I don’t see myself as a runner. I don’t have the stretchy body that real runners have or a deep need to push myself off the cliff of my physical abilities. Nor do I have the long-distance runner’s gaze—that gaze that manages to be both direct and, well, distant. Real runners are in love with the miles they log, a fact they don’t try to hide. I’m not like that.
And yet I’ve run ever since I was thirteen or fourteen. During the cosmic blip, otherwise known as my Pennsylvania girlhood, I used to run around the back roads of our little town. I would set out from the backyard, pass the treehouse and my basketball hoop, and take off. There was little traffic except for the occasional annoying truck. This was during the summertime, and I was pretty much alone with the clomp of my basketball shoes on the pavement and the scent of dandelions and other roadside weeds. When I reached an area that had the distinct feeling of nowhere, I turned around and went home.
If I ran in a different direction, through the town and past the university, I would quickly come to the open spaces of Pennsylvania Dutch country. In my memory those fields are striped green and gold. The horse-drawn buggies with their orange triangles instead of license plates are clip-clopping up ahead. I’m in awe but getting nervous because I’ve left my world behind, close by though it is. If I kept running, would I end up in the arms of a bearded, behatted farmer, never to see my family or my school or my cats again? Time to turn back.
I’ve run in every town I’ve lived in since then, in Virginia, North Carolina, Massachusetts, and now in Virginia again. I’ve run in the morning, at dusk, at midday, in boiling heat and sudden downpours. Every once in a while, I’ve run with a friend by my side and that has always been more fun. These days I usually run alongside strangers at the gym.
About fifteen years ago, when I discovered I could run on a treadmill without falling off, I knew I had met a worthy adversary. The treadmill is wonderful and awful all at once. It is built to irk.
I step up onto it, hit quick start, and set the speed to a brisk walking pace. After a few minutes, I increase the speed—beep, beep, beep, beep!—so I’m jogging but not experiencing any distress.
By all rights, this is where I should stay. There’s nothing wrong with a steady pace that allows for normal thoughts. But I guess there’s a tiny masochist living in my hand, because I always reach out and increase the speed yet again.
At first I’m exhilarated. My feet are pounding on the moving belt with the same thunder of my old Converse sneakers on the Pennsylvania pavement.
Then things deteriorate. My breathing has a hitch in it, the drone of the machine is alarming, the length of time I’ve been running is not notable, and I’m pumping my arms and legs for dear life. I’m depressed and desperate, yet still I run. My own hand does not reach out to save me.
Until it does. For my dear life matters more than clocking another half mile at what feels like an insane speed. I have nothing to prove: I’m on a treadmill in Culpeper, Va., not approaching Heartbreak Hill in Boston, and I’ve finished my race against myself.
A rather short race at that. I drink some water and pace around the gym. I drive home, hungry and pleased with myself, knowing I will sleep well tonight.
I’ll never run more than a few miles at a time. I’ll never have that long-distance runner’s look in my eye. Just thinking about a marathon, to say nothing of the countless hours of preparation, makes my knees ache.
What I see in the best of them is a singular dedication and resolve–the same thing I admire in poets like Denise Levertov and Adrienne Rich. For their own reasons, great runners and great poets go beyond reason. They are beautiful and human, and this is what they do whether anyone is watching or not.
But in person or on TV, we do get to watch the Boston Marathon. We can see those runners in their act of creation. And when they win, it is our good fortune to see the world’s most dazzling smiles.