It is, as it turns out, an unanswerable question, at least in the way that the person asking the question is used to receiving answers. There are no words that can convey the feeling that comes when you’re out on the open road, or scooting along a trail, or climbing a mountain. There are no words that describe the inner calm that comes when you’re body begins to break down late in a marathon and you have no choice but to go somewhere else mentally until the run is over.
There are no words. But I do know that if you have to ask the question, you probably won’t ever find the answer.
In every race, your body eventually breaks down. For me, the pain sets in between miles 14 and 16. The first time it happened — during the Tecumseh Trail Marathon last December — I wanted to quit. On that day, the trail and the cold and the ice and the ascent kicked my ass. I walked much of the race, clocking a finish somewhere north of 5 1/2 hours.
These days, I am ready for the pain. My legs throb, the groin muscle pulls tight, and I have to remind myself to stay loose. The race doesn’t begin for me until that happens.
Every runner faces the pain. The answer they must find is what they are going to do with it.
Me: I face the pain because it reminds me that when things get dark, and there doesn’t seem to be a way out, I have the ability and the fortitude not to quit. No matter how badly I want to.
My friend Steph told me after the race, as an aside, that I seemed happy.
This is true. It’s probably as light as she has ever seen me. I attribute the start of that happiness to my sobriety, but the daily work towards that happiness comes out on the road where my mind and body have forged an energy within me the likes I have not known before now.
That the gift comes with pain, suffering, and anguish as I push my body further down this “running path” is a concept that I have a hard time explaining. What I tell people is this: when I am done running a race, I know that I was here.
I stopped at every water stop. I hit all the Port-a-Potties. I took pictures. I high-fived all the Little Rascals out cheering for us. I stopped and put my arm around runners who were hitting the wall. I patted backs as we neared the end. I cheered the bands who came out to support us.
I did that, and it put my mind in the right place. When the pain came, I was able to smile through it. I could leave my body, and just be the run.
I’m never going to break any records, or win any races. But I don’t much care. I don’t run to compete. The road isn’t a competition for me. It’s life. It’s the journey. It’s the process.
I come out of every race different than when I started.
In 13 days, I am going to do something that I’d never conceived before February 2010: I’ll run my first (baby) Ultra Marathon in Spencer, Indiana. At 6:30 in the morning, I’ll set off with about 50 other runners — most of whom will run for 50 miles — and run just a bit less than 32 miles (50 kilometers). Unlike the big marathons, there will be no crowds, only 2 aid stations, and nobody helping you get through the run.
The only people who are there are the people who are running, people who understand exactly what you are going through. (This past summer when I was dangerously lost and without water, I was saved by an ultra marathon who was training for a 100-mile mountain bike race.)
I am not particularly worried even though my recovery between St. Louis and Spencer is short, and those last 6 miles are likely to take far more than 51 minutes I’d normally knock out a 6-miler. I am not worried because there is nothing to be concerned about. The trail, the run, and my body will all do what they need to do.
And I’ll be surrounded by my running family.
“Why would you do that,” they ask me when I tell them stories about running marathons, or running mountains in the summer, or (soon to be) running ultra marathons.
I do not know how to answer that question because that is not a question I can answer for them.