My first experience with competitive running was a humbling one. I was a freshman at Rhinelander high school in Wisconsin (Go Hodags!) and we were running at our annual track conference meet. We only had about 3 upperclassmen on the entire team, and our team was so sparse that we could barely find enough runners to compete in the individual events, much less the relays. I was an average runner, long on effort but short on talent, trying to figure out which event I was good at. Turns out I was equally mediocre at all of them. Coach read the lineup and I had been chosen to run the anchor leg of the 4x400m relay. While I did have some running talent, I remember one of the other legs was to be run by a freshman shotputter. I know a lot of runners like to disparage their own running ability, but just think for a second how slow a 15 year old shotputter actually is. The starting pistol sounded and our team settled, a little too comfortably, into last place, with all 8 lanes occupied. I waited, and waited, and waited, for the baton. Finally, I took my place, alone, and held out my left hand for the stick. I was surprised to see that our team was only 10-20 meters behind the leaders. When the track ref stretched the yellow tape in front of me and rudely nudged me to the side, I realized that our 3rd runner was behind the other teams' anchor runners. That's right, we had been lapped in a 4 lap race. I had to stand on the infield grass and watch the finish, feeling like a hockey player in the penalty box, before re-taking my place on the track, grabbing the baton, and although already defeated, running like hell. Keep in mind that this relay is the last event of the meet, so the meet was actually over before I started running. As I entered the home stretch, I saw that the bleachers were emptying out and the teams were headed to the buses on the other side of the field. So my final 100 meters had to be run as a slalom, weaving through people carrying full-size coolers who were wondering who this crazy person was, pumping his arms and running like he stole something. It would have been nice to at least see a person holding a stop watch at the finish line. I've had bad dreams that weren't as bizarre as that final lap.
Anyway, my running career improved from there, but only slightly. I don't have the build for running, being built more like a wrestler. (short legs, long torso, wide shoulders) Asking me to run is like hiring a carpenter to do your plumbing repair. Sure, he'll do the job because he has some amateur plumbing experience and he knows some good plumbers, but it'll take him twice as long, with a few extra trips to the hardware store. This isn't an excuse or complaint, just reality, and knowing where my gifts lie. When it comes to running, I have a built-in REV-limiter.
As luck would have it, I was hanging out with my cousins soon after my snow epiphany and I mentioned my dilemma. My cousin said that his hometown was hosting their first annual marathon and we vowed to run it together. Sounded like a good plan, so I grabbed a "6 Months To Your First Marathon For Dummies" training guide and I hit the pavement. I survived the mileage, through IT band syndrome, foot pain, and a monster-month sinus infection. The night before the race, I felt like an imposter who was about to be exposed, ala old man Smithers and the haunted amusement park on Scooby Doo. I'm not a distance runner! What am I thinking? Against all odds, I actually slept that night. As the alarm went off at 5:30 am, I panicked, like an ill-prepared undergrad on the morning of finals. Anyway, I stuck with my race-day plan of "start slow and taper off" and finished in 4:46. And I didn't get lapped. As I ran the final stretch and heard my name announced, I was surprised at how emotional I became. While I didn't cry, I saw others weeping. Me, I got really excited and started yelling and pointing at the crowd like a professional wrestler. Not sure what I was yelling, but it seemed to make sense at the time. A mixture of moderate dehydration, sunburn, and too many GU packets make some ideas sound better than they actually are. The best feeling in the world is the last mile of your first marathon. The corollary to this rule, however, is: the worst feeling in the world is the 2nd to last mile of your first marathon. How the best and worst can exist back-to-back is a wonderment of physics.
For me, running is difficult. I've never felt a runner's high. Actually, I always managed to reach a runner's low. After I run, I could pass for an asthmatic whose lost a fight. So the question is: Why would anyone ever do this? I can see if someone is extremely talented, or winning these races, but why would the rest of us unwashed masses put ourselves through this agony? It makes no sense. Can't people get the same health benefits from water aerobics, squash, or Tony Little's Gazelle? And yet there are plenty of plodding, yet determined marathoners at each race. What is the reason for this?
I think the reason is the overwhelming positivity of the running community. Where else can balding amateur adult men have strangers cheer for them? And really CHEER! And they mean it, too. Not like today's "frenemies" that may wish you well, then quietly root for your failure. They really want me to do well, as if they see a bit of themselves in me. Go to another type of event, say Rec league softball, and you'll find cursing, arguing with the umpire, and smack-talk. Go to open gym basketball and you'll see an actual fistfight. Race day is a different story. I'm not a chemist, but there's definitely some type of bonding between runners that prompts us to motivate, push, and support each other. It's only running that has managed to attract (or create?) such great people, both runners and spectators. The reason is unknown, but I'd sure like to hear it.
And so I press on. And I plan on being the fit dad at my son's high school football game. The one where people talk about my talented sons and say "no wonder, have you seen his dad?" But I'll still be wearing that faded Packers sweatshirt.