When the sum of everything equaled 36.6 miles

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May 2, 2014 by scratchtype1

On a Sunday evening not too long ago, a need to run got me in shorts again and out the door. I then only ran about 1.25 miles, just to warm up the legs some, to get them ready to do some short 8 second hill sprints to help build running strength. It was short but became incredibly long when I had a sudden thought — Every run that I have ever done in my life is part of what makes this run and that this run will then be part of every run to come. For me, at least, that’s the sort of thought that can bring me to a stop, but it would have been inappropriate to do that, so I continued to run. Then later I put the run into the running log and saw that my total of miles for the week had 36.6 miles.

Since then, I’ve carried that thought on all my runs. That every time I run, I carry the memories and effects from every time I’ve ever run. From when I was a young kid and played tag with friends, from when I loved baseball and times I was running the bases, trying to beat a throw. Sometimes I did and sometimes I didn’t beat those throws. Or sometimes I thought of a time when in high school gym class we had to run a mile one morning, the mile that seemed to make it obvious to me that I wasn’t any kind of runner. There had been another kid in my class, and back in elementary school he had a bad accident where he broke one of his legs. For a long time afterwards, he walked with a pronounced limp and was slow.

The key thing was that he was slower than me. I’ve never had any great sprinting speed and of all the kids my age who weren’t overweight, I was nearly always the slowest. But at least there was Ricky. Sure, maybe it was because of how his leg had been broken, but he was slower than me. At least that’s how I thought it was until that day in gym class when Ricky easily outraced me in the mile. The lesson seemed clear: I was not a runner. That combined with how I became a type 1 diabetic during my freshman year of high school, it seemed apparent that I was meant for things other than running.

So around 20 years go by. One day in August 2005 a friend who had moved away about 5 years before calls me up and asks if I want to go golfing. I say yes because I’ll be glad to see him and see how he’s doing. Another part of me is nervous because for the last couple of years I had struggled through frozen shoulder, a condition that more frequently occurs in diabetics. There’s a long painful period, then a period of less pain but an incredibly immobile shoulder joint (hence frozen shoulder), then finally the thaw. The thaw had been taking pace and I was getting near full mobility again, but I still carried many memories of jolting that shoulder and the incredible pain that would result. One time I had slipped and fallen during the painful stage and had tried to catch myself with my right arm. Then imagine someone slamming a hammer into your shoulder. Then imagine that being done over and over. Then imagine how painful you might think that would be and being told it’s ten times worse. Then imagine that being done over and over. That’s how much pain I felt, and how the pain lingered for a day afterward.

Frankly, I was bit scared of swinging a club at a golf ball. But when I tested it a driving range, I found there was no pain, just the memories. So my friend and I golfed one day and had a good time. It also proved to be the impetus to get me off my butt and start doing stuff to get in better shape. I began golfing nearly every weekend, walking and carrying a bag of clubs. It wasn’t running, but I wasn’t still anymore. I was moving again.

So that gets me to the next big moment. As usual, it involves some trauma. Early September 2006, I get it in my head to take the old grips off my dad’s old starter set of golf clubs so I can put new grips on them and use them to play, because the old grips were super smooth and slick. Trying to swing one of those clubs was like trying to hold a smooth and oiled rope. I got careless while using a razor knife to skin off the grips and gashed a large wound into the base of my left thumb. After a trip to an emergency room and 8 stitches, the next day I called the doctor’s office to see my physician and find out where I could go to have the stitches removed when time to do so. I was told that the doctor I had been seeing had left the practice, so I chose to see a new one.

It was there and then that I met this doctor and he talked some about a different way to take insulin and eat for type 1 diabetics. He asked for me to come back in 2 weeks or so. During that time, I saw another doctor who evaluated my thumb and eventually removed the stitches. I also googled everything I could about the treatment my new doctor had talked about. When I went back to see him, I asked for prescriptions for Lantus and Novolog and more glucose test strips per day. He did so and I began to change how I lived as a diabetic.

Soon after that, I had a sudden thought: This could make endurance activities easier to handle with less worry about going hypoglycemic. It’s telling some that my first thought was to begin running. Not biking or anything else, but running. Even though I was as slow as shit, running should be my challenge. So I began running early November 2006 and was thrilled to see how I could do this and not have my blood sugar plummet. I got too enthusiastic and while doing a run on the winter solstice of 2006, I felt pain in my left ankle. That pain turned out to be a fracture of the tibia and so I ended up in a cast.

All during that time in the cast, I plotted my return and set my goal — run the half-marathon at the Philadelphia half-marathon in November 2007. I read books about running and runners, I read stuff on the web. When I got the cast off, I read recommendations about how to tell when I would be ready to run again after a fracture caused by too much running. One weekend in April 2007, I did a brisk walk that lasted over 2 hours and afterwards there was no soreness. On April 20th I began to run again. Of course it’s an indication of my somewhat crazy streak that at that time my orthopedist believed I was still wearing a boot and not doing any serious weight-bearing on the ankle. I had reasons to think he was being overly cautious, and I guess all things considered, I was right on that issue.

2007 was a year of obsession with achieving that half-marathon goal. I worked at it relentlessly, but also took some great pleasure when I ran my first sub-30 minute 5K in July. Of course, running isn’t all about joy and accomplishment. Later in September, I did my first 10K race and thanks to the warm weather along with being tired, I staggered to a dead fucking last finish. Yes, dead last. Everyone else had already finished. It didn’t stop me though. I took an easy week after that and then resumed the last tough stretch of training, which culminated with 3 confidence boosting runs. The first was running a 27:48 5K in late October and then a week after that, running a 13.1 mile long run, to prove to myself I could run that far. Then began a taper and then 8 days before my half-marathon, I did 7.6 mile run where the legs felt good and I ran with a steady unaccustomed speed.

I still remember the sense of being nearly overwhelmed at the start of the half-marathon in Philly back in 2007. So many people, so crowded. I had to draw inside myself some and just focus on the sense that I was ready that day. I kept myself reined in for the first few miles, but then began to pick up the pace. I didn’t run all that fast really, but time seemed to fly by, and then finally there came that last loop around the circle in front of the Philadelphia Art Museum. I raised my first as I approached the finish and was lit up with a sense of joy and victory. I had done it. I had done something that not long ago had been thought to be impossible.

But here’s the thing: I didn’t come to love running during that time. I had loved the challenge of it all, the testing of my body, the testing of diabetic patterns and limits, but I hadn’t felt a love for running. Or at least nothing obvious to me. Fortunately, running is a patient lover and allows us time to grow into ourselves. It would also take me places I still hadn’t imagined even while I was less than devoted to it.

If not for running, I would not have met the woman I fell madly and deeply in love with. She was a love with a good ache to it. Maybe you know what I mean, that ache you feel for your partner, that delicious ache of longing and rightness. I still remember the first time she and I ran together near a lighthouse along Chesapeake Bay. I remember her pulling her hair back and putting it into a ponytail and then we ran. She ran better than me that day, I hadn’t been running too much during the winter of 2008-09.

She sometimes urged me to try a marathon. Spurred on by that and maybe something more as well, I made a decision to run the marathon in Philadelphia 2009. She said she would do it with me, pair up with me to help me reach that finish line. She had already run marathons and a 50K. It couldn’t get much better than that, could it? To have someone you love help you to your first marathon finish?

Life has its twists and turns. I would say I got enough training in that I could have done 26.2 miles of a marathon that year. But her life had been going through a difficult stretch and she hadn’t been able to train. Soon after I had done my final long run for training, she had tried to do her long run and failed. We chose to do the half-marathon instead. We ran that together. We walked portions of it together too. I had a lot of energy that day, my legs were stronger than ever from the marathon training and I could have easily beaten my half-marathon PR. Early on during the race, she would urge me to take off and run my own half-marathon race. I refused and there was no question about that in my mind. It wasn’t a race about PRs. I ran that race as a promise to her, that I wouldn’t leave her behind. Perhaps the truest promises are those we make while we run, and perhaps those promises are the hardest to let go of even when there is no obligation anymore to keep them.

Then somehow 6 months or so later I can’t really believe it as I’m told to get out of the car, get my bags and go to wait for a train at Essex Junction. Even now, I can almost hardly believe it that the last time I would see her face in person was just before she would turn her head over her right shoulder to back out of the parking space. Maybe if I had been a runner then, I would have started running after that car, I would have run til my legs failed me or my chest exploded from it all. I would have run because running represents living and doing the impossible. Perhaps had I fully been a runner then, I would have run. Maybe I would have failed to achieve what I wanted, but I would have run. Run hard, run desperately, run to be alive, run to love.

So came the long slow dance with grief. A long slow dance because I’m a lousy dancer. And so came the dissolution of my prior affair with running. 2010, I tried to prepare myself for a half-marathon, and failed. By September, after running a mile or so, I would feel tired and listless. I thought maybe it was something physical, but it was probably emotional. I still did the half-marathon again in Philly and did it in the worst time ever as I was woefully unprepared. Running came to an end for me.

Even while I was away from running, memories of it lingered down in the depths and shadows and many crevices of my heart. I’d sometimes put running shoes on again and go for runs. But they were still listless. I came very close though in April 2014 of resuming regular running again and maybe would have if not for a cold I got the week after running three times the week before.

Then came the wet walk and the decision to begin to live more barefoot. Then came the first barefoot running steps in August and discovery, a discovery just how richly sensual and sensuous it is to run barefoot. Running became alive to me, a sensation of my feet becoming like wires full of electricity, full of information, full of life. I had finally taken the steps to make me fully fall in love with running, and it’s no trivial matter that those steps were barefoot. Maybe plenty of others can run in shoes and love it well. But I needed that sensory information to reach down into the cracks of my brain and heart, fill them, and link them.

Now there was a joy that I hadn’t ever quite felt before, not even when I crossed the finish line of that first half-marathon, nor when I ran a fantastic trail run on Île Bizard, nor when I ran that last run together with her on Valentine’s Day of 2010. I felt love for running and for the first time I saw how alive it was to run.

As I think about it more, what I truly realize is that while now I can call myself a runner going forward, this also means that I’ve always been one. If every run is a summation of all the runs before, then I’ve always been a runner, from the very first time I ever ran as a kid. Always a runner. That’s not a matter of promises that might break or be forgotten. It’s just a matter of being human and wanting to run and then running. If I do that, I’m a runner. If you do that, you’re a runner. It’s in us, it’s written in our genes. We’re losing it some because of what’s happening to our culture, but we’re still runners at heart. That’s what I came to know in a week of 36.6 miles. There are many runners who can run much more than that in a week. And there are many runners who don’t run that much. But we’re all runners down in the deep fissures of us, whether those fissures are lovingly crafted or cruelly fashioned or wrought out of heartbreak, we can still run.


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