“This sucks,” says a female with disgust. I glance around, trying to identify the body associated with the voice. I spot her over my left shoulder – a tall, lean runner, her blonde hair pulled back in a high ponytail.
I study her, wondering what could possibly be wrong. The sun shines in a cloudless sky after a malaise of rainless grey-skied days, visibly buoying the spirits of the thousands of runners at the start of the Charleston Marathon (and the half, which is what I’m running).
Her elbow digs into my rib as she darts ahead. I stare as she pushes and weaves her way through the pack of runners. She doesn’t apologize or glance backwards. She either doesn’t realize she’d bumped me. Or she doesn’t care.
She’s too weighted down by expectations, glued to the device around her wrist telling her pace and heart rate, reminding her that she’s alive. She’s so determined to reach her goals that she’s missing out on what’s right in front of her – the race itself.
I know because I’ve been that runner. I’ve pushed my way toward a PR so aggressively that I don’t recall many details of various races.
Not today. I have no race plan, trusting myself that it will all work out. For once I run without music, wanting to hear the runners around me and participate. Without music there’s no barrier between my ears and complainers, like the woman who elbowed her way past me.
It also means hearing all the kind words exchanged between runners, and all the encouragement from bystanders. The crowd tells us how great we look, making me pin my shoulders back and run a little taller. Turns out I’m quite a vain runner.
Without music to distract me or a time goal taking all my focus, I spend a lot of time soaking up the views. We run by vistas of the bay, sunlight dancing on the water as paddle boarders glide by and leave a wake of glittering water-diamonds. Then we pass columned houses in salmon and mint green, flanked by rows of palm trees.
The course veers around a corner and we’re running through a crowd of supporters, some holding signs. A cute twenty-something brunette holds a sign, “Why do the cute ones always run away?”
Her friend holds one with fluorescent lettering, “Worst parade ever.”
A nerdy looking male holds up a whiteboard that says, “Only inches to go.” Below he’s calculated exactly how many inches remain for the marathoners, who still have 18 miles ahead of them.
The course turns down another road, spilling us out into an industrial wasteland, dilapidated warehouses and mounds of dirt. I run by mile marker eight and for the first time my legs feel heavy. My thoughts turn to anticipating the miles ahead and I’m nattering doubt to myself. Then I remind myself about joy. My body unclenches a little.
The half marathon is made up of moments, and I am trying to pay attention to each one that comes my way. While forcing fun is an oxymoron, bounding ourselves with unpleasant thoughts guarantees we won’t experience joy. Engaging in the present allows us to be open and spontaneous and seize all the happy moments that come our way.
A man flies by me. A spectator calls out, “Top ten marathoner.” The half and full courses overlap for the next mile of the course. I gape at the speed at which his legs turn over, the pure grace of his body propelling him forward. I can’t see his face, he sped by so quickly, but he is beautiful and my heart flutters from witnessing his raw energy. Then another marathoner speeds past me. My own running feels light and effortless.
The marathon course takes a turn and the half marathon continues the last couple miles toward the finish past a waterfront park. I drink up the scenery, the gradations of blue and green a relief on my eyes after the bleak miles behind me. I run with my eyes glued to the horizon. Some say staring at the horizon releases endorphins. Others swear that salt in the air cures ailments. Whatever it is, I’m feeling great.
The crowds get thicker. Someone yells, “nice pace,” which gets me to wondering if there can be a “mean” pace. Thinking about the woman elbowing past me in oblivion, I decide there can be, it’s the pace that pushes us so hard that we stop noticing and caring about the world around us. I high-five everyone with a hand extended and thank them for coming out to support us, trying to exemplify what running a nice pace is all about.
A friend sent me a text before the half, reminding me to smile at the finish, but he didn’t need to. A drummer beats loudly and the crowd cheers. It’s impossible to do anything else but smile. I stretch my arms out in victory.