Standing on a line outside a port-a-potty at 5:30 AM I had a sudden epiphany that most runners must have some kind of mental illness that hasn’t been diagnosed. Put aside the whole running 13.1 or 26.2 miles, because that’s not crazy enough. I’m talking about waking up at 4:30 AM, standing in corrals until a gun goes off and then just Forrest Gumping it on city streets with no purpose except reaching the finish line. Which you can reach with a car. Or an Uber. Or not even reach and just stay sleeping like most normal people on a Sunday morning.
But for some reason, a year after I ran a half-marathon, I was back at it again, standing with 30,000 other runners, waiting for the moment I could cross the start line and begin the long run to the finish line.
Objectively, it definitely looks like a collection of the insane. Thousands of people in various dress – in fluffy tutus, in costumes, in skin-tight leggings, in sweatshirts and tank tops, in t-shirts with funny sayings and shirts with corporate logos. We gather together at an ungodly hour to reenact the original 26.2 miles run by Pheidippides which, fun fact, he wound up dropping dead from.
I know I’m not like the runners that lined up that morning. I don’t really like running and as much as I was looking forward to the finish line I was also looking forward to not waking up to run the day after the race. Or the next day. Or the entire week. Maybe the month.
So what the hell was I doing?
Back when I first started running, I met someone who asked me why I was doing it. “What is your running story?” she asked. Everyone has one. The reason they started, the reason they continue. The reason they participate in the insane gatherings of the runners.
The stories range from getting in shape, losing weight, building stamina, to the old bucket-list, proving you can do it, conquering some inner demons reasons.
For me, running was never about running or conquering or anything like that. I used to joke with people who asked how to start running that starting off with a good dose of guilt + pain definitely helps. I had a lot of that going into my first half-marathon. I was running to raise money for an organization that helped my son and my family during a difficult time in our lives. Every training run was propelled by the thoughts of other families, and other kids, and how much I believed in the organization and usually ended with me sobbing on the floor of my living room.
Running a race is a personal experience, but in many ways, though you’re surrounded by thousands of fellow runners and people on the sidelines (who ARE those people?) it can seem like a somewhat lonely experience. Even with my running partners, even with the team I was running with, my experience on the course was mine alone. My throbbing ankle at mile 3, my pulled back at mile 7, my constant desire to collapse and get carried off the course like the seasoned athletes I saw at the finish line. I fought through each mile and shut down the negative mind-speak that plagued the run. And if I had to think about the insanity of what I was doing, I only had to remind myself of why I started. Back to the pain and the guilt. Back to that first mile I completed. Back to the day I learned the difference between Nike and Brooks and the value of good underwear.
Running is a celebration of all we can overcome. Each runner carries the scars and wounds that have brought them there that day: their original running story, their original reason for pushing themselves. Out there, even though we are “racing,” we are pushing together – regardless of the loneliness one might feel in her mind. Yes, a fight almost broke out over the port-a-potty line. Yes, I was scarfing down caffeinated jelly beans like a junkie at mile 10. Yes, I continue to question my sanity as I lace up at 5:30 AM to train again for another race.
And yes, to an outsider, those runners responsible for shutting down the city streets on a major race day might look like a bizarre collection of people from some insane alternate universe.
But those t-shirts and tutus tell a visual story that only an outsider can miss: a story of goodness, of community, of strength, of drive, and of passion. Sometimes a story of guilt and pain.
But always a story of heart.
Feel free to encourage my insanity by donating to my half-marathon run with Team Lifeline by clicking here.