I am passionate about running. The problem is that it’s hard to explain why. When some people have asked me why I run, I tend to give the usual answers; but every time I try to explain or justify the appeal of this activity something feels unsaid, lingering as though I am just scratching the surface. The typical answers along the lines of, “It is good for your health,” or “It is challenging and fun,” or even, “It is a good way to meet nice healthy people,” are insufficient to explain some of the pains I have endured in practicing this sport.
As I watched my son among a group of cheerleaders doing amazing things with their young bodies to qualify for a place in the Navarro College team, I came to the certainty that running is not about doing things normally, but about trying to do things abnormally; running is the exception, not the norm, especially for people my age. The vast majority of us do not subject ourselves to the pain and sacrifice required by this activity. In this sport, the more abnormal you are the better.
But the question lingers, why do it?
As I prepare for Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth in June, trying to be as abnormal as possible, I ponder about my recent successes and setbacks in training. Progress is painfully slow, especially for someone like me who started this regiment in his 40s. I should have accustomed my body to this level of activity years ago. Perhaps that explains some of my passion about it: I am running out of time.
Whether returning to school or trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon, timing is everything. If you ever felt the pressure of starting something new, try doubling that while still maintaining a full-time job and tending to a family. I am at that junction. In orientation night of the MBA program I started two years ago, I felt as if I was arriving late at a party that I was invited to a long time before. Everything was catching up with me. When I ran my first marathon three years ago, I finished feeling exhausted and disoriented. As I asked for permission from every aching muscle of my body to get me into the car back home, the question that flashed through my mind was: “Why didn’t I start doing this 10 years ago?”
But I know there is hope. I am now halfway through the part-time MBA program and my times are slowly getting closer to where I may have a chance for a Boston qualifier. The notion of “now or never” is a good motivator. When I was younger I tended to postpone lots of things with the comfortable assumption that there was enough time to do them later. Now, if I want to do something I understand that I must do it now or forget about it.
A friend who has run Boston before but who finds it harder and harder to qualify every year once told me, “There is a window of time to run the Boston marathon. As the time gets shorter, that window of opportunity shrinks.”
So the pressure of time helps, but is that all? Is that why I keep running?
I have always been a little bit of a show off, so I must admit that I love the attention I get when I’m in a race; the adrenaline and excitement on race day make all the effort worthwhile. In my fitness people take notice if you are consistent about your workout. “Hey, I saw you walking the other day,” a nice gentleman in his 80s told me one day. “You were not running, you were walking. I tried to cheer you on so you could start going faster but you had those headphones on you and could not hear me; I almost honked at you. You really should concentrate more,” he said with a smile and a tone of experience and authority. Be nice, I thought, but nodded in agreement at the gentleman’s volunteered coaching. I know I am not the only one running out there, so it helps to have someone close to you to get some steady support. Telling a friend you are going to do something forces you to try your best and be consistent in your training. One day, though, I realized something more subtle: it is more difficult and much more transcendent to impress one special person: yourself.
That day occurred recently, in one of my last training runs in Minnetonka: the day I conquered Sparrow Road. Speed has not been my forte so I was been focusing on maintaining a decent base while trying to get faster by doing intervals in a park near work. That morning on this steep hill something changed; it felt as if I had reached an inflection point. For a moment after the hill I suddenly found the urge to keep going, so I did. I tried maintaining a pace close to 8, which for me is really high-speed after training for 10 miles or so. This was the last stretch of the route and I was behind the pack of the “big dogs,” seasoned marathoners with lots of experience and many accolades. Something must have been brewing inside me that made its way out to the surface at the sight of the pack. Why not? I thought and started increasing my pace, 7:50, 7:45, 7:40. I surpassed the group of surprised men, my eyes fixed on the horizon. Under normal conditions I would have stayed behind in my rightful place trying to chip into the conversation from time to time. But this was no time for normal.
Normally I would have started gasping for air at the 7:50 pace, but to my surprise this time my body just adjusted to the new pace without much effort. I was waiting for the moment to start feeling tired. I switched my breathing pattern into overdrive, something one of my colleagues had told me about, taking air in at the same rhythm than my stride so the lungs could pump enough oxygen to the rest of the body. Using my left leg as a pacer I felt just fine; 10 minutes passed by and I increased my pace to 7:45, then 7:40. “I could be going like this forever,” I thought. Indeed, things were going great until I heard a different breathing pattern. Somebody was approaching me from behind. What should I do?
Again, if normal conditions were to prevail, I just would have kept on pace or slow down a bit to let the other person go. This was not any official race, there was no prize to win at the end of it and no prestige to defend or publicize. Why did I keep pushing myself to go even faster then? At that moment something clicked inside me with an answer simple and unexpected: “I know I can do this. It may not be completely flawless now, but given enough time I can do this.” I felt that for the first time, I could depend only on myself. It was I who could decide what was going to happen next, whether or not that 7:40 would be the limit or if there was still gas for more. It was all up to me to decide. After several minutes I arrived alone at the “finish line”, back to where we started, the pack nowhere to be seen. An overwhelming sensation of accomplishment filled in my lungs.
I discovered something that had been missing before: I started trusting myself; I started to believe I could do it. I wasn’t there yet, but I did not need to be (I did not need to see in order to believe, as St. Thomas said). I took inspiration from Dr. Martin Luther King, who spoke of going up to the mountaintop and gave us his vision of a different future. I could see what was behind my mountain of fears, prejudices and limitations. I had seen the other side, even though I had not totally climbed it yet. I had finally impressed upon myself that I was able to do it, and that was definitely worth the effort.
Alberto Vasquez-Parada, May 2012
Thanks to K. Dittmann for editing parts of this essay.