Once upon a time I was a runner.
If runner means that I woke up every morning when the sun was just lighting the African sky. If runner means my sneakers hit the sidewalk in time to spring birds chirping, or summer raindrops falling, or followed the heady smell of burning woodsmoke on the dry winter air down quiet suburban streets. If runner means a breathless goodmorning, a hand raised in quick hello, as I passed a fellow crack-of-dawn runner. And if runner means a few 10k’s, a couple 15k’s, and one half marathon. Before I kinda, sorta, definitely quit.
That half marathon kicked me in the ass.
I trained. I carbo-loaded. I ran up hills and down hills and on the flattest roads I could find. I lifted (very light) weights to pretend I knew how to train build strength. I took a rest-day the day before.
My dad was my running partner in those younger and fitter days, and we ran the 10k’s together. They were short(ish) and mostly on a Sunday, so they didn’t interfere with his Saturday work schedule. He has far greater endurance and perseverance than I do, and was the perfect runner-in-arms. A regular half-marathoner, he would coach me gently, remind me to pace myself, encourage me up the hills, and he never let me finish a race alone.
This, my first half marathon, was a much bigger deal than the races we’d run before, in distance, time and emotional investment.
He couldn’t do it with me. He had to work.
So there I stood at the start. Feeling pretty much alone in the muted crowd of anticipation. Every muscle trembled with excitement and nerves, and I thought I would throw up before the gun even fired. I knew once I started, once my legs were moving and my arms were pumping, I’d be okay. Maybe even cruise a little. The endorphins would kick in and I’d actually feel good.
I’d never run a 21k before. It was brutal.
I did okay until about 15 kilometers, at which point the endorphins decided it was time for a beer. They abandoned me and my aching hip right at the bottom of an incline. I was left with my dragging Saucony’s, chaffing thighs, and seven more never ending kilometers to go.
But I wasn’t alone.
A guy I knew from high school rescued me from my marathon of misery. We’d never run together before, and certainly didn’t plan to run this race together. In fact, had he known that running with me would mean his personal worst time ever, he probably would’ve sprinted right by without so much as a goodmorning. He was a decent runner, a good runner. Definitely a serious runner. Twenty one kilometers was more than doable for him, and that race could well have been one that he was clocking for a full marathon or longer.
He did not leave my side. He slowed his pace. He wouldn’t let me give up. He coaxed me up every goddamn hill, sprayed cold water on my burning hip, and crossed the finish line with me at the very bitter end. He even let me limp ahead so that I wasn’t the absolute last.
They had stopped giving out medals by the time we made it, but he fished one out of the long abandoned box and gave it to me. For finishing. For doing it.
Exhausted, aching and disappointed in myself, I tossed my running shoes to the back of my closet. I swam, tried aerobics, and took up yoga and barre classes.
But the other day I stood on the path surrounding beautiful Lake Merritt. The water shimmered in the light, misty air and the buildings of Oakland stretched their gleaming, precise reflections right across the lake. “Good morning,” people smiled as they passed.
Two decades more wrinkled and wiser, I didn’t care how fast I ran, how long it took, or if I was slowing anyone down. I only wanted to run all the way around, without stopping. To finish right back where I started.
So I did. I did it.
And that’s what runner means.
This is a Finish the Sentence Friday post, inspired by the prompt, “When I think Epic Fail, I think…” Hosted by Kristi from Finding Ninee, and guest hosts Allie from The Latchkey Mom and April from 100lb Countdown.