Sunday, April 26, 2015

Change is a foot

Stylized drawings of the sun usually depict the bright yellow orb with a kindly smile. Today, the orb is laughing, or maybe giving a Bronx cheer. It’s a beautiful sunny day, perfect for running, and so completely not the way it was yesterday when I ran my 23rd marathon-or-longer-distance race.

At various points in the marathon I pondered what I might say for my race-recap blog post. At Mile 17, for example, when I suddenly had one of those weird mid-race surges of energy and started speeding up, I considered making some grand metaphor about how my life has been a negative split—slow and uncertain the first half, confident and assured so far in the second. Yeah, lovely, except I ended up not getting a negative split in this race, and a few other things happened that took this idea completely out of contention.

One funny thing about runners (beside all the other funny things about runners) is that they are often control freaks. They obsess over what to wear for a race. Capris or shorts? It makes a huge difference whether the couple of inches between mid-thigh and kneecap are covered in tech cloth or not. They fret that the aid stations won’t have the flavor of Gatorade they trained with all year, and they freak out when they accidentally pick up that Gatorade instead of water at the precise point when they need to take their Gu shot. They worry that the weather will be too cold, too hot, too windy, too rainy, too much like what weather is supposed to be, which is ever-changing. If the weather stayed the same, we wouldn’t have a name for it—or, perhaps, we might have a less conditional-sounding name for it, as in “whether or not that thunderstorm hits is going to determine whether the race continues.”

This control-freakiness is funny precisely because running is all about things you can’t control.

You may already know that at some point yesterday, the Illinois Marathon was cancelled due to thunderstorms moving into the race course area. When I heard the news, I was at Mile 21. The news changed nothing, really, because I and everyone around me kept running. But it also changed everything, because at that point I wasn’t sure I’d even get an official time if I finished. I also knew there was no chance I’d qualify for Boston, I wouldn’t get a sub-4, and I might not even get a PR. I had to think of some reason to continue.

Another mile into things, one of the pace groups, the 4:10, caught up with me. They were an animated, enthusiastic bunch, so I figured maybe I’d tag along with them and that would provide sufficient motivation to keep going. It seemed like a good idea except the 4:10 pace group quickly drove me insane with rage at all the cliché platitudes they kept spouting off. “In it to win it!” “No pain, no gain!” “Quitters never win and winners never quit!” One guy who seemed to think running a marathon was a patriotic act kept saying “I won’t quit! I won’t step all over the American flag!” I wanted to run faster mostly to get away from them. Annoyance can be a surprisingly huge motivator.

When I got to mile 24 and my right calf started cramping and the rain started pouring and I started to want very desperately to stop moving, my Garmin chose that moment to cut out on me. I wasn’t sure there’d be a clock or a chip mat at the end of my run, so now I wouldn’t even know my finish time. It didn’t matter much—it wasn’t going to be a BQ and probably not even a PR—but still, I like to know these things to satisfy the side of me that needs to put numbers on stuff so they can be organized into charts. At that moment, the 4:15 pacer caught up with me—or rather, her voice caught up with me; the pacer herself was still maybe fifty yards away. When I volunteer to work the finish line at races, people tell me I have an astonishingly loud voice, but this woman probably could out-bellow me. “COME ON RUNNERS! LOOKING GOOD! FINISH STRONG! YOU GOT THIS!” I asked her if she was still on for pacing; she said yes (or rather “YES!!!”) so I decided to run in with her so I’d at least know my time.

I managed to finish a bit ahead of the pacer, who fulfilled her duties and crossed at exactly 4:15. “GREAT JOB TISHA!!!” (I had been mumbling when I ran with her, too tired to work my jaw properly, so I was “Tisha” for two miles.) Amazingly, all those cliché running platitudes, roared at the decibel level of a jet engine, had suddenly become motivational. I finished strong, and I did, in fact, get this.

So it goes with running. Someone tells you you’re almost finished at Mile 18 and you want to punch them in the neck because you know they’re a big fat liar. Someone says “looking good!” the next mile and you want to fall into their arms and weep with gratitude. The day of the race is gloomy, cold and wet, and a thunderstorm shuts the thing down before everyone can finish. The day after the race, the sky is a clear, heartbreaking blue, and under a warm (but heartlessly laughing) sun, all evidence of yesterday’s downpour vanishes. So it goes with running, and with most other things in life, changing in ways you can’t predict, control, or even comprehend.

Control freaks become runners despite the vast number of things they can’t control precisely because running allows you to experience that lack of control in a way that you can’t in the rest of life. The sudden and unpredictable way things change in running doesn’t ruin your life; it becomes something to experience, to think about (and even laugh about) later on. Similarly, a cranky, cheery-aphorism-hating pessimist can become a runner even though running culture is deeply mired in positive attitudes. I’m still a crank. I still firmly maintain that you don’t necessarily get what you want just because you want it badly enough. All the cheerful aphorisms and positive thinking in the world will not get you a BQ if your body can’t handle it. I didn’t BQ last time, I didn’t BQ this time, and yes folks, it’s quite possible that I may never BQ because a lot of people—most people—never do. I don’t know if I can change in that way, if I can transform myself into someone who can run a Boston-worthy marathon. And even though I have a bit of control-freak tendencies myself, I’m OK with not knowing.



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