I believed myself to be the last person running tonight. I was retracing my own footsteps (the same ones I take every evening in this park), but tonight, I was also stepping in the same tracks that 45,000 other people laid down before me. The musk of adrenaline still lingered in the air, along with a faint feel of an exhaustion I haven’t felt before. I floated through the aftermath of protein bar wrappers and discarded paper cups. I wasn’t trying to imitate anyone tonight; their struggle is a mystery to me. I was just continuing on my own plight, rounding around the bottom of the Central Park and heading up the west side.
“Are you a runner?”
“Yes, I run.”
“So you do marathons?”
“No, no I haven’t done one yet.
No music, no watch, no distractions from the patter of my shoes against the asphalt path. The loop keeps me confined from venturing too far out into the NYC night. Those same 45,000 covered so many side streets, and boulevards, and mile long bridges, that I almost feel guilty for not tallying those same mile markers. But it’s not in my cards to mimic another person’s journey. Two miles in and haven’t stopped thinking about each step I’ve taken. Everything’s loose, everything’s in a groove, but with eight more to go, I can’t help but think about how many more times I have to hear my feet meet the asphalt. The numbers swirl, my feet keep moving, and I catch pedestrians draped in marathon garb right ahead of me – soaking in every last bit of energy that’s left in the air. I dip my head and continue up the east side. I’ll zone out soon enough.
“I’m not a real runner or anything. I don’t do marathons.”
Thirty miles a week. Then came forty miles a week. Then fifty, and then sixty, and now, my last 10 before I put it on cruise control until my big day. It’s hard to imagine 45,000 other people skipped dinner with their girlfriend because a rest day just wasn’t in the schedule. It’s near impossible for all 45,000 people to have devoted an hour a week to taking a sledgehammer to their legs via running laps on a track until your body ceased life. And it’s safe to say that 45,000 people didn’t jog out the door on a pair of dead legs with the one goal being to beat them to the brink of exhaustion so that they’re more dead for tomorrow’s run. Four, five, six months of pushing yourself to the brink each day, just to wake up and keep moving almost made each day worth trying for. To not have my feet ache with absolute tension in every joint and tendon almost made it seem like yesterday wasn’t good enough. You need to take yourself through the weekly gauntlet just to feel at ease.
45,000 people barely scratched that surface.
I lost track of how far I’ve gone. My legs have continued their metronomic movement to the point where I couldn’t remember how I got to where I was. I was hypnotized by the simple rhythm. The steepest hill of the run brought me back to the world. My legs pulsated double time so I could continue to glide through the winding, half-mile climb that was bringing me around the top of the park. I launched over the peak, trying not to just coast the descent. I shortened my stride, but never touched the brakes. As I approached the end of the downhill, I made a quick left and trekked back over to the east side to tackle the hill again. Voluntary struggle brings out the best in you.
I’m not a runner. I don’t do marathons. I do race 5ks in hopes of hanging with the lead pack and kicking everyone down with 400 meters to go. I do race half marathons with the expectation of running my first mile in 5 minutes and 30 seconds and riding the next 12 miles out until my body stops reacting. But I’m not a runner because I can see past the marathon as an opportunity to scratch something off the bucket list. It’s not merely there just to “do”, but to completely engulf yourself in for more than just the long stroll the morning of. I’m not there yet. Some people “can” go from the couch, to the 5k, to the marathon, but my progression can only intensify so quickly. It’s why I’m still pounding away on this asphalt loop, trying to keep the separation alive.
Three times over the hill and it’s time to retreat down the west side of the park and back home. The last quality run is almost in the books before I venture to Philadelphia and try and take down their 13.1 mile course. Ten months in the making, filled with over a thousand miles, 5 or 6 pairs of shoes, and countless races that filled – what seemed like – every weekend, was all for this race. But it won’t be 26.2 miles long, only half that. Ten months of running for a half marathon.
“Why don’t you just run the marathon? You’ve basically been training for it.”
“It’s a race. I’m not ready to race that.”
When I step on any starting line, there’s never a question of if I’m going to finish – just if I’ll by satisfied. It wouldn’t be me, comfortably, covering 26.2 miles just to claim my finisher’s medal – because it’s a race. I put on my team’s singlet, pin my number to my jersey, and I set out to race the distance and make somebody proud – usually, it’s just me. I put in every one of those miles per week not just to be ready, but to be more ready than everyone else on the starting line with me. Maybe that’s where the line is drawn in order to be a to be a real runner.