|(This is not that. Thank God I have no photos|
from the race I describe in this post. But I
wanted to use a photo - so there)
I sat down today to try and write a short story about an impactful experience from running in college. But all that would come out was a very explicitly non-fiction account of this day in my life. It was though writing about it was not enough. And so here is this weird account of my last collegiate cross-country race. It ended up really being my last collegiate race ever as an unforeseen injury kept me from racing my last track season. Hopefully it’s not too… whatever.
“Why do you run?”
It was always the question. Always. Never more often than when running a race but then it would come from myself instead. All the pain would add up to one singular question, “Why do you run?” Sometimes it would alter to, “Why do you run you idiot?”
The question had never been shouted louder than it was on that day. It was the last cross-country race of my college career. I had done everything to ensure it would be the best race of my life. But there I was, trying to run, and my body would simply not respond. It wouldn’t even respond in the slightest and I slowed to what I’m sure what a training run pace. How could my body rebel like this at the most important race of my life?
I knew what the issue was of course. I wasn’t sick. I wasn’t injured. It was something else altogether.
As we were warming up for the race, just like hundreds before, some of the girls from our team came up with fear stricken faces and asked in a super serious tone, “Have you seen Monica?” (I have changed the name to my favorite friends character at the moment.) A few short words divulged that my girlfriend had disappeared during their race. I always hated it when the girls ran first for about ten reasons but they had just given me a brand new one. A disappearing girlfriend.
“Ok guys this is it. Let’s roll,” I said to my team mates around me. We had just reached the agreed upon point in our race where our entire team would surge forward, running as a pack to take down the competition. They started with a jump and began moving forward. What the hell? Unresponsive legs. I watched as my younger brother and the guys an forward, leaving me behind. One anxious look from Bryan was all he could afford. “Stick to the plan!” I shouted. “Go!” I heard him beckon me on but in horror I watched while they ran forward and I actually slowed down.
“Go legs, go!” I shouted internally to myself. Nothing. No response. Just a grinding silence. The only feeling was some distant thought of uselessness. Never before had running felt to me the way it did to all those people who always asked me why I ran. Their faces usually a mix of disgust and disbelief. Running is what people do for punishment, not for fun. But in that moment I could feel my inner self looking at me in disgust and disbelief.
Why was running so hard to understand? I always understood there were more fun things to do. I myself would have preferred to play hockey on any given day, but there was no way on this planet I was going to play hockey in college. Then it was explained to me that running might actually be a way to not only go to college but to get it paid for. What? People would pay for your college tuition if you just ran fast enough? And so I had been fortunate enough to accidentally find myself getting calls from college coaches. Would I like to run in college?
The real problem was not understanding the people who asked me why I ran. I always got why they asked. What I didn’t understand was their inability to see why I was doing it. College! Hello it’s ridiculously expensive. The real problem came when I discovered it wasn’t just something I was doing to pay for college anymore.
It just happened one day. I loved to run. Great, now I really was a mysterious bastard who I couldn't even understand. Running, how did this happen?
But it gave me something to focus on and so I ran myself through college. I was able to attend a fantastic school, received an amazing education, and met some of the best people of my life while running those years at college.
The journey to my last cross-country race did not go exactly as I would have hoped. A few major injuries, constant setbacks, and I was nowhere near accomplishing the expectations I had set for myself. Any dreams of running competitively post college were just laughable. Mostly I was just getting tired. Like Bilbo, if you will indulge my nerdy comparison, in his story of carrying the ring too long, after miles of injuries I too felt like jam spread out too thinly on a crust of weary bread.
Yet I had given my damned best to being the fastest runner I could be at Samford. I did the rehab. I sat in freezing whirlpools of icy water. I endured the workouts Coach McWaters had given us. And despite being immensely disappointed over my progress - times and accomplishments - I felt I had given myself wholly to reaching my goals. I just had not reached them.
This race though, this race was different. It was my last chance to show myself and anyone else who cared who I was as a collegiate runner on the cross-country course. Well it was supposed to be different.
My legs had refused to work. Apparently a missing person could not be dislodged from my internal purpose for living and in this case running. After the girls had talked to me the guys on my team took me aside and told me to shake it off. My face must have given away all of what I was thinking. I understood their concern. This race mattered to them as well.
And I had done my duty. I stood on the line next to them, trying to feel confident and let them see it. I had internally told myself to shut the hell up and refocus on the race at hand. “Everything is ok. It has to be. What could possibly happen to someone at a cross-country race?” Monica will be fine and now it is time to run.
So why did my legs just refuse to work that day? Why did it all go to shit? Shame is what I remember. Pure shame. It didn’t matter that my body would not respond. I had spent endless hours making sure it would respond. This was not anyone’s fault but my own.
The worst was the faces of those who cheered me on. They had no idea what to say and their faces showed concern beyond their ability to hide it. Concern? I knew what they were thinking. Each one of them was thinking, “What the hell is wrong with Brett?” “I don’t know guys,” was all I could think. I remember my friend Micah’s face most clearly. He must have decided it was his purpose for moment in time to snap me out of whatever funk I was in at the time. He appeared at multiple places on the course cheering me on and saying what I needed to hear. But his voice didn’t work any better than my own.
How I finished that race I will never know. It was beyond the shadow of a doubt the worst race of my life. What was supposed to be one last amazing hurrah as I qualified for the division one national collegiate championship had ended as one giant embarrassing disgrace.
I crossed the finish line confused and ashamed. They had found my missing girlfriend as it turned out. She had been having a bad race herself that day, and when she dropped out of the race she had decided to punish herself by running off into the woods as fast as she could.
What? More confusion settled on me like an invisible blanket that only seemed to make me feel more nakedly exposed to everyone around me. Sorry coach. Sorry team. Sorry mom. Sorry dad. Sorry Micah. Sorry to the multiple other friends who came to watch. I don’t know what to say.
I stood there trying to figure out what to do, what to say. I started taking off my racing spikes when I realized how stupid that seemed to me. I leaned to steady myself on a tree, feeling as though I might faint. Anger swelled up within me - so much unbridled and ferocious raw anger.
I looked at the tree. I looked at my girlfriend. I looked at my mother. Shit… All I wanted to do was punch that tree until I could not longer punch anymore. But somehow I did not start punching anything. And somehow I could not turn to seek solace with that girl. Worse, I somehow went on auto pilot and as if to show the entire world how desperately ashamed I felt, I leaned into my mother and just started crying.
This was not the end. Well it wasn’t an ending I was prepared for anyway. Why do I run? So my hopes can be shattered on the rocks of my own complete inability to perform as I cried like a three year old in his mother’s arms. This was bullshit. Unexplainable bullshit that I had heaped on all those I cared about.
There have been many years of running spent trying to correct the failures of past races, almost as though those races can be erased by new heroic running feats - well new feats anyway. Total nonsense of course. Not only will I never be as physically or mentally strong as I was then, but I know I can only look forward at new finish lines that are in no way connected to any one that came previously. Nothing done now can ever change a moment in time where I shied away from pain or whatever this particular moment can even be described as.
Does that stop my mind from looking back on races past? No. Does it stop my inner runner from thinking of these things as I plod down the road now, imaging I am running way faster and somehow with enough effort I could surpass my twenty-two year old self as an aging thirty-six year old? No.
I wept. I wept in front of my guy and girls. I wept as people from other teams walked past without even bothering to look at the guy who did not just qualify for nationals. I wept because otherwise I was going to beat the hell out of a tree or shout at my college girlfriend about what you’re supposed to do if you drop out of a race. I wept because it was the only thing I could do.
I have plenty of ideas as to where the other options would have taken me. I wept because I love running and somehow I had failed to run.
Why do I run? I still love to run. I still disappoint the every living crap out of myself every time I lace up my shoes. But mostly I love to run because none of that matters. Yes running can kick me squarely right in the pants, but when I can stop being a diva with running goals that do not really matter at all, I can relax. I can just enjoy. I can look back and say maybe it’s a good thing that I couldn’t run when a person I cared about was missing. Who the hell would I be if I was that person anyway?
Why do you run? Today I'm a guy running after a manditory month off for healing post gall bladder removal. It's not pretty. It's not fast. But damn it if I'm not out there on the roads still putting one foot in front of the other. I might be an injury ridden son of a gun, but I'm still out there getting it done, albeit slowly. I hope you are too! It seems it matters way more how we run, than how fast we run.