It is the last half mile of my second half-marathon. I am on track for a 2:30 finish. I let myself slow down, just a little. The 2:30 pace bunny passes me on one side, a lime green clad volunteer on the other. “Come on, Jessica!” she yells. “You can catch the pace bunny!” Yeah, I probably can. I don’t even really think about it; I just pick up my pace, and within seconds, I’ve done it. 0.45 miles to go now. Maybe I can keep this speed up. It’s been 20.57 km, and, amazingly, there is still some left in me. I push on, hitting a faster pace than I’ve hit all race, my feet slapping the pavement, each breath rasping in my lungs, and there it is, the finish line, and then, there it is, behind me, and I’m done. Someone loops a blue-banded medal over my head, someone else thrusts a bag of snacks into my hand, and that’s it. Months of work, and I am done.
I am a runner, you see. Maybe I have always been, but I’m not sure. Do you remember the fitness tests they used to do, in junior high and high school? They ran you through your paces on a bunch of different exercises, and then they’d make you run for a while, I can’t remember how long, but you just ran and ran and ran, for as long as you were able. I remember one of the tall, lithe, athletic boys springing around those pylons like it was his job, no, like it was his passion, making it look so damned easy. And there I was, dragging my ass after only a few pathetic rounds. But still, I was running, even if it wasn’t very quick, even if it could barely be called running. Maybe it started then.
For a while, before I discovered my competitive streak, I was that girl in gym class who stood off to the side with my best friend, talking and giggling and giving the soccer ball dirty looks if it came anywhere near us. I’d always been a somewhat chubby youngster. Not necessarily overweight, but not a pixie, either. At some point, I transitioned from using my body in every way possible without a second thought, with real and unfettered joy, to thinking that I wasn’t athletic, I was out of shape, I jiggled in all the wrong places and therefore I shouldn’t really try, I shouldn’t embarrass myself by pretending that I could do things like run a mile without collapsing and probably dying on the gym floor. So I didn’t.
At the end of my high school career, I rediscovered running, but it didn’t awaken anything in me. It was something that I did because I wanted to be fit, I wanted to lose weight. I did it only occasionally, when it occurred to me, or when my outer body was feeling particularly out of proportion to how I wanted it to be. I slogged my way through joyless runs with the sun beating down on the back of my neck, wondering what the hell I was doing.
Running and I continued this way for several years, until, one day about four years ago, something clicked, and suddenly, running felt like joy. I started working on the Couch to 5K program, and I loved watching my distances increase. I loved plugging my headphones in and setting out from our apartment building at a brisk clip before picking up the pace and darting through the river valley. (Though “darting” might be overstating it; I’ve always been a bit on the slow side.) I tentatively ran the Run for the Cure instead of walking it like I usually did.
Then two words changed the trajectory of my running career forever: Mud Hero. I found myself registered for a 6k race replete with obstacles alongside my best friend. I looked towards that day with equal parts exhilaration and trepidation. I had never done anything like it. I didn’t know how it was going to go. Would I collapse halfway through and beg for mercy, having to be carted off the course by grim-faced first aiders while everyone turned their faces away so as not to witness my shame? Would I fall on my face while scrambling across the hoods of abandoned cars, soaked in mud, resulting in the same fate? None of those things happened, of course. What happened was this: Bri and I ran those 6k together, easily conquering each obstacle as it came to us (except the one where we had to use a rope to climb up the sheer face of a black diamond ski hill; my ass hurt for the next four days because of that one). I had to stop for a few walk breaks, but I easily crossed the finish line, and I was amazed with myself for what I had accomplished. My younger self would be astonished.
Maybe I was a runner after all.
So I started looking for bigger challenges. Last year, I ran my first half-marathon. It wasn’t a resounding success; I finished in 2:57:30. But it wasn’t a failure either; I finished. This year, I was determined to be faster. I was determined not to flake on my training for the month before the race like I did last time (I have really brilliant ideas sometimes). I was going to focus on getting stronger. I was going to push myself. I was going to do those 21.1k in less than 2:45.
Then, five weeks out from the race, halfway through an easy four mile run, I was in so much pain that I had to stop. I limped home, blinking back tears, frustrated with the pain in my right shin that had been growing worse and worse over the last few weeks. My doctor referred me to a physiotherapist. After my first visit, handsome and British, he told me I wasn’t, under any circumstances, allowed to run for the next week. I accepted his recommendation with the air of someone being handed an execution sentence. My race was five weeks away! I needed to be running!
But I didn’t. I got on a stationary bike several times a week instead. I lifted weights. I tried to make sure that, even though I couldn’t run, my overall fitness wasn’t going anywhere. I went to physio twice a week, doing stretches and massages and ultrasounds to break up tissue. I changed from my beloved barefoot running shoes to the lowest profile sneakers I could find. Eventually, I went on no more than two runs a week, no more than six miles at a time. By the time race day came around, I hadn’t run more than eight miles straight since last summer.
As soon as I started running, though, I remembered it. The rhythm of my legs, the thudding of my heart, the feel of the early morning air rasping in my throat. I remembered the amazing feel of blood rushing through my veins, of pavement bleeding away beneath my feet, of sweat sliding down my nose and beading on my hairline. I remembered the times that running woke me up again, reminded me that I am a living, breathing, warm-blooded human being. I remembered that to run is to feel truly alive.
And I realized, finally, fully, that I am a runner after all. Maybe even an athlete.