The Running Fool
It's September 25, 2001, two weeks after the towers fell. Two days ago, I completed my seventh marathon, the Top of Utah, setting a personal record of 4:19. Today I hiked every trail at Bryce Canyon. Every single one of them. I will never be this fit again.
Four months earlier, I ran my sixth marathon, the Avenue of the Giants, and spied a t-shirt on another runner claiming membership in the "50 States Plus One" club. That person had run marathons in all fifty states, plus the District of Columbia. I knew in an instant that this would be my lifelong fitness goal. I already had three states under my belt: Oregon, Washington, and now California. Utah was next. I got home from that trip, and began planning to add another state to my list. Perhaps Arizona, or New Mexico, or even Texas, someplace warm enough for an early spring marathon. I took my usual month off, letting the massive blisters from Bryce Canyon heal, and began easing back into training.
I hadn't gotten many miles under my belt when I noticed something: a very specific tender spot on my left shin. I could run through the pain--endorphins are magical--but it always came back, and over time got worse. Finally I took it to my doctor, had an x-ray, and learned I had a stress fracture.
I'll never know if it was doing two marathons in one year, the gonzo Bryce hiking day, or just my too-big-for-marathoning physique catching up with me. Most likely it was all of the above. Whatever it was that caused this, my distance running career ended on this day in 2001. I've had many attempts at coming back since then, but every time I would start ramping up the miles, an injury would intrude: a possible stress fracture developing, my trick ankle, or my old enemy since 1991, plantar fasciitis. It is clear that I will lucky to run in a marathon ever again, let alone in the 46 states (plus the District of Columbia) still on my running bucket list.
If you knew me in high school or college, you would never guess that I could run a mile without collapsing, let alone 26.2. I was chunky and exercise-averse. I took PE because it was required. As a Scout, I hiked only to the extent required to earn merit badges. My sole exercise was walking, which I did mostly out of necessity, lacking a car of my own. The change came in the summer of 1984. I came home from grad school to begin looking for a teaching job. I had a lot of time to kill, and my parents thought it would be a good idea for me to have a physical, so I want in to be poked and prodded. The doctor compared my vitals to my age, and told me, in no uncertain terms, that I needed to start exercising if I wanted to live to see 40.
So I did. For the first time in my life, I began walking without a geographical goal in mind. By the end of the summer, I was walking for hours at a time. Then it came time to start my abortive first teaching career. I moved to LaGrande, and quickly discovered I wasn't going to have time to cover the distance I had while unemployed. I wanted to continue burning calories, and improving my cardiopulminary health, but I wasn't going to have two to three hours a day for a long walk. It struck me then that I could accomplish the same fitness goals in less time if I were to transition to running, rather than walking. Over the next two months, I systematically worked running intervals into my walks, until I was able to run for 30 minutes without interruption. Then winter hit (it comes early in the high desert), and I was abruptly dismissed from my teaching job. I moved to Salem, began subbing, and as soon as weather permitted, returned to running on the trails of lovely Bush Park, next door to my apartment building. When I moved to Dallas, I explored the city by continuing to systematically add to the lengths of my workouts, going a block further each day. I ran in my first race in 1987, a 5K in Robinson, Illinois, finishing in 20:58. My first marathon was in Stoke-on-Trent in 1989, as was my second, the following year. Subsequent marathons came in 1995 (Portland, my post-divorce race), 1999 (Seattle, also a post-divorce race), 2000 (Portland again), and 2001 (Avenue of the Giants and Top of Utah).
Starting with my fourth marathon, I added a brief pre-race ritual: lined up with hundreds or thousands of people, sorted by estimated pace, waiting for the moment when my cohort could cross the starting line, I would say to myself, "What a bunch of crazy people!" I loved the atmosphere of the marathon, the sense that, except for the elites in the front of the pack, all of us were really competing against ourselves, and were simultaneously there to support each other in this endeavor. I loved the friendliness of the people lining the street, their eagerness to support not just whichever family member they were there for, but every runner on the course, and especially of the locals who were there just to watch the race: children sticking out their hands for high fives, people handing out orange slices, people holding hoses and offering to spray any runners in need of a cool-down.
In my second British marathon, as in my first, I delighted in the very English cheers of "Nicely run, lad!" In my first, I had lost steam at thirteen miles, and spent the second half of the race taking progressively longer walking breaks. This time I resolved not to walk at all (I had not yet hit on the method of walking for a minute each mile, usually at a water stop), and did well until mile 20, that point in the race traditionally called the Wall. It's where the body exhausts all its stored carbohydrate energy, and has to switch to burning fat--a transition that sucks the life out of a runner. After three hours of non-stop running, I found myself facing an excruciatingly long climb (the course in Stoke is all rolling hills), and slowed to a crawl. As is often the case at the beginning of the race, I had gone out too fast, and had not given myself the breaks I needed to keep my pace under control. For the next six miles I paid for that newby choice, only managing to increase my pace to a run on downhills. By the time I reached mile 25, the roadside fans were thinning out, the anonymous cheers of "Nicely run, lad" had lost their power to cheer me, and I felt utterly alone, one miserable face amid the thousands out on that hot, humid day. I had hoped to run the last mile, but now I came very close to giving up, and slowed to my most defeated-feeling walk of the race. Then, up ahead, I saw a small cluster of spectators with a newspaper. I noticed one of them staring at me, then saying something to the others, one of whom haltingly called out, "Go, Bettinger-Anderson!" (Hopeless liberal that I was, and still am, I had hyphenated my name when I married. And it seems the local paper had printed the names of every entrant, along with their race numbers, in that morning's edition.) That was all I needed. I picked up my feet, began to run, and as I passed the group, I called out, "Thanks for the name!" "Oh, you're American?" one of them called back, and as one, they began singing, "Oh, say can you see, by the dawn's early light..."
I didn't slow again until I crossed the finish line.
I have run through the hardest times of my life. When I have not been able to run due to injury, illness, or out of an exagerrated sense of household responsibility (My shoes are on, but the baby's awake! I can't run now; my wife needs her sleep!), I have experienced a growing level of stress, and a disconnection with myself, that were ultimately alleviated only by a return to running. The choice to run has always been a choice to embrace life. Even when everything else in my life is turning to dross, running charges me with optimism and energy.
As I said above, in recent years I have had to severely curtail my running to avoid further injury. In fact, I am just now easing my way back into running after taking a year off due to my transition to the barefoot style. I moved to quickly to shift from the fasciitis-inducing rearfoot strike I had always used. Midfoot running solved that problem--my problem arch has given me no trouble at all since I made the change--but also put stress on other tendons, to the point that it was becoming difficult to walk. Now I'm using a more cushioned minimalist shoe, making sure I don't run two days in a row, and it's feeling wonderful. It helps that, in the interim, I took up bicycling, which I have come to love almost as passionately as running. And then there's hiking, which, especially since beginning my relationship with Amy, has become an activity I cannot experience often enough. And don't forget snow-shoeing (which we discovered together) and cross-country skiing (which Amy finally tried in earnest last winter, and now can't get enough of). We are outdoor recreation fools. It feeds us spiritually, emotionally, physically, and there is no fatigue that feels as good as that we experience as we drag ourselves into a brewpub for our post-recreation pint.
In 2001, I was regularly doing track workouts in which I ran ten 800 meter intervals, each in four minutes or less. That's five miles at sub-8 minute pace. Just running flat-out on the track, without overly straining myself, I frequently managed sub-7 minute miles. In that last marathon, my average pace was 9:54. These days I'm lucky to break 12 minute pace on a fast day. But I'm not complaining. It is such a gift just to be outside, even on a lousy drenching day, my feet falling into that delightful, soothing, energizing rhythm, the running fool going up and down hills, vibrantly alive and deliriously happy.