I haven’t written about running in a while, but not because running isn’t happening. I do actually care about a few other things just as much as running, believe it or not, though admittedly I could count those things on my fingers and still have a few digits left over to snag a few gummy bears to fuel a couple miles at a moderate pace. Running is definitely happening, and despite my having been doing it for over a decade, it still never ceases to be a learning experience—with “a learning experience” being a euphemism for “an endlessly humbling way to get your ass handed to you in no uncertain terms.”
K’s youngest daughter, J, has been training to run her first marathon at the end of the month. Prior to this she had run only one half-marathon race, plus a handful of 5Ks. Sure, she’d been a solid runner during high school cross country and track, which was barely a year ago, but I have to admit that K and I smiled when, almost immediately after finishing that first half, J announced that she wanted to do a full. The smiles were pleased ones, meant to be encouraging—like a lot of obsessed distance runners, we love bringing a newbie into the fold—but there was also a certain degree of “ah, to be young and naïve” amusement. It’s the smile I gave last summer to a 16-year-old budding novelist who told me she hoped to get her first book published within the next year, before she started college, because she knew she would likely be very busy after that. The earnest enthusiasm is too adorable to crush, even if the jagged bits of my own repeatedly crushed spirit prodded me to enlighten her.
You see (the veteran runner leans back and folds her arm authoritatively), one does not simply “do a full.” One can say one will do so, one can want one’s self very badly to do so, one can even do everything one can to make sure one does do so, but none of that is the tiniest guarantee that one actually will be able to run 26.2 miles in a way that one would consider a success. I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of runners I know who had really good first marathons; everyone else experienced anything from deep disappointment to absolute agony. Put me down for agony, as my own first full was easily the worst race I’ve ever completed. I had gotten injured a few weeks before the race and I was in pain the entire way, but hey, at least it took a really long time.
Because K hasn’t been doing much distance running of late, I offered to do long runs with J and to pace her during the race. I made the offer loosely—I had a hard time believing an outgoing, vibrant, active 19-year-old would have any interest in getting up early Sunday mornings to run with her father and her stepmother—but much to my surprise, she enthusiastically accepted the offer. Again I was pleased—and excited. Last year I raced only trail ultras just for fun (meaning that I didn’t care how slow I went so long as I enjoyed myself and ate huge amounts of food before, during, and after), so I hadn’t trained for a road marathon in a while. This seemed like the perfect way to get back into it. I had benefited tremendously from having so many supportive runners helping me through the early stages of my marathon career, and now I would have the chance to pay it forward. I envisioned relaxing runs at a leisurely pace, me doling out running guidance and motivational good cheer, a wise and steady mentor through it all.
Yeah, that’s so not how it’s going.
First off, J does not need a wise and steady mentor. She does not need running guidance and motivational good cheer. She doesn’t even need a pacer. I have never encountered another first-timer who so thoroughly gets marathon training as she does. She paces conservatively, her splits are even, and she always has enough energy to kick a little on her final mile, even on her first 20 miler last weekend. But back up a bit: before we even get to how she was running, the fact that she was running at all puts her ahead of the legions of marathon bucket-listers. J has never once missed a training run, even when it meant getting up at 5am, even when the weather was less than optimal (and usually it pretty much sucked). In short, as her father says every time she finishes a long run and can’t wait until next weekend to go even longer, J is a badass.
And then there’s me. Forget doling out the advice and motivational good cheer; most times I’m too busy trying to get oxygen in my lungs to do much more than grunt in what I hope is a not-too-negative-sounding way. After more than ten years, it’s good to know that I can still be terrible at this. Running, as I’ve said many times, is as humbling as it is gratifying, and in fact usually those two things work in tandem. Every runner is going to get their ass handed to them at some point, at which time the only thing to do is shrug, reattach ass, and keep going—because, you realize, you can keep going, which is a very good thing indeed.
OK, that’s nice and all, but I wasn’t thinking any of that at around mile 16 of our 20. I was thinking something more like Goddamnit J will you at least pretend to be suffering a little more? For me? Please? Pretty please?
“Just over 16,” she said, glancing at her watch. “So in the race we’d have ten more miles. I thiiiiiiiiink I can do that,” she added cautiously.
I tried to say “I’m sure you can do it!” It came out “shoyucan.”
“Who knows,” she grinned, “I’ll probably go out way too fast like everyone else and I’ll be dying by this point in the race. But whatever, I think I can still do it.”
I made a grunt of agreement and took advantage of the slight slowing of our pace while she ate the last of her Sports Beans. “I’m sure you can do it. It won’t be fun, but you’ll do it.”
That was when, as they say, I got thoroughly schooled. “I would rather say it’s not going to be easy,” J said genially, resuming our target pace (aw crap). “I still think it will be fun. I wouldn’t do it otherwise. But something can be difficult and still be fun.”
She was right, and it was the kind of thing I’ve said myself a great many times. I don’t run to prove anything to anyone, not even myself. As someone with a propensity to feel lousy about everything most of the time, I personally don’t believe in taking on any unnecessary suffering, not even for the possibility of being crowned a badass. I run, I have always told myself, because I enjoy it. Was I enjoying this?
Maybe that’s not the right question to ask—or, rather, not the right way to ask that question. At the moment, struggling, frustrated, and deeply worried that I would not be able to finish the whole marathon with J much less provide any support or guidance, no, I was not enjoying it. But running, like a lot of things a person can love, is not just about instant gratification. That first marathon of mine was ghastly, yet here I am a good two dozen marathons later still going after another. You can’t always know how an experience will be, or what you’ll get from it, until you’ve done it, and even then it might be a while before you really get it. In short, you’re never too old to be young and naïve.