I stretched my chest wide just as the forest opened up, revealing the boulder-studded river.
Watching the water flowing a few hundred feet to my left mesmerized me and I felt my body relax. I no longer felt like it was me versus 15 miles – my personal battle against the pavement. The doubt disappeared. I knew with certainty that I’d finish the run strong. I opened my arms and tried out the words for the first time: “I’m a runner.”
“So there we were at this lunch presentation and the speaker asks if anyone in the room is a runner,” Ashley told half a dozen of our friends over dinner. “I look over and she didn’t even raise her hand,” she playfully poked me in the ribs.
Earlier that week I had attended a paralegal luncheon to give a brief presentation about the non-profit where I work. The featured speaker was giving a presentation about living your best life, and had posed the question about running.
I hadn’t raised my hand because I don’t consider myself a real runner. Sure, I’d been running for the past twenty years and had completed a marathon and countless half marathons, 10Ks and 5Ks along the way. And lacing up my shoes had become an automatic reaction to a stressful day, a way of working out my problems and getting a little perspective. But I never ran in high school or college, I don’t have a heart rate monitor or keep track of my cadence. I don’t have a clue about my mile splits and can’t recite my PRs, have never come close to winning my age group in a race, or running fifty miles in a week.
My motto for marathon training has been, “fake it ‘til you make it.” I’ve found running partners, followed coach Thomas Minton’s technique tips, and read about when and what to eat. I’d been lucky enough to complete my long runs with stronger runners who offered me encouragement and praise. I often imagined an invisible rope that I mentally lassoed around my running partner’s waist and created a mental image of them pulling me up steep hills or the last mile of a run.
But this past weekend I had a fifteen mile run scheduled and every single one of my running friends was out of town. The temperatures dipped into the teens the night before and I tossed and turned in my sleep listening to the wind howl. My alarm chimed me awake at 6 a.m. when the night still blanketed the sky. I pressed snooze, pulling my down comforter over my eyes and told myself, “I’m not a runner. A marathon isn’t realistic anyway; I should just call it quits and sleep in.”
But then I told myself to fake it for a while. Instead of thinking about those fifteen miles and doubting whether I could run, I thought about the amazing college student who watches my three-year old son, Tobin. She would be coming in a little over one hour and all the tasks I needed to get done if I was going to be ready to head out the door – eat some oatmeal, drink coffee, charge my iPod, take a hot bath to warm up my body, and dig through my winter clothes to find long running tights and a long-sleeve shirt.
Tobin’s sitter agreed to pick me up fifteen miles from my house so I had the luxury of a point-to-point run. I headed opened the door to a gust of icy air that blew right through my layers and tried to muster an optimistic thought. I remembered the joke Thomas had told me. “Anytime you see four people running together you can bet that three of them are running too fast.” I’d been gasping for breath chasing after some running partners and walking more often than I wanted with others. Here was my chance to run my own pace.
Three miles later I trotted past piles of rusted out cars and construction sites made drearier by the bare trees and grey sky surrounding them. Warehouses towered between me and the river, guarding any chance I had of a view of the water. The run was feeling hard already. I only wanted to have the miles behind me. Usually I would look to my running partner, ask her a question and hope to be distracted from my own turmoil about my ability to run. But this time there was nobody for me to ask, nobody for me to follow, nobody for me to harness her momentum.
I thought about the bottle with blue Gatorade waiting for me at mile six, stashed behind a guardrail on a bridge crossing the river. I would run that far and then surely the electrolytes would rejuvenate me and propel my legs the last nine miles.
The bridge came into sight and my legs floated toward it, reaching for a distraction from the road. I gulped down Gatorade and took off my shirt, stashing both the bottle and my top before trotted off and when I turned the next corner and got my first peak of the river, frost lacing her edges. Over the next few miles my legs felt heavy and with each stride I felt tweaks in my foot, ankle or knee.
Whenever my mind landed on an ache, wondering whether I’d get through my long run, I told myself that if I wanted to be a marathon runner I had to build a base that required the gritty work of running on frigid November mornings. If I wanted to finish 26.2 miles in two months with throngs of crowds and receive a shiny race medal, I had to pile on the layers and plod through non-glamorous stretches on frozen pavement. I had to remind myself to pull my feet up and roll my shoulders back for the thousandth time.
So that’s what I did for the next few miles. “Pull, pull, pull.” I listened to the sound my feet hitting the pavement, trying to make my foot striking the pavement as quiet as possible, the way Thomas Minton had instructed me. I shook out my arms, realizing how tense I was holding them as if I was bracing myself against the run. I pulled my head and shoulders back over my hips, wondering what would happen if I lead with my heart instead of my brain.
I stretched my chest wide just as the forest opened up, revealing the boulder-studded river. Watching the river flowing a few hundred feet to my left mesmerized me and I felt my body relax. I no longer felt like it was me versus fifteen miles, my personal battle against the pavement. Instead the road supported me, it felt solid and grounding beneath me and offered me a platform from which to succeed. The doubt disappeared. I knew with certainty that I’d finish the run feeling strong. I opened my arms and tried out the words for the first time. “I’m a runner,” I whispered tentatively even though nobody was around to hear.
My legs felt the tiniest bit lighter, my breathing deeper, and my mind clearer. A magical thing happened then, running became easier. Despite the childhood saying about stick and stones breaking bones but words never hurting us, words shape lives. As I ran, it occurred to me the names we call ourselves play a role in who we become. And just important as the words we say are the words we don’t.
I decided it would be my new mantra and said it a little louder. “I’m a runner.” And in saying it, I realized that it was true, I was a runner. I didn’t feel like an imposter wearing someone else’s shoes. I had inhabited the runner I wanted to be by lacing up my shoes and staying committed to a training program week after week.
I’m a runner. Are you?
Enjoy the Miles!