For years I couldn’t get my head around a marathon. The length felt somehow distorted, logarithmic in trajectory – the first 10 kilometres seemingly normal, but then the distance stretched and dwindled until it may well have been a vertical wall rising into the sky.
I just couldn’t see myself there.
Yet at age 44 I got out of the car in the dark and prepped for a 100 km trail run over three mountains back to my home town. I’d never felt so relaxed before a run, almost too relaxed. The trail was black and impenetrable. I couldn’t see where we were going to go. It was warm in the dark. Some of us were strangers. We stood with our headlamps sweeping and flashing on reflective fabric on packs and jackets and shoes – that’s how I knew them – not by their faces. It was impolite to shine full on someone’s eyes. The lean jaw lines were cut in stark shadow.
“And now we’re all here.” said the leader in the dark.
You could hear the smiles. Then we started running.
I used to be nervous before races. I ran all the time as a kid. I loved the sweat tickling my back with grass shavings, the light fading as a natural deadline. In school I ran track, the longer the better. By university was I hitting 10 and 15km. Through all that I passed the common milestones that make us stop and look around and mark the time: 16 years old, 18, 20, 21. Then the start of vague adulthood when you mark passage with your own achievement, and not by those set by society. I took that seriously, and set myself stepped goals. Those goals were finish lines.
With my friends I entered a half-marathon. I dreamt myself at the end. Wasn’t that the vision that leads us to sign up? In my beginning, I knew nothing but that vision: nothing of training or strategy. I slowed to a crawl the last 3 or 4 km.
No way could I do a marathon.
But there I was on the 100km MitoCanada ultra-marathon. We ran in the dark. An accordion of men, a band, forming together at the junctions then stretching out under the heavy pine boughs. The soft loam trail offered up barely a footfall. The smooth skin of the trembling aspen loomed ghostly white in the lamplight. The forest was motionless, silent. There was just my breathing, the constant steady breathing. Hours of meditative breathing as the ground rolled by like a slow river. Then, all at once, I clattered out onto the rounded rocks of a dry creek bed. The stars made an upside-down world of light and depth against the flat matte of the forest. But all around me crouched the runners, in the dark, saving batteries. Faces turned up to the glory of the creation of the world. At that moment, out there, beyond the forest, were towns and cities and many people sleeping. They did not see this. But someone must notice. Someone must move through the night. Those who can run, must run – they must for those who cannot.
Every one has a mantra. I suppose my earlier ones – promising God things I wouldn’t do again, like party the night before a race – were not so uncommon. In later races it got more personal, promising myself changes in training to better avoid suffering. Out there in the dark with the spilled dust of stars overhead, I had no mantra, just my breath matching my feet, softly slowly always forward.
As a child I had promised myself three goals: to parachute, to run a marathon, to walk on the moon. By my twenties I had fallen from a plane, but the moon felt closer than a marathon. It seemed obscene – the only reason I wanted to do it was to say I’d done it. And that was not a good enough reason.
The thing I kept trying to get back to was this: I loved running. I did it when I needed a break. I wanted to find that joy in my races, but the format – the clocks, the crowds, the short distance, my own competitiveness – all conspired to make me push into a zone of desperation. I knew it would hurt, that it would be a struggle, but somehow that just made it worthwhile. If it was easy, everyone would have done it. Puffing along thinking: almost there, almost there.
But then I was there.
In the swirl of the finish with the ache fading and the breath evening out I would wonder if I could’ve pushed harder. Because it wasn’t hard anymore. The end always came. I would long for the finish line and what I imagined I’d enjoy afterwards – a beer, a hot tub, a lazy day at the lake. But then I’d be there and it wasn’t a revelation, the sun didn’t break the clouds, and angels didn’t sing. It was what it was – no more.
And then in the dark we were there. All together. Winding down off the Powderface ridge in a line through shin-brushing wild grass. A train of lights descending inevitably into the pool of ink that was the valley and along the Powderface trail as the horizon brightened and we appeared to each other, always in motion, as seeing your brother for the first time. We all wanted the sun in a visceral way. Time was different. That morning the sunrise was not assumed, was not inevitable. It was desired and deeply urged. When it came we ran light, like starting fresh, stepping easy on the trails leading up to the sun.
I did my first marathon the way most of us might: a friend invited me. I was 39. My first child was a few months away. This would, I somehow thought, be my last chance. My friend waited until the day before to admit she hadn’t signed up. I was alone in a massive Montreal crowd on the Cartier bridge. The river went past, the streets too. The walls of old concrete and people rolled by. What I needed – I hadn’t learned – so I didn’t have it and when I hit the wall I had no way over. I pleaded for the finish. I grasped for it. Somehow the certainty that it would be done in a matter of minutes didn’t help. Time stalled. I could see the plane trees and dirty stone buildings with long stairs, and all the small areas underneath which I could curl up and sleep.
And then I was there.
Standing in the stadium, open muffled space, legs wobbly, not feeling accomplished. But … troubled. Then I was on the plane home, at home, eating, drinking, stretching.
That took a long time too: realizing that the things at the end were not better than what I could carry with me – the simple and deep appreciation of cold water, a snack nibbled and not a dinner wolfed down while distracted, the steady beat of a conscious breath.
Then it was weeks later mulling over how tired I had felt and how I couldn’t conjure it back. Then I was there, a year later, realizing there was a hunger to try again, to do it better. And then it was years later. There I was signing up for a race. I wanted to run the route, didn’t want to wait. Then I was running. Then it was done. There, in the past. Looking smaller and smaller, not by distance of time but by having done it.
Time flows on. Stand still and it trickles by, but you can’t outrun it, you can’t grab it like a tow rope. On the long training runs I learnt to put myself in gear and the finish would eventually pull up. In the meantime, I learned to look around.
Then we were there, the sun rising on us as we crested Jumpingpound ridge and the open alpine trails and vaulted sky. Behind us stretched south the ranges like our ancestor’s fingers that we’d run though in the dark. Fifty kilometers had slid under our feet and we padded on. I was smiling. My legs were tired but strong and we were moving slowly across a vast lone land. And we were smiling. There I was training for this, imagining this. There I was wondering how anyone could run 100 km. There we were in the dark of the trailhead. And now we were here. To the north crouched the dusty view of mountains. I could pick them out, identify them. I could see many ranges over where we would finish that afternoon. But it didn’t matter. The way you can run 100 km is not to run 100 km. Just run and not stop. There would be a time when I was done. Then I would be writing this. Then I would look back over the years. But here, on the open ridge, I learned something that our children re-teach us.
I just ran with my breath, and looked at where I was. The finish was what it was – out there, fixed, a marker only – it did not define me. I settled in. I inhabited the run. And now I’m here, I told myself.
And now I’m here.