I am less than a month away from running my first (and likely only) full marathon. So much of my life this fall has revolved around my running schedule or trying to fix the injury du jour (so far, patellar displacement, tendonitis in my foot, pulled hamstring, shin splints, and most recently, my knee giving out entirely when I put my full weight on it.) At the beginning of November Christina and Jonathan and I all ran the City of Oaks Half Marathon here in Raleigh. For those of you who have never been here, Raleigh is fairly hilly. I mean, it isn’t like running up mountains, but this entire race was pretty consistently either going uphill or downhill. When I crossed the finish line my first thought was, “I am so glad I can quit running now” which was quickly followed by, “There is no way I am ever running twice that distance.”
In spite of all of the evidence to the contrary, I really don’t see myself as a serious runner. For one thing, I’ve only been running these distances for a year and a half. For another, I never run faster than 10 minute miles, which is SLOOOOOW compared to even the slowest of competitive runners.
Friends and family members often ask me why I run. (In fact, after this most recent half marathon I texted my big brother to report my time and his response was, “What made you start running? That’s like the last thing you and I were built for.”)
It’s hard for me to explain why I do it. Especially since, based on all of the injuries I’ve already sustained, it’s clear that this is not something I will be able to keep up for any length of time without sacrificing my knees or feet or some other integral part of my anatomy.
I would love to say that it is sheer love of the sport. That running in and of itself brings me joy. But frankly, that isn’t true. There are days when the last thing I feel like doing is tying on those electric-blue custom-fitted horribly expensive shoes and running. In fact, there are days when I hate it so much I come up with award-worthy excuses for not doing it. There are days when I have to use a walking cast because I strained a tendon and days when climbing stairs or getting in and out of my car is pure torture. There are days I feel exhausted and days when I resent running because it takes up most of my Saturday. I’m not actually a masochist. I don’t just love to run.
I usually tell people that it’s the sense of accomplishment I feel from doing something I never thought I was capable of doing. Before I started training last fall, I had never run more than about 5 miles in my life. It is encouraging to see myself making progress – setting goals that seem impossible and then achieving them. This is partly true, but it is also partly a lie. Personal satisfaction isn’t a big enough motivator for me when compared with the pain and the work and the sacrifice of both time and energy involved in training. I don’t mean to lie, but I’ve never been able to fully articulate an explanation and I know I will only brush the surface when I try.
There is a moment (for me it usually comes anywhere between miles 10 and 15 depending on the day) when my body has started to hurt and I am tired and all I can think about is when I will be finished or at least when my next water break will be. I will think, “Just one more mile and then I will stop for water,” and I press on just a little further, pushing myself just a little past where I want to go and then suddenly, out of nowhere, I am floating. Call it a runner’s high if you want to, but for me it is so much more than that. It is a fleeting, jarring moment when everything is stripped away and I know I am in the presence of my Maker.
And I am the shepherds on that hillside near Bethlehem, in the company of angels, with the glory of the Lord shining round about me. And for just a few dazzling minutes every burning inhale is glory and every exhale is grace and my aching feet striking the trail again and again are a drum beating through my whole body and I am invincible. I think, in heaven I will run like this forever, never getting tired.
And I see myself, almost like I’m watching from outside my own body: My bright running clothes. My tight, salty skin. My phone, blaring Mumford and Sons through my ear buds until my whole head throbs with the sound. My arms pumping upwards and ending in hands balled into fists around imaginary drumsticks I am using to tap the rhythm out in the air in front of me. And, if I’m all alone, my mouth, using whatever breath is left in my lungs to sing out loud to the tops of the trees:
Awake my soul
Awake my soul
Awake my soul
For you were made to meet your Maker
You were made to meet your Maker
I run for those moments of rare and startling beauty. I run to awaken my soul. To feel fully alive.