Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Yin and Ying of the Run

Now bid me run
And I will strive with things impossible,
Yea, get the better of them.

-Shakespeare. Julius Caesar. Act II, scene I, lines 324-6.


On May 19, 2007, I passed through the bowels of hell en route to finishing my first full marathon. After limping the last sixteen miles due to the tightening of my Iliotibial Band (read: near-crippling pain radiating from just below the outer knee) and wading through mild dehydration and not-so-mild mental fatigue, I crossed the finish line and grabbed a bottled water from my wife. She walked with me through the finisher’s area, past the medical tent, the apples, oranges, bagels. Through the blur of my vision, I searched for a sturdy figure against which to brace my exhaustion. As we turned the corner around a tent, I saw my dad and mom standing beneath a towering oak, tending our two daughters. He stepped forward and gathered me into his chest, squeezing tighter than he had since I stepped off the plane from Auckland via LAX and Salt Lake International. As my head fell against his broad shoulders, he said, “You did it,” and swallowed. “I’m proud of you.”

While I’d like to say that completing a marathon stands out as a highlight in my running career, I won’t. I can’t lie to myself like that. Running 26.2 miles, most of which I hobbled because of my injury, was the single worst experience of my life. It was freezing at the starting line and then scorching hot after about mile 7, making all of the drinks at the hydrating stations boil—have you ever tried to quench a beyond-parched system with hot chocolate? My knee hurt for over half the race (have I mentioned that before?). Dehydration sucks…literally; it drained what physical strength I had and stole my mental clarity (if I can claim any in the first place).

In short, I felt like bawling like a baby. Mile after mile I had to hold back the tears because, frankly, I couldn’t bear to lose more water. And I didn’t want all those who passed me to know that I was breaking down. Runners are a tough lot, you know, although I may have dropped a few when I thought of my wife, kids, and parents standing at the finishing line, checking the clock and trying to stay out of the sun because I finished over an hour after I’d planned to. The details of the day are still a bit sketchy.

All I know is that I swore I’d never run a marathon again. Never.

Ever.

I still don’t know why I didn’t stop—maybe because I knew my family was waiting to see me cross the finish line. Or because I’d paid close to $100 to register. Or because I wanted to beat my brother-in-law’s marathon time (kudos to you, Mike). Or because I wanted the neat finisher’s medal that’s now hiding somewhere in the bottom of a drawer. Or because I didn’t even know what the Iliotibial Band was until it suddenly tightened and stole the miles I might have run faster.

Or maybe it was all of the above. After sixteen years of running, I’ve become persistent enough (read: stubborn) and enough people support me in my craziness that I’ve been able to push through most of the obstacles I face while my feet are pounding the pavement.

And there’s the rub. Since I started running when I was twelve, I’ve developed a passion for the highs and lows of the sport, the yin and yang of the run, and what they teach me about me. Because in all reality, I don’t run against anyone but myself.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy the accolades that come with finishing well, with running fast enough to place near the top of a large field of runners. And just because I’m passionate about running doesn’t mean I always love it. Some days I absolutely hate it. Take, for instance, the way I have to push myself to pick up the pace in the middle of a 5k. Or the way I have to recite this mantra when I’m pressing up a difficult hill: “You own this hill. This hill’s got nothing on you.” (Now don’t laugh…anything that will keep me going, right?) Sometimes, like on this morning’s tempo run, my body stops before my brain can persuade it to go to the next tree or telephone pole or mailbox or intersection. But sometimes, when the moon is right and I’m feeling especially good, I feel like my feet barely touch the ground, like I could run to the horizon and back without getting tired.

And that’s why I run: because it brings me darkness and light through moments of intense pain and moments of immeasurable ecstasy; it brings me neat little finisher’s medals that I can hang on the fridge for a while then hide in the bottom of a drawer; and, most of all, by alternately keeping me grounded and letting me fly, it brings me into contact with my body’s potential and with my potential as a human being.

Why deny myself the challenge?