The air is cold and damp. Colours flash by in startling combinations. I move with the detachment of a spectator. On my tongue anticipation tastes sharp; in my stomach, excitement rests like a stone.
The gun fires; balloons float off. An age-long minute later we push into motion. I am one body in a ribbon of humanity unfurling for miles.
I ran this marathon in 1983. Soon, children and teaching would change the shape of my days; a spinal fusion, the shape of my body. Neither evolving responsibilities nor a rebuilt spine would yield the flexibility to accommodate the intensity of long-distance running.
At ten miles, confidence surges. Pushing away the temptation to speed up, I focus on the continuum of runners extending and fragmenting around me. I’ve changed from inconspicuous competitor to a member of a stable little group. The thrill of belonging to the great mass is replaced by the comfort of identity. I love exposing and sharing expectations with these other runners. To the hypnotic rhythm of our strides we ramble, joke, sing snatches of upbeat tunes.
At twelve miles we stop for water. We’re encountering the returning tide. For miles we brush against each other, tossing encouragement back and forth like electric currents. The discipline of holding pace against my exuberance is trying.
At twenty miles, the reality of succeeding supplants the fear of failure. I dip into my deepest cache of determination. The rhythm of footfalls numbs me and the numbness is pleasing.
A mile later, I move out ahead of my group. It feels almost involuntary—-and yet harder than leaving home. I move forward, and fall deeper into the recesses of myself.
In writing, as in running, those competing drives for community and for assertion of identity tug at me.
By twenty-four miles my legs beat out their ceaseless rhythm, and my mind wonders at them. Miles of fog separate the two…
Nothing has prepared me for the strangeness of crossing the finish line. I can’t reconcile mind and body. Hours after the dissolution gives way to soreness, the sweet realization that I have done this thing will emerge.
Decades later, as I run the trails near home, I am most always writing in my mind. Words tumble upon one another. Sometimes, eager to hold them, I squeeze too hard and they shatter—letters spilling and meanings dissipating. Other times, I pull and stretch, and the thinking between the words snap—the taut line of meaning recoiling into a disappointing heap of flaccid words. The struggle of coherence against fragmentation is a constant connection between these two activities.
As I push myself toward new challenges in writing, connections I surface between running and writing lift my spirits. Both activities lend a certain fluid grace to my day-to-day life. Both begin awkwardly, all physical and mechanical, and move me toward the emotional, sometimes even the spiritual. Both are hard, occasionally painful—but imagining life without them is utterly impossible.