I never thought of myself as a distance runner. Not until the half-marathon I ran last December. Before then, running distance was just something I did because hurdling hurt too much, and I had to do something to stay in shape.
Seven years ago, when I was 35, I was diagnosed with a stress fracture in my right tibia. I probably had one in my left one too, as much as it throbbed and ached, but I didn’t get that one scanned. Shin pains are common among hurdlers. Ever since I took up the event as a high school sophomore, I regularly dealt with shin splints and general lower-leg soreness caused by the continual pounding that training for hurdle races demands. But throughout high school, four years of competing in college, and eight years of hurdling in practice alongside the high school athletes that I coached, my shins never hurt enough to make me miss a race or cut short a workout.
But one day seven years ago I was doing workout with my man DJ. David Jones was one of the hurdles on my team at Ravenscroft School here in North Raleigh, where I still teach and coach. I remember the day well. Just he and I were running on the track that cold November afternoon. It was one of those days when the dark clouds always threaten to send down a deluge of rain, but all they spit out is a few harmless sprinkles. DJ and I had said up eight hurdles – four in his lane and four in mine – on the far side of the track. We were doing 150 meter repetitions over four hurdles.
My shins were bothering me. They had been for the past few weeks. I had kind of learned to run around the pain by landing at different angles than normal with every foot strike. That adjustment was making workouts bearable, but I was already starting to think to myself, I’m 35 years old, why am I still doing this stuff?
The plan was to do eight reps with a jog-back recovery between each one. Can’t remember if it was the second rep or third, but I know it was early in the workout when I felt the end come. We were clearing one of the hurdles on the curve. As I descended and drove my lead leg back to the ground, a frightening pain shot through the front side of my leg. Unlike the usual shin splints that throbbed all the way up and down from knee to ankle, this pain attacked a specific spot – about eight inches below the kneecap.
I stopped. DJ kept running to the finish line, but I hobbled to the infield, clutching the area of my leg where I felt the pain. When DJ jogged back and asked what had happened, I told him I wouldn’t be able to complete the workout. I can remember the frown of concern on his face. DJ knew that I never ended workouts prematurely. One of my mantras had always been, do the workout as planned. Don’t cheat the workout. But I had to stop.
He walked me into the training room in the gym, and before the trainer even told me that I needed to get a bone scan, I feared the worst. I remember telling DJ,“This is the end, man.” The end of doing workouts with my athletes. Of being that mystical figure who doesn’t seem to grow older. Of my identity as a hurdler. I knew it. I couldn’t articulate all of it, but I knew it.
The denial lasted a long time. After diagnosing me with a stress fracture, the doctor told me I needed to take off twelve weeks before returning to impact-oriented exercise of any sort. After four weeks of sitting around in the weight room, I finally lost it and ran outside for twenty minutes.
Stress fractures can fake you out once they start feeling better. After four weeks off I felt no pain. Walking down stairs – which used to be an agonizing experience – no longer bothered me at all. So I convinced myself that the leg was better. Four weeks, twelve weeks, what was the difference?
So I decided to follow the pattern I used to follow in my competitive days. Build a good endurance base, then gradually ease back into running intervals on the track before bringing the hurdles back into the mix. I still had hopes of competing in a masters meet again. Probably not in the 110 meter race, but the 400 meter race. The longer race would be harder on me strength-wise, but it would put less pounding on my legs.
Looking back, I don’t know why I was even thinking about competing in a masters meet again. The last time, at age 34, I ran the 110s at the Southeaster Masters Championships at North Carolina State here in Raleigh. It went awfully. The whole race, I was stretching every stride just to get my three steps between the hurdles. I was taking lunging strides, not sprinting strides, and my hurdling form was terrible as a result. That race felt like it was a million meters long, and every time I thought I had cleared the last hurdle, there stood another one waiting for me. When I finally crossed the finish line, all I felt was relief that the race was over.
Three years earlier, at age 31, I had run at the same meet and done very well. I had won my heat in a time of 15.87, and I felt very good doing it. Considering I hadn’t raced in seven years, I was very happy with that performance. Then, in the next heat, there was only one athlete running over the 42-inch hurdles in the 20-29-year-old age group, so I asked the officials if I could run against him as a non-counter. The officials consented, so, after having won the race over the 39-inch hurdles, I jogged back down to the starting line to run the 42’s. I won that race too, in something like 16.18, not far off my personal best of 15.63.
At the time, I envisioned continuing a full career of running masters meets. Hurdling was still fun for me and pain had yet to become an issue. As far as I could tell, it would never become one.
But three years later, I had slowed considerably. That’s what I couldn’t admit to myself. That I was slower. After the race I ran at age 34, and saw that my time was an 18-something, I tried to find all kinds of reasons to rationalize how much slower I had become in three years. Too busy coaching. Not enough time to train. Wearing the same old spikes I’d owned since my last year of college. But no man, I was slower. I was getting old.
I remember looking around the track after my race and seeing all these eighty-year-olds in spandex. I vowed to myself, That’ll never be me. And the kicker was, as horribly as my race went, as slow as I felt, as slow as my time was, I had won. And they actually gave me a gold medal for that sorry-ass performance. I remember looking at it when the official handed it to me and thinking, What is he giving me this for? I didn’t keep it. Almost threw it out. Instead, I took it home and gave it to my daughter, who was three years old at the time. She smiled and thanked me and put it around her neck. “Look mommy,” she said to my wife, “I won a gold medal.”
That sealed the deal. If I can run that slow and win, I thought, it’s time to hang up the spikes. But of course, the urge to compete never goes away. That’s why a year later, while recovering from a stress fracture, I was entertaining thoughts of racing again.
So I built my base. In my high school and college days, I often ran distance in the off-season to establish a firm base of cardiovascular strength. I’d usually run 3-4 miles a day. Try to get down to 6:30 per mile or so. I had even run a few 5K’s back in the day, finishing under 20 minutes. Unlike a lot of sprinters and hurdlers, I never disliked distance running. It wasn’t my thing, but I did enjoy it while I was doing it. Once I built my base, it was time to get off the distance exit ramp and veer toward the faster anaerobic stuff.
This time around, the cardio runs were going well. I even went beyond the 3-4 mile runs of the old days, and began extending to five, six, even seven miles. One day I ran eight. I had never run for over an hour without stopping. I found myself liking the distance runs because they didn’t hurt my shins at all. Also, I found that it was easy to sink into a rhythm in these longer runs. Nothing like the heavy bass rhythm of a hurdle race, but a calm, fluid rhythm that was both relaxing and energizing at the same time. After a few months, I gradually became convinced that the stress fracture had healed. If I could run a full hour without any pain, I told myself, then the pain must be gone.
One Sunday morning I drove to the track at nearby Cardinal Gibbons High School to run some 200s. I was feeling good. I brought my spikes with me because I felt eager to sprint fast, to let the speed out after all those long-distance runs. After a full warm-up ending with a few full-speed 50 meter sprints, I walked to the other side of the track to begin my workout.
On the first rep, I took off in a burst of energy. I had told myself to try to run these in the 33-34 range. Nothing too fast, just ease back into it. But I couldn’t contain myself. I was rolling. As I came off the curve and flung myself onto the homestretch, I felt like I was nineteen years old again, my feet floating above the track. I’m back, I found myself thinking as I neared the finish line, I’m back in a big way.
After crossing the line I looked down at my watch, expecting to see something stupid, like a 25 or 26. Why did I run that one so fast? I thought, There’s no way I’ll be able to run the rest of them like that. But the watch told a different story. The number that stared back at me was 31. I blinked, rubbed my eyes, looked again. 31. I put my hands on my hips and gazed around the empty track, at the dawn-blue sky with a sliver of moon sinking beneath the line of trees on the hill. 31. How could I have felt so fast, yet run so slow?
I was able to do three more at 31, then I dropped off to 33, then 36, then I stopped. I felt like an old man. A dumb-ass old man trying desperately to hold on to the days of his youth. And my right tibia was burning so badly I felt like I could hardly put pressure on it. The left was didn’t feel much better. What a dumb-ass. That’s the only phrase that rang through my mind as I hobbled off the track and sat down to unlace my spikes. What a dumb-ass.
After that, I spent another three years trying to figure out who I was athletically. More so, as a physical human being. Hurdling for me had never just been a competitive venue, but also my primary means of self-expression, self-discovery, and of staying in shape. If I wasn’t hurdling, I wasn’t me. If I wasn’t hurdling, I would get fat.
That’s pretty much what happened. I gave up hopes of ever competing again, but continued doing track workouts and hurdle workouts. Friends were suggesting I try cross-training to take the strain off my lower legs, and I tried other things for short bursts of time. But I’m not a swimmer, not a cyclist, and I can’t stand the suffocating environment of a health spa. Any exercising I do has got to be done outside.
So I kept trying to sprint through the pain. I found that if I took a day off between workouts the pain became more manageable. But the hurdle workouts were really killing me. Even though I’d move the hurdles closer together so I wouldn’t have to really sprint between them, hurdle workouts left me barely able to walk the next day. I would need four days off after a hurdle workout. But I was addicted to hurdling, so I couldn’t stop even though I knew I should. I was the coach who trained alongside his athletes, and I didn’t want to let go of that.
But the pain was getting to be too much. There were days when I’d be walking between classes and I felt like my bones were disintegrating. There’d be scary moments during workouts when I’d take a stride and feel like my bones were about to break in two. So I kind of just stopped running. Instead of a day off between workouts, it became two days, three, a week, two weeks. The time I used to spend running I now spent writing. Or grading papers. I was blending in with the malaise of society. Eating more. Sitting in front of the TV watching football games. Thinking about going outside, going for a run….
One morning a year-and-a-half ago, during spring track season, I went into the bathroom and weighed myself. During my college days my weight had been 175, and through my late twenties and early thirties I’d been in the 180 range. But I hadn’t bothered to weight myself in God knows how long. Don’t know why I decided to on this day. Maybe because I wanted to believe that despite slacking off in my exercising, my weight had remained stable.
It hadn’t. Actually, I knew it hadn’t, but just didn’t want to admit it. Pants were getting harder to squeeze into, dress shirts were fitting more tightly, and the belt buckle loop was getting wider. But the scale … ooh, the scale.
I stepped on and saw that I weighed 188. Holy moly. The 190 mark was only a cream-filled donut away. I had gained almost 10 pounds since the last time I’d weighed myself. I looked at my image in the mirror and said, “It’s time for a change.”
One of my planning periods that year was right before lunch. Which meant that I had a stretch of about 90 minutes with no classes. So, later that morning, after my third period class, I went to the locker room to change. I had a plan in mind: run 16 laps around the track. Four miles. I didn’t care if they were 12-minute miles. Just run four miles without stopping.
I did it. And, although I didn’t know it at the time, that’s the day I became a distance runner.
That summer, I decided I’d do no more sprint workouts, no more hurdle workouts. Just distance. It was the only pain-free running my body was capable of, so the time had come to adapt to who I was and stop holding on to who I used to be. Once the school year ended and the endless summer days arrived, I began running five or six miles every morning, and then sometimes another two or three in the late afternoon, prior to the start of practice with the kids I was coaching in youth track. I had read in a Runner’s World magazine that men gain something like two pounds a year every year once they reach their mid-twenties. Doing the math, I discovered that that’s exactly what had happened to me. Even men who run as much as forty miles a week, the article said, put on weight each year. When I read that I was like, Okay, well let me try running forty miles a week first and see what happens.
At first, nothing happened. But after about a month, the weight started to come off. From 188 to 185. To 180. I set a goal to get down to 175 before the new school year started. I reached that goal well ahead of schedule. I ended up getting all the way down to 165- my high school weight – which is where I’ve stayed ever since. What really helped was that in August my family moved from our small apartment in Raleigh to a home in a newly-developing neighborhood in nearby Knightdale. The move provided a huge boost to my running life. No longer did I need to go to the track or to a park to run. I could start right outside my front door. And because there were lights in the neighborhood, I was no longer limited to running during daylight hours. If I wanted to run at 10 o’clock at night, I could. And often, I did.
The feeling was liberating. Losing the weight. Having the freedom to run at all times of day. I was now running seven miles a day on average, and ten miles on my long days. My weekly average regularly fell in the range of 50 miles. And I was loving it. I had gotten in good-enough shape that I decided to go ahead and sign up for a 5k in late October. It was being held at Ravenscroft, right on campus, so I wouldn’t even have to worry about getting lost trying to find my way there.
Cy League, the cross country coach and a fellow English teacher, encouraged me to sign up with him, so I did so. The idea of putting myself in a competitive situation kind of frightened me, to be honest. Running through the neighborhood is nothing like running in a race with hundreds of other people. Plus, I remembered how tiring the 5K’s had been when I ran them in my college days. Still, I reasoned, I hadn’t lost all that weight and transformed my frame just to look good. Sure, the initial goal had just been to lose the weight. But now that I had climbed that plateau, a race would now serve as a good test of my fitness level.
The race went great. Though the course featured many steep hills, I finished in 19:56, only twelve seconds off my personal best. A month later, Cy and I ran the Old Reliable 10K in downtown Raleigh. This course was much flatter, and I finished it in 40:43, about two full minutes faster than my target time. That race really felt good, like I had an endless supply of energy. I remember saying to Cy minutes afterwards, “It feels good to feel like an athlete again.”
Of course, by now I’d been bitten by the race bug, so I wanted to move up to a half-marathon. There was going to be one in Rocky Mount – about an hour away – in early December. I asked Cy if he wanted to sign up for it, and he agreed. But about two weeks before the event, he changed his mind, explaining that he knew he wasn’t in shape for a 13.1 mile race, and he didn’t want to go through with it knowing he’d run well below his personal standards.
I understood, and wasn’t upset at all. But I had paid my entry fee, so I fully intended to race. But then I realized that I had come to rely on Cy. During the school year we ran together about once a week, and I liked having him there as a gauge for what kind of shape I was in. Plus, he was good company. He took a very practical approach to running, whereas I behaved as sort of a renegade who always wanted to run “just one more mile.” Cy kept me level-headed, and I needed that.
Two years prior to the upcoming half-marathon in Rocky Mount, Cy and I had run one together in Cary – about a ½-hour drive from North Raleigh. Back then, I just wanted to prove to myself that I could run that far without stopping. I didn’t really “train” for it, and even after completing it I had no intention of ever running another one. It was fun, I reasoned, but I felt sure that I’d be content to let my competitive streak come out through my coaching.
But here I was two years later preparing for another half-marathon. And this time, I could not deny the fact that I had trained for it, and that I really wanted to do well. In the one in Cary, I finished in 1:42:42, which is a 7:51-per-mile pace. I was now running about 7:30 per mile in my training runs. So my goal heading into the Rocky Mount race was to run in the 7:15-per-mile range. Based on how I’d run the 10K at the Old Reliable, that seemed like a reasonable goal. Especially if the Rocky Mount course proved to be as flat.
By now, I had fully embraced distance running. I liked everything about it, and I came to realize just how perfectly it fit my personality. The solitude of it, the quietness of it. The week of Thanksgiving was one I remember as being particularly special. We had school for only the first two days of that week, and I wasn’t traveling anywhere for the holidays, which meant more time to run. With the big race only two weeks away, the extra mental space that the holidays would provide couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. That whole week, the weather couldn’t have been better. In Raleigh, the summer days are mercilessly hot and humid, and the humidity doesn’t really dissipate until well into the fall. By November, the air is crisp and clean. You inhale deeply and feel like you’re breathing in all the beauty of the world. The week of Thanksgiving, I would wake up around 6am, read a little, check my email, then change into my running clothes. After stretching and taking in some water, I’d be out the door by 8.
During these days, free of the oppressive heat of the summer and the busy schedule of the school year, eagerly looking forward to my next big race, I came acquainted with the quiet, simple joy of running. Besides the sidewalks and paved roads in my neighborhood, there are also a couple of nature paths cutting through the wooded areas. On my Thanksgiving week runs I often took to these trails and watched as the multi-colored falling leaves swirled all around me and formed a carpet for my footsteps. Occasionally I saw deer who would stare at me, run off a little ways, then turn back around and stare at me again. Geese would fly overhead and then alight in a grassy patch next to where some new homes were being built. The gray clouds covered the sun and kept it from raising the temperature too high, yet did not threaten to bring any downpours of rain. And always, there were neighbors walking their dogs. Pit-bulls, schnauzers, German shepherds, English setters, Yorkshire terriers, Shi Tzu’s, Rottweilers, Chows. Every breed of dog imaginable.
I was a part of it all. A part of the landscape. The geese, the dogs, the deer, the falling leaves, the gentle breeze and the gray clouds. When I was running, I was part of it all. Not watching it, not observing it from a distance. But melding into it. I’d walk outside, take a deep breath and think to myself, What a beautiful day.
There were days that week when I’d run for 90 minutes and not even realize I’d been running that long. I didn’t feel tired, I didn’t feel hot, I didn’t feel sore. I remember asking myself a couple times, Should I stop? I’d end up stopping not because I felt I needed to, but because I had to go grocery shopping or run some other type of errand by a certain time.
That was also the week when I became familiar with what is commonly called runner’s high, or what I prefer to call the “sighing time” of a run. One of my former students, Lauren Gould, who was naturally poetic and who now is in graduate school in the Creative Writing program at the University of Iowa, once referred to the twilight as the sighing time of day. What she meant was that twilight was the time of day after the work hours had ended and before the duties at home had to be taken care of. In that in-between time, when the sun was setting and the color of the sky was changing by the minute from blue to mauve to a reddish-orange and then finally to that deeper shade of blue that signifies the beginning of night, that’s when you look up at the sky and just sigh at the beauty of it, and at how humbled its beauty makes you feel.
So the sighing time of a run is that moment in a long run when you suddenly, inexplicably feel emotionally overwhelmed by the pure simplicity of what you are doing. There’s no crying going on, no tears of joy or anything like that. Just a full gaze over the entire landscape followed by a deep, deep sigh.
I’ve had that feeling many times since, but it’s no accident that the first time it happened was during that week of Thanksgiving break. For the first time in three months my mind wasn’t bogged down with thoughts of papers to grade, lessons to plan, students to teach. Sometimes you feel trapped in your identity, in the roles you play in the lives of other people. Mr. McGill the English teacher. Coach McGill the track coach. Daddy. Steve the husband, son, brother, colleague. It gets near impossible to step back and ask, Where is “me” in all this? Running, I came to understand that week, is about much more than just losing weight and staying in shape. It’s also about much more than winning races and earning rewards. It’s even about much more than pushing yourself and overcoming fears. More important than all of that, running provides a precious opportunity to just be. When I’m running, I’m anonymous. I’m not Steve, Daddy, Mr. McGill, Coach McGill, anybody. I’m just some dude running down the street.
I also came to realize during Thanksgiving week that every run is an odyssey, a physical journey that becomes a spiritual journey with each step you take. When you finish a long run, you’re not the same person you were when you started it. Just the very process of putting one foot in front of the other over and over again, of surrendering to the rhythm of your strides, footsteps, breaths, and the gentle swing of your arms, changes you in ways you can’t quite define. The reason it’s so hard to define, and that it’s so hard to explain to others, is because nothing special happened. But in a very deep, profound, subtle way, something very special happened. The run transformed you into a clearer, purer version of who you are. And you feel it, even if you can’t make sense of it.
I remember the ecstasy I felt after running that Old Reliable 10K, then coming home to indifference from my wife and daughter when I told them how fast I ran, how much better I did than I had been expecting. It wasn’t that they didn’t care. They congratulated me and smiled and all that good stuff. But what do they know about fast 10K times? Even if they did know something about it, there was no way I could have explained to them what really mattered – the thrill I felt during the race, the thrill of my lungs filling with cool autumn air as I ran up the middle of a downtown road.
I’ve come to understand that there is, in fact, a loneliness to the long-distance runner. Running separates you from society even as it brings you closer to yourself. There’s a trade-off there, but ultimately running brings you back to society a better person, a person better fit to make your contribution to it. The truth of that realization steadily settled into my mind by the end of Thanksgiving week. By then I was ready to return to being Coach McGill, Mr. McGill. I was ready to return to my life.
On December 8, 2007, the training period had come to a close, and the time to race had arrived. I woke up at 5:30 that morning. Didn’t need an alarm clock. The race would start at 8am, which meant I needed to leave the house by six to ensure that I would get to Rocky Mount in plenty of time to pick up my packet, put on my number, and warm-up and stretch. If I don’t arrive at a venue at least an hour before the start of the race, I get antsy. I don’t like to be in a rush. I like to warm up nice and slowly.
I arrived in Rocky Mount by seven and had no trouble finding a place to park. I got all the preliminary stuff out of the way quickly, then focused on getting my mind and body ready to go out there and run those 7:15 miles. I was feeling good. The traffic-free drive down 64 East had put me in a serene, confident frame of mind. I had played the same song about five times on my cd player: Grant Green’s “A Time to Remember.” It’s a long instrumental jazz piece from the early ‘70s that has a steady flow to it and gradually rises in intensity. A lot like a distance race. The key to a distance race is to perform at a level of intensity that you can maintain. So playing the right music on the way to the venue means everything. I prefer long jazz pieces because they mirror the ebb and flow of a long race. The Grant Green piece features several remarkable solos, including a vibraphone solo toward the end that really energizes me without getting me too amped up. Plus, the title of this particular piece held obvious symbolic significance for me. I wanted this day, this race, this moment, to be a time to remember, and I strongly sensed that it would be.
The race began and I took off with the front of the pack. My week-old Brooks snugly gripped my feet and I reveled in the psychological boost that wearing a new pair of shoes gave me. I always start races with a sprint, just to create some space for myself and to get away from the bumping bodies jostling for position. After a couple minutes I settled into a comfortable pace that I felt I could sustain for a good while. In races it can be hard to tell how fast you’re running because the adrenaline factor – which cannot be duplicated in training runs, no matter how hard you try – sends you moving at a much quicker pace than you intended. It doesn’t feel any faster than what you usually do, but the adrenaline rush can be very hard to control. Somehow I missed the mile markers at mile one and mile two, so I had no idea if I needed to slow down or speed up. Enough people had moved ahead of me that I knew I wasn’t doing anything ridiculously stupid. But still, it would’ve been nice to know. Finally at the third mile I saw the marker and looked at my watch. 19:45. Holy smokes. I was running at a 6:55 pace. Twenty seconds per mile faster than my target.
But I was feeling it. The course was flat, my new shoes were humming along the pavement, and “A Time to Remember” was playing on continuous loop in my mind. So I decided to go with the flow. Though I slowed up a little bit somewhere among the middle miles ( the mile markers were definitely hard to find in this race) I was still at a 7-minute per mile pace at mile ten.
That’s when I ran into some trouble. The course entered the path of a park that featured a winding, hilly trail. The hills were sharp and curving with plunging, twisting downhills and uphills that seemed to climb straight into the sky. I lost a lot of time and a whole hell of a lot of energy fighting those hills. The uphills wore me out and the downhills forced me to sprint to avoid falling on my face. The last mile proved to be much kinder. The course flattened out again and I was able to muster the energy to return to my earlier tempo. With the finish line not too far away, I told myself to keep pushing through the pain.
I crossed the finish line in 1:31:48 – somewhere between a 7:00 and 7:01 pace for the entire 13.1 miles. And I can tell you I was damn happy when I looked down at my watch and saw that time. Involuntarily, a smile spread across my face as I paced back and forth, allowing my heart-rate to return to normal. I sat down on the sidewalk and breathed a deep sigh of gratitude. Soon after, two other runners who had just finished came and sat beside me. One was white and the other was Mexican. The white guy, whose name was Charlie, lived only five minutes from me, I discovered as we conversed. The Mexican guy had been running on my heels throughout the entire race. He looked a little pudgy for a distance runner, so it had been annoying me quite frequently during the race when I’d thought I had gotten rid of him, only to hear his footsteps moving up beside me again. I didn’t pull away from him for good until the hilly part in the park. As we talked afterward, I found out that we were in the same age group. We shared a hearty laugh when I expressed relief that I hadn’t let him pass me. That was a nice moment. Me – a black guy, sitting there with a Mexican guy and a white guy, the three of us chatting about the race, and none of thinking it was a big deal.
I won my age group. About an hour after the race, the meet director posted the results on a building near where the race had started. Okay, to be honest, I finished fourth in my age group. But the three guys who finished ahead of me also finished 1-2-3 overall. So, being overall winners, they would receive the big-dog awards. I would receive the award for first-place male in the 40-44 age group. But I had to leave because I had a practice scheduled with some of my hurdlers. Charlie offered to pick up my award for me, and he let me know I could come by his house and pick it up the next day.
The following night, I drove to Charlie’s house. He came to the door and handed me a green duffle bag with black lining. On the side I read the words, First Carolina State Bank Half-Marathon, Rocky Mount, NC. My heart swelled with pride as I took it from his hands. This bag was more than an award for a race well-run. It represented the completion of a long journey that had started that day on the track with DJ, when I felt a surge of pain ripping into my lower leg. As I stood there chatting with Charlie on his front porch, I found myself thinking back to the gold medal I had won at the masters meet, and how insignificant, even embarrassing, that award had seemed, how hollow that victory had felt. Now, I felt like I had really accomplished something. I hadn’t just run 7-minute miles; I had completed the transformation from hurdler to distance runner. I had let go of myself, of the only me I had known since the age of fifteen. Now I had found myself anew. And I realized that had I not let go of myself, I would’ve lost myself for good.
Hurdlers and distance runners have much more in common than either hurdlers or distance runners realize. It has always baffled me how people who love to run try to claim that their way of running is somehow more authentic than that of others. Everybody’s so territorial, so protective of their space. Speaking for myself, I can say that who I am as a distance runner is an extension of who I was as a hurdler. Both are highly demanding yet highly rewarding endeavors. Both send me to a place of solitude, where I am free to be myself away from the context of my various societal roles. I miss hurdling. I miss the relationship I once had with hurdling, even though I’ve continued that relationship through coaching. There are still times, though they occur far less frequently now, when I wish these old bones of mine would let me do what I used to do.
But missing the past doesn’t mean dwelling on it. In a few weeks I’ll be running my first marathon. I signed up for the one in Raleigh on November 2nd. My goal is to qualify for Boston, which would mean running 7:39 per mile. I think I can do it, but there are no guarantees. Marathon’s are long, and there’s a lot that can go wrong. But I’ll approach it the same way I approach everything else – forget about the big picture, just take the next step. And keep taking the next step, until I get to the finish line.
© 2008 Steve McGill