented, geeky, nerdy, lanky, weak and very annoying kid had just become a scholar-shipped college athlete. I would later find out I was the first ever in my entire extended family.
I had been given a great and gracious gift and I did not want to squander it. I ran even harder. I added more and more miles to every run. I pushed myself further and faster. Eventually I got up early and did morning runs. I hit the weight room a few times a week. I logged longer runs and faster runs. I completed work outs others would quit. I cannot say I loved every mile but man, I loved every day.
We didn’t fix my form until halfway through my sophomore year. My coach read up on drill workouts and forced me to do them. The first one about killed me. I literally crawled to the cafeteria for dinner. I healed up by the weekend and knocked 30 seconds off my indoor 3,000 meter race (over 15 seconds a mile!)
I added miles to my long runs and started doing hour and a half to two hour long runs. One day, after a 2 hour long run I engaged a big, bulky shot putter from the Track team in a pizza eating contest. I weighed 150 pounds and wore a size 32 waist. I still put away 25 slices of pizza and a few salads and a plate of pasta. The thrower beat me by one slice but for that hour I was the hero of the runners. Seriously, they were chanting my name.
I got injured and took my red shirt year but came back stronger and faster. I began winning some races here and there. My name started to appear on the regional rankings. I won some conference and regional awards for best student athlete and athlete of the week. The whole experience was a dream. My scholarship money went up too but I hardly cared. I wasn’t in this for the money any more.
Then I set some school records and then I beat them again. Then I started scoring major points for my team. Then I started taking home medals and plaques. Then I started getting 2nd and 3rd at conference championships. Suddenly people all around the region knew who I was and my name was mentioned in running forums and blogs. Then other coaches began asking my coach where I had come from and how I had turned from a mediocre walk on to a serious conference contender. Then the administrators and professors of the university started congratulating me around campus, knowing all of my race times from the previous weekend.
Then the dream ended.
One day in early May in a small town in Central Washington I ran my last college race. It was a 5K. I had won the 10K the night before and didn’t drink as much water that day as I should have. So I finished 6th and as I stumbled across the finish line, it occurred to me that the game was over.
The big question became, “would I keep running.” Some of my younger friends joked that I was going to be fat within 5 years. I laughed with them but was slightly offended.
Of course I would keep running. It is not that I loved running. Most days I didn’t and still don’t. But running is so central to who I was that giving it up would be sacrificing part of my soul.
The next year I ran a half marathon and the year after a marathon. I finally ran 100 miles in one week, something I had been trying to do for a few years.
After the marathon I fell back on half hour easy runs a few times a week. I did way too many of them but at least I was still moving 3-4 times a week. I gained a few pounds, though not many, and slowed way down. I did a couple more half marathons to try to stay motivated.
Then I moved to a small town and became a Cross Country and Track coach. I learned quite quickly that you can either train or coach but you shouldn’t do both.
It took me another year or so to realize that was completely wrong. Leading by example is about the only way to get through to teens in today’s world. Less and less they don’t need a drill sergeant, they need an inspiration.
So I trained with them and lost 15 pounds and gained more muscle than I even had in college. More than that, I was having fun again. I did drill and core exercises with them and got my six pack back. My average mile pace dropped back down to 6 minute miles.
And here I am today, having just completed a 15 mile long run in preparation for a marathon. I was on the fence about whether to do the 15 mile plus run today or tomorrow. I decided to do it tomorrow and went out hoping to do somewhere between 5-10 miles today. After a mile and a half I wanted to turn around and go home but I kept going, promising to turn around at 15 minutes. 15 minutes came and went without me realizing it because in that 5 minutes I had switched into the mode.
It is that wonderful zone that surpasses “should run” and “want to run.” When I am in the mode, my spirit is carried to a new plane of reality, a plane where I just exist for the sake of existence, a place where I run for the sake of running.
There is a beautiful harmony in those moments, a harmony that doesn’t override pain but welcomes it as a necessary melody. In those moments I am caught up into nature. The trees became more tangible, more noticeable. The birds and flies and spiders and deer become my companions.
There is a rhythm and a beat to the strides and the clops. Together they sing a song of inner peace and outpouring joy. It is nothing less than spiritual.
Surely there are other ways to arrive at that plane of existence but running is my chosen road to the eternal, my glorious path to the divine.
At times I am scared that my inner runner is gone for good but on days like today, there he is again, roaring back to life, emerging from the shadows of my beat up psyche, insisting I do another mile and another after that and even more after that. I keep running until I can’t run any more.
Perhaps that is why so many of us love the quote from Chariots of Fire, “When I run I feel His pleasure.”