The audiobook I chose to listen to late in my quest for a 100-mile ultra was Jane Austen’s Persuasion. It’s fun to imagine the withering smile and polite disdain Ms. Austen might give in response to this statement, were she able to understand it – and, in truth, most people in this century would fail to understand it. An ultra runner and sometime-novelist herself might think this the ultimate compliment – Yours is the work I chose to experience whilst enduring these long hours of suffering – but nobody else would.
I had decided on the Austen novel because I wanted something light and fun, and because about 90% of what I listen to while running long distances is, in fact, 19th century literature, which can’t be all that unusual a thing to do, surely. I needed it to be something I’d read before, so I’d know for sure I’d enjoy it, something with beautifully wrought sentences that entranced and enthralled, but also with intelligence and humor and a happy ending. It’s not the least bit spoilery to note that every Austen novel ends with the heroine marrying a great man whose love and admiration for her is equal to hers for him. We all know the script, so we know this ending comes only after a whole lot of struggle (over tea) and conflict (plus dancing), and more than once the heroine resigns herself to never seeing her true love again, usually at the very moment she realizes he is, in fact, her true love. There’s also a lot of hypocrisy, snobbery, passive aggressive manipulation, and considerable discussion of people’s countenances. They didn’t have social media back then so they had to scroll through faces the old-fashioned way.
But in Persuasion, Austen’s last completed novel before her death, the shadow of being too late, of missing your one chance at happiness, looms large, both in the book and, possibly, in reality. Its heroine is pushing 30, its author’s health in decline. Anne Elliot is described as having once been a beauty but now, lacking the bloom of youth, haggard. She had once been deeply in love and engaged to marry, but (cue title) had been persuaded to break the engagement by family and friends who considered the gentleman unsuitable, meaning neither titled nor rich. Tantalizingly, the few bits of Austen’s correspondence that survived (her protective sister Cassandra destroyed almost all of it after Jane’s death) suggest that Jane herself had once (maybe?) found someone as wonderful as Frederick Wentworth and (perhaps?) had wanted to marry him. Unlike Anne, however, Jane didn’t marry him. She never married anyone.
We can tell ourselves this might have been by choice. Austen’s books were hugely popular even in her own time; with such success, acclaim, and adulation, did she even need a husband? It’s a ridiculous question – human needs are varied and complex – yet it’s just too heartbreaking to believe the woman who penned six of the most popular love stories ever had missed the chance at her own happily-ever-after. Nothing aches like opportunity lost.
These were probably not the most helpful thoughts I could’ve had while trudging through the wee hours of the night, feet bubbling with blisters, pain like riptide pulling me under. I had known the nighttime part of the run would be tough, but I hadn’t expected my brain to spiral down panicky thoughts of Is it too late? Am I too late? I’m not going to make it, am I. But the idea of Austen writing a book in which love comes almost too late haunted me. She had to know there was no almost left for her.
Friends who had done very long races before had told me the sun coming up in the morning after an all-night run is the most glorious thing ever. It was, but not in the way I thought it would be. As soon as it got light, I knew with absolute clarity that I was not going to complete the hundred. At about 23 and a half hours, I’d gone 80.6 miles, and I was done.
What regrets can you live with? Truthfully, all of them. Even the worst choices can be rationalized away, smothered under a blanket of denial. But regrets are another variation on the oft-memed Shroedinger’s cat: you can both wish things had happened differently and yet know they couldn’t have. I wanted so badly to keep moving. I wanted so desperately to stop. I stopped, and I’m OK with that, even though I still wish I were stronger, tougher, that things had worked out better. There is absolutely no connection between ultramarathons and Jane Austen, but I do hope Austen was OK, too, with whatever that she had in her mysterious, complex, too-brief life.