How to Be a Runner
Decide you want to run. To be healthy. To feel good about yourself again. To do something active that requires your full attention. To have an excuse to be outside and get in touch with nature. Because you have no excuse not to. Because it’s the only time you can think anymore. Because you want to be a runner.
There’s nothing to it: “You have a runner’s legs,” your mother says. Imagine that a runner’s legs are long, skinny giraffe legs, and prod your thick thighs with your fingertips.
Join a cross country team to give yourself structure. To run, you need to train. A runner is diligent, persistent, practices a daily routine. Make a schedule so you can keep up with the pack. One mile the first day, two miles the second. You have to prepare to join a team. You can’t even run a mile yet—when you can’t keep up, what will happen? Don’t wait to find out. Each week on the schedule progresses in difficulty for three months until you should be able to run an easy five or six miles. Three months until you can join.
You don’t make it to five or six miles. Without the guidance of a coach, your best is a slow three. Sweat runs down your back as you hyperventilate after failing to run three miles two and a half months into your routine. Breathing, heaving, you make it into the bathroom and crumple. Tears mix with sweat, and it all dries in a salty crust coating your body. Delay joining the team another week.
The day you join, you make your ponytail perfect: no bumps, no stray hairs. The older members are already gathered at the meeting spot. They talk to each other like close family members: direct eye contact, leaning in close despite the sheen of sweat permanently encasing their foreheads. Realize these people spend most of their lives together—at least two hours a day. This is their social life—they don’t have the time or energy for anyone who is not on the team. Feel thudding pressure in your chest, and a burning sensation in your core. Engage in small talk; connect. Try to be a part of it all. Then when the guy on your right says something crass, blush. He’ll respond, “Oh, did I hurt your virgin ears?”
You learn the stretches in a week. Quads, lunges, ankle rolls, arms (you didn’t think you came here to work out your arms). Run stairs (first try: two at a time; second try: very slowly), run while carrying bricks (too cheap to buy weights), and feel the goddamn burn.
Choose a running buddy on the team. She’s slower than you are, not as prepared because she had no prior training. She’ll make you feel better about the way you run. She does stretches with you in the back and helps you avoid getting to know other people on the team. Whisper encouragements to each other so no one can hear: “It’s okay, we’ll just walk for a minute after this mile; the coaches won’t notice.” When no one’s looking, she convinces you to stop in a nearby building with a vending machine to pick up some snacks. Quickly eat them then jog back with grins on your faces: good run, good run.
Don’t try too hard or you’ll make a fool of yourself. Everyone else does effortless six-minute miles. You do them in a little less than eight on a good day (but on average more like nine). One of the coaches—a skinny, white-haired health guru—takes notice of you when you can’t keep up. He knows how to push you and tells you that walking is not an option. If you walk now, you’ll feel worse when you have to run again later. He jogs in place with you until your lungs stop burning and talks about best running practices. Your stride is not efficient because there’s a real way that runners run that’s different from the natural way your body wants to run. Sprint away as fast as you can when you get the air. Don’t realize the value of his advice until much later.
The team captains are hardcore runners. They have state championship titles and can run a mile in under five minutes. Don’t talk to them. Avert your eyes when they look your way because they’re too powerful. One captain is the shortest person on the team, but he still seems taller than you when he laps you on the course. As he passes, he kicks up dust and raises his hand in a friendly acknowledgement of your presence; you do nothing because you’re already too far behind to respond. Your only focus is “One step at a time,” while his is “Faster, faster.” Learn what a PR (personal record) means to someone who is fully committed to improving. Desire a better personal record for yourself.
Complete a practice race for the first time. Celebrate doing something you thought was impossible two weeks ago. Expect no response from your teammates; they’ve done this before. But they wait for you at the finish line, high five you, slap you on the back like pals. They don’t make jokes about your “virgin ears” now; they congratulate you with a hearty “Fuck yeah!” The short team captain tells you that you’ve accomplished something greater than yourself. Feel like you understand what he means in that moment. You are a runner now.
Before each run, lie down on a scarred bench in the locker room and imagine your course. Go up the hill and shorten your stride, feel it in your thighs, hit the crest, lengthen the stride, speed down the hill to the finish. This is the only time when you’re really running alone – in your head before a race. Walk out of the locker room with a sense of purpose.
Buy the shorts, the $40 short-shorts that have built-in underwear so that you don’t flash everybody while you’re stretching. They stick to your skin when you sweat, and you can feel every fiber grinding against the stubble on your thighs. Wonder who on the team actually wears them without underwear.
You have a pair of running shoes just for races now; they’re called spikes. Like cleats, but the protrusions on the bottoms of the shoes are metal. Yes, you can attach half-inch metal spikes to your shoes. They fit tight and feel like air when you’re running.
Run a 5K with your spikes for the first time, and you can’t feel your feet. At home, after you’ve cooled down for an hour or so, feel your right pinkie toe throb. The shoes come off and the corner of your sock is stained rust red. A layer of skin on your toe has rubbed clean off. Your feet hurt for days while you continue to run. Never wear spikes again.
Your thighs and calves harden, but not enough.
Have dinners with your running buddy and become fast friends over Italian food. Find out she started running because she likes pushing her body to the limit. She has asthma, so each race is a struggle. Every time she finishes, face blotchy and puffy, body wracked with shuddering breaths, she beats her demons. After the first few races, she’s addicted to the feeling—a true runner’s high. Wish you felt the same after running.
Before each race, develop your warm-up routine together, a quick jog around the track. She’s stopped whispering about walking; now, she’s a cheerleader. She won’t let you walk. She’s the conscience on your shoulder telling you that you joined this team for a reason—to be able to call yourself a runner. When she finishes before you, she waits for you at the finish line, even if you’re five minutes slower than the rest.
The biggest race of the season is on the hottest day of the year. Over 100 degrees, and you’re still running. Warm up with your team and your legs feel tight. Get the first signs of a headache, a pinprick in an unreachable corner of your brain. After the start, run slower than you’ve ever run before, and after a mile start to think, “I can’t,” and after another half mile, start to think, “I don’t want to.” Your next realization, “I don’t have to,” comes with a plan.
There’s a dip in the path, so take advantage. Your toe catches, you fall forward (strategically, slightly to the side, out of the way of other runners), you stay down. This is the key part of the plan: stay down. Do not get up until someone gets you. Do not get up or else they’ll think you just tripped. A stranger picks you up and brings you grape Gatorade and asks what happened. Say that you fainted. The heat got to you and your eyes rolled back in your head and you fainted. Find out that people died in the Chicago marathon on the same day. Tell the story about how you fainted in the middle of that race for years because now it’s justified; now no one could question the validity of your fall.
Keep running. Skip a race because you have a pounding headache that stops five hours before the race actually starts. Sit out another because you volunteered to help set up the course. Let your running buddy pass your personal record. Stop sprinting at the ends of races because you haven’t bested your personal record in five weeks and your peak has passed.
The next year, decide to quit the team as soon as you get the training schedule. Feel a moment of hesitation, see the numbers on the page and remember what it felt like to be able to say that you ran a 5K on a daily basis. But then see that within three weeks you’ll be back to that grind, the every day full-body workout that never quits. One rest day a week, less than a full weekend. Quit and savor your full weekends.
Run occasionally, but never more than half a mile. Then stop altogether. The burn was never really worth it anyway.
See your running buddy around. She’s still running, hair slicked back and water bottle at her side. She doesn’t need to slow for you anymore and wait while you pretend to tie your shoe when you’re really trying to grab a second of relief from the insane routine your coaches picked out. Exchange pleasantries, but never reach out to her.
Still talk about running. Give your best friends and random acquaintances advice about training for a 5K or a marathon (even though you’ve never gotten close to running one). Tell stories, talk about the time you fainted in the middle of a race (never admitting the truth), admit how terrible and slow and undedicated you were. Regret that you were never able to appreciate the experience like your running buddy could, that you could never find the right motive for assuming the identity of a runner. Because yes, you assumed the identity, and you still clutch it close to you because you know it meant more than it should have. You will never be a runner again. You will never be able to relive the sensation of a pat on the back from a teammate or the burn of running up a hill at high speed when you’re truly in shape unless you talk about it. And even though you know you could never be a runner now, never let go of that part of your identity, your past, the tiny part of you that will always be a runner.