Here’s my ideal Sunday morning: Wake up at 10 am, drink coffee, read, hit the farmer’s market, make brunch. Here’s what I did yesterday morning: Woke up at 7am, consumed a carefully calculated quantity of carbs, ran 20 miles, and plunged myself, fully clothed, into a bathtub of ice water. That’s what a lot of my Sundays have been like recently. I’m in training. In three short weeks, I’ll be running my first marathon.
A few weeks ago, I received an email from the race organizers. “If this is your first marathon, your body has probably never been so fit,” they wrote. In truth, my body has never felt more broken and decrepit. Every toe is blistered and swollen and my latest run left me with a blister above my belly button. Simple acts like getting out of bed sometimes send pain ricocheting through my hip socket. Training has been brutal. So brutal, in fact, that I’ve been complaining bitterly. After one particularly vicious rant, LWON’s own Christie Aschwanden, a killer athlete, sent me a note. “Why are you training for this marathon? You sound kind of miserable.”
I’ve never been an athlete. I first attempted running when I started college roughly 15 years ago. I wanted to like it, but it was so flipping difficult. During my first 5K race, I got humiliatingly passed by both an eight-year-old boy and a man in a chicken suit. I drank so much Gatorade before the five-mile Turkey Trot that my running partner could hear it sloshing as we ran. I came in second-to-last only because I blew past a 70-year-old just before the finish line. (Classy).
When I moved to Baltimore I used running as a way to explore the city’s less savory neighborhoods. I worked my way up from four-mile loops to six and then eight. I ran past boarded-up row houses, past old men drinking on stoops, past security cameras, past the methadone clinic. I ran past busted benches that proclaimed Baltimore to be the greatest city in America. I ran down streets where I had no business being. Running gave me an excuse and a cover. Oh me? I’m just out for a run.
In 2008, I ran my first half marathon. And that’s when I began to wonder if I have what it takes to run a full marathon. It’s not that I thought running 26.2 miles would be fun. I didn’t reach the end of the half marathon and think, “I could turn around and do that all over again!” But the idea nagged at me. If you’ve done a half marathon, the next logical step up is a full.
If I’m crazy, I’m not alone. More than half a million people ran a marathon last year. So many people want to run the New York City marathon that the organizers instituted a lottery system. I’ve applied three times and never been chosen, so this year I decided to buy my way in. The organizers reserve a certain number of slots for charities. If you agree to raise a few thousand dollars for one of these organizations, they’ll get you into the race.
Why go through so much trouble and pain to do something that seems to make me miserable? I think it has to do with wanting to be better. I’m a sucker for self-improvement. But progress can be hard to track. As a writer, I strive to improve, but what yardstick should I use to measure my progress? Awards? Compliments? My income? It’s totally subjective. Improvement in running, on the other hand, is easy to see: You run farther or you run faster or you do both. It’s exquisite in its simplicity. The process is well defined too. Want to run a marathon? You pick a training plan and follow it. Want to write a bestseller? Well . . . good luck. There’s no plan for that.
As much as I hate to admit it, I am a creature of habit and rules. I’m a box checker. I like order and well-defined tasks (hence my love of bill-paying). But writing isn’t about checking boxes or filling out forms. It’s late nights and coffee and mental anguish. Training for a marathon gives me some balance. I use my body rather than my brain, and I can easily track my progress. Did I run 20 miles? Check. Is that the farthest I’ve ever run? Check.
I don’t love running. Maybe it’s not in my genes. But occasionally I get a glimpse of what the sport must be like for people like Christie, people who do. A couple of weeks ago, I set out on a five-mile run. The air was brisk, but the sun was shining. My thighs, which training has made thick and sturdy like tree trunks, felt strong. For the first time in a long while, running felt easy, almost pleasant. By the time I reached the home stretch, I was flying. And then my song came on and I began to dance . . . Gangnam style.
I don’t love running. But maybe one day I will.
Image credits: Top images by Soren Wheeler (left) and yours truly (right). Lower image by Pabo76 on flickr.