Both Sides Now
This is the 100th column to appear on these pages and I suppose this is as good a time as ever to retrace some of the tracks that led us to this place. Many of you probably started running after I did. Most of you probably weren’t readers in May of 1996 when the column began. So sit back and let me tell you a story.
There was a time, once, where becoming a runner was the furthest thing from my mind. Runners were, or so I thought, a lost group of tortured souls with tortured soles, achy muscles and creaky knees. Runners were, as best I could tell from the safe distance I kept from all matters requiring movement, either pain addicts or fools. If they were the former they were to be pitied. If they were the latter, they were to be unmercifully mocked.
My logic was simple: why would anyone run unless they were being chased? There was no rationale of which I could conceive that would compel a reasonable person to take off running from one place with the stated goal of coming back eventually to where they began. Runners ran for hours only to end up exactly where they started. Where’s the sanity in that?
To be honest, I’d only really known one runner in my life up until that time. He was, and may still be, a forlorn and disheveled man whose only claim of distinction besides being a fellow doctoral student was that he had, and would again, run a marathon. I listened to him describe his latest foray into the marathon madness with equal measures of shock and amusement. And as he told in graphic detail the exact place and degree of chafing that occurred on his body my amusement turned to horror. His stories of blisters were not for the faint of heart.
Somewhere between the black toe nails and bleeding nipples I decided that he simply didn’t have the courage to actually kill himself in one fatal act so he was going to accomplish it one mile at a time. Worse, to my way of thinking, he was actually proud of himself. Rather than describing the hobbling that passes as running in the final miles of a marathon with apologies he waxed nostalgic. He was nearly poetic in his account of crossing the finish line and receiving his medal.
What was he thinking? What was he thinking when he decided to tell this story? Did he really think that a group of non runners would applaud this sort of madness? We didn’t. We sat in silence. It was madness pure and simple. That he didn’t recognize it as such made it all the more poignant.
I write this now as someone who has completed nearly 40 marathons. I write this as someone who has experienced everything he described. And I write this now as someone who has seen running in general and marathoning in particular, from both sides. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Those casual days as a doctoral student, where hours were spent in deep but sophomoric discussions of matters of consequence only to those in the same class, gave way to the realities of life and employment. In time my runner friend and his stories faded into the shadows of my memories and I pursued more adult endeavors. Thoughts of running disappeared for over a decade.
Then, at 43, when I was marking time as the Associate Dean of the Conservatory of Music at Oberlin College, I encountered a colleague who was becoming a runner and an employee who avid cyclist. They seemed to have something that I didn’t, although I didn’t know what that was. I couldn’t bring myself to run at first, so I bought a bike. Later, I decided to try to become a runner myself.
My terrifying moments of buying that first pair of running shoes are well documented. So too are my first tentative steps down the driveway and into a life where activity was to be embraced rather than avoided.
Like most beginning runners, I ran too much too soon. I ran too fast. I ran too far. It took nearly no time at all to become one of those pain addicted runners that I had earlier in my life treated with such disdain. I discovered almost immediately what I was running from. I was running from myself. Running from where I had been, where I was, and where I was headed. But like so many runners, no matter how far or how fast I ran I always ended up right where I had started. With myself. With my history, my present, and worse, my future.
I got what help I could from the pages of this magazine. I took what I could understand from Hal Higdon, Joe Henderson, and the late, great running philosopher George Sheehan. I read their words but didn’t really know their meaning. I knew then what it was to run, but I had no idea what it was to be a runner.
The only way I could make sense out of my running was to write about it. It started simply enough by keeping a running logbook. That logbook soon gave way to writing a running journal. And that journal eventually gave way to writing feverously about running. I discovered early on that it wasn’t the sport of running that attracted me but the act of running. It was in the act of running, in the pounding of my own heart, in the rhythm of my own breathing that the answers began to come.
Those answers came to me in gentle whispers and in deafening screams. The answers came if, and only if, I kept running. To allow myself the luxury of failing, to have succumbed to the temptation of defining myself by the limits of my ability would have meant losing not just the joy of the act of running but the only real possibility of finding myself.
What few people know, and fewer understand, is the sequence of events that led to the birth of this column. Marlene Cimons sent then Runner’s World editor Amby Burfoot emails that I had written to a group of runners on the Internet. Amby called me and asked if I could write 8 columns. That was the original agreement. Eight columns. One phone call. Pure serendipity. And with that one phone call my life changed.
I wrote in one of those first columns that my running shoes had become giant erasers on my feet. Each foot strike wiped away the memory of some earlier indiscretion or failure. Each new pair of running shoes carried with them the potential of unlocking some secret place. Each pair of worn out running shoes carried with them the scars of a healing soul.
100 columns later I am still here. More importantly you, the readers, are still here. You are, and have always been, the greatest gift that I have gotten from writing. As I have dared to share my life with you, you in turn have had the courage to share your lives with me. Together we have seen each other through 100 months of joy and sadness, successes and failures, broken hearts and broken dreams.
But through it all we have remained true to ourselves as runners. We have run through the joy and the sadness. We have run with abandon through the sunflower fields of our successes and the tattered ruins of our failures. We have laughed and cried as we kept pace as friends and as runners.
Like Judy Collins, I have looked at life from both sides now. I have seen life as a non runner and as a runner. And I can tell you with complete assurance that I have, and will continue to chose running. Because without running there are no runners. And runners are everything I have ever hoped to be.
Waddle on, friends.