So I had to pee on a stick the other day, and I don’t mean in the woods during a trail run. While I waited for the plus or minus to appear, I wondered whether friends of mine who are looking to adopt wouldn’t object to a baby who almost certainly would grow up to be obsessive, depressive, and directionally challenged. Then the minus sign appeared, so I guess we’ll never know. Perhaps it’s for the best.
The minus sign meant more than just immediate relief tinged with a very slight but undeniable sense of disappointment. To put it bluntly, the stick was telling me I’m not pregnant; I’m just old. Yep, menopause is right around the corner, and now that I’ve said the “m” word I’m sure a bunch of you have probably stopped reading (if you didn’t stop after the stick-peeing). I can’t blame anyone for that; it’s not exactly my favorite topic either, though it doesn’t necessarily fill me with dread and horror the way you might think if you aren’t anywhere close to it or never will experience it. It’s a thing that happens, like a lot of less-than-fun things that happen. Why would I want to dwell on a less-than-fun thing that isn’t particularly interesting? I don’t. But less-than-funness must be faced, in life as in running as in just about everything.
The day before the stick-peeing incident, the BF and I ran a 30-mile ultra. This was actually a training run for the 50-miler we both have coming up in a month, so if you look at it in that light, it shouldn’t matter that much that I didn’t have a very good race. It shouldn’t but of course it does. At this same race last year, I placed first in my age group, a fact that I have managed to work into every single conversation I’ve had since then. (“Hey, hear about that business with Ebola? I’d sure rather be the woods running an ultra and winning first place in my age group like I did last year than on a plane sitting next to someone with that disease!” Too soon? My apologies.) This particular race is fairly small, and most of the faster runners in my age group that I know don’t do it, which is the only reason I won last year and the only reason I hoped for a shot at first this year. Didn’t happen. Far worse than that, though, I didn’t much enjoy the race. The BF did place first in his age group, but then that’s a regular thing for him, and he, too, had not found the 30 that much fun. Ultras can be fun—the 40 I did two months ago was maybe the best 8 hours of my running career. This one, not so much, and it has me wondering just how non-fun the next two races—the BQ attempt and the 50—might be.
The most optimistic runners I know will sometimes say things like “there are no bad runs, just good runs and better runs,” but I am sure that even these runners have gone through times on road, trail, or treadmill that ranged from uncomfortable to painful to downright agonizing. A funny thing about running, too, is that people who at all other times maintain an insistently positive attitude will leap headfirst into the pit of despair when they fail to meet their running goals. Non-runners who find those little “26.2” stickers so annoying may wonder why runners feel the need to congratulate themselves so much. Runners aren’t brave, just bored and narcissistic; we haven’t solved any problems, just spent money and time on a hobby. Big deal. Thing is, every “26.2” sticker probably represents as many unmet goals as exceeded expectations.
Another running friend ran his first marathon last weekend in Chicago and ended up with a slower average pace than his training pace. Everything was going well until about mile 17, he said, at which point his legs started cramping so badly he had no choice but to slow to a jog. A few days later he admitted it: he was disappointed. Everyone who heard him state this knew this was a gross understatement. I suspect he was crushed, because I would be—because I was, when it happened to me. In fact, funny thing: everyone he told this to suddenly began volunteering stories of their first marathons, all of them slower than his (my own included), all of them crushing disappointments. All of us have since kept running.
Yes, we congratulate ourselves for this fact. And why not? Why not congratulate yourself when you do something you never thought possible? That’s the easy part, though; what interests me more than the pats on the back are the bruises, the ones we get from beating ourselves up. People often say, “don’t be so hard on yourself.” Yet perversely, to me, this is one of the greatest things about running. I can and do beat myself up for failing to meet my goals, and it doesn’t crush my spirit, it doesn’t lower my self-esteem, it doesn’t make me give up entirely and crawl into a hole. It keeps me going.
I am helpless against the aging of my body. I am powerless against the ravages of time which will one day render me no longer a runner. Shrug. It’s possible that the cycle of exalting and lamenting I go through in my running life has helped me to face all that. If not, at least it’s given me a cute pink sticker on the back of my car that makes me smile, sometimes wryly, sometimes with pride, mostly with the satisfaction of knowing it represents something still very much a part of my life right now.