This weekend I ran my sixth half marathon at the 30th Regensburg Marathon. After a break of several years, I’m back to long-distance running. Though I call myself a runner, I’m firmly in hobby territory with this and all other sports.
I was not an athletic kid – on Friday nights you’d find me at football games, but in the marching band. I tried playing tennis with my brothers and parents, but didn’t quite get the whole hand-eye coordination thing. Growing up at 7,000 feet elevation might have given me an edge, had I tried running longer than a mile and a half, but my identity as a nerdy non-athlete was firmly entrenched in my mind. In college, I ran infrequently and never more than 3-4 miles. My athletic participation was limited to yelling at bigger and stronger people to row me around a lake (crew coxswain for the win) and leisurely biking between campus and home.
After I graduated, I moved to France to teach English for a year and quickly found that working only 18 hours a week (in a pre-smartphone world) left me with a lot of time on my hands. I started running more often, sometimes up to three times a week. My routes took me through industrial areas and residential neighborhoods and I began to appreciate running’s ability to cover lots of ground, but at a slow enough pace to notice the smell of cherry blossoms in spring or the reflection of a sunset in a puddle. It was also the perfect activity to allow me to process the ups and downs of culture shock and living overseas, ruminating on whatever situation I had experienced while my body swung in a comfortable rhythm with my feet hitting the pavement.
I moved back to the US and eventually to Washington, D.C., a city full of type A people who embody the “work hard, play hard” philosophy. It was infectious and I found myself running gradually longer distances, gaining more motivation and energy the farther I went. A colleague offered me a spare spot in a local half marathon and upon completing those 13.1 miles, I was hooked. It felt like I could do anything, after so many years of thinking I could only ever manage the occasional 10K race. Why not try twice the distance, I thought, blithely planning a visit to a friend in Santiago, Chile, to run the Maraton de Santiago.
After finishing that first marathon at age 25, I became a running fanatic, training for 2-3 marathons each year and dreaming of running a marathon in each of the 50 states and on each continent. (Apologies to anyone who had to endure me constantly talking about running during that time.) I had a community of running friends and we competed in all kinds of races, including relays where 12 of us would basically live together in vans for 30 hours as our team covered 200 miles.
My times were never fast and my training plans were more of a suggestion than a rigorous regimen that I followed to the letter. But, for the first time in my life, I was pursuing a sport with a level of intensity and dedication that I’d never experienced before. Even moving to Seattle to start graduate school didn’t stop me, as several of my fellow social work students and I trained for marathons together. It was perfect – we’d go for long runs on the weekend where we could also enjoy each other’s company AND have a mutual therapy session.
Gradually, as post-graduate school life became more complicated and my work became more challenging, all the energy and motivation I needed for 20-mile runs drained away. Rather than being an outlet for stress and a source of pride in what my body could accomplish, training for long races was just one more item on my long list of tasks that I needed to check off. I also found that my 30-year-old body responded differently than it had 5 years earlier, forcing me to be more conscientious about stretching, cross-training, and otherwise caring for my muscles, tendons, and the rest of the body that I expected to run 26.2 miles.
Gradually, I reduced the number of races and then stopped, no longer feeling the urge that had compelled me to run hundreds of miles in both training and racing. Then came a trans-Atlantic move and a global pandemic. Before I knew it, 5 years had passed since my last marathon and half-marathon.
I finally started to feel some excitement about running during the initial COVID lockdown. With less going on in the world, I had more energy to expend and the slower pace of life reminded me of those runs in France, where I had started to appreciate the perspective running gave me (both literally and figuratively). I started running without a goal in mind, no race to train for, just running for its own sake. I explored the green river valley where our village lies and sometimes made it all the way back up the hill that leads to our house without stopping.
Eventually, life started to open back up, but I kept running and when I saw that our local marathon was back after its pandemic hiatus, I was curious to see if I could still manage 13.1 miles (or 21 kilometers for any non-Americans) and if I would enjoy it as much as I used to. My training was fairly relaxed – I didn’t have any time or pace goals and my previous experience has given me the mental training to be able to just keep running for 2 or more hours.
As I neared the finish line last Sunday, I felt a familiar sense of accomplishment that I hadn’t experienced for more than 5 years. My body was tired, but in a satisfying way, and it felt great to know that it’s still capable of doing something so simple, yet challenging. While I haven’t yet signed up for another half or full marathon, I’m confident that there are more to come.