"You don't run against a bloody stop watch, do you hear? A runner runs against himself, against the best that's in him. Not against a dead thing of wheels and pulleys. That's the way to be great, running against yourself. Against all the rotten mess in the world. Against God, if you're good enough." - Bill Persons
I ran the Cleveland Marathon this past Sunday in 3:30:12. It was my fifth marathon, and my best one yet. It was also my fastest, but that's not what I mean by my best. It was my best, in part because it was my most honest. I mapped out a training schedule in February, and I stuck with it. I pushed when it was time to push, and I eased up when it was time for that. I recognized my weak points. I considered outside advice. I tried new things. And as the training period came to a close, I made an honest assessment of my physical condition and I set my race day expectations high, yet realistic. But most of all this race was my best because, for the three and a half hours that I was on that course, I never lost sight of why I run in the first place.
I've been running for three years now. I started the process in May of 2008 because I wanted to run a race with my dad. He's been running for as long as I can remember, and when he told me that he was planning to run a Labor Day Weekend race called the Park to Park 10 Miler in Denver, I decided that I'd do it with him. I figured I had all summer to train, and if my 66 year old dad could run 10 miles, then I should be able to do it at half that age.
I struggled through the first couple of months. I was forty pounds overweight. I'd spent most of my adolescence and my adult years, eating fast food, drinking heavily, and smoking nearly a carton of cigarettes per week. And though I'd been free of the cigarettes for four years at that point, and had also made significant improvements concerning what I ate and how much I drank, my body was still feeling the effects of years of abuse and neglect.
But in July things began to change. Even though the days were getting hotter and the runs were getting longer, my body began to grow comfortable with the process. My mind still lagged behind though. It was a struggle mentally, to get myself out there day in and day out. And had I not already told my dad that I'd be running that race with him, I don't think I'd have stuck with it.
But I did stick with it. I had a five mile route that I ran/walked roughly five days a week. And as the days passed, I kept running more and walking less. And then the day finally came. I turned off of Halsted and onto 21st, and stared at the last few blocks of the route, having not walked once. And as the excitement of that accomplishment filled me, I broke into a dead sprint for that final stretch. (Or what counted as a dead sprint for me at that point in my brief running experience.)
I finished that run a different person than I was when I started it. For the first time, I had no doubts about whether I'd actually run the race. And I was equally certain that I'd keep running on my own, once the race had passed. Something finally clicked. My mind caught up to my legs, and I was in love. I'd spent most of the first 34 years of my life giving up on things in all areas of my life. But this was different. I committed myself to a long term goal that was mentally and physically difficult, and that I was afraid of, and I was seeing it through.
A couple of months after the 10 Miler, I ran my first half-marathon in Detroit. A few months after that, I ran my first full 26.2 miles in Austin. And the process has continued since then. I run most days. Sometimes I just take off without knowing where I'll go, or how fast or how far. I just let the run become whatever it is. Other days I'm more focused on a particular goal. I usually know what my next couple of races are, and my runs are often geared towards helping me prepare for those races. I want to make sure that I continue to improve. I want to keep working towards the goal of getting the most that I can from running. And races and clocks are great measuring sticks for those goals. They keep me honest, and they help motivate me to keep moving forward.
But the clock itself is not the goal. The process is the goal. The movement, the challenge, and the struggle are the goal. Being aware of myself and my place in the world is the goal. Growth is the goal.
It can be difficult to remember that. Like life in general, running is full of obstacles, distractions, and mirages. There are also times when help or rest are necessary. And there are times when it can be hard to tell those things apart. Mistakes will be made. Efforts will come up short. I'll never be anything close to perfect.
But there will also be days like last Sunday. Days when I climb over those obstacles, pass the distractions, and recognize the mirages for what they are. On days like that I don't feel perfect, but I feel perfectly in tune with what I am. In that moment I feel every muscle in my body. Every thought in my head is clear and free. I am aware of the breath that I inhale from the world, and of the breath that I exhale back into it. I am aware of the process.
It's a beautiful thing to experience. And it's tempting to try to stay there. But the world keeps spinning, and staying in one moment won't keep me or that moment alive. I'm going to hold onto to it for just a little bit longer though. I want to savor it a bit more. But soon I'm going to set it down and move on. I've got so many more races to run.