Former 2:24 marathoner, now in my late 40s and hoping to maximally flatten the curve of my slide into senescence and mediocrity • Magazine writer, book editor and author, and commentator on the sport of distance running since 1999 • Adviser and confidant of other perambulators • Paradoxical hater of exercise fanatics • Chihuahua whisperer Sentence-fragment impresario

Monday, November 26, 2018

Through a lens of morbidity and decay

In the course of searching for something else -- and most good Internet stories can be traced to such origins, can they not? -- I discovered a Boston Marathon race report from last year written by a New Hampshire runner whose main focus is ultras. I was struck by the unlikely density of semi-apocalyptic physical problems she reported people in her midst experiencing before and during the race:

"Halfway through the ride a guy started puking loudly into a ziplock bag."

"The officer basically gave him two options, get in the cruiser or pee in his pants." 

"Somewhere between miles 5 and 6 someone shit their pants and it was running down their leg. Then right in front of me someone collapsed, unconscious."

"People were crapping themselves and vomiting profusely."

"I felt something wet on my left leg and realized a guy to the left of me pulled out his crank along the right side of his shorts and started peeing while running.  I was getting a golden shower, it was nasty!"

And the coup de grace:

"People were scraping their ass cracks with the stick and covering it with poop and tossing the poop covered sticks on the ground."

All of this supposedly unfolded even before the halfway point in Wellesley.

I have my doubts about the veracity of most of this, entertaining though it is to read. But to me the point isn't so much the report's accuracy as it is the author's almost triumphant emphasis on sordidness in various manifestations. While I can't imagine writing a marathon recap so heavy on irrelevant scatological details (it's one thing to mention your own uncooperative innards, but this runner's focus on the struggles of strangers is different), I can appreciate the framing of a race, a workout, or running in general as an oppressive shitfest. I believe that this writer was conveying her dissatisfaction with not reaching her goal and the overall stress inherent in pursuing something meaningful by trying to sully the whole experience almost beyond recognition with shit-talk.

I've been energetically cynical about my running at various times, even when I was in my best form. But I have developed an even more pronounced "glass half full...of piss and shit" attitude since returning to the running world in earnest about a year and a half ago, when I ran a bona fide race for the first time since Christ was the leader of the free world. That turned out to be my only race in 2017; this year I've done a few more, and all have served to underscore the fact that I am never going to be even moderately competent at this again, not that my best says were anything to celebrate. As I have mentioned many times here, people of a more robust constitution can tolerate their own age-driven physical deterioration with relative ease and still enjoy competing. I more or less wasted about 20 years of my life because of recurrent and increasingly worse drinking interspersed with periods in which I managed to accomplish a few satisfying, if unremarkable, things. As a result, since sobering up for good (I officially entered my third year without booze on Thanksgiving), I have expected far more out of myself than I have been able to extract at every point. Knowing that I was making steady progress under an excellent coach in a positive group setting wasn't enough, because all I have really been able to see in looking at my performances are the points in each of the few races I've done in the last year and a half where I backed off in a way I never would have done in the past and just lamed it on in. That's both inexcusable and excoriating.

The only way I can enjoy running right now is to remove as much context as possible from the experience. Despite taking an official sabbatical from "training" starting about five weeks ago, I was going to run a 5K here in town on Thanksgiving and see what a month of daily 3- to 4-mile runs with my dog, usually at a quick-ish pace, would yield. But when I got up that morning, I realized that I was only inviting mental static. I knew I would get out there and start telling myself I was only in it to celebrate my "anniversary" and that my time didn't matter and that I'd see some friends to start the morning and blah blah blah, but I also knew this would quickly turn to half-jogging through the second half of the race and holding myself in contempt for the rest of the day, probably longer. I didn't like having thrown away $40 on a bib, but I rationalized this by telling myself it was good to support Lee Troop's races because he, the polar opposite of the shitbirds who operate the mass events I disparaged recently, does a very good job with them and makes them affordable in the bargain. While it's true that I am happy to have made a de facto donation to this cause, it's still asinine to sign up for a race on the last possible day and then skip out on it.

I like taking Rosie all over town for half-hour runs and she plainly enjoys these. She gets visibly fired up when I reach under the bed and haul out the pair of shoes I've worn every day this month. I have no illusions about pretending to care about the various physical benefits of exercise, but running makes me a marginally more focused, creative and generous person, so as long as I continue to stain the planet with my obnoxious existence, I will keep doing it at a modest level and aim to resist the temptation of upping the ante. Being a recreational runner after many years of being competitive and logging 100-mile weeks really is, I suspect, a lot like trying to go from being a blackout vodka drinker to tipping a couple of beers a couple of times a week.

You might ask (although probably not, since you rightly don't give a fuck) why I even maintain a running blog and talk about competitive running if I am so goddamn weary of being a weak-minded pile of shit and so on. Why not just shut the fuck up and do my daily constitutionals without broadcasting any of this?

That would be a fair question (not, as I mentioned, that you asked) but it's not quite that simple. I have no desire to escape the world of sanctioned running per se. Although coaching and writing about running now represent a small fraction of my professional life, I like working with others who are as driven as I once was, following high-school results and appreciating the efforts and successes of my running friends both local and dispersed. I just haven't figured out how to compartmentalize my thinking here. But in taking small steps, like crowing about not going to a race three miles away on a perfectly nice fall day because I just didn't feel like fucking another thing up, I may be slowly getting there.

As long as I provide myself with constant reminders that I have no business feigning being even a facsimile of an athletic specimen, and fix my utter lack of human worth squarely in the center of my conscious mind at all times. I won't regret ever having been nudged onto the path of being a distance runner 34 years ago, and I will remain a beacon of bliss and contentment.

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