Two weeks ago, I walked outside with one of my colleagues after lunch, and we simultaneously hunched our shoulders to our ears to brace against the cutting wind. “You’re not actually running in this are you?” she asked, cinching her hood tight. At the time, the entirety of the East Coast was more or less frozen solid, and here in D.C., single and negative digits had become the norm. I thought about replying with a phrase one of my running buddies used to say, “The only weather is whether or not you ran.” Instead of sounding like a complete douche to her (though I love the quote), I gave a simple and resigned “yes.” She raised her eyebrows.
I like to think that in that look, there is reverence, awe, and admiration – but I know better. What’s behind those looks are skepticism and borderline boredom. I’ve tried to hone my running conversation skills over the years, doling out details in small bits and tuning in for that moment where I’ve crossed into tedium. I can see the glaze form over their eyes, usually about the time I start talking tactics.
To be fair, she is genuinely interested, and not one of those, “I only run when I’m being chased, har har har,” people. This time, though, she asked the heaviest and possibly most difficult questions to answer: why? I could have tried to give her a glimpse of the mental and physical toll those frigid ten miles had taken on me that morning, how much I despise the treadmill, or simply say, “Because it was on the schedule”; however, we were cold, and at that moment, I couldn’t articulate just why in god’s name I was out there, so I shrugged, perplexed. That kind of pondering is for long runs. So…
It was with this in mind that weekend, when the temps dipped to a “feels like” of -8, that I set out for a 15-miler that Outside columnist Alex Hutchinson would call a “three sock run” – I’ll let you figure out what I pulled the third sock over.
When the sun finally rose over the houses, bringing warmth back to my fingers and life back to my spirit, I took a detour in my head away from the task at hand and began to try and answer that weightiest of questions.
How to put into words something that to the uninitiated sounded – well – crazy, stupid, worthless? Something that would elicit the narrowing stares that read, “You’ve lost it, man,” or worse, “Who cares?”
I first thought of a quote I keep in my phone from author Leslie Jamison, who wrote an excellent piece on the Barkley Marathons that attempts to get at this, “The sheer ferocity of the effort implies that the effort is somehow worth it…The persistence of ‘why’ is the point: the elusive horizon of an unanswerable question.”
The why, it came to me, is in the process. The why is finding the limit, your limit. Plumbing the depths of who you are to know just how far and how fast you can go, weather be damned. Heeding the call the way the holy are called to a higher power and sailors are called to the sea. I know there won’t be Olympic medals or sponsorship money. Sure, it’s something to collect your age group trophy and smile at the small crowd lingering for the free swag. Then real life resumes. Work and deadlines come crashing in. But you’ll return to the road, or trail, or track the next day, slipping into the darkness while the rest of the world sleeps because there’s more work to be done.
If she, or they, or whomever, could understand all that, intrigued maybe, or incredulous, I would tell them the exact moment that cemented this for me.
I was getting ready for Boston 2014 in one of those winters that’s not all that different from this one. My friend and I were 13 miles into what my coach calls a “no champagne, no medal” long run. The kind you grind out – gritty and unglamorous – because it’s what the plan says. It was an out and back 22 miler with an easy 11 upfront and pickups on the back half. There had been nothing “easy” about those first 11, the kind of run that seems against you from the start. The wind battered us and the cold sapped our energy. I tucked in behind my running partner. The trail, a paved bike path, unspooled into eternity and those stretches I swore were uphills on the way out somehow seemed to be tipped skyward again as we came back. A passerby wouldn’t have looked twice because we looked composed (or our faces froze that way). But if they looked behind my sunglasses, they would have seen everything they needed to: the struggle…and also the determination. I steeled myself for the next pick up and eased in. As subtly as the wind shifted directions, my stride opened up, and the chains that bound me before, slackened and dropped to the pavement altogether. The power returned to my legs, pistons churning me forward. I felt invincible.
Why was this momentous? I was a different person when I returned to the car after that run than when I left it. I’d had the opportunity to know that I’d been through it and came out whole and stronger on the other side by gritting through the bad to get to the good. I could see the adaptations of my body as it absorbed the strain over the weeks, months, and years, and returned to the proving ground even stronger.
You toast the PR but don’t stay happy for too long because, god-willing, there is always more.
Spurred by a comment that a fellow runner left me last week, we can revisit the many incarnations of our running selves and in those evolutions, we can pull on that hope to know that we have it in us to continue ascending or pursuing that elusive horizon, wherever and whatever it may be.
As I thawed out inside our foyer after my three sock run, unzipping my jacket to see frozen sweat fall to the floor, I thought about one of my favorite George Sheehan quotes, “Out on the roads there is fitness and self-discovery and the persons we were meant to be.” Finding out who that person is is as good a why as I can find right now.