Below is a piece I wrote just before I ran my only Marathon — four years ago this month.
Running Under the Radar
On Sunday, October 9th I am running the Portland Marathon. It will be my first and only marathon. All the training leaves plenty of time to contemplate deep questions, none more reoccurring than “why am I doing this?” In the pain of a double-digit run last weekend, I dredged up a suppressed memory which offered some explanation.
I remembered back to second grade, when a kid named Jeffrey challenged me to a race across the playground. Jeffrey was the cruelest kid in the class and I was the slowest. Hence, the terms of the race were that I was to run it forward and Jeffrey was to run it backwards.
As I stared at Jeffrey’s cool tennis shoes and then at my geeky Buster Browns, I contemplated for the first time in my life what a no-win situation looked like. If I won the race everyone would say – well, jeez, Jeffrey had to run it backwards. And if Jeffrey won the race, well, even no-win situations have worse-case scenarios.
Technically, I finished “in front” of Jeffrey — which wouldn’t have been so bad except, remember, that he was running backwards. So being “in front” of Jeffrey meant that he was crossing the finish line stepping backwards and pointing his finger at me in ridicule. As I suffered the jeers and taunts of my classmates, I accepted right then that fitness, for me, would never be about competition.
The childhood notion that “running is playing” ended that day. Running – as well as jumping, catching, throwing and even playing itself – was no longer playing. It all became something to be judged. For graceless boys like myself, it became a school-day fear to be picked deep in the gym-class draft. I continued to join team sports all the way through high school, which I don’t regret. But I have no delusions that I was ever more than practice fodder. My father should be granted sainthood for all the games he sat in the stands to watch me sit on the bench.
The desire to play or stay fit never went completely out, but I would only do it below the radar screen of others. My fitness choices as an adult have only been things I can do alone. The community of me ran, hiked and pedaled long, slow and lonely routes in solitude.
If I dared shared the road or trail with anyone, it was under spy-like rules of engagement.
Rule #1 – Never invite anyone more judgmental than my dog.
Rule #2 – Make those that extend invitations to me feel uncomfortable by insisting that they wouldn’t want to exercise with anyone as sluggish as me.
Rule #3 – Even if someone made it past rules 1 and 2, the deal was off if the other person looked athletic.
If I were Rudolph, I would have withdrawn myself from any reindeer games. I know the bumper sticker says that no one can make me feel inferior without my consent, but, when it came to fitness, I had pre-signed consent forms stashed in my wallet. My running garment of choice would be an invisibility cloak, in moisture-wicking polyester, of course.
There has been no one to push me in my adult conditioning, and that has been by design. There has been no taunting classmates or hot-collared coaches, nor the expectations of a father’s voice. Instead, my miles of spinning wheels and shuffling shoes have been accompanied with more self-exploration than Gandhi.
Not only have I not competed against others, I also don’t compete against myself. I have vowed to treat all personal bests, personal worsts and personal in-betweens the same. The bathroom scale and the stop-watch are just other forms of judgment I don’t need.
Maybe I’ve taken the concept of “personal fitness” a little bit too personal, but I don’t think I am alone in my self-consciousness about exercise. The jogging paths are filled with lonely runners. There is a whole niche of “women’s only” gyms, in part to get away from leering eyes, but also to deemphasize competitiveness and tap into the supportive spirit of sisterhood. There are always video workouts if even personal support is too much scrutiny.
As I worked my way through a low blood-sugar crisis deep into last weekend’s run, I considered that there was a third possible outcome to that second-grade playground challenge long ago. I could have chosen not to have run at all. It wasn’t really an option, even a grade school nerd knew enough not to turn down a playground dare. I am proud that I grew up into someone who has continued to choose to run, with the only condition on my conditioning being that there be no expectations by anyone, including myself.
Why then, a three-mile-at-a-time runner suddenly electing to run 26.2 miles, and not even at gunpoint? Well, several months back my niece emailed to tell me she was registered for the Portland Marathon. I decided to throw my hat into the ring too, and convinced my brother to do the same. If there is any family competition going on, I’m not channeling it. I just decided that my running résumé needed to include one run, and only one, at running’s signature distance.
And maybe I’m recovering from the trauma of childhood ridicule. I’m starting the race with family, though we’ll each settle into our own pace. I might even go so far as to say that I’m challenging myself in this race and have even thought about my finishing goal (though I’ll be damned if I’m going to tell anyone).
So if the crowds come out to taunt me, I’m only going to hear it as cheers. If a runner passes me running backwards, I’ll only smile straight to his face. It’s not going to be pretty, but I’m not too concerned with the beauty of it all. Running is only playing, after all.