on The Run

One of the side projects this year has been training for a marathon. This is relevant as well as pragmatic. “Learning” to run — whatever that might mean — is on the list of things I’m trying to understand. Maybe more important, I didn’t really understand how I could train for this in the midst of a regular class schedule. I know that people do it, but this just allowed for one fewer complication.

My relationship with running is relatively short. I’d long thought that running was pointless. And I’m inclined still to agree with anyone who has this opinion. But a few things happened: Karyn started to run, I found that my own running cleared my head, and the fault line at the edge of the basin and range left a collection of mountains and valleys right up the street from my home. (I doubt I would run if it weren’t for mountain trails.) I ran a 5K and thought that was far enough. The next year, a 10K on the trails. And then there was a half marathon, and then another on trails in southern Utah canyons and plateaus. And after each of these, I felt just like I did at the end of the 5K: That’s far enough. And then I saw sabbatical coming, and now at the end of said sabbatical, I’m bracing for “The Run.”

For the past several months I’ve been planning to use running as a most basic model for how we learn to do new things; it’s supposed to be the first slide in the whole sabbatical report. In order to learn to run, you simply run more. Want to run farther? Run more. Faster? Run more. With more efficiency? Run more. One of the appeals of running is that you learn it by doing it. Don’t read the magazines and the webpages and the training programs. Running teaches running.

That’s what I thought until last week. That’s when I realized that I really don’t know what I’m doing. (With this last minute realization, running a marathon is stupidly similar to parenting, or, for that matter, my entire career.)

The issue is that this distance is some distance beyond a known horizon. It’s off an edge of a flat world and I don’t understand where that’s going to take me. People talk about “the wall” and about the mental aspects and about the pacing. After running a 30K (almost 19 miles) training race, I recognized that my body was at the point where it was going to start flashing warning lights and letting the exhaust pipe drag on the pavement. I realized that I didn’t know what I was going to do to run farther.

I still don’t know.

I’ve gotten ideas about eating. I’m “tapering,” the place in the training where you run less, ridiculously so. (I ran two miles last night and this is supposed to be enough.) I’m trying to figure out what to do to and with my body during hour one so that I can predict what it will do three hours later. This is where simply running more doesn’t suffice. I actually had to start to imagine a plan, a strategy involving a mental map, nutrients, pace, terrain, and the like. And yet I still have only foggy visions of how this is going to go.

I won’t know if the plan, the training, the idea that running teaches running, or anything else is going to work until after I’ve pushed myself to that point of breakdown and failure. That thought alone had me reeling and spending most of a day researching “pacing” and “carb loading” and various other grasps at answers. (For what it’s worth, The Oatmeal probably has the most realistic portrayal of the entire ordeal.) It’s all a giant unknown, this thing that I’d thought was so straightforward. So, I guess I just need to get on the school bus in the dark, have them drop me off 26 godforsaken miles away, and see how I make my way back.

Armed with only a few well chosen snacks in my pockets and a playlist readied to pull me from a dark moment, it seems like the odds are against me. But I started to remember advice a friend gave when I first started running: If you aren’t seeing zombies, you’re doing okay. If you do start seeing zombies, it either means that you’re hallucinating or, worse, there’s actually zombies. The upside is that, real or not, they might be the last bit of motivation I need to finish.