About a year ago, I had what I will optimistically call a 1/3rd life crisis. Twenty-nine had arrived, and I was officially leaving the ranks of youth to join the world of real adulthood.
When you’re in your twenties, you always have ‘later’ to look forward to. It’s okay if you screwed something up, you can always fix it later. Bombed that relationship? No worries, you’ll have a better one later. Crappy job? You’ll get a better one later. Heck, you can still start an entirely new career! You have plenty of time when you’re in your twenties!
Now, obviously, everybody who is reading this who is 40 or above is shaking their heads at the mind-boggling insanity of calling 30 old, but hey, remember when you were in kindergarten and you thought the first graders looked huge? Age is relative.
All of this is to say that I sat my butt down and wrote out some lists. Specifically, I wanted to prepare myself for the decade ahead. I won’t bore you with the details, but number one was dealing with the biggest deficiencies that I’ve needed to turn around for… well, my entire life. It was my lack of any exercise.
I’ve never been an athletic person. I briefly flirted with track and cross country in my early high school days before retreating to the safety of theater. I was a terrible runner, and it didn’t help that our coach’s idea of training was more sitting in a car than any sort of instruction. Gyms always intimidated me, and I never could get the hang of working out. Over the years I managed to get a semi-regular habit of lifting a few weights and using an exercise bike, but it never amounted to much.
The Chicago Marathon passes by one of my old apartments, and a few years ago I watched the runners pass by on a brisk fall morning. My days failing at cross country have always left something of a chip on my shoulder about running, leaving me wondering if I could actually do it right if I really tried. A desire to run a marathon of my own welled up in me. But I was in my mid twenties. I ran a little, then quit. I could always do it later.
I experience a sort of reverse seasonal affective disorder, as the summer months are typically when a lack of serotonin takes hold in my brain. Around my 29th birthday, I was having a crap time for a variety of reasons, one of which was the 1/3rd-life crisis described above. I needed something to get out my funk. I needed something that would force me to exercise.
I needed to run.
Self-conciousess is the enemy of fitness, the way it shames you from wandering into a gym or running along a trail. Whenever I started anything, I felt like a fraud compared to the armies of tone athletes twisting around in weight machines in mysterious ways. To get over this, I gave myself a silly goal to work towards: the Krispy Kreme Challenge.
For those of you who don’t know, the Krispy Kreme Challenge takes place every year in Raleigh, North Carolina, where the nation’s stupidest people (including me) get together, run 2.5 miles, eat 12 doughnuts, then run another 2.5 miles. The first time I ran, I didn’t train hardly at all. This time I gave myself 6 months and a goal of running the 5 miles in 50 minutes so I would have ten minutes to eat the doughnuts.
If you run at all, you know that everybody will tell you the same thing: running is awful, it destroys your knees, and that you should only run when you’re running from something, etc, etc etc. And for sure, when you’re first starting out, running is indeed misery. I started out barely able to run over a mile, clawing my way towards two miles. For months, I fell apart as soon as I hit 2.5 miles. 5 miles seemed impossibly far away.
Also, something to note, I can’t wear any sort of headphones while running. In fact, I can’t even wear my hearing aids because they fill up with sweat and stop working properly. I’m hard of hearing, so I run in near silence, just me and my thoughts. For those first few months, these thoughts were all about how much pain I was in and how much I wanted to stop running.
In February, we flew down to Raleigh to do the Krispy Kreme Challenge. Hungry and tired after getting off the plane, we made a critical miscalculation and ate a giant BBQ meal the night before the race. The meal was delicious; the indigestion when I woke up was not. Making matters worse, Raleigh was in the middle of a cold snap, and it was 20 degrees outside when we took off.
I arrived at the doughnut station still stuffed from the dinner the night before. I took one bite from the first Krispy Kreme and knew I was in for it. It was stale and hard from sitting outside in below-freezing temperatures, and I could barely get it down. I looked at the remaining eleven in despair. Taking it one bite at a time, telling myself each one would be the last, it took me over twenty-five minutes to eat the dozen. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
I was crusted in frozen glaze when I finished eating. A girl nearby puked on the concrete. I ran on. Despite all my training, because of the debacle at the doughnut station I actually ended up with a worse time than I had gotten on my previous attempt at the Krispy Kreme Challenge.
But it wasn’t about the challenge. It was about running, and training for the 5 mile race had gotten me close to my real goal: run a 10K, which is around 6.2 miles. The farthest I ever run in high school was 6 miles, and I wanted to prove to myself I could do again.
I had my breakthrough in late February in the depths of Chicago winter as I ran through sleet and snow. Finally breaking past the 6 mile mark that had eluded me for so long, I understood at last why people like running. Instead of every step being pain, I found a pace that I could run for what felt like an indefinite distance. I could look forward to running. It was peaceful.
To keep myself moving, I gave myself my final challenge of my twenties, what I had been working up to since I sat down and wrote out my list of goals: to run a half marathon. 13.1 miles isn’t anywhere close to a full marathon, but it was far more distance than I had ever covered before. I signed up while I was still in Raleigh trying to digest a dozen doughnuts. The Rock n’ Roll Half Marathon in Chicago would take place in July, just weeks after my 30th birthday.
As I trained, I began to understand an something about running that fit in with my philosophy on writing. You’re never going to be in the perfect mood, with the perfect conditions, so you should just go do it, no matter what. Is it raining? Good, that means you can be prepared if it rains during the race. Does your knee hurt? That’s fine, stretch it out and run anyway. Often, I found many of my aches and pains would go away once my body realized it wouldn’t work as an excuse to stop. I’m not saying you should ignore everything and run to the point where you permanently injure yourself, but pain is a runner’s companion, not the enemy.
My biggest setback came with the arrival of 90+ degree weather. Chicago is a land of extremes, and I felt myself pining for the halcyon days of snow and ice as I ran under the relentless sun. I had to slow down and reteach myself how to run in the heat, actually bringing along water for a change.
The race arrived. I was more worried about the 6:30am start time than anything else, as I tend to run in the evening. Mercifully, the temperatures were in the 70s, which was perfect. Unfortunately, the forecast also called for rain, which was not perfect.
While we stood in the corral, the first thunderstorm broke, soaking us all before we even got started. The rain continued the entire race, alternating between sprinkling and downpours so hard I couldn’t see through my glasses. I felt great, but my feet quickly blistered in my soaked socks, which caused me to fall into bad form to avoid stepping on the blisters, which caused my foot to seize up. I stomped through it, only stopping once to pull my foot out of a cramp. My whole family was out for the race, and I didn’t want to disappoint them in my first athletic outing since my peewee baseball days.
I finished the 13.1 mile race at a pace of 10:24. Slow, but I made it.
I didn’t have any moment of triumph and clarity at the end. Mostly I swore at my phone, which locked up from the water the second I crossed the finish line. I ate some food, then went home and took a long nap.
Once I recovered, I realized how much has changed in the past year. I’m in a much better place than when I first wrote my list in panic at the idea of turning 30.
I’m officially 30 now. I feel like it, in a good way, not a death-of-youth-now-I’m-an-old-man irrational way. I’m making a new list, and one of the items states that by the time I’m 31 I will complete a marathon.
And maybe, finally, complete the Krispy Kreme Challenge in under an hour. Third time’s the charm, right?