For the second time in as many days I was climbing Cardiac Hill at the worst possible time of day. The sun had reached sufficient height in the summer sky to obliterate every shady refuge on the city streets but hadn’t yet been up long enough to burn away the morning humidity. And for the second day in a row I had been too exhausted to drag my tired ass and the useless meat sticks hanging from it down to the river nice and early like I was supposed to. At the top of the hill is a CVS with automatic doors which are triggered every time someone moves past on the sidewalk in what seems like an enormous waste of energy. As I shuffled by them they swung open and I was hit with a gloriously refreshing blast of overly conditioned air, so cold against my baking skin I shivered.
Why was I doing this? I had 8 more miles of this death march to go and it was only going to get hotter and my legs were only going to get heavier. Did God not grant divine inspiration to Willis Carrier so that we wouldn’t have to suffer the fires of damnation here on earth? Who the hell was I to forsake this blessing? I should have turned around at that moment in front of the CVS. Instead I shuffled onward, though unsure of why.
I wasn’t wondering why I run, I long ago understood and made peace with the demons that chase me out the door each day. But this training cycle had been a disaster thus far. I hadn’t hit a workout in weeks, my easy runs were getting slower, and I felt broken down instead of built up. I was struggling with why I push myself to, well, struggle.Yes yes I know, I’m running a big marathon coming up and I need to train so I can run it in the nice round number of my choice. But time is relative. In fact, the more you are moving, the slower time passes. I’m not kidding, it’s physics, look it up. So why does the time I run this race matter? You may say “ah, aren’t you trying to qualify for Boston?” And I may well run my qualifying time and get into the race. So what? I’m not going to win, or set a record, or further human achievement in any measurable way. You may say something about joining the annals of our sport’s most prestigious and storied event. But that’s a bit of bullshit, since qualifying standards and rules have changed so many times over the years. In decades past I could have qualified with times I’ve already run, and in others I wouldn’t be close even if I hit my goal this year. There’s that relativity thing again.
What about the thrill of competition? I thought about this as I dodged the already over-served hipsters wobbling on the sidewalks waiting for their Sunday brunch tables and $36 avocado toast. Sure I like to compete, but I’m not competitive. My finishing place is going to include a comma, without a doubt. I will be beat by people who trained less and brunched more. I will be beat by people older than me. I will be beat by men and women and children. I will not win any prizes or money, and in fact this endeavor will likely cost me quite a bit of it. Perhaps it’s competing with myself that matters. Bettering what I did the last time out. Squeezing every ounce of potential from the hand of genetic material I was dealt. Being the best possible version of myself. But, if my absolute best is still so far from good, why is it worth the hard work and the pain and suffering? Would it not make me feel worse to have my inadequacies and deficiencies laid so bare for all to see? And I don’t know how valuable it is to invest so much energy to be the best I can be at something which I’m not good at anyway. Abraham Lincoln supposedly loved animals. I don’t think history will lament his unrealized potential in veterinary medicine. Wouldn’t I be doing more for myself or my family or community if I put these hours of training to some other use?
I ran on, envious of the brunch crowd and the people lounging in the park under the shade of giant elms and kids eating popsicles way too early in the morning. I refilled my water bottle while giving the popsicle buying parents some serious judgmental side eye for setting their kid off on the path to diabetes. Is that it? I mean, I know I could get most of the health benefits of running with some easy 6 milers, but did I think I’d get something extra from doing 800s until I puke? Would I have, like, negative diabetes or something? Nevermind, the heat must be getting to me, that’s just fucking stupid.
As I wound through the park I ran over a cracked section of pavement that covered the old painted Peachtree Road Race finish line, which had dug its way out of its asphalt grave and begun to show itself again. This conjured images of the numerous races I’ve run on these paths, and I sifted through the memories for a reason why I keep running these damn things. I fondly recalled the high from setting PRs, the sense of accomplishment from completing my first race at a given distance. But I also remembered the weeks and months of skipping social events, not having a life, the aches and pains and constant exhaustion. But I felt close with this one, so I kept digging. I thought of the marathon, of that deep dark place where you’ve used up everything you have and yet still have to find something to burn. Surely there was a higher plane of consciousness attained through this effort that justified the pain. Yes I thought, recalling my marathon experiences, there is something you learn about yourself, some enlightenment obtained through this endeavor. But, would you not have the same experience regardless of how much you train? Couldn’t I prepare with a “just finish” training plan doing a bunch of slow lazy running and still see the writing on the wall? Hell, people less prepared probably suffer more on race day, wouldn’t they therefore reach a higher still level of awareness? And you know what, I’m pretty sure Timothy Leary peddled consciousness expansion for a lot less than I’m putting out for this marathon thing.
I was running out of ideas as I ran out of the park and back up Peachtree Street. I passed the churches filling and emptying with worshipers. Perhaps this was the why? I grew up in an old-school fire and brimstone Catholic family, maybe I push myself through pain and exhaustion to satisfy some deeply ingrained Judeo-Christian belief that there will be salvation through suffering. Maybe ladder intervals were my attempt at self-flagellation. Mile repeats were my penance for, well, everything. Maybe I have such deep seated guilt and self loathing I need to punish myself every single day to feel worthy of even my morning coffee. This, I didn’t have an immediate rebuttal for. Not that I necessarily believe the path to eternal salvation is Yasso 800s, but I couldn’t shake the idea that I am punishing myself for something. Am I really that fragile, that broken?
I turned down my street and climbed the last hill before home and I felt more lost than when I had started. But, I was still running. And Monday, I got out and ran again. And Tuesday, I struggled to not quite complete yet another interval workout. But I tried. I still didn’t know why, but I did. I’m sitting here now on my off day with a cocktail still trying to figure it out. The taste of the cheese and crackers and the whiskey I’m washing it down with take me back a few years. For a while, this was my daily routine. Tonight, I’m having 3 because it was a hairy eyed bitch of a day and then I’m going to bed. Back then, I wouldn’t really count. Or go to bed, for that matter. I’d start when I got home and finish when I passed out on the couch, The Wife usually waking me up in the middle of the night and dragging me to bed.
Maybe it’s all of these things. Maybe it matters to train and push because I can, and I very nearly got to a point I couldn’t. Maybe it matters that I get to Boston because of how far it will mean I’ve come. Maybe I’m atoning for years of being a lousy husband and son and friend, if a good patron of the distilled arts. Maybe the uncertainty and suffering and exhaustion is just to keep me too tired to tilt the bottle enough to do any real damage. I don’t know. I don’t think I’ll ever know. We love how running is so often a metaphor for life, but rarely in this vein. The uncertainty and lack of purpose and wondering what the hell the point is and whether or not any of this is worth it or making any difference at all and wondering why you shouldn’t just give up. The ugly side of it all. What I do know is that at this point, the pain provides some comfort in its familiarity; it’s become part of life’s rhythm. And as long as I stay with it, there’s an illusion of control. I’m making this choice. I’m inflicting this pain, I know why it hurts, and I decide when it ends. Maybe it doesn’t make a bit of difference anywhere outside my own head. But maybe I need that. Or maybe I just need to spend time in the dark places so I appreciate the lighter ones. Tempo run Thursday. Haven’t been able to finish one strong in weeks. But scared shitless not to try.