The difference between East and West coasters is perhaps less obvious, until the moment you come face-to-face with your own pace of life. You find the differences in the small things – how long you allow yourselves to linger at the table after lunch or dinner, the types of dining options within the neighborhood, the willingness of people to simply stop and watch the sun disappear over the horizon.
My husband and I spent the week visiting family in New Mexico and running a half-marathon race in California. It was hectic, wonderful, and exhausting. I hadn’t spent much time in California, aside from a couple of visits to LA about four years ago for work travel at a prior job; and I was stunned by the beauty of San Diego this trip.
We had mostly trained separately for the big race, aside from a small handful of longer weekend training runs, for which we relied on friends and family to watch my young stepson for those precious hours together. I was eager for race day, mostly because it was my husband’s first. Watching the excitement in his eyes the night before race day as we laid out our clothes and gear in preparation for the next morning, reignited my own passion for racing, which had waned with the lifestyle changes of becoming a stepmom and wife.
Waking up that Sunday at 4 am, having lost an hour to daylight savings, gave the day a particularly painful start. But I knew the race routine from heart and went through my paces alongside my husband, prepping his breakfast and mine (two pieces of toast with peanut butter and a banana) and easily dressing while mentally calming the anxious feelings inside, as if changing the tempo of a song to slow it to a ballad.
We arrived early at the course having planned our parking location, and walked over to our corral. These are the starting areas you are assigned based on your finishing time, which allow the race to commence in waves. The obligatory port-a-potty visit behind us, we simply stretched out and found ourselves at the front of our pack of runners in the 2:00 to 2:10 group. It had been almost two years since I’d run a half-marathon and my body showed it with a thicker waist, larger pants, and twenty extra pounds I was carrying with me. But this was my sixth half-marathon (alongside dozens of 5Ks, 10ks, triathlons, a 15K, and a marathon since 2008), so I relatively knew where my current level of fitness stacked up (or rather, where it didn’t).
My husband was keen on finishing the half-marathon under two hours, though I assured him that was quite fast for a first timer. When I had achieved that magical time of 1:59.31 back in 2010, I’d been training excessively and was in great shape. He was in great shape now with his toned arms, trimmed abs, and impressive calves, but he was new to running, and experience favors the victorious in the sport. And so, we started out fast, pacing under 9 minute miles which slowed to 9:20 by the second mile. We held this pace for awhile, until I needed to use the restroom at mile 4, and again at mile 8. We paced alongside each other with me snapping his photos at each mile marker.
At mile 9, we hit a long, brutal hill that defeated the race’s promise of a “flat course.” He took on the hill with the same code by which he lives the rest of his life, and hit it aggressively, pushing himself to his limits while most other people simply walked up the half a mile slope. I continued to push forward very slowly, as my knee began to swell like an apple, and introduced a sharp pain which would persist for the remainder of the race. I lost sight of him by the time I reached the peak and once we hit the downhill, I knew he was far ahead of me. I hadn’t realized how much I wanted to have a photo of us crossing the finish line together until that moment, and the thunderous notion of it hit me emotionally, making it more dramatic than reality as any feelings tend to do when running long distances.
By mile 11, my knee still feeling a dulled pain, I had recovered myself and was also coming around to a notion of life I
had not quite recognized before. People pair up and perhaps marry in order to avoid the long and low soliloquy of solitude that may otherwise conquer their lives; they cling together for protection, they lean on one another for stability, and we fool ourselves into thinking that we can cheat ourselves out of the impermanence of our existence. And yet, I have never been one to fear solitude. I knew my husband and I had pulled each other through training runs of 6, 8, and 10 miles among the most beautiful parts of DC and Virginia and through the first nine miles of that race. However, each of us as humans ultimately must rest on our own laurels if we are going to make it in this race of life. Are we alone? No, absolutely not. John Donne himself said, “No man is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main.”
As un-alone as we are, as committed we may be to a loving relationship, as many siblings as we may have (I have four, and my husband has three), it is by our own heart, willpower, mind, and legs, that we must make our way through this life. It is a step-by-step journey we walk, and eventually if you are brave enough to take it on, run. We cannot know what we will face in life, but if we can trust ourselves, then we can have faith in making it through the journey better and stronger for our experiences. If someone told me three years ago that I would be running this race with my future husband while his parents watched his son, I would have told them they needed to wake up from the dream they were having. And yet, here I was.
No matter how much you love someone, whether they are your parent, spouse, sibling, child, or friend, you cannot convince them to do otherwise than what they choose to do, and you certainly cannot force them to complete a 13.1 mile race. My husband ran his race in a showstopping 2:09 and as I stumbled in at 2:14 with my bad knee and a grimace on my face, I fell into his arms and my heart was gladdened by his smiles. The road to get to him has been long and hard. I am grateful for every step that has taught me the strength of spirit that carries me over the long miles, a conversation that continues between the road and me.
Running is a road to self-awareness and reliance-you can push yourself to extremes and learn the harsh reality of your physical and mental limitations or coast quietly down a solitary path watching the earth spin beneath your feet.
-Doris Brown Heritage