The turkey vultures circled overhead. The gun shots from the Saturday morning session at the nearby conservation club echoed through the edges of the county park. I contemplated the best way to ease the screaming coming from my legs as I trudged my way up the hill. Amputation was the solution that seemed most effective if slightly impractical. But I only had four more miles to go and I was two weeks away from the marathon. Amputation of my burning quadriceps would have to wait. I was going to get all 10 miles in, come hills, scavenger birds or the crashing booms of rifle fire.
I am not on the verge of something epic. This isn’t a hero’s journey. I’m not trying to win a race. I’m not a Boston Marathon qualifier and quite frankly, I have no desire to be. I’m not trying to lose 100 pounds or fix something broken in my soul. I’m not facing fear or running from demons. At least not any more than the rest of us are.
No, there’s nothing particularly gripping about my story, with one exception.
It’s my story.
When I started my own athletic journey (an adult-onset athlete as my good friend Jude calls it), I had taken authorship of my story. It was a slow progression, full of starts and stops until I found my place in endurance sports. I fell in love with the challenge of triathlon and eventually graduated my running from 5 and 10Ks to half marathons and marathons.
But as I was writing my story — this new story where I got to be an athlete instead of just writing about athletes — I gave too many people red-pen permission. I let people correct and grade my story, and my story started to change.
“This year is about experience,” one my of my first coaches wrote to me. “Next year is about performance.”
I remember how my heart sank when I read that. It wasn’t that I was adverse to getting better. I wanted to challenge myself. But I felt the focus shift from process and progress to outcomes and podiums. It was a uncomfortable shift, but if I wanted to call myself an endurance athlete, this apparently was what I needed to do. I had to set very specific goals. I had to train to achieve them. And if I failed, well then, I had only myself to blame.
“You have so much potential,” a friend of mine said at the track one day, her eyes growing bigger. “You’re going to beat me one day. Soon.”
If you’ve run for any length of time, you’ve had a friend like this. She insists she’s going to be a slug on the run. Five minutes in, she has taken off ahead of you. A minute after that, you can’t see her anymore. She circles back every mile or so to check on you and somehow that makes you feel worse. But this is your friend, the one who believes in you, so you must be able to do more, right? When the “do more” never happens, when you still never come close to running with her, let alone beating her (as she proclaims you’re going to nearly every race) the failure is subtle but packs a punch.
Over time, the story I was writing about being an endurance athlete started to ring false.
If I’m not on the podium at the end of a race or conversely have some heartfelt, emotional back-of-the-pack story, then was I really worthy of the label “endurance athlete?”
The other day someone asked me if I had done an Ironman.
“Yes,” I said. “But only one.”
Then I went on to explain that my Ironman was a 140.6 distance race but not a “branded” Ironman. Although I had done several branded half Ironman races, which technically are called “Ironman 70.6” because you can’t really use the phrase “half Ironman” since Ironman is trademarked and I’m probably going to be sued for copyright infringement before I even finish this confusing run-on sentence.
“So, that means you’ve done an Ironman?”
That very large thud you just heard was perspective falling on my head like a piano in the old Saturday morning cartoons.
When you face a challenge, when you lose perspective, it’s often helpful to go back and remember why you started.
With the turkey vultures swirling in their trademark wobbly fashion above me, waiting to see if my body would soon become a roadside carcass to feast on, I remembered that summer in college when I took a family vacation to North Carolina.
My story lacks a true epiphany, but the closest thing was that weeklong summer trip. While visiting my aunt in the Blue Ridge Mountains, my dad, brother and I went on a guided white-water rafting adventure, which was more guide than adventure to be honest. Shane, the expert in our boat, pretty much guided us through on his own. We’d reach a “rapid” and he tell us to paddle. “All forward! All forward!” Three strokes later he’d say, “OK, take a rest.”
The next day we went hiking, something I did often with my dad while growing up. We didn’t have much hiking knowledge. All we knew was that we liked to walk in the woods. Time spent in nature was always time well spent. And I wanted to do more of this. I wanted to be healthy enough for adventures and to go exploring. I didn’t know what it would like. I didn’t even know what it could look like. I just knew I wanted to open that door.
Years later, at the height of my endurance athlete existential crises, a friend suggested I give up anything competitive and just go hike instead.
That conversation led me deeper into the only-outcome-matters abyss. I spent that next year focusing on the half marathon, setting my personal best in the distance not once, but twice. I was happy and proud and tired and burnt out.
Wait, why did I start this again?
I started because there was something about moving — running, hiking, cycling and later swimming — that just felt like home. I entered the word through words but I made sense of it through training. I rarely came upon answers in a long run, but I became more comfortable with the questions. I could just simply be and take what the day gave me.
Sometimes, the day gave me a beautiful hike up Mt. Marcy, the highest peak in New York State.
Sometimes, the day gave me a personal best in a half marathon.
Sometimes, the day gave me a “glad I could cross the finish line upright” 5K.
I started my endurance athlete story for discovery — of myself, of people, of places. Of capacities both emotional and physical. Of dreams and desires that can’t quite be put into words, no matter how much I search for a method of expression.
I started this to be who I am, which is complex and contradictory, stubborn and fearful, sure of nothing and confident in everything.
When I handed out red pens I forgot one important truth — that their edits are merely suggestions, not absolutes. I can take or leave their suggestions. It’s up to me to make the final edits on my story.
It’s not epic, or heroic or award winning.
But it’s mine.
That’s where I started.
Where I’m going next: The Hatfield-McCoy Marathon.