“For me, running is both exercise and a metaphor. Running day after day, piling up the races, bit by bit I raise the bar, and by clearing each level I elevate myself. At least that’s why I’ve put in the effort day after day: to raise my own level. I’m no great runner, by any means. I’m at an ordinary – or perhaps more like mediocre – level. But that’s not the point. The point is whether or not I improved over yesterday. In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.”
– Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
In this hellscape that looks like an outtake from Fury Road, I found pain. I wanted to walk. At mile 24 I started shouting at myself.
Eight goddamn miles left.
Then I picked up my feet. At each mile successive mile mark, I felt defeat in the weight of my legs, in the tiny slings of a thousand steps on sharp rocks in the arches of tender feet, the slog of 20 miles of ever-shifting gravel testing little-used tendons. At each mile mark, I shouted, and I kept going.
Seven goddamn miles left.
Last weekend, I ran my first ultra-marathon, the Valley of Fire 50k, in Nevada. While I believed I had trained better, more consistently, and longer than for previous trail races, the terrain was more difficult than I anticipated. Just two weeks earlier, I paced my friend on his 100-mile race in Northern California. Along with three other 20+ mile runs, I felt good about what I could handle. At five hours and twenty minutes for 31 miles, I explored my limits.
Six goddamn miles left.
Earlier this year, I bowed out of one trail marathon because of under-training. Another, I dropped from the full to the half. I did what I could to keep running, to bend and not break. This year hasn’t been about speed. It’s been about setting regular milestones throughout the year to encourage consistent running. To that end, I raced in January, May, June, August, and November. While traveling for work and fun, I’ve run in Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois, Colorado, Washington, D.C., Virginia, and Nevada, plus some runs in Thailand and Nicaragua. I woke up early on work trips and found riverside routes. I sweated through the summer swamp in D.C. When I run, the rest of me falls into place.
Five goddamn miles left.
The aid stations are unoccupied. There are no runners nearby. There is no accountability. I am alone, but not lonely. Over the summer, I spent whole days alone. Weeks went by with just a few coffees or dinners.
Four goddamn miles left.
Am I improving? This year, the improvement has been miles run and weekly averages. I have not allowed work to take priority. Maybe the improvement is in running smarter. Maybe the improvement is in showing up more often.
Three goddamn miles left.
In three miles, I won’t have to run anymore. Running is physical journaling. I write myself down in the routes and races and miles. That being said, I have written enough for one day.
Two goddamn miles left.
Why are there Confederate flags on dune buggies in Nevada? Is this how Mad Max starts?
One goddamn mile left.
I expected this run to reveal something unknown.
In running culture, there is an allure to runs past 26.2 miles. They are less a physical trial than a mental one. Some say it’s easier to run 100 miles than to significantly decrease your marathon time. I don’t know what was so captivating about this race. Maybe it’s the landscape. Maybe it’s a chance to carve out my own running identity.
As I approached the finish line, I didn’t feel triumph. I didn’t feel joy or delight. I felt done.
The finish line.
One banana and Muscle Milk later, I am grateful to be able to run. I hope that gratitude will expand when I run farther.
One day and a fully sore body later, I understand I am my worst self when I am not running. I hope I can be better when I run farther.
Four days of rest later, I am eager to get out to see how much farther I can go.