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Musing: 13.1 miles to go before I sleep

April 19, 2010
State Park boardwalk on Edisto Island

View from a morning's run on Edisto Island

Among those I feel privileged to call friends are individuals who climb cliffs, cater parties for UN delegates, ride class IV rapids, initiate summer camps to empower teenage girls, fly fish for tonight’s dinner, and bake cookies to succor  disgruntled college students at finals time.  Really?  I’m supposed to compete with that?  I don’t belong in their league let alone around their dinner tables.  I am, in comparison and in a word, lazy.

If time were measured in currency, my happiest moments in life have been spent in Ben Franklin-stamped chunks as I snuggled under a fleece blanket on my couch, a stack of books beside me at arm’s distance like a six-pack waiting for the grip of an alcoholic.  In “about me” surveys, I’ve always felt a bit nerdy, if not downright lazy, writing “reading” in response to the hobbies section.  When your hobbies section reads, “reading, writing, traveling, and eating” you can’t help but reexamine your life.  Sometimes I’ve lied on those cursed forms and rounded out the picture with more impressive pastimes: kayaking (which I’ve done once and enjoyed), canoeing (high school gym class in the swimming pool) or rock climbing (I know someone who does that, remember)?  But it’s true.  I love the sedentary life.

Why then, did I promise myself I would run a half marathon?  It came about like this.  I turned 30.  And who doesn’t want to fight the aging blues with a bit of a defiant “I’m better now than in my 20s” rally?  So I committed to two first-ever endeavors: to write a novel (please don’t ask how that project’s going–just refer to my first post in reference to my writer’s guilt) and to run a half marathon.  The words “run a half marathon” get buffed with a heroic ring coming out of my mouth, but in reality the preparation for this feat is the antithesis of my couch-swaddled reading nirvana.

I’m running…slowly.  10:30 minute mile pace on average.  I’m building miles slowly.  16.5 this past week.  (To all of my friends who run marathons like I burn through Sophie Kinsella’s novels, please stop reading this post.  I’m just embarrassing myself.)  But here’s the thing, as hard as this running thing is for me, I’m kind of enjoying it, physically and, yes, cerebrally.

I’m a lone runner.  I can’t stand keeping up a conversation with a fellow runner as I gasp for breath every three words.  Even worse, I can’t stand listening as my running partner monologues full paragraphs in between breaths.  I need the solitary confinement between two white wires trailing from my ears and Lady Gaga’s beats urging my feet forward.  Since I’m rather goal-oriented, I also appreciate the stats-tracking efforts of my treadmill or iPhone GPS.  I have a chalkboard painted on my kitchen wall and above my week’s menu I’ve chalked in “September 19”.  The famed Philadelphia Distance Run.  And if me running in the dust of greats like Ryan Hall doesn’t give you a laugh, I don’t know what will.

This week I did something that would have surprised the me of my previous 29 years of life: I ran while on vacation.  My training guide and the September 19 deadline could not be persuaded to take a vacation with me, so on went the shoes and headphones, and onto the asphalt I went.  We were staying at my family’s beach house on Edisto Island, south of Charleston, SC.  That certainly makes for a more appealing horizon than the row of televisions tuning into local news at my gym.

What I like most about my runs, despite my slow speed and torpid accumulation of miles, is the sense of accomplishment I hit about 11 minutes into the endeavor.  The first ten minutes I spend in a mental wrestling match about how horrible I feel and how I’ll never complete more than the next step.  Then somehow, the eleventh minute arrives, and I actually forget my aching thighs, tight lungs, and that nagging throb in a bone I didn’t know I had in my left foot. 12 minutes into the run and I’m actually looking around and thinking with a mind cleared of all other concerns.

Looking around on Edisto Island is a feast for the eyes.  I ran along a narrow causeway bisecting two large expanses of marsh, my fleeting shadow tattooing my presence on the verdant marsh grasses just reemerging from their drab winter shells.  A family of white egrets, a parent and flock of semi-grown babies, clacked their yellow bills and hopped unsettled on black legs from one brackish pool to the next as I glided by.  Taking a sandy path that dodged between palmettos in the State Park, I disturbed pairs of squirrels (are squirrels always in pairs?) who were shuffling through the live oak leaves littering the ground.  Tire tracks from bike riders cris-crossed the path.  I swatted silk worm threads (please, please, please don’t let them be spider webs) that dangled innocently (I hope) from clumps of spanish moss.  Deeper in the woods where, paradoxically, the crash of the surf was louder and more insistent than it had been closer to the beach, I whipped my head around at the sudden snap of twigs and foliage thinking the worst–a mugger lying in wait for an unsuspecting jogger at 7:43 in the morning–only to find the frothy flash of a white-tailed deer’s behind.  Thanks to the mugger scare, I remained jumpy for the rest of the run, and as the Pandora app has spotty coverage (go figure) on a coastal island, each time my music throbbed anew and unexpectedly, I jumped.  Just like those stupid squirrels.  My run took me over a series of wooden boardwalks that joined forest and tidal marshes, intermissions of wooden footfalls breaking the communion of landscape, and I could picture an oyster-feasting Indian squatting on an outjutting branch of a live oak.  About 53 minutes and 5.2 miles into the run, as I passed the flustered egret family again, that left foot bone re-announced its presence, my thighs felt bruised, and I despaired again of ever reaching the illustrious number of 13.1.

I’m intrigued by my uncharacteristic application of will.  Instead of running 13.1 miles as my tribute to 30, why not read 13 new authors?  Why the drive to conquer the unconquered?  And why the interest in writing about this endeavor, out of all the musings of my past week?  Is it just about adding a new (and truthful) hobby to the list?  Or do I want some greater accomplishment and fans to cheer me on my way?  I think the answer may be simpler.  Perhaps all of this fuss is simply to prove that I’m doing it because I can, and I’m the only fan I need.  If that’s the case, then September 19 will have me following Ryan Hall one step at a time.  Then again, I may just switch to reading 13 authors. Full disclosure: after my  run, I flopped on the couch, extended a sweaty arm, and grabbed the first book I touched.

To follow in my running footsteps, visit your local running store and lace up a pair of Mizuno Wave Inspire 6.  If you’re in the Pittsburgh area, head in person to Elite Runners and Walkers located in Robinson for a personal fit and professional recommendation.  Join me in Philadelphia on September 19 and register for the Philadelphia Distance Run.  To follow in my reading footsteps, visit your local library and check out Know It All by A.J. Jacobs, my current post-run read.

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