It’s not quite been a year since my friend Buck dared me to run the LA Marathon with her.
It had been almost 30 years since I last ran in earnest. For 20 of those 30 years I’d lived a life someone else described as a “bad Larry Clark photograph”.
I emerged from it all relatively unscathed, aside from a mild case of Hep-C and a seemingly unshakable sense of vague but powerful dissatisfaction.
As soon as I started training, spending hours at a time on my feet, 30 – 40 miles a week, pushing myself harder and having to learn how to really listen to my body (something I really didn’t need to do when I was an indestructible 19 year old), that vague dissatisfaction started to go away, at least for the duration of a run, and maybe even the day around it. I was doing something that I truly loved rather than trudging through one thing after another with indifference. Best of all, my runs were not at all dependent on other people. It was awesome.
The goal at the time was to run a marathon before I turned 50. I did it with a month to spare. Buck decided she was done. I decided I was just getting started. I ran another two months later down in San Diego. The week after that, a trail half marathon with my friend B.B.
B.B. was a newbie runner who embraced running zealously. She’s one of those enthusiastic people who approaches everything new to her with an evangelical zeal, which can cause problems because zealotry is not something you can apply to all your affairs. It just takes too much time and energy. For folks like B.B., enthusiasms have to wax and wane. I gave running 3 months.
There are enthusiasms, and then there are needs.
B.B. needed a man.
B.B. felt undefined without a boyfriend. Without definition, she floundered around a bit for something that she might be able to use as an identity. Running was one of those things. It was obvious, though, that nothing was going to replace a man. Having a man to rush home to, having a man to share every minute with, finding a love that merges two identities into one, that’s what B.B. needed.
As long as B.B. was looking for a man, there would be room for some of her enthusiasms, like running. Once she found one, her focus would be entirely on love and making the relationship work, and there would be no room for anything not necessary for survival. Once things were secure and possession seemed assured, she’d be able to relax a bit and engage again in some of those enthusiasms.
I need to come clean about my skepticism regarding love. Love in the modern sense – romantic love – is a sort of obsessive, possessive, selfish emotion that seems antithetical to the selfless, unconditional, spiritual love that Trappist monk Thomas Merton writes so beautifully about in his book “No Man Is An Island”. There’s even an awkward new psychological term for this selfish, obsessive love. It’s called “Limerence”, which is in part described as a set of reactions that occur “where misperceptions meet adversity in the context of a romance.” It’s not a beautiful, selfless, forever kind of love, but fearful, possessive, selfish, obsessive, sometimes angry, often ecstatic, panicked, over-the-top…pretty much everything that love should not be.
Whatever you call it, I’ve never seen any long term good come out of it.
Here’s what this has to do with running:
It is, in large part, what I run from.
An old high school friend who now lives in Eureka, told me about the Redwoods marathon and offered a place to stay. It sounded great: Redwoods is a small marathon (300 entrants) done by the same crew who put on Avenue of the Giants in the spring; it’s beautiful, it would be a chance to visit with an old friend, and the timing was right as far as training goes.
B.B. decided she wanted to join me (although I had not yet committed to the race). She paid her entry fee and got her bib number. Meanwhile, I injured myself. I was off my feet for a month. B.B. found her soulmate and had to stop training. Love conquered everything.
Here’s what else this has to do with running: Almost without exception, I feel trapped whenever I have to depend on someone & even more trapped when someone is depending on me. (Romance is particularly exhausting. I am far too vague and impractical, it seems, although I cannot think of anything more vague and impractical than romantic love.) I’m a bit hypervigilant about what I perceive as danger; this comes from a childhood that seemed to have an abundance of it. Loud, sudden noises, emotions, or movements make me jump.
Growing up I witnessed brutality and was told it was love. I witnessed fear and was told it was love. My very first experiences of love were as a witness to a love that could turn on a dime. I saw those dynamics play themselves out over and over with different people and in different ways, and by the time I was old enough for it I knew I wanted to break the cycle of violence, which meant break the cycle of that thing that everyone called love.
Alone on a narrow trail cresting a hill, storm clouds all above me, wind whipping through the grass, 6 miles in to a 12 mile run, with all the city and all the people and all their “love” way down below where none of it can get to me, that’s when I feel free. I’m there alone, I got up there alone, I’ll get back down alone, I’ve got enough water, my legs feel great, and I really don’t need anyone, that’s when I feel free.
Right around this time last year, the idea was to run a marathon before I turned 50. Now, with my slightly obsessive desire for symmetry, it becomes important to run some 50s while I’m still 50. Ultras sound more and more attractive. It just seems to me that 50K through the high desert in December with 300 other runners is going to be much more freeing than 26 miles through the city with 25,000 other runners. 50 miles along the American River near Sacramento 12 days before I turn 51 sounds like a great idea, too. Both are new challenges, in that I’ve never run a race of either distance.
There’s something about the world of ultras that seems particularly appealing.
For some runners I know it’s all about speed and winning or at least beating your friends and that sort of competitiveness that brings back unpleasant memories of my own track-and-field days. I was a great runner, but my mental game consisted of nothing but fear, and I hate going back there.
Ultra folks are a different crowd. Every ultra runner I know seems in part to be running from something. Every ultra runner I know seems to be haunted by some sort of personal demons. Every ultra runner I know seems to find the same sort of freedom I look for and often find when I’m all alone on those hills.