I was one smiley motherfucker.
Saturday night had turned into Sunday morning, and I was standing in a sea of malnourished strangers in Pittsburgh, a city with which I claim no personal connection, ready to embark on the most imposing physical challenge of my life. The pangs that had developed from an eight-hour drive from Connecticut, where I live, had only been exacerbated by a 5 a.m. wake-up call, and now I found myself waiting under cloudy skies and drizzling rain blanketing the city’s 26.2-mile course, and the 4,500 maniacs who were waiting around, preparing to run those 26.2 miles.
Running a marathon is arguably one of the most insane decisions a sensible human can make. Every year, an impressive delegation of the nation’s most vigorous masochists drains an extravagant amount of resources into negotiating an arbitrary distance in pursuit of a frivolous goal. Many attempt to imbue their decision with meaning by attaching a charitable component to the ordeal, but I did not. I ran the marathon for myself.
Driving past the fog-shrouded houses filled with people who had yet to awaken, my mind kept returning to the question of “Why?” No one had forced us to be here, and yet here we were, herded together in increasingly soggy shoes under our own volition – like willing victims of an elaborate practical joke.
It was hard not to feel a little apprehension. Everyone looked slim, and everyone was fidgeting a lot, bouncing rhythmically at the knees. I feigned a studied intensity as the other runners immersed themselves in their last-minute preparations, but doing so only made me giggle.
Instead I returned my attention to the rain, and how threats of thunderstorms had loomed in the week leading up to the race. Part of me wished there was some lightning in the distance – just to double down on the ridiculousness of it all. Stack the obstacles on top of each other. Let’s fuck up some orcs at Helms Deep.
Soon a coarse, staticky voice called out over a loudspeaker that the race was about to begin. Everyone rushed through the end of their pre-race routines and awaited further instruction. People seemed jazzed – giddy, even – to get started, and I was too, obsessed but removed.
I took in the scene one last time and allowed a thin smile. The scariest moment in a runner’s life is right before a race begins. The seconds before the gun goes off, standing shoulder to shoulder with your competitors. All of the training is behind you; all of the advice in the world doesn’t mean a thing. Soon, you’ll be out there. Soon, the butterflies will disappear. All that’s left is for someone to say go.
“Guess I’m doing this,” I said as the gun went off, and my face broke into a grin. And then I began to run.
Why do we do the things that we do?
Testimonies that try to explain why people run marathons can feel stupefyingly opaque, so let’s start with the obvious: I did it for the validation. There’s a lot less positive reinforcement in life once you age out of formal competitions, and participating in an event synonymous with resilience and fortitude offered an opportunity to earn a societal merit badge with which to gain attention and favor.
But there’s another element at play: While external recognition is certainly tied to my self-worth, pursuing the marathon was not so much about validation as it was affirmation—reassurance that I could successfully complete such a formidable undertaking if I so chose. It’s a tiny distinction, but one that I think implies a different attitude toward the approach. My stock answer when people asked why I planned to run the Pittsburgh Marathon last spring is that I wanted to test myself, to explore the depth of my abilities, but that's reductive and isn't completely true. What is it, exactly, that I was trying to prove?
These are the types of things you think about amidst the drudgery of longer runs. Most exercise – hoops, yoga, blasting your lats at the gym – involves straightforward thinking; you do it for fun and for your health. To train for a marathon, though – and know you’re probably going to write about it – is more of a metaphysical enterprise. It feels like a completely separate proposition.
Every distance runner of merit is familiar with Steve Prefontaine’s penchant for the off-track quotable – “To give anything less than your best, is to sacrifice the gift” is one; “The best pace is a suicide pace, and today looks like a good day to die” is scarier – but not many recall my favorite, from a 1970 Sports Illustrated article profiling the Oregon freshman.
But every once in a while I think what am I doing out here running, busting myself up? Life could be so much easier. The other guys are out having fun, doing other things, why not me?
This is the type of quote that resonates when you leave your apartment for a 14-mile run after midnight in a New England blizzard because it’s the only time that fits into your schedule. There’s no getting lost in thought when you start to lose feeling in your toes, gusts of frigid wind slapping you in the face, squeezing tears from your eyes. There is no highway hypnosis. You are constantly monitoring your stride, compulsively calculating the distance traveled and the distance remaining until you’re done, methodically seeking out the perfect pace between unsustainable sprint and blithe jaunt to ensure your splits are where they need to be. In one mile I’ll have four miles left, which means three miles after that, I’ll only be one mile away from home. This is what training for a marathon is like. At least it was for me.
Either way, my approach couldn’t have been more prosaic: I trained for the marathon by running a lot. I laced up my Mizunos every day that was prescribed, building my routine around my training schedule. The mileage increased as the weeks passed. Race day arrived.
The actual seed for running in the first place, meanwhile, was planted when a friend from home, someone better-intentioned but less athletically inclined, ran the Chicago Marathon last fall to raise money for a nonprofit that focuses on mental illness. His decision was an epiphany: “If this dingbat can do it,” I thought, “what’s stopping me?”
The upshot of training six days a week for 18 weeks is that the race itself feels new and familiar all at once. You know how the miles have a tendency to string together, and you don’t know at all. You know to be patient at the beginning and to preserve your energy, and you don’t know at all. I could feel my training working as I progressed through the opening stages of the race, but I could also feel it slipping away; the first 11 miles were completed in similar fashion, and then a long grinder of a hill near the end of the first half – advertised as “roller-coaster steep” by someone I met when retrieving my racing bib the day before – served as a cruel reminder that this thing wasn’t going to be easy.
The tenor of the race shifted from there. Pittsburgh’s course has a reputation for toughness; its rolling hills, particularly in the backstretch, owe their notoriety to the fact that they must be climbed when energy reserves of runners are greatly depleted. Members of the three-hour pace group started to trickle away by the halfway point, as we crossed the 13.1 marker in 1:29.00 – a full minute ahead of schedule. This felt concerning, as I had already violated a major code in the sport’s training canon by ditching my original pace group just three miles in, but I trudged forward, uncertain of whether I had built enough endurance to maintain that pace over the length of the entire race.
Heading into the day, my biggest strategic question was accounting for the final six miles. I had never run more than 20, so the prospect of completing a full 26.2 for the first time on the actual day of the race was foreboding. Experienced runners I talked to tried to assuage my fears by pointing to the adrenaline of competing in a racing atmosphere after four months of training in solitude and how tapering would ensure fresh legs. Everything is going to be fine, they said.
Their confidence was misplaced. By Mile 16, I was slurping water from every volunteer I passed and chasing energy gels with Gatorade in an attempt to revive myself, but the miles had taken their toll. Everything I had worked for over the past four months was unraveling.
Some miles passed. More runners faded. I felt like an imposter as I caught a glimpse of the roughly dozen runners remaining in my group; I was the only one wearing headphones, clutching my iPhone in a dumb sandwich bag in my right hand to protect it from the rain. My attire – gym shorts from my freshman year of high school that were now the perfect running length – and my inelegant yet committed stride clearly marked me as a foreigner compared with the motley assortment of colorful singlets and racing flats. Their flowing gaits, their rhythmic and athletic ease – these were not mine. I swear one of them conjured a Miller High Life at one point, downed it and tossed the crumpled can to the curb like it was a Gatorade Dixie Cup. They didn’t seem to be pushing themselves at all.
Just past Mile 20, during a stretch without any spectators in sight, I finally relented; the pack pulled away, and I slipped behind, taking advantage of the empty road to address a desire to relieve myself dating back to before the starting gun. Returning from the bushes, I tore open another gel packet with my teeth and groaned at the thought of running six miles longer than I ever had before. It was a dejecting moment: I had sacrificed time, money and logistical energy in a random-ass city to fulfill an athletic experience I had romanticized since I was a kid, and right now the experience was winning.
Six more miles was unthinkable – a lifetime away – so I focused on minimizing the fade. While I had lost sight of my group, my new goal was to ensure that my former phalanx, 3:05.00, didn’t catch up to me. My pace fluctuated, as I’d gather myself for a stretch, downshift when I got tired and then get mad at myself for slowing down before speeding up again.
I had run 20 miles, and I was feeling every ounce of it. My legs felt heavy, my breathing shallow. I kept my legs churning, berating myself for all of the stupid decisions I’d made with my health over the years, the garbage I ate and drank and smoked, all the while pleading for a new mile marker to appear and offer reassurance that I was getting closer to the end. All that mattered was the pavement that connected Point A to Point B. My legs screamed at me to stop, but my brain pleaded for me to push through the fatigue. From this point on, the race became a question of how much I was willing to hurt.
In the weeks and months leading up to the race, I occasionally admitted to friends in passing that I was doing this thing. I told even fewer that I was trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon, and I was reluctant to reveal this information not out of superstition but to avoid potential embarrassment should I fall short of my goal. With the 3:05.00 qualifying standard now barely within reach, those confessions felt even more humiliating, and the thought of addressing my shortcomings, in some deeply pathetic way, helped me discover extra reserves that I might not have had access to otherwise.
With three miles remaining I got a second wind and determination stepped in. Three miles left is easy to rationalize: Just knock out the first one, and then you’re one mile away from having only one more mile to go. I couldn’t tell you what song was playing as my headphones drowned out the canned music blaring over the encouragement from the crowd. I’m not sure what I was thinking as I tried one last surge toward the finish line or how my legs felt, exactly, as I put my head down and pumped my arms in search of one final gear. At first it seemed far away, and then it got closer, which made me want to go faster and finish strong. I couldn’t get a good reading of the clock as I lunged forward to register my time. I swiveled my head looking, but I just as quickly gave up trying. All that mattered was that I could stop running. For now, that was enough.
There is something delightfully transgressive about devoting yourself to an endeavor that is both very hard and very unnecessary. The solitary pursuit of a goal that exists mostly for itself can be its own kind of power; there is value, when otherwise forced to submit to the unforgiving rules that govern adult life, to actively embracing doing things you know are not smart. The appeal of this runs roughly parallel to how stifling those rules are in the moment; when things feel most dire, the freedom to transgress can seem like the only control there is.
Enough with the abstractions: In June, I entered my 25th year of life on this planet; fourth months ago, on our Lord’s Day, April 20, I received a brass-colored Steamboat Willie pin commemorating one year of employment at the multinational corporation for which I work. I was fired from my last job, my first foray into the professional world, partly because I was lazy and partly because my boss was a dick. It was not a completely unjustified decision. More pressing to my current state of affairs is that I’m starting to suspect that no career path I choose, regardless of its merits, will ever be better than not working.
This is a precarious outlook for a 25-year-old-to have! It’s not like I’m a client services representative at H&R Block, and I recognize that I’m at the height of privilege in almost every way. The fact remains, though, that becoming a grown-up is proving more difficult than expected, and the actual moment-to-moment existence as an adult is more difficult still.
I remember talking with older relatives and my friends’ parents when I’d visit home from college, and how the conversation would invariably shift from my sanitized anecdotes to their own theatrical reminiscing. Their stories were mostly exercises in you had to be theres, tales of mild debauchery and the hijinks that ensued. I will tell these stories someday myself, probably, and I will edit them as I see fit.
What strikes me about those conversations, in retrospect, is not just that they clearly relished their college years, although it often appeared to be just that. What strikes me is that this outward longing seemed to have a deeper resonance in their lives. It tells a story, I think, of a time when the future felt more infinite. It reminds them of a past that came before you.
Everything always seems so promising when you’re young and in full bloom. You haven’t committed to a partner, a town or a job that feels too unbearable or inconveniencing to leave. At this moment, the world feels full of possibilities, and that’s what makes older people, I suspect, wish they were young again. The possibility that you could meet someone great, move somewhere glamorous and not feel confined by your past decisions, regardless of how they turned out, is more alluring than the comfort of knowing that everything is going to be OK.
When you’re young, of course, the unknown is frightening. You envy stability and assurance. How will my life turn out? Not knowing leaves open the opportunity for disappointment. But it can also be thrilling, uncertainty breeding excitement. You can do anything. Therein lies the central tension: When you’re lost, you’re also free, tethered to neither comfort nor responsibility. The world is still large. “Same shit, different day,” does not apply to you. Uncertainty, it turns out, is something worth embracing.
These are the types of things you think about amidst the drudgery of longer runs. I am 25 years old, and while I know it’s ridiculous to think my best days are behind me, I find myself feeling nostalgic for something that isn’t even gone yet. I’m not getting old – just anxious about getting older. Part of this, I know, is a function of age. And while 25 is undeniably young, it’s also the oldest I’ve ever been. While I am dimly cognizant of what might lie ahead for me, I fear a series of decisions leading to a moment of clarity in the future when I realize I’ve become the just like the corny old people I ridiculed in my younger, idealistic days.
This is the fundamental thing I fear about aging: compromise, the animating principle of adulthood. Abandoning literary ideas of freedom and purity. Making concessions. Preserving health insurance. Not telling someone to fuck off when you disagree with them. Compromise is unavoidable (and, to be fair, of value), but the fear is that I’ll compromise to the point of being compromised. The fear is that this will all happen without me noticing.
This is a roundabout way of saying that running helps me reconcile with this anxiety of restriction. Because of the marathon’s reputation for being intimidating unto insurmountable, actively disregarding such admissions feels like the rejection of the institution of authority. In a world where things don’t make sense all of the time and asserting yourself feels like a constant struggle, regaining a sense of control over your life is empowering, even if the control is just over the suffering you inflict upon yourself. Enjoying the discomfort is perverse, maybe, but at least it’s clear whose fault it is. It’s therapeutic, but not in the traditional sense of the word. Rather than using running as an escape, to get away from it all, I use it to confront whatever it is that’s stoking my inner rage and strip it of its hold over me – like a form of cathartic anarchy. Viewed through this lens, that push back, that sense of strength, is the outward manifestation of an internal control, a sign of fluency fostering a balance between two worlds: aggressive and relaxed, anxious and at peace.
The absurdity is part of the appeal. Leaving my apartment to go for a run in a blizzard goes against anyone’s reasonable judgment, and training through little aches and pains and daring them to develop into major injuries becomes an act of defiance. Maybe not out in the world, but in my head. In this sense, running isn’t just a sport, but a referendum on how I want to interact with the rest of the world.
It’s cool to know that I accomplished something that’s considered a mark of distinction. It’s cool to be able to talk about the experience with friends and family and subtly flex at parties. It’s cool to be able to write that I met the qualifying standard for the Boston Marathon on my first attempt at the distance. And while it’s undeniably uncool to put a 26.2 bumper sticker on your car, it’s still nice to know that I’ve earned the right to do it if I want to. Actually, it’s more than nice. It feels fucking great.
Just thinking about it makes me smile. What a silly thing to do.