Running into Story

My drive to work is nothing special. It starts with a nondescript road, grey and industrial and mostly quiet except for the semi trucks that sometimes congregate at the stoplight. Only, if I remember to look down when crossing the river, down and to the right, I smile.

It’s my recurring phenomenon across the suburbs, across urban and residential areas, across the very heart of the city.

Certain intersections are dear to my heart, certain crosswalks and parks and even train stations. I once made meticulous plans to be at those intersections, to be at those crosswalks and parks and train stations, and when I find myself there again by accident, it feels like a secret and a surprise.

I should venture out of the city a little more. I should seek out longer stretches of dirt and fresher air and closer proximity to the mountains. Denver is big, but it’s not that big. It’s beautiful, but it’s not that beautiful.

But I love it. I love this way of discovering my town. I love making my own loops and dipping into tiny parks and looking in vain for a sign with my last name on it. I love involving public transit when I can, fiddling with my armful of gear in the mornings and keeping downwind from other people in the afternoons.

running selfie
My favorite selfies are the ones that bookend my runs.

More than anything, though, I love the stories that write themselves when I run — memories upon memories, tied to place: This is where I saw the deer, on that side of the snow-covered bridge in Cherry Creek State Park. This is where I almost cried listening to The Liturgists Podcast, these two laps around City Park on that hot March day. And the most common story: This is where I went the wrong way and got lost.

But I was always finding things too.

Some I found simply by going to certain places at certain times and paying attention. It’s the feel of the wind at night, warm and wild against my face, hours before the storm hits and the snow blankets everything. It’s the sight of the most beautiful sunrise I’ve ever seen on the morning of my first marathon, a beauty undiminished even though everything else went wrong that day. It’s a series of quacks and rustlings and big skies and horizons. It’s life at its zenith, in me and out there.

sunrise
A sunrise so beautiful that even an iPhone photo does it justice.

I found within myself the usual things people find when they spend months training their bodies in strength and stamina, all the exhilarating and painful and confident and exhausting and stubborn things. I found a clarity that surprised me, an ease in decision-making while on the trail. I learned what I was capable of, and I learned when it was worth it … and when it wasn’t.

Not everything about running has been glorious or even good, but for many of the months I’ve lived in Colorado, it’s been one of the truest parts of my life. Even in the staggering and the struggling, the long middles and the early mornings, it was the X that marked the spot. So I look down and to the right, and I smile.

Running into Shame and Grief

Crossroads: success or failure
Photo by stockmonkeys.com via Flickr’s creative commons.

I ran a marathon last week, and it broke my heart.

“It was hard, but at least I finished,” I tell the people I don’t know as well. With others, the words “excruciating” and “demoralizing” and “disappointing” might make their way into my answers. But I’m still smiling as I list the reasons why my race was all those things.

I’m not very good at letting people see my grief. I know this because sometimes they’ve laughed when I’ve told them about my race, and I’m sure they thought they were laughing with me.

One week ago, I was shivering in shorts and a T-shirt and marveling at the colors in the morning sky. It had been a long week and I knew it would be a hot day, but I had no misgivings, no latent fears that my body might fail me.

It was Easter Sunday when I first put my hair up and ran a few blocks down the street and back. Before the month was out, I had all but decided that this would be my year to run a marathon. I printed out a training schedule: 168 boxes with 168 assignments.

I was an outstanding pupil, waking up while everyone else slept, strapping water to my waist, filling my weekends with running and recovery. Little by little, running became my life in a way nothing else was.

I can write, but I haven’t written much this year. I have people I love, but there is almost always some sort of distance. I love to talk, but fear has kept me silent. I have dreams and desires, but I slip into nothing and everything.

Running has been my constant. I can run, and I did run. I hated always getting up early and running the same routes until I was sick of them and taking the bus to yet another street corner. But I did it. This was my success story, my purpose, maybe even my identity.

Every so often when I wondered if I would really be ready come October 18, the stars would align on the trail and I would be smiling through the sweat and my confidence would rise.

And then October 18 came.

The first half of the race went as expected. The second half did not.

I must have started too fast. I must not have eaten enough that morning. The sun did not relent. And then pain slowly took over my pelvis.

I virtually stopped running by mile 18, but by then even just walking was hard. I almost cried at one point because I was so miserable. I don’t know exactly when I realized that I would not be bouncing back, that it would not be getting better, that there would be no glory in this day, but I know that by a certain point I wasn’t just physically shattered; I was heartbroken and ashamed.

I texted my roommates, who were waiting at the finish line with homemade signs, that I would be much later than expected. How low I have sunk that I’m texting during my marathon.

I passed people holding signs and cheering. They must think I didn’t prepare for this at all.

I thought of the pin I had proudly purchased at the Expo two days before. I can’t imagine wearing that now.

I turned the last corner and saw the finish line just ahead. I started running so that I could finish with at least a modicum of dignity. It’s barely even accurate to say that I ran a marathon.

It felt like a cruel trick. I had done everything I was supposed to do since May. It wasn’t supposed to end like this. I felt no sense of accomplishment when I crossed the finish line, when I posed for a picture with my roommates, when I answered excited questions later. Rather, I cringed and cried heartbroken tears and wished I hadn’t told so many people about the race.

And then I decided I had to redeem myself by running the Colfax Marathon in May. Never mind all my reasons to take a break from distance running; I had to fix this mess as soon as possible.

This is where I am right now: grieving, grateful that the questions are subsiding, and realizing that my identity is clipped onto my ability to run longer distances than most people I know. I’ve had moments of joy on this journey, but it’s all been too dependent on what happens on a single day in October. If I end up running the Colfax Marathon next year, I want it to be for the right reasons.

But for now, I am letting myself be still and grieve.

10K in 2009
My first race: a 10K in 2009
Marathon in 2015
My latest race: a marathon in 2015