I am in my early 40s and had never run before two years ago, but now I have taken to running like a duck takes to water. I feel I have always been a distance runner; I just didn’t know it. I feel designed for it physically and psychologically. Up until now, I was simply not aware of this part of my “design.” It feels like a mid-life gift of epigenetic proportions.
Running has made me smaller, lighter, and very agile, but that is not the epigenesis of which I speak. I’m talking about a change in mentality. For most of my life, I’ve been a late sleeper, but now, I can say that there is nothing quite like an early morning run in late spring. The temperature, is, for me, perfect at about 5 degrees. The streets and the walking trails are at their most quiet. It is a still time of day, just before my suburban neighbourhood springs to life with people showering and making breakfast and fussing around getting ready for school and work. This is the time of day when I used to wake up and lie in bed fretting about the things over which I had no control: the productivity requirements of my academic job, the interminable grind of administrative work, and the seemingly endless demands of students. When you decide to get up a little earlier than everyone else and lace up your running shoes and head out into a cold early spring morning for a 10 km run, you change all that. You can change your day into something different, and you can have different expectations of what it will bring.
This is the main reason why I run. The transformative effect of distance running is not obvious at first when you take up the sport. I’ve been doing distance running for about 18 months, having been introduced to it by family and friends. Sure, at first, running required significant exertion on my part and any kind of physical exertion will produce endorphins. As FFG and friends have told us many times, endorphins are most, most pleasant. And I am usually very keen to activate the reward/pleasure centres of my brain. But there is a moment when you get used to longer running sessions, when your weekly distance gets up to 30 or 40 km, when you start to notice a physical and mental shift at a more profound level.
I am not alone in my new enthusiasm for running. Women over the age of 30 are the largest growing demographic of distance runners in North America. Like me, they run half-marathons, which is the fastest growing running event in both Canada and the United States. Many people might assume this is linked to a need for middle class females at perimenopause to find new ways to keep off middle age paunch. If women are doing a sport, it must be for weight loss. They must be motivated by vanity, suckered in by Lululemon advertising! They just want to wear running skirts! These fools have never done distance running, never contended with the dehydration, the chafing, the salt tracks on your skin, the bad hair, the snot, and the dreaded runner’s bowel (if FFG will let me, I’ll do a whole post on the embodiment of running and devote a whole hilarious paragraph to poo—vote in the comments sections, readers!). No one runs distance to “look good.” You run to have a strong heart.
Let me explain: I did my first half marathon about a year ago, and am gearing up for my third in a few short weeks. I recently read that in order to achieve the desired goals of a distance race, you normally run the first leg with your intelligence and training foremost in mind. For me, a relative beginner, this means: don’t let the adrenalin of race day make you start too fast, stick to your pace, remember your strategy, build your speed and stop for water even if you don’t feel thirsty. Then, during the second, middle leg of a long race, you will race most effectively if you add your distinct personality. For me, this means trying to pass the guy with the ridiculous yellow striped shorts, then let him pass you, then you pass him, then let him pass you, then… why? Because it’s fun and it passes the time. It feels good to pass people, especially if their shorts are ridiculous and you’re in a slammin’ runskirt and look awesome, thank you very much. But then let him pass you and make a friend. You’re going to be out there running for a couple of hours, why not make friends? But, trust me, the fun will pass. There is a point in every distance race when you get to a fatigue threshold. It is at this point, in the final leg, when the only way to succeed (and sometimes just finish), is to run with your heart. There is no easy way to describe what running with your heart is like, but it is a life-event where you have to push past where you thought your endurance limits were. And do it as fast as you can. Don’t make excuses, don’t slow down, don’t fail: just finish. Hold the hand of the guy in the yellow striped shorts if it helps. It usually does. Runners will often help each other very generously at this stage of a race (“Looking strong!” “Keep going!” “Great work!” is the kind of thing complete running strangers say to each other.). Oh, and always sprint to the finish, even if your feet are bloody stumps. This, too, will build up the heart, which you need if you want to be a better runner for the next race.
It’s not until I regularly broke the 20 km distance threshold in a single run that I started to feel an expansion in how I run with my “heart.” I have weathered other endurance tests in life but there is something very special about an extreme embodied endurance experience that forces you to confront and consider physical limits and push at them with your mind and will. Expanding it is a very empowering process. It restores your belief in yourself, in other people, and makes you aware that you actually don’t know where the edge of life possibilities lie, for your race, for your day, your career and yourself.
In the wake of the fatal bombing of the Boston Marathon yesterday, what I cannot get past is how those acts of violence killed and maimed runners at the finish line, just at the moment when they were running at full heart. It’s quite something to qualify for the Boston Marathon. It’s an elite race, but it is open to amateurs and therein lies the brilliance of the Boston Athletic Association, whose vision preserves the race’s status while also allowing average people from around the world to participate meaningfully in an elite event. Boston is open to runners who, like me, have decided to train hard, transforming themselves and their capacities so that they might qualify for an extraordinary event. I have had people very close to me do the Boston Marathon and finish well. I have stood on Boylston, meters before the finish line, and watched hordes of these everyday racers come around the corner, after finishing “heartbreak hill,” and see it register on their faces that the end of the race was finally before them. I found this moment in the race fascinating—these amateur runners are much more interesting than the elite runners. I stood there, took pictures and watched the “everyday” athletes for at least an hour, wondering who they were and why they did this and what made them sprint to the finish after running four hours. I am, at this moment, enraged that a coordinated act of military violence (as far as we know at this writing) was directed at these people at this event, engaging, as they were, in this very difficult and inspiring activity. It’s futile anger that is a bit undirected; war is tragically impersonal and both Canada and the United States are engaged in war. But I have loved ones in Boston, it is one of my favourite cities, and my reaction is rage. Now, a day later, I fear the response to this violence will be to fundamentally change the nature of this sport event and enact quasi-military security protocols. I fear that this will change the Boston Marathon so that it’s no longer an event built around positive public appreciation of the excellence achieved by everyday distance runners from around the world. (And, if FFG will let me, I have some thoughts to share about how militarism and violence—state sponsored and otherwise—attempt to discipline bodies in space and how running culture sometimes contests these forces in society).
In the meantime, I will lace up my shoes and run. It’s about 11 AM and I’m visiting Montreal. I’m going to be running a 10K loop along the Lachine Canal. I have the time since I was feeling inspired and finished this guest post quicker than expected. And, as I finish this final paragraph, I am resolving to train for a marathon next year. If everything goes according to plan, I’ll be on sabbatical, and can certainly find the time for the extra running as I write my second book. While I don’t know that I’ll ever be fast enough to qualify for Boston, I’ve decided I’m going to go back there next year, whether I know people running in the 118th Marathon or not, and cheer on the everyday runners. You can see the finish! Sprint!