The Gray Shorts of Shame
By Daniel E. Slotnik
Like many spoiled, sedentary, MTA-addicted New Yorkers before me, I took up running after a period of indolence in my early twenties.
I had always regarded running as training, something to be dispensed with as rapidly as possible before playing a more interesting sport — a three-laps-around-the-field, mile-on-the-treadmill kind of deal. I was more into weightlifting, but now that football was many years behind me and I didn’t plan on getting into too many fistfights, it seemed unnecessary. Plus, if my neck got any bigger I’d have to buy new shirts.
So I bought some running shoes at JackRabbit and began working my way haphazardly around the Central Park loop. I smoked at the time, so a mile or two reduced me to a wheezing, dripping mess, whereupon I learned the joys of dehydration, heat exhaustion and relentless allergies. But I still hobbled along as lithe ultra-marathoners passed me by the dozen.
I have since given up smoking, and run a lot more. And I’ve got to tell you, it never stops sucking. The writer Haruki Murakami, who has run so many marathons that thinking about it makes my knees ache, wrote in his running memoir that during the first two miles he always wants to stop. I’m like that, only for the whole run.
There is an upside, of course. There are meditative runs where your legs stop aching, your mind empties and the world around you achieves a clarity it otherwise lacks. When it’s over you feel fantastic for a while, then seriously exhausted, so you sleep deeply and well. Plus you get to interject, “Oh, I’m a little tired because I ran X miles in the park yesterday, while you were drinking at OTB” into regular conversations as often as you choose.
There are other concerns. It is really easy to hurt yourself, sometimes badly and without realizing it. You can wear out the cartilage in your back and knees, sprain ankles, break unpronounceable bones in your foot, get crippling plantar fasciitis and shin splints, and you’re guaranteed general musculoskeletal soreness.
Then, of course, there’s chafing. There is something uniquely emasculating about telling your significant other that your nipples are bleeding from wearing a cotton shirt that might as well be sandpaper. Even a healthy dose of Gold Bond won’t keep the Elvis-hitch out of your step after loose cotton boxers have scoured a furrow in your thigh.
Some of the issues, especially the chafing, can be handled by investing in some decent gear: running and compression shorts, wicking shirts, good running shoes and the like. I resisted these sensible purchases stubbornly, and for quite some time ran in bedraggled shorts, holey cotton boxers and old T-shirts.
I had a pair of gray Adidas shorts made out of the gauze used to dress Civil War wounds. The drawstring in the waist had long since given up and had to be tightened or readjusted every ten feet or so, and the pockets gawped like popped balloons or discarded condoms. But they did have pockets, so I could carry my keys — an important feature, since I had yet to purchase a wristband with a key pouch.
It was a sweltering afternoon on Memorial Day weekend, and the park was full of barbecuers when I suited up and went out to the park.
I ran down the loop from 102nd Street clockwise, which isn’t the direction you’re meant to go, but I was too intimidated by New York City’s version of Heartbreak Hill to start a run with it.
The loop was packed with joggers, bikers, tourists, pedicab drivers and families, many with small, impressionable children. I had decided not to listen to music and found it far easier to get into a rhythm. I felt quick — gazelle-like, really. The road disappeared under my feet and I wasn’t fatigued at all. The only sounds were the people around me, the whoosh of wind past my ears and the metronomic jangle-thwack of the keychain in my pocket against my thigh.
I made it down to the boathouse, a fair distance for me at the time, then turned around to run back up the hill past the statue of a puma crouching on a rock. I thought I was moving pretty fast, passing a lot of people, and it was around that time that I noticed many of the people running towards me were staring at me. Some smiled, some didn’t, but people were watching me run. “I’m really hauling ass!” I thought to myself, and picked it up a little more.
I began to get suspicious when I noticed a fairly attractive woman point at me and laugh shortly after I had sprinted to the top of the hill. My hearing zeroed in on the sound of my keys against my thigh. I looked down.
The droopy pocket with keys had slipped below the hem of my shorts and was swinging back and forth dramatically, striking my leg with each stride. After a couple steps I realized that from afar it resembled a wizened gray scrotum.
I jogged home, one hand jammed awkwardly in my pocket, glaring at passersby. When I got back to the apartment I shucked off the gray shorts of shame and pitched them into the trash. Later that week I finally bought some new gear.
Daniel E. Slotnik is a contributing editor for Narratively. He has worked at The New York Times since 2005, has written for several Times sections and blogs and is a frequent contributor to the obituaries department. Follow him on Twitter @dslotnik.
By Michael Vitez
By mile ten, climbing the hill into Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, running by Memorial Hall, my hips, groin, knees and ankle were all complaining pretty seriously. I knew I’d finish my first half marathon since 1977, but I was telling myself to just limp home. And then I hit Martin Luther King Drive, and saw the clock at the eleven-mile mark: I had eighteen minutes to break two hours. My mind immediately said, “Surrender; 2:02 or 2:03 is great.”
I am fifty-six. I ran track and cross country in high school. I was only a little better than ordinary, breaking a 4:40 mile once or twice, but loved it. Loved everything about it — the friendships, the fitness, the feeling of success after a good race. I remember all these great moments from a lifetime ago. Not victories or defeats, but singing in the showers after practice, or Mark Sohasky running right into a water fountain at Burke Lake Park during the district championship, or listening to Foghat on 8-track tape in Brian Murphy’s orange Datsun on the way to practice. I graduated high school in 1975 and still keep up with several of my old teammates although they are spread across the country.
I ran in my twenties and thirties, and even into my early forties, but only a few days a week at most, never long distances, and rarely entering a 5K. I stopped running because my knees ached. I thought I’d worn them out from too many years of bad shoes. (In my day, the premier running shoe was the Adidas Gazelle. I ran fifty- to sixty-mile weeks in that shoe. In the late nineties, when my kids were playing indoor soccer, I couldn’t believe it: The shoe of choice was the Adidas Gazelle, considered by then a slipper for indoor surfaces.)
I remained active — tennis, biking, swimming, walking. But never running many miles. We had three kids, who all became high school and college runners — way better than I ever was.
I had two good friends and neighbors, only a little older than I, get sick with cancer last winter. Both are dead now. Their deaths shook me on many levels. I felt like the Tim Robbins character in “The Shawshank Redemption,” who says: “Get busy living or get busy dying.”
So I registered for the Philadelphia Triathlon and resumed running. And I loved it. I discovered that running didn’t make my knees feel any worse. I also discovered that once I got running, two or three miles in, my knees would loosen up and feel good.
After getting back in shape, I decided to go for it — to enter this Philadelphia Half Marathon. I set my goal for two hours. I began in one of the middle waves and loved it from the start. I realized immediately that I was no different from all these other runners. I could run with them. I could do this. Inexplicably, this was quite a surprise for me. Why hadn’t I done this for the last thirty years? This is a deep and disruptive question because it could be applied to so many aspects of my life. What was I afraid of? This really was a journey of self-discovery.
So at that eleven-mile mark, I found myself picking it up. I felt much better the faster I went. I was never that tired, just sore, and the soreness was leaving me the faster I ran. In the twelfth mile, and into the thirteenth, I felt this long-lost, distantly familiar, amazingly satisfying sensation — that I was rolling.
Relatively speaking, of course. But I was passing people. I had cross-trained all summer and fall to get fit, lost twenty pounds, and here, for this brief moment, in November, it was paying off.
Although I wobbled like a newborn colt after I crossed the line, I finished in 1:59:19. It isn’t the time or sense of accomplishment that I will savor most. It will be that ephemeral moment when I felt as I did a long time ago—like a distance runner.
Michael Vitez, a staff writer at The Philadelphia Inquirer, won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism. He is the author of two books, “The Road Back” and “Rocky Stories: Tales of Love, Hope and Happiness at America’s Most Famous Steps.” The older he gets, the faster he is.
Learning to Swivel
By Rosalind Adams
“It’s like walking like a prostitute,” said Coach Horn, describing the sport of racewalking. “You need to move your hips a lot — kind of like an aggressive strut.”
The indoor track team was lined up in a basement hallway to watch Nicole, a senior racewalker, demonstrate the form. She swished up and down the hallway, hips moving like the oars of a rowboat in order to build up speed while obeying the sport’s main rules: One foot must always be on the ground, and the knee must be straight as the heel makes contact. She was confident; she was fluid. Not entirely unlike a streetwalker’s swagger.
Although it offered none of the glory of 100-meter sprints or hurdles, and the swivel-hip motion invited derision at the Olympic level, a first-place finish in the 1500-meter racewalk still earned ten points in a track meet. Most schools veered away from it, offering the girl who mastered the technique a chance to shine.
One by one, each of us submitted to the audition, although none of us were exactly sure how to contort our bodies in such a fashion. Pairs of wobbly knees knocked together while parading down the hallway in the hope of coming close to the form Nicole had effortlessly demonstrated. Others only made it only a few steps, collapsing into giggles and embarrassed by the idea of “strutting.”
At my turn, I could barely get my narrow hips to move at all, and tried instead to focus on locking my knees and pumping my arms. But rather than mastering Nicole’s wavelike motions, my movements were closer to those of a toy soldier. Mercifully, I failed this first trial, and stuck to the long-distance track events in which my lanky frame seemed better equipped to compete.
But two years later, near the end of another indoor track season, I was unexpectedly preparing for the New York State championships in the 1500-meter racewalk with a shot at the medal stand. After several successful cross country and track seasons, I had become frustrated by a series of lackluster performances, stymied by a lingering injury and a fear of continuing to underperform that became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The challenge of mastering the peculiar form became an enjoyable goal and took the pressure off of racing. And now the event offered a chance at redemption.
On a Friday afternoon, I started on a long racewalk — one of the last before the meet. I began around the track behind school for a mile or so, my feet aligned with the white stripes that marked the lanes. In racewalking, each foot crosses in front of the other for the same reason that a runway model walks in a straight line: It forces the hips to rotate. But while a model does this to create sex appeal, for the racewalker, it is purely about power. It also creates a mesmerizing motion that bears little resemblance to actual walking. Each hip pops up, while the opposite shoulder drops down and the arms punch forward, compelling the body into an endless, spinning figure eight that can also move quite swiftly.
“Can you show me?” became a popular request among my friends, in the same way you might ask someone to juggle or touch their tongue to their nose.
From the track, I headed out to the baseball field of Queens College, still brown and barren in the late days of winter. The aching of a hard workout comes in different places when you racewalk. The shins burn from striking the ground with your heel flexed and the biceps tire from the sharp arm movement that propels the body forward. After circling the field, I took the path up to the parking lot and made several loops around the gym complex. By now, the solitude of the workout was broken, as inevitably there were a few college students who watched or laughed, or looked away, pretending not to notice.
No matter, keep going.
The racewalking community is tight-knit, and protective of the sport. A fellow racewalker I competed with years ago likened it to swimmers who specialize in the butterfly: Just because the freestyle is faster doesn’t delegitimize the other events, she reasoned. “Yeah, exactly, what was the big deal?” I thought.
From the college campus, I racewalked down Kissena Boulevard toward the park, past unsuspecting pedestrians who whipped their heads around to see what was happening as I passed them. At Gino’s pizzeria, the corner where the scents of fresh dough and chow mein from nearby Chinese restaurants mingle, I paused at the light, bouncing on my toes and wiggling my hips to keep them loose. A few blocks further down, the road intersects with the Long Island Expressway. As a mess of cars from Friday afternoon traffic clogged up the intersection, I continued my walk.
“Hey baby, I like the way you move those hips,” a faceless voice came from a car. Then a whistle from another car.
There is always the question of what to do in those moments. This time was more jarring: My body shrunk in response while my steps faltered and lost their rhythm.
Weaving through the cars, my feet kicked up high and I began landing on the balls of my feet rather than my heels, picking up into a light run. My hips now stayed square and parallel — inconspicuous — as my arms swung lightly across my body. In moments, I was blocks away from the scene.
But it was now these motions that felt clunky and laborious. After a few steps, my knees began to lock again and my feet found their way back to something that had become a familiar rhythm. My hips swung out more powerfully this time, in defense.
The park was still ahead, and so was the state championships.
Rosalind Adams is a graduate student at Columbia University and a freelance journalist who has reported from Chile, Thailand and the United Nations. Follow her on twitter @rosalindzadams.
Hell of a Race
By James Folta
High school cross country attracts all kinds of people. There are the hardcore racers, with shorts that disappear under their pinnies and chunky watches with a button for each stat the watch tracks. There are beefy off-season football players running in long basketball shorts, trying to swagger their way to alpha dominance while being consistently beaten by dudes who weigh as much as their football pads. There are the non-athletes, hanging out, enjoying the sun or loathing the rain, just trying sports on for size.
I was the hobbyist, the middle-of-the-pack runner — respectable, but I was never a serious competitor, mostly because homework was always more important.
There were a few runners I met who defied all of these cross-country archetypes. I raced against the strangest by far in the fall of my junior year. The meet was at a sprawling private school, the 5K route only one lap: a loop starting and ending in a soccer field, twisted out of shape in between. We took off on a beautiful afternoon, sunny with a crisp breeze. It had just rained and in the shade the ground was still soft and slurped under our feet. I quickly settled into a groove — my breathing was under control and I hit a good first-mile time.
At that first-mile split, I felt another runner come up behind me. I thought he was having respiratory problems — his breath was irregular and he seemed to be trying to spit or cough something up. But as he got louder and louder I realized he was speaking to himself. Weird, but not out of the ordinary.
But he kept running closer and closer, so close that he kicked my shoes every few strides. I quickened my pace but his babbling stayed right behind my shoulder. I swear I could feel him spitting on my neck.
Around mile two he started to speak louder. He was praying. Not Hail Marys or Our Fathers but personal and increasingly desperate requests: “Please oh please oh please God let me win this race.” It went on like this: “Let me win this race, let me triumph.” We were way behind the top runners — this supplicant was asking for a miracle.
Then he started bargaining. He made deals, promising stricter attendance at church, more money in the collection plate. He promised to read specific Bible passages: “I’ll read all of Genesis tonight, I’ll read Revelations tonight, I’ll read Revelations every night this week.”
The faster we went, the more we tired and the more desperate his negotiations with his Lord became. He promised more donations, more Bible study, more days in church. He lowered his expected rewards too — he wanted to finish in the top ten, then just to finish in general, then just to pass me.
“Please Jesus, oh please please Jesus, let me pass this guy. Let me pass this guy. Just let me move up one more place.”
Earlier in the race, I probably would have just let him pass me. But I was increasingly convinced that he was trying to slyly convert me or at least drive me mad. What if this was how he had passed everyone — by breaking their will through his incantations? Was he really that clever? Was he that conniving? Was I that tired that any of this made sense?
I caught glimpses of open field to my right and heard cheering. The trail shifted abruptly from foot-packed dirt to curated wood chips. We were close to the finish. Bible Studies Guy sensed the same and began praying more feverishly: “godohgoddeargod just let me finish pleasegodpleasegod.” His mouth was so dry that it came out as hoarse whispers.
We rounded a tight turn and burst out of the woods. I churned into a final sprint, a push to the end. Bible Studies was right behind me, nothing if not unflaggingly persistent. The good thing was that he had stopped whispering. The bad thing was that he had started screaming “GOD” every other breath. How did this guy still have enough wind left in his sails to be screaming?
Less than a minute later it was all over — I barely eked out a finish before him. I settled into the standard runners’ finish pose — hands on hips, lurchingly walking slow circles, a pained face.
I finally turned around to see my tormenter. Maybe it was his innocuous glasses or his weary smile or the massive wave of relieving endorphins, but I felt a shared camaraderie with him. He probably had a nice name like Nick or Pete or Mike. Something shortened from a longer name because he was too nice to ask you to use too many syllables. He wanted to hear how you were doing. What a great dude. I’m glad we had just shared that race. I wanted to say something to acknowledge what we had shared. What to say to him? He beat me to it, raising his hand and pursing his lips as I stepped towards him.
However, the hand was not to wave but to cover his mouth from the fire hose of hot vomit that shot its way out. His hand diverted it slightly and he soaked me from waist to ankle. We both stood looking at each other, too shocked and exhausted to say anything.
And I finally knew what to say: “God bless you.”
James Folta is a writer, comedian, and carpenter living in Brooklyn. Find more of his work at www.jamesfolta.com or on Twitter, @JamesFolta.
By Rick Andrews
Go outside and run at least a mile. Tomorrow, do it again. Keep doing that as long as you can without missing a single day. This is called streak running, and there are men and women who’ve got streaks lasting for decades. My junior year of college, I was just hoping to complete a full year. Having to run every day meant running at odd times, in odd places. For months I ran, often at night, past frat parties and sporting events, through empty downtowns and the deserted back roads of wherever I happened to be.
On day 220, I was in the middle of a twenty-two hour drive from St. Louis to Boston. My friend John was with me in the car. John’s a wildly intelligent guy, wickedly funny, and very anxious and inward looking. He’s got a peculiar short body and a charming handsome face. He’s the kind of guy you’d see walking towards you a long way off and you’d both already be smiling and preparing some kind of stupid thing you’ll say to make the other one laugh.
I was driving the whole way and John fell asleep. At around midnight, I needed to get gas, and it occurred to me that I hadn’t run that day. We were on highway 80 in the middle of Pennsylvania. It’s a desolate no-man’s land as far as eastern states go. Exits become infrequent, and it’s mostly just mountains and small towns.
I pulled off to get gas, and figured I’d run, too. John was deep asleep and didn’t wake when I pulled in. I remember sleeping in the car as a kid and wondering why you always woke up right when your parents pulled into the driveway, thinking it was home magic. And then of course realizing as you grow up and you drive your sleeping friends around that people just wake up from the deceleration. But John was out cold and he looked peaceful because of it, so I left him there and filled the tank.
A gas station in the middle of nowhere is sad and beautiful. The nature feels right and pumping gas feels wrong, I guess, and this dissonance hovers in your mind as you listen to the sound of the mountains and the road. Probably someone’s talking inside the station, and you can’t hear what they’re saying or to whom; you hear just enough to know that they’re talking.
I put the pump back and ran off down the road away from the highway and into the dark. I was used to running without lights, and it’d only be a half-mile out anyway. I’d still be able to see the gas station once I turned around.
Right at this point, John woke up. He didn’t even see me filling the tank. He just saw me in my khakis running away at a decent clip into the wilderness.
Running at night, you feel like a machine. Your fear of the dark leaves you, even in unfamiliar places. Your eyes adjust to the moonlight and you can see enough to navigate well. You feel alone in a good way, away from humanity but powerful and in control. The movement and rhythm of your body feels purposeful and correct and you wonder why you ever did things like “study” and “hang out” instead of just running every second always. This delusion lasts until you get tired or you stop running.
As I arrived back to the station, John was in the middle of the road with his phone out, looking around with worry. He did not know about my streak running, and in the wooziness of waking up, his mental possibilities were comical: I was being chased by someone, perhaps an animal. I was playing a prank that he would not enjoy. I was abandoning society. I was chasing someone.
“No, no, sorry,” I laughed. “I’m trying to run every day. Had to get my run in.”
“Oh. Well, alright then.”
We got back in the car and I kept driving. This isn’t the wildest story, I suppose. He didn’t call the cops and I didn’t chase an animal or anything extraordinary. And I did eventually make it a full year. But I remember the kind relief in John’s voice. He didn’t question why I would try to run every day. It didn’t seem to strike him as a weird thing to do, even though it is a weird thing to do. It’s just not a weird thing for me to do.
He was my friend and he was weird, and I was his friend and I was weird. We were weird like all people are weird if you actually know them and care for them. We got back in the car and kept driving. We laughed a bunch, I’m sure, and he slept and woke and we probably talked about high school football and his dad and black metal. I know we got to Boston and the rest of it from there.
Rick Andrews is an instructor and performer at The Magnet Theater in New York City. His writing has appeared in Thieves Jargon, Fringe, and the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
I Wanted To Be Fast
By Eve Troeh
I could never catch a ball, much less serve one, sink one, bump one, throw one or kick one. Spherical objects moving through space and I did not get along. Yet in childhood I somehow picked up the notion that one should be a well-rounded person, and a well-rounded person needed a sport. Ball anxiety left track and field.
My school was an anomaly; a private, Catholic K-12 in a small town on the Mississippi River. The entire high school had fewer than 200 students, most of whom I’d sat next to in neat rows of desks since kindergarten.
In a school that small, there were no real try-outs to be on a team. Every interested party was necessary for the team to exist. There were timed runs at the first practices to place girls in track-and-field events. Short of hair and hoarse of voice and the driver of a distinctive electric blue car, Coach was also the high school chemistry teacher. I worked hard in her class because it was hard. Scientific precision was not in my nature, but here’s that well-rounded thing again: It would have been unacceptable to my sense of duty to perform poorly. Coach mistook my fear of failure for true determination, a stick-to-it-iveness that would transmogrify my straight A’s into performance on the track. I wanted so badly to be fast, to be something other than the smart girl, that I let us both believe it could be true.
The other three girls on the 4x800m relay team knew better. They were bona fide jocks, running as an off-season means to stay in shape for volleyball and basketball. Every practice I caught their kicked-up gravel in my shins. On the far end of the track, behind the visiting team bleachers, they’d talk about their boyfriends and their booze order for prom: How many bottles of Boone’s Farm wine, what flavor, and who was going to buy it for them? It was like a foreign language.
Fast. How could these debauched girls be faster than me, the hardest worker? I tried positive visualization, picturing myself the star of some Lifetime made-for-TV movie in which the underdog wins. Saturday mornings found me running up Lovers Lane, never once to be found there with a boy on a Saturday night. I wrote postcards to summer-camp boys and pictured them cheering me on. I made mix tapes to inspire, ending side b with “Wind Beneath My Wings.” (Try getting busted humming that in the back of the team bus.) That song was meant to summon the love and sacrifices my mother made to afford my private education and extra-curriculars. Unconditional love was not working as fodder for my speed, though.
I turned to Jesus. An overly devout teenager, strangely drawn to dogma and study of theology, I imagined Christ’s pain as he hung on the cross to die. I read the Gospel of Luke, whom our religion class teacher told us was a medical doctor, and so best described the physical anguish of Jesus during His crucifixion. Surely comparing the pain in my thighs to that of Our Lord and Savior would push my muscle fibers into quicker reactivity. Nope.
Whomp, whomp, whomp… The long legs of a girl on another team would come striding past me in my final stretch of relay, the next runner shaking her head in dismay as I handed her the baton. The other girls held up their end of the bargain, and led us to several victories.
We made it to the Missouri State High School Activities Association State Championships, Division 1A. Families, faculty and classmates made the three-hour drive to Jefferson City. The night before the race we ate a spaghetti dinner and roamed the shopping mall. The other girls wanted to buy matching underwear for the race, and included me in the ritual. Black polyester satin, floral print, pink bow, lace trim. I barely slept a wink at the Holiday Inn.
All my strength went into the first 400-meter lap, taking off with a stride. I had lucky underwear. I had hometown boosters. I had my coach screaming and waving her arms on the sidelines. I had my mother, who loved me as much as any mother in history. At 600 meters, though, it all failed me. Or rather, I failed it. Trying to kick, my body engine sputtered. The cries for victory increased — were there even perhaps people on their feet? But it was no use. Other teenage female bodies passed me in a blur. I was not fast. I was never going to be fast. My body powered down and thumped, exhausted, past the finish line, placing my team just out of reach for a medal at the state meet.
I had failed. Yet I was free. Running from then on became a hobby, the rhythm of breath and footfalls and the cool evaporating of sweat something to enjoy. No more whistles, stopwatches, or suffering to be something I was not: fast.
Eve Troeh is a writer and radio reporter based in New Orleans. She is the news director of NPR affiliate WWNO, New Orleans Public Radio. Twitter and Instagram @evetroeh.
Running High on Crystal Lake
By Jim Cavan
“Fuck you, I’ll get up at six!” I slurred.
“Holy shit,” I thought to myself. “What are you doing!? You’ve been drinking beer and playing Euchre for five hours! What is wrong with you!?”
It was the summer of 2003. I was twenty-one, back home in Michigan after my sophomore year at the University of New Hampshire, and in the full throes of a righteous ritual: using cards and copious beer to ease the pain of a day spent house-painting beneath a baking sun. Despite that, I’d committed to running one leg of our team marathon, scheduled for a few weeks later. Running, suffering a stroke or dying in a ditch: whichever.
“So when was the last time you, like, exercised?” asked my friend Eric, late at night before a planned practice run.
“The fuck is that supposed to mean?” I turned to one of my other, more athletic friends. “Chris, are you running tomorrow?”
“Yeah, I’m getting up at six. But I don’t think you want to do that.”
The fucking nerve.
Now, when I say “team marathon,” I’m not talking about some Ironman Powerbar shit where Econolines full of Marines run the width of Wyoming in three days. I mean five people on a team scaling anywhere between five and six miles each across barely varying terrain. A 10K, basically. Around Crystal Lake, in Northern Michigan. That’s it.
That’s it? The most consistent exercise I’d had in months was bench-pressing one-pound paintbrushes a few hundreds of times a day on top of a ladder. Yes, feed me your steaming asphalt and angry detoured drivers and creepy local onlookers sipping Icehouse in broken lawn chairs.
By seven the next morning, I was actively praying some half-blind senior citizen on her way to breakfast at Bob Evans would run me over with her Buick. Not kill me, per say. Just splinter a couple limbs. Which sounded a lot better than drowning in vomit standing up.
“You did good,” Chris said, clearly lying, as we arrived at my front door after about thirty minutes out in the muggy Michigan morning. “I didn’t think you’d actually show up.”
Our group was a healthy mix of hardcore runners and ill-prepared college shitheads: One cross country All-American, two state champions and a handful of seasoned high-school athletes. Then there was me and Jeremy, a pair of chronic pot smokers two years removed from varsity basketball. To us, “running” was something you did after botching a defensive rotation, not an activity conducted for its own sake. We were here to swim and get fucked up around a fire. This was just our karmic toll.
Eric and Tim, the aforementioned running studs, slotted us two freakshows for the first, easiest and least variant leg of the course. Because that’s what good Christians do. As we approached the starting line on race day — half hung-over, of course — we were encouraged to see that we weren’t the only non-Olympians there.
Sure, you had your standard-issue top-shelf Asics and gaunt frames slid through too-short sleeves, waterproof wristwatches worth more than my car, college rivals out to settle scores. But their ranks were fairly cut with the casual jogger set — all-season health nuts, forty-something suburban moms and Lipitor dads on an overnight furlough from family trips to Sleeping Bear Dunes.
I was still nervous, of course. Jeremy, on the other hand, despite absolutely no preparation whatsoever, exuded the air of someone just returned from training barefoot in the Ethiopian highlands. As the starting gun snapped, he bolted forward for the first twenty yards before spinning around and backpedaling the next fifty, taunting me.
He started hacking resin phlegm a half-mile in, but I remember being shocked at how good I actually felt, the rushes of reserve adrenaline summoned out of nothing more than sheer proximity to one’s fellow running men and women, most of whom had fed us kickback for miles. Jeremy, by contrast, seemed on the verge of permanent brain damage.
At around mile four, with the midsummer sun surging low over the lake, Jeremy — by now a human husk — turned and groaned the first words he’d spoken in minutes: “Just leave me behind, man.”
“This isn’t fucking Vietnam,” I retorted. “You can make it.”
“No, seriously, I’m gonna walk now.”
“Fine,” I said. “I’ll see you there.”
“Love you, too.”
Cresting the last hill, finish in sweat-stung sight, I came as close as I have, before or since, to understanding the “runner’s high.” A few minutes later Jeremy crossed, corpse complexion having given way to something vaguely more human, albeit humbled.
“How do you feel?” I asked.
“Like ass,” he said.
“I need a beer.”
How we managed to sequel our half-drunk run with a two-mile hike over Lake Michigan’s mountainous dunes and beach football between pylons of Molson Canadian thirty-racks, I’ll never understand. Nor do I want to.
Maybe the runner’s high keeps releasing far past the finish line — a lingering invitation to keep moving, no matter the cause or cost, to whatever’s over the next hill. For us, that was a tiny hollowed out sand cave free enough from the whipping winds to spark a bowl, barely out of eyesight of passing families. We just didn’t care. Hand us hammers, we’d have built Valhalla.
Later that night, hours beyond our bodies’ requests, Southern Comfort was passed around a wheezing fire. At that point I wasn’t entirely convinced I’d ever walk again — the sheer beer-fatigue and sunstroke having surely catalyzed a weird biochemical alchemy that would wake me crippled with polio the following morning.
But there we remained, fighting sleep through tokes and talk, more exhausted than perhaps we’d ever been. The last thing I remember is stumbling into our tent — a tiny popup disaster I’m convinced saw action in the War of 1812 — and stirring Jeremy, who decided upon waking he wanted to smoke.
“You want any?” he asked, voice a-grog.
“Dude, no. Tomorrow.”
“Look who’s getting left behind now.”
Jim Cavan is a freelance writer whose work has appeared at Grantland, The New York Times, ESPN, Bleacher Report and SB Nation, among other outlets. He lives in New Hampshire, which you might remember from the penultimate episode of Breaking Bad.
A Taste of Glory
By Dustin Grinnell
When I woke up on the day of the Newport marathon, I hadn’t planned on running 26.2 miles in under four hours. In the five months of training, the thought hadn’t crossed my mind once. When I decided to go for it, it was an hour before the start of the race, and I was staring at a plate of scrambled eggs. If I could finish a marathon in less than four hours, I thought, maybe it would trigger something.
The truth is: I don’t run to get in shape. It’s not my escape or meditation. I run to pursue what the psychologist Abraham Maslow called a “peak experience,” a feeling of perfection. Time slows down during a peak experience. For that reason, it’s often associated with flow state, the feeling of being totally absorbed in an activity. Maslow sometimes referred to a peak experience as the “oceanic feeling.” Your consciousness expands. You feel interconnected. At peace. But, as Maslow discovered, these experiences are elusive. According to the psychologist, only two percent of the population has ever had one.
The marathon began at eight a.m. in downtown Newport, Rhode Island. When the gun fired, five thousand runners left Easton’s Beach and jogged into a salty breeze, down tight roads hugging the ocean and past sand dunes and bushes, cottages and rolling hills. It seemed fertile ground for a perfect movement.
Before Maslow began his study of peak experiences, he assumed they only happened to saints. But he found that peak experiences were not religious in nature. In interviews, people from all walks of life reported blissful moments—times when they felt limitless, and enormously powerful. “Anything that feels close to perfect triggers a peak experience,” said Maslow. Triggers include sex, nature and music. Maslow spoke with a teenage football player who had a peak experience after scoring a touchdown on a breakaway run.
Consciously or unconsciously, I think we all have a profound desire for these psychological elixirs. They replace our drab, mundane world with a brilliant flash of glory. The mythologist Joseph Campbell touched on this when he said, “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I think we’re seeking an experience of being alive. So that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”
At their worst, peak experiences lodge themselves in our consciousness forever and live on as a wonderful memory. At their best, they go to work on you, and can have a transforming effect. In the latter regard, psychiatrist William Miller said a peak experience can stimulate “quantum change.” Such is their therapeutic value. In a world where change seems incremental, a peak experience has the awesome power to trigger a radical shift in consciousness, instantly. While there’s no formula for manufacturing a peak experience, I think we all have a general sense of our own triggers. Running, I’ve found, is my drug of choice. The physical benefits are all well and good, but it’s the spiritual rewards I’m after.
The Newport Marathon is referred to as a “destination race” for good reason. Keeping a quick pace, I passed some of the most scenic locations in the small Rhode Island town. We jogged through Newport’s city center, down historic Thames Street, hugged by shops, restaurants, inns and colonial buildings, some of which date back to the seventeenth and eighteenth century. We circled around Fort Adams State Park, passing picnickers enjoying panoramic views of Newport Harbor. We passed the Newport Country Club and the iconic clubhouse, a mansion built in the classic Beaux Arts style. We ran along Ocean Drive, which gave us spectacular vistas of beaches and the Atlantic. We then turned onto Bellevue Avenue and marveled over the mythical mansions, many of which date back to the turn of the twentieth century. At mile thirteen, the course folded back toward the starting line, and I felt strong, untouchable. At mile nineteen, my body staged a revolt in the form of cramping legs, hobbling me every few minutes until the tightness in my quads released.
Just as I had started to make peace with the fact that I wouldn’t break four hours, I asked a nearby runner if he was trying to keep a pace. “I am going for four hours,” he said, coincidently. He told me that if I stayed with him that I, too, would achieve such a time. I told the man I would try to keep up, thinking perhaps a peak experience was still in reach. With three miles left, I had lost sight of the runner, but I knew I was close enough. I just knew. As I turned the last corner on the course and saw the time of 3:55, I got my trigger. Suddenly, I felt spread out — enlarged, and light. The backs of my eyes became wet. I felt alive. As I crossed the finish line in a state of ecstasy, I knew I had tasted glory. I knew I was changing, quantum-style.
Dustin Grinnell is a science writer for a biomedical research institute in Cambridge, MA. His travel essays have appeared in such publications as Verge Magazine and The Expeditioner, and he is author of the science fiction thriller The Genius Dilemma.
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Simon Moreton is a cartoonist and academic based in Bristol, UK. His regular comic series, Smoo, is all about everyday life.