As the sun washes the sky pastel, my feet clip in an even rhythm down the street and my breath settles into a ragged cadence. Swallows dart out from beneath a bridge, swooping through the new morning. When my Garmin lights, notifying me of a mile, I press forward. As the time stretches on, the sear in my hamstrings heightens and my lungs seek air. Hunting down the same elusive times I do nearly every morning, I run until I hit the six-mile mark where I ease up, allowing my legs to rest.
When I return from my runs, I record the distance and splits from each individual mile. I have been doing so for 13 years. When I line my records up on the floor, a profile of my former self takes shape. When I was merely 13, for example, I recorded that I started running at 7:11 AM, and ran eight miles in 59:21, averaging a pace of 7:25. My records sometimes list complaints: “Legs felt like bricks,” “legs hurt,” “windy,” or “toe bled a lot,” and still the mileage remains consistent with my training plan, the splits even.
There is a theme in my journals — and in my daily pursuit of distance — of the identity I’ve found in running, one that thrives on equal parts pleasure and pain. Running requires diligence that often borders on obsession, and, in chasing faster times and longer distances, I perpetually push my body to the brink of what is possible, until I teeter on the precipice of harm.
I used to find community in my high school team, and, for a short time, as a Division I athlete, but now alone, I find solace in several exceptional essays that open conversations about the limits of the body, of developing an identity through running, and, mostly, why any of us run in the first place.
1. “Running Towards My Father” (Devin Kelly, LitHub, June 2017)
Devin Kelly opens his essay with a description of his father, who is out for his daily three-mile run.
When he runs, my father’s breathing hustles to a rhythmic grunt punctuated by each footfall, accompanied by the swish of his nylon jacket. I have never seen my father bend or stretch. Before he runs, he takes off the clothes he does not need and begins, simply, as if a bird did not have to flap a feather before flying.
Kelly deftly weaves together his father’s running habit with his own pursuit of long distances, exploring failure, connections between running and writing, our identity as “creatures of longing,” and accepting pain, describing the sensation of “knowing how to dance along the thin line that is where your mind meets your body, about listening and being generous to yourself, about adjusting and re-adjusting, about, like so much else, trust.”
2. “How Running Ruined my Relationship, Killed My Faith…and Saved My Life” (Allison Stockman, Narratively, April 2018)
Allison Stockman, at 15, meets her first boyfriend who, while running, “had transformed from a skinny, seemingly weak, invisible kid to a lithe, powerful athlete who ran with the joy and abandon of Pheidippides and the irresistible style and charisma of Prefontaine.” So begins their romance, one complicated by her Mormon faith.
I had to explain that, as a true believer and follower of the faith, I was 100 percent committed to: no drinking, no smoking, no coffee, no tea, church for three hours every Sunday, and, of course, no premarital sex.
Throughout this essay, one that opens with a doctor prescribing Prozac and a 20-minute daily run in an in-patient psych ward, Stockman makes clear the ways that religion, running, and identity are linked in complicated — and often heartbreaking — ways. Running becomes both a lifeline and a metaphor, a way of making sense of an arduous personal transformation.
I knew I had to find some way to will myself back out there, even if there wasn’t a heaven anymore, no finish line to cross, no reward to be won from all that self-denial and sacrifice to live a “good” life.
3. “This Man Expects to Run a 2:50 in the Boston Marathon on Monday” (Lindsay Crouse, The New York Times, April 12, 2018)
Tim Don, at 40, had spent the majority of his life pursuing excellence as a competitive athlete, which not only gave him sponsorships and a career, but also much of his identity. When he was hit by a car during a pre-race bike ride, he suffered a hangman’s fracture, breaking his C2 vertebrae. Immobile and in pain, he made it clear that “a return to competition was his only option.”
In this harrowing story, Lindsay Crouse chronicles Don’s will to not only run the Boston Marathon, but run it in under 2:50. In order to reach the starting line, Don’s doctors equip him with a halo device, one in which titanium pins are screwed directly into the skull. Don’s story is one that raises questions about how far a person can — and should — go to pursue a sport:
Is his drive to compete again — the same drive that enabled him to record the world’s fastest time in one of the world’s most grueling races — fueling an incredible comeback? Or is he risking his health in pursuit of athletic feats that may no longer be attainable?
4. Amelia Boone is Stronger Than Ever (as told to Marissa Stephenson, Runner’s World, June 19, 2018)
Amelia Boone, who won the “World’s Toughest Mudder — a 24-hour nonstop obstacle course race – in 2012, 2014, and 2015,” was known as the “Queen of Pain” in endurance running for pushing the limits of bodily discomfort, course difficulty, and distance. There seemed to be no end to what Boone could accomplish with what she describes as a vicious internal pressure to never let herself fail:
I felt so much external pressure to keep winning. You have to keep winning, Amelia. You have to keep winning. What happens when you don’t win anymore? I felt like I had to put on this persona: Amelia’s a badass. Amelia will power through. This was an image I lived in for years, and it never felt comfortable to me.
After suffering a femur fracture, Boone attempts to return to competition by cross-training with unmatched intensity. But instead of finding herself back on the starting line, she ends up with a stress fracture in the base of her spine, and is finally forced to reconcile the disparity between the voice in her head telling her to chase perfection and the limits of her body. In this candid, moving essay, she addresses the importance of dismantling her own veneer of perfection to find true, lasting strength.
5. A Marathon, a Goal Time, the Sublime, and a Wolf (Jeanne Mack, Medium, November 2017)
Jeanne Mack, in an essay chronicling her training for the New York City Marathon, articulates the way in which long distance running asks us to press against the borders of everything we believe possible.
In literature, the concept of the sublime is something equally beautiful and terrifying; it is awe-filling. It’s something so great, infinite, or obscure that it’s inconceivable. This fall, that, for me, described the marathon distance. It towered somewhere in the sky, above anything else I’d tried to accomplish before.
Mack, who trains mostly in solitude, explores the tension between the recommended splits she hits during training and the inherent knowledge of her own potential. In isolation, she proves her strength time and time again to herself, communing with her body and the world around her during runs. Always, even in light of too-quick splits or a wayward GPS, she finds a way to surge toward her goals, what she terms “the edge of the sublime.”
6. The Immortal Horizon (Leslie Jamison, The Believer, May 2011)
Set at the Barkley Marathons, a race notorious for its difficult terrain, length, and mysterious entry procedures, Leslie Jamison illuminates how myths and stories are created while asking, why do we run? Jamison explores obsession, redemption, control, willpower, and pain, circling the idea of long distance running as if she was a hawk, wheeling closer and closer to the heart of the sport as this eleven-part essay progresses.
The persistence of “why” is the point: the elusive horizon of an unanswerable question, the conceptual equivalent of an un-runnable race.
Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir of running and illness.