In life, there are no mile markers. Nobody is timing you. Nobody is forcing you to run any pace. There are sprinters and there are long distance runners, and we all have different goals and different plans and different roads to travel.
I have a very different life from most of the other SR writers: I am chronically single and live in an apartment in Brooklyn, New York, with two roommates. I work brutally long hours at an entry-level job and have done so willingly — even eagerly — for the last 5 years, and as a result I don’t get enough sleep, regularly disappear from social life and cook at home like…never. I live paycheck-to-paycheck with no benefits, no longer have any assets and have made no notable professional achievements.
I turn 32 today.
I think my idea of a successful life was always a comfortable one…but comfortable this is not. Sometimes it feels like I should care more about not living up to societal standards. There’s pressure to be farther along in life by now, whatever that means. There’s pressure to define my own success the same way others do, pressure to measure it by financial numbers, pressure to to “settle down.”
I don’t really measure up in those ways…but I feel successful nonetheless. If there is one thing running has taught me, it’s that success is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.
I run a race for my birthday every year now, so last Sunday I layered up and ambled to the Subway in the cool, dark October morning. At Grand Central I met some friends on the train to New Rochelle and snuggled down into my seat for the ride to Paine to Pain.
You may remember that I haven’t been training, that I only just started running again, and you may think that choosing a trail half marathon for my comeback race was not the smartest idea. I knew that; I wasn’t so sure it was the smartest idea either! But I did the best I could to do it smart. I started running weeks ago pretty much so I would have at least some foundation for this race and an idea of how I could expect to perform. The mileage was low, basically just dipping my toe in the water, but the yield was high; I knew I would at least be able to finish. As my friend JA joked on the train: “It’s only 13 miles. We do half marathons in our sleep!”
I only wanted one thing for my birthday, and it was to run this f***ing race.
I needed it.
Transitioning jobs while at the same time being sidelined by injury has been, well, a bit rough on me emotionally. There are really only two things I’m passionate about, and being held back from both running and my filmmaking career has been frustrating(to say nothing of financially overwhelming). The City has been a monster to me this summer. I needed a day away in the forest, to recharge in my natural element.
Looking back over the last 18 years, my running life, I’ve noticed a pattern. In spite of all the odds, I inexplicably started running every time things got tough. When I was 13 and finally facing the reality of my father’s death; when I was 21 and lost a dear friend to a fatal asthma attack; when I was 25 after Hurricane Katrina tore my life to shreds; when I was 26 and sorting out the complicated and messy end of a six-year relationship…
It’s no coincidence.
People come and go. No matter how much they love me or I love them, bad things can happen. I love what I have today, but I’ve got to take care of myself for tomorrow. Life is beyond our control and you just never know… So you need to know how to stand on your own two feet and take care of yourself. You need to know that, if things go wrong and you’re suddenly on your own, you’ll be okay. You need to know that you can get through hell and come out on the other side.
First, two things: One, I lost my cheapy plastic Target watch weeks ago and haven’t bothered replacing it. And two, there were no mile markers. These might be drawbacks to some, but for me it was just right. I wasn’t out there to count miles, I was out there to run strong and finish.
I expected to run alone, but within the first mile I fell in with my friend MC and pushed to keep up with him. He was always just one or two steps ahead of me until I’d blast past him on the downhills. We kept the pace intense but conversational, trash-talking each other and making the other runners laugh. I don’t know if I can sustain this pace, I thought. I kept telling him he’d drop me before mile 5, but suddenly we hit the second aid station at a family farm.
“How far?” I panted to the volunteers. “Seven and a half,” a nice man told me.
Whoa…seven? It felt like I’d only done four!
“We do half marathons in our sleep.”
MC was behind me, offering a gel. I shook my head no. “What time?” I asked the man. “Ten twenty-two.” I did a little math in my head. I had started at 9:15…I was on track to stay under 10 minutes per mile, but I had to get going. I darted off into the woods.
I slowed a bit, expecting MC to catch up on the narrow trail, and kept checking everyone who passed me for his red Newtons, but nothing. Then after about a mile I noticed a guy who had just passed me wearing knee-high shiggy socks, the unmistakable mark of a hasher. It was my friend RM. It took a few minutes to ramp up my tempo, but I finally caught up to him. He’d take off ahead of me on the straightaways and then walk the uphills like an ultrarunner. We do half marathons in our sleep. I wasn’t about to walk. I caught up to him on every uphill and flew past him, using the downhills and cheering “FREE SPEED!” and thinking warmly of Clove.
Then the third aid station appeared, ten miles in. Still on track for 2:10. I felt great and picked up my pace, but it was too soon, and I was quickly lagging behind RM again.
I pushed, but there, pushing right back, was the lack of training. My brain could go faster and my heart willed it, but my hamstrings were struggling and my knees were angry. I was afraid to open up my stride any further because of the injury, so I just held on.
I don’t know if I can sustain this pace.
I thought of my first half, Staten Island. I remembered feeling this way at mile 6, mile 8, mile 9. I thought of Queens in July of 2011, when it was 105° and I thought I’d pass out on the shade-less course. Manhattan in icy January, worried about not being able to feel my wet toes. New York City last May, feeling desperate and sick at 15k. The half is my favorite distance. It’s just short enough that you can squeeze by with minimal training and just long enough to chew you up and spit you out if you let it.
I do half marathons in my sleep.
I held on, clinging to my belief in myself, digging the treads of my shoes into the dirt, leaping off every rock on the downhills. RM fell behind, cheering me on. And before I knew it I burst out of the forest and was running to the track. 300 meters left. There were my teammates, and RM yelled at me to sprint in, and then there it was. Done. 2:09.
As a child, feats of athleticism would not have been conceivable to anyone who knew me. I was many things: a writer, an artist, a musician, a smart, creative book nerd…but not an athlete. As a fat kid with an overeating disorder, plagued with depression and social anxiety, I was terrified of gym class with its dreaded shorts and team selection rituals. By societal standards, it’s pretty weird that I became a runner, but I did. Even though it didn’t come easily, even though I have to fight the little fat kid I once was, I just…need to run. Maybe not fast, but far. And the farther I run, the farther I want to go.
Maybe becoming the one thing nobody expected is my way of saying I set the rules.
Do you like to run races for your birthday? Is running a gift to yourself?