The Disgusting and Beautiful Mystery of Being a Runner

More often than not, my weekends effectively begin sitting naked in front of a fan.  Exhausted.  Leaving a sweaty outline of my body on the hardwood floor, chugging Gatorade that I’ve diluted so it’ll last longer.  I smell like a crowded tram car in Bangladesh.  I am the rhino scene from Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, only not as funny because I’m not Jim Carrey, and no matter what you say, Emily, JIM CARREY IS HILARIOUS.

This is my choice.  This is the life I have chosen.

I’m a runner.  You know dozens of people like me, who have my same rituals, inexplicable exuberance, and inexcusable hygiene.  And try as I might, I can’t explain my behavior but with circular logic.

These conditions exist because I am a runner and because I am a runner these conditions exist.

I can’t tell you why I love sweating.  The salt covering my face in white crystals that could easily be used to tenderize meat or season french fries.  Clammy and untouchable and gross.  I may smell like a sub sandwich, but I feel like a hero.

I can’t tell you what the Army Privates on Key Bridge think of me when I leave them in my dust, but I imagine it’s love-hate.  Ah, the great pride it brings me to pass young, athletic males.  In my head, I hear Desmond Sepulveda, a sprinter on my high school track team, yelling HAW-HAW-HAW-HAWK! as I pick them off one-by-one, shoulder-by-shoulder.

And how humbling it is when people far older and far heavier than I absolutely crush me in a race.  I mean, I’m dogging it.  Hitting my wall.  Saying Hail Marys or wondering if there’s a God and if so, where the heck is His sweet mercy at a time like this?  Sucking wind.  Grinding my teeth.   And here comes a happy chubsicle or some wiry wrinkled man in short shorts, looking fresh as morning dew.  Showing me that I’m a cocky little twat who should stop pinning shit to my Pinterest boards and train harder.

It’s hard to explain how Dick Hoyt is anything other than superhuman.  Or why I sat in front of my computer at work with tears in my eyes the first time I watched this video, only to well up when it was featured on Sportscenter several months later.  When I say well up, I mean weep loudly.  Like, in pieces.  Like, faith in humanity restored.

I can’t tell you why it seemed like a good idea to run the Hood To Coast Relay, a 200 mile logistical scramble, with 11 strangers.  I can’t tell you why it was so fun to sleep only two hours, on a short van bench with no pillow.  Or why running 7 miles at 10pm, 5 miles at 7am, and 8 miles at 3pm didn’t leave me sore or cranky.  I can’t tell you why I ate two day-old, unrefrigerated pasta from a bag.  At 10am.  In a van.  I can only report that it was fucking spiritual.

I can tell you every time I’ve ever posted for a marathon, and exactly how I felt at Mile 23.  Answer: Fucking awful.  But no, I can’t tell you what it feels like to finish a marathon.  Because I’m never really done running.

I can’t tell you why getting my BQ is one of the proudest moments of my life.  Or how tortured I am that I haven’t qualified for Boston since 2009.  How I’m worried that I peaked.  Or how every marathon, I’m going for my PR.  Every. fucking. time.  I’m BQing again.  I have to.  It’s absolutely necessary.

I can’t tell you the great importance of planning your pre-run poop.  Any runner worth his PR knows it, will talk openly about it, has already talked to you about it.  Half the battle is the all-consuming fear of shitting yourself and the great relief when you have made accommodations to ensure you will not.  It’s all about timing.  And lean protein.  And knowing that when it’s time to go, you better Bear Down.

I can’t tell you why I blush and fan my neck like a Southern belle when people tell me I have great legs.  When women in the grocery store or on the Metro tell me I must be a runner.  Who me?  Darlin’, you’re kind.  I do declare!

I can’t tell you why all the runners you know are happier, more pleasant people than everyone else.  Why I wave in solidarity to every runner, while I stare coldly and blankly at bikers.  Why I know that the tall, ripped black dude who runs shirtless is really friendly while the short, ripped black dude is zoning.  Either way, I have love for those guys.  I can’t explain why I have left a plastic bag full of valuables, cab fare, and sweatpants amongst a sea of complete strangers and never had a thing stolen.  We’re a very strangely honest and benevolent culture.  And boy, are we pissed that Paul Ryan lied about his marathon time.  No one does that.  Runners, he is not one of us.

I can’t tell you why I am so proud of the callouses that surround my feet like a protective halo.  Or why the veins on my feet, thick and blue like internet cables, are more uniquely identifying than my thumbprint.  I can’t tell you how many toenails I’ve lost, or why I’m proud of that, even though it’s really disgusting and looks terrible in dress shoes at a wedding.

I can’t tell you how much I eat after a long run.  But it’s often naked, without utensils, and a reassuring sign that I would survive in a post-apocalyptic world.

I can’t begin to explain what it feels like to have nothing left in the tank.  Heavy legs feeling like they’re carrying all the pavement they’ve covered, but still having the will and the guts to finish.  A quarter mile from the finish at my first marathon (Marine Corps), seeing my dad peek out from under a bridge, come on Kelaine, proud and tender like a dad should be.  Then seeing my mom, waving a sign she made (obviously), bellowing with her amazingly deep voice that you could hear from the Iwo Jima Memorial, if not from Iwo Jima.  HOW IT MOVED ME LIKE THE HOLY GHOST, adrenaline that came from fucking nowhere, bro, had me speaking in tongues, shouting LET’S GOOOOOOOOOOOOO from my goddamn toes, as if I had any other choice but to finish.

Running is a mystery, as corporeal as it is spiritual.  It possesses you, brings you to the brink, makes you doubt everything you are.  And just when you think you can’t, when you’ve resigned, when you’ve given in to its great power, you realize you’ve already done it.   It was your own footprints all along.


5 thoughts on “The Disgusting and Beautiful Mystery of Being a Runner

  1. Guess I am a runner worth their PR….given the ability to openly discussing “bearing down.” Awesome read by the way, your writing is excellent and fun to read. Glad I could be part of the 11 strangers who did not steal your cab fare.

  2. Even though I’m not a long distance runner (The Spring Lake 5 is more than enough for me), I could feel every race you described. Your writing is inspiring and soooooo palpable.
    I enjoy your postings to BH.

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