Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Why I Run - Missoula Marathon

Why I Run
by Andrew A. Hunt

In the beginning there was only one reason I wanted to finish the Missoula Marathon, but it seems the list grows every time someone asks me about it.

The conversation goes like this:

“I’m training for the Missoula Marathon.”

“Really, why?”

“Three reasons, well, actually four, no wait, more like seven, have you got a few minutes?”

Stacking up reasons to stick with running is a good thing. The further I run, the deeper I get into the training, the more reasons I discover to keep going. It feels good, gives me some alone time, reduces the belly, puts me in touch with a great and supportive community of runners, improves my mood, you know the list. I don’t have to convince myself to push through the aches and grumblings of muscles and joints, nor rely on doctors’ orders to roll out of bed, lace up, and head down the road. When it comes to running, I’m a convert.

But, obviously, it wasn’t always this way.

I smoked cigarettes for the better part of two decades and often (too often) indulged in the worst “nutrition” on the dollar menu. I wasn’t overweight, but couldn’t claim to be fit. Although I kicked the butts a couple of years ago, my body was long past the easy cruising of my 30’s. It seemed like I had a choice, either surrender to the slow physical decline I felt taking hold around my belly (yeah, skinny guys get spare tires too) or do something, anything, to start moving in the other direction.

The notion to “do” a marathon started as a whim in the back of my mind akin to the phrase “let’s do lunch”. I had friends who jumped into marathon training courses and went from zero to 26.2 in a matter of months; I knew it was physically possible, you just sign-up and go. Right? But what, besides a t-shirt, improved cardio, and basic bragging rights, was in it for me? There are countless ways to get in shape, and running a marathon wasn’t on my bucket list, but the idea quietly started to seduce me. I started considering it. I didn’t dash out to buy shoes and shorts like Albert Brooks in “Modern Romance” (that happened later), but I flagged the idea as a possible option I might decide to pursue at some point in the undetermined future.

The more I “considered” it, the more intrigued I became.

I started to imagine what the training might be like with hours of quiet toil, alone on the road, no one making me take that next step but my own determination. I started to realize that training involved the necessity of time and repetition to build up strength and endurance, I couldn’t phone in the effort. If I were going to run a marathon I would really have to commit to the process. I didn’t know if I was up for the task, but I was curious. Could I get out and pound the pavement in the cold, or heat, the rain or snow, late afternoons after a long day or even worse, early in the morning while the rest of the family slumbered in warm beds? Did I have what it took to not hit the snooze on the alarm? That sort of commitment requires something that I was always a bit short on in my life, something that had been missing that I envied in others and secretly coveted - discipline.

And there it was, my first real reason for attempting a marathon. To get to the end of the race I would have to learn discipline. Self-mastery would be mine! I didn’t learn it in my yoga stances, meditation practice, or Zen study. I started writing and abandoned several dozen great American novels and have a collection of interesting, and dusty, musical instruments around my home office. I have pursued many enriching endeavors that excited and engaged me at some point, but soon fell to the way-side simply because they required regular attention in order to grow and flourish. I know that the best things in life are usually the hardest to accomplish because they take time and dedication. I can preach that verse but don’t readily practice the concept. Maybe I am weak willed, have a short attention span, am too self-conscious to pull off a downward dog in public, or simply give up when the going gets tough. Whatever the specific reason, I am fully aware of my inability to commit to things that would generally improve my quality of life. Self-awareness kind of sucks sometimes, but hope springs eternal.

So, armed with what I thought a darn good reason, I declared my intentions to run a marathon. I signed up for the Missoula Marathon training class, got some shoes (cue Albert Brooks shopping spree) and was so giddy I had a hard time going to sleep that night. The next day was my first “real” run, a frosty February morning with temperatures dipping in the teens, but I sprinted out the door at sunrise with a genuine smile on my face. My first two miles were logged on February 15, 2010.

Ten weeks later I was icing a stress fracture in my ankle and contemplating a crawl across the living room to retrieve the television remote.

It was all too far, too fast, too soon. Enthusiasm had crippled me during a ten-mile long run; call it an eager beginner’s mistake. Once I got a taste of it I wanted to run every day, further and faster. Every run was a contest to beat out a few more seconds, to tack on another half mile. It felt great, mostly, and so I kept going and ignored the warning signs my body was shouting at me.

After the x-rays were examined and the walking boot firmly applied it was obvious that I would not be getting the t-shirt and bragging rights as planned. I was still going to physical therapy twice a week when the 2010 Missoula Marathoners raced across the valley in glorious sunshine. Finally in August after several setbacks and lingering pain my doctor gave me the nod along with a photocopied handout titled “Return to Run Program”. My first distance was a quarter mile walk followed by a quarter mile “jog”. Reading that handout hurt almost as much as the injury, but this is what I signed on for, so out the door I went. The genuine smile was not along for that jaunt.

When February rolled around I was barely up to five miles, but they were healthy miles. I signed up for the Missoula Marathon training class again, got a new pair of shoes, and discovered that the genuine smile had returned to my face when we all started off on the first training route.

My path to the end of my first marathon, it turns out, is neither straight nor nearly as rapid as I expected. But I have no complaints; I got exactly what I wanted. Through the injury and road to recovery I started to learn the discipline I sought. I thought I had to commit to getting out and running far and fast. It turns out the real and harder commitment is to run well. My ego has learned to accept the slower pace, taking more recovery days, easing off on the short runs if I’m feeling winded and carefully pacing the long runs. Even with my caution and care I could end up on the sidelines again this year watching the race. Injuries happen, my knees are starting to complain and the miles keep piling on. So if not this year, then next, or the year after, or however long it takes to get to the finish line. I started this process because I wanted to learn, to grow, to find something undiscovered within me and I’m starting to think this race may be a bit longer than 26.2.

-Andrew A. Hunt


Daniel Galioto said...

Great story. You've already come so far, so fast and you have much of which to be proud. Looking forward to seeing you at the start and finish lines.

Anonymous said...

Andrew, your not giving up after the injury, and returning to finish the quest was the most important decision you could have made... I sincerely hope that after you get to the finish line of the marathon you don't only experience the thrill of finishing it, but that you discover a beginning of a new, life-long, life style. Good luck and I hope to see you, and shake your hand, at the finish line on July 10th!

Kim Anderson said...

Starting (seems to me) to always be scarier and sometimes harder than finishing...even eventually. Thanks for sharing...wonderfully written. Good luck to you in all your running pursuits!