I like to tell people that I’m not competitive as a runner, but it is a lie.
I am, in fact, fiercely competitive. I race against the clock, against the course, against the runners ahead of me and the runners behind me. I race against myself, I race against my friends, and I am racing against you.
I’m also fairly slow. I’ve never been especially fast, and at this point in my life it’s a pretty safe bet that I never will be. I ain’t winning no races; I like to place in the top half of the pack. I am often able to squeak into the top third.
But still I tromp out the miles, mostly early in the morning before the family is awake. Hills, intervals, distance. I’m usually out there all by myself; it is rare that I see another human being on my runs. I have crossed paths with Harbert Okuti a few times, moving like a ghost on the carriage roads, barely disturbing the fallen leaves, making fast look easy. Me, I thump along the carriage roads like a rogue elephant. If I’m moving fast, you will hear it!
It is outrageously beautiful in a transcendent sort of way, running the trails and carriage roads of the Shawangunks all by your lonesome in the early morning. Every time of year is different. Sometimes I set out in the pitch black, and experience the transition from night to day as I run, the early morning light slowly infiltrating the forest, illuminating the trail under my feet. Sometimes I shake rime ice out of my windbreaker after a run. I wallow in mud, I splash through rain. I have startled deer as I clomp along, one foot after the other. A mile can disappear faster than a card trick, or it can drag out, slower than 6th period algebra. I have seen porcupines, owls, hawks, bears, even a bald eagle. I have run through miles of virgin snow at Spring Farm, slipping on hidden ice, the woods silent and empty. The stark, bare trees of winter; the first luscious buds of spring greenery; the heat and humidity of high summer; the psychedelic intensity of peak leaves in the autumn. The beauty can be overwhelming, stunning, almost too much to process.
And I tromp out the miles. Sometimes faster, sometimes slower. Sometimes my feet cramp up and I have to sit down and pull off my shoes and rub my feet until they come back to life. Sometimes I have to dive off the trail and find someplace to poop, keeping a careful look-out for poison ivy. I get blisters and I lose toenails. Sometimes I push myself too hard and get injured.
I’ve never been particularly fast. I ran track and cross-country for a while in high school; I never even made the varsity teams before I fell under the spell of first theatre, and then rock climbing. I came back to running in my late thirties, when my metabolism started to slow down, and I found myself slowly but surely putting on pounds that couldn’t be explained away as “extra muscle mass”. The running started out as a way to stay in shape for rock climbing, but I quickly discovered that, as a dad, as a homeowner, as a student nurse, running is far more compatible with life as an adult than climbing is. Climbing takes a minimum of half a day and requires reasonable weather, a willing partner, and spousal permission; running requires a pair of shoes and the willpower to drag oneself out of bed of a chilly, dark morning.
And so, grudgingly, I fell in love with running.
I do keep getting better. I tick off personal bests. This year I took nearly 10 minutes off my best time at Pfaltz Point, and I finally broke two hours in the half marathon. I am competitive. I like to be in the top half of finishers; I can often squeak into the top third. I like passing people. I hate getting passed.
The range of human fitness astounds me. I watched the finish of the New York City Marathon last weekend, Mary Keitani slamming out the miles, faster than I have ever run a mile, even in my high school prime, after 20 miles maintaining a pace I can’t even touch in my early morning quarter-mile interval sessions. As a nurse, I have patients for whom walking across the room to use the bathroom is the equivalent of running a hilly 10k against a vicious headwind. I have friends who struggle to complete a 5k; I have friends who do ultras and Ironman races. Me, I guess I fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum.
I always congratulate the runners who pass me up, who outsprint me, who kick my butt. I try to make it a point to hang out at the finish line and applaud the slow runners, the last of the stragglers. I figure they are working harder than any of us. In this way, we are all in it together. It doesn’t matter if you are fast or slow, it still hurts, and everybody gives everything they have. I may be running in competition with you, but I am also running with you.
There is only one race, and it is inside our own heads.