A few weeks ago on a mid-week training run I saw a hummingbird. I was at the university where I teach, having run the four miles there and doing some stretching before running the four miles home. Hummingbird came right up to my face and left in an instant, fluttering about the landscaping. The sky shown a soft blue about twenty minutes after sunrise, and there weren’t a lot of cars in the parking lot or people walking past as I practiced some yoga poses that would be rather embarrassing in another time of day.
The hummingbird seemed like a miracle. The morning was the first day this season it was down around 50 degrees for a morning run. A real treat after the humid and sunny runs that I’d suffered through during what seemed like a never-ending JulyAugustSeptember. The bird was moving too fast for me to see what colors it was, but every once in a while I’d catch the sun bouncing off of it in a flash, like a magician vanishing a coin. I immediately thought of Brian Doyle and his piece “Joyas Voladoras” I read ten times a year, which starts with a sinewy contemplation of humming birds–the machine marvel that they are. But the moment was not for sitting and thinking again about the loss of animal and plant diversity, about the limits of a hummingbird heart or the whale’s or our own. It was for a calm before continued forward momentum, it was for the path home to a steamy shower and a long day’s work.
I’ve come to really love the breaks that marathon training has necessitated into my runs . When I first got back into running, in graduate school, it was merely a cheap form of exercise. But I took pride in jogging down Connecticut Avenue to the Van Ness Metro stop and then back up the long hill toward home. At about a three-mile round trip path, it got me out and working on hills and speed four to five times a week. I realized that even when I started not to need the two to three breaks at different stoplights I’d inevitably hit, I always felt really strong afterward. But I started feeling like I was cheating. Like it mattered more that I didn’t stop at all. Once I progressed to a certain level of tolerance and boredom for the course, I moved on. And I moved, literally, away from Conn Ave a few miles away on the other side of the red line. My new apartment was near Rock Creek Park where stoplights are very few and far between. I spent a good two years perfecting my hill work and my no-stop running routine. Before I moved to New York, my weekend long runs consisted of forty-five minute outs and forty-minute backs, always pressing myself to keep increasing my speed. I never carried hydration and my skin was a salt-lick every Saturday morning. I didn’t let myself stop for anything once I left until I returned. And then I started running races.
When I ran my first half-marathon, I trained alone, and I ran alone. It was hard. I signed up to be a part of a charity group, but a month or so in, I dropped out. I worked until midnight on Friday nights and could rarely get up early to meet the group for runs on Saturday mornings. But I kept up with the training plan they had sent me, working it into my weird late-early-late-early-LATE work week schedule. And I never once, in all of those first months of running longer distances than I had ever run, I never once thought stopping to walk or stretch was a good thing. I only allowed myself those weaknesses when I felt utterly vanquished. And so, on half-marathon-the-first day, I ran until my pace got as slow as a walk and then kept running. Eventually, around mile 12 I realized that if I started walking, I’d probably be going faster. So I started walking. For two minutes. It felt glorious. My body thanked me with everything it had to give, and then I made it give some more. I started to jog the last mile of the longest race of my life–seriously, up to this point I’ve never been out on a race course for as long as 2:36–and my body hated me. It didn’t understand why I needed to keep going. It complained and continued to complain long after I’d finished the race. While I was glad that I shuffled across that finish line in my body’s closest pantomime of a jog, I wasn’t having very much fun.
I’ve run four more half-marathons since, and haven’t felt nearly as bad or needed to walk as desperately as I did that first time. In fact, I didn’t stop at all for two of them. And I felt great afterward. Not stopping had always been the unstated rule, the goal above only finishing and underneath the goal of personal record. I was training as much to beat myself as I was to ensure that I wouldn’t need to stop or walk or stretch in order to finish.
The marathon has changed all of this though, for now. The goal is to finish, there is no personal record recorded, and stops are a health-conscious must.
These past few years running Ragnar Relays and training with people of different endurances and speeds has made stops more common and natural, even if my personal solo-running was still non-stop. But when I signed up to run the marathon with Jean and Drew, I signed up to run with a group, to train with a group, and to get stronger as a group. It was different. It is different. I am slower than I’ve ever been. And while some days, especially when the training run is not very long at all, I feel like I’ve forgotten how to run fast, I also have to admit to myself that I am happier than I’ve ever been. I’ve never had so much joy running alone as I’ve had training for this marathon. And while my running partners are a huge part of that, I’ve been slowly realizing that my perception has changed. I used to run past people who were walking, only to later have them jaunt quickly past me, and then walk again as I kept my stoic pace. This would happen about eight or ten times in a half marathon. I would think why on earth would you do that if you could get the same results by just powering through? I used to tie my success to how many times I didn’t stop to walk when I wanted to. I used to measure my happiness about runs only in the time and speed it took me to get to the end. Maybe someday that version of me will come back, but as I prepare these final three days before the Bank of America Chicago Marathon 2013, I am deeply aware that time and speed are minuscule on Sunday. I’ve been training with stops every four miles to two miles. I’ve been completing the routes, crossing off the miles, and taking my sweet time to stretch and hydrate and eat something regularly while out on a long run. I can’t believe I was ever doing this the hard way.
As I watched the bird flit from species to species in the plant bed lining the theatre of the school for a few moments longer than I would have stayed otherwise before setting my eyes toward home and hitting “continue” on my watch, I realized that I was not a hummingbird anymore, a pedigree who needs to keep moving to stay alive. With those five minutes of yoga behind me like a big red dot on my GPS map, I didn’t know then I would run my last few miles of the day faster than I’d run all summer, with more joy in my heart.