Last week I bumped into a neighbor in our building and got to chatting about his experience having just finished the LA Marathon. To use his words, it was the hardest thing he’d ever done in his life, painful as hell, a humbling experience, amazing, and life changing. This sort of contradictory reflection is not uncommon I’m noticing. I myself have never run a marathon, though I’m sort of obsessing about it lately and trying to compute in my head whether I’ve got it in me. About 70% of the time I’ve got that optimistic runner’s brain that says “hell yes I can run that.” But there’s that 30% that throws me, and I’ll tell you what populates that 30%. The content is completely anecdotal. I hear stories from other runners about seeing people collapse, cry, vomit, and even go into cardiac arrest on the marathon course. Yes that’s probably rare but it’s still terrifying and begs the question: should we be running this kind of mileage? I hear women say things like “it was harder than giving birth” and all I can think is, well damn, why would I do THAT? I don’t even get a baby when I’m done. I’m not going to lie people, as much as runners proceed to talk out of the other side of their mouth using phrases like “life-changing,” “spiritual experience,” and “incredible,” the allure of those terms are not quite outweighing the fear of heart attacks, collapse, and vomiting in front of thousands of people (I’ve already done that, rather not repeat it, ask me to tell you the story sometime).
Ultimately I think I get it. As a runner I can understand the thin line between pain and pleasure. The sense that the accomplishment isn’t worth it unless it was earned through sweat and tears. We run BECAUSE it’s hard, not in spite of it. But I don’t know, this whole marathon thing seems to take that to a new level which leaves me wondering, is it necessary for me? Can I get that same feeling of achievement, accomplishment, pride, from my happy little half marathons? The problem is that I think the answer is no. We always have to top ourselves. We need a stronger fix to get the high! It’s no wonder that veteran marathoners often evolve into ultra-marathoners; but the truth is, we all do have a line that we really can’t cross without seriously endangering our health. We push that line, boy do we push it, but it will only bend so far. For some runners, that line is a 135 mile ultra-run through Death Valley in July. For Bruce Dern, who has run over 104,000 miles in his lifetime (he’s 77, you do the math) that line was to run from California to Colorado. Why stop there? For runners like Robert Garside, there pretty much is no line! He ran around the world.
So I guess what I’m really struggling with is not whether or not marathons are a healthy or smart thing to do. Thousands of people successfully complete marathons every year. The evidence suggests, overwhelmingly, that it’s possible. What I’m struggling with, what I don’t know is… where is my line?
There are a lot of things I don’t know about myself. I have of late been struggling with, to turn an overused phrase, an existential crisis. Questions eat away at me. What am I supposed to be doing with my life? What career should I really be pursuing? Do I really want to have children someday? What kind of actor am I? What is my myth? What is the story I’m meant to tell. Who the hell am I?
It’s all so annoying. Such first world problems,but they plague me. There are really two things I feel certain of right now in my life. I’m certain that I’m in love with Brad Light and want to spend the rest of my life with him. And I’m certain that I enjoy making Whimsy Dos and bringing a little floral beauty to the world. There are more ancillary certainties as well. I know my cats are the best cats. I love California and I never want to leave. I know I know I know that cilantro tastes like soap. Those small certainties comfort me, but the big questions remain.
I chip away at them. I try to breathe and remember that worrying about the questions often distracts us from the answer. I try to just live, because ultimately these are all rather western concerns. What I am supposed to be determines my success rate. My success rate determines my status in the world. My status in the world determines my value in the world. My value in the world is EVERYTHING. Very western. To quote my brother, “sometimes a beautiful sunset is more important.” I believe that. I do. I guess I can’t help but still succumb to the pressures of our little western definitions of identity. I do want to feel as though I’ve fulfilled some sort of destiny. Made a contribution. I’m turning 30 this year. So many of my friends have already done so much. Mothers, fathers, doctors, lawyers, physicists, teachers, movie stars. What have I done? Doesn’t feel like a lot.
Oy! Now I’m falling down an existential rabbit hole of doubt and self-pity. Not my intention! Wow, not the direction I thought this post would take, but what a discovery that is. I’m not going to edit it. All of this has been on my mind. I’ve been trying to work it out, and I’ve realized as I’ve put it into words that THAT is what that line represents for me. Running takes on metaphorical meaning in so many aspects of my life, this being no exception. So that line, that limit, whether it’s running a marathon or running around the world, where is it for me? What am I made of? What can I accomplish? Who am I? Not knowing has obviously been incredibly frustrating, on the course and off. So I guess there’s only one way to answer my own question. I have to run a marathon.