By mile 5 of the Oakland Half Marathon, a woman held up a sign that evoked as much truth as a shoddily constructed piece of poster board with faded Sharpie can possibly relay: “Any idiot can run,” the poster board claimed. “But it takes a special kind of idiot to run a [half] marathon.”
I chuckled because deep laughter from the belly would have surely caused me to yak all over the woman and the sign. At worst, such a feat would have elicited public embarrassment for both parties – at best, I could stand by my claim that a Sharpie and puke laden sign is a far more credible, legitimate text than anything produced by the State of Texas.
Runners may not be morons, per se, but the activity we choose to dedicate our lives can be construed as counterintuitive. For example, at mile 5, I was given a substance called “Gu.” One would suppose, in the state of California, that something called “Gu” would have put me in a mild, psychedelic trance whereby I would feel compelled to pick up a glow stick and contemplate how stupid running 5 miles is. In fact, “Gu” is universal in any decent long-distance race that cares about your being alive by the time mile 13.1 or 26.2 hits. It is a 100-calorie, energy goo (Yes, aren’t we clever, marketing department?) wrapped in the same package that astronauts open to suck their food. Except, rather than heaving a chicken in our respective mouths, runners are forced to digest a substance with the consistency of silly putty. I know this because I am a moron, once a child, who ate silly putty. Alas, those days have been replaced with running long distances.
By mile 6, the cups of water cease to be clear and turn into a transparent red. For decent human beings, it is the color of cherry kool-aid – for recent college graduates who had frugal social lives, it is the hue of a well-mixed jungle juice served in a dilapidated house. By this time, the body loses so much fluid that water retaining electrolytes, diluted in liquid, become the supposed drink of choice. In all honesty, I like it because it tastes like cherry kool-aid and not jungle juice served to me by a drunken boy in lobster patterned shorts leaning on a fence that is about to fall over. This, of course, is personal preference as some individuals attest to necessity of electrolyte ridden sports drinks.
This charade of consuming booger-like gel packets and brah-mixed drinks continues until mile 9. By this time, legs begin to cramp and the normal word to profanity ratio begins to tip in favor of the latter. By mile 10, a Korean Bar-B-Que parked on the side of the road, emanating smells of deliciousness becomes the subject of a “FUCK YOU, I AM RUNNING A RACE.” By mile 11, the entire race ceases to be about the runner ahead of you – it becomes a psychological game based on endurance and distance rather than time or competition. Every person has an Emilio Estevez in the folds of their psyche – that voice of indeterminate Latino origin wielding a hockey stick who beckons you to continue running for various reasons. It pervades the mind, deafens the seventh rotation of “Imma Be” by the Black Eyed Peas. I continued in the heat, dehydration and cramps under the auspice of, I kid you not, my own privilege: “Running this last mile is not hard,” I told myself. “You know what is hard? Being a refugee. Your parents were fucking refugees. On a boat. ON A BOAT.” Emilio, it is difficult to argue with you.
The question so becomes, why subject the body to incredible pressure, to horrendous music, and to guilt that white people like to burden themselves with? Why participate in what is supposedly stupid, counterintuitive, and requires an unnatural exertion of the body? Why partake in an activity that demands an enormous amount of time, energy, and concentration – that necessitates a near daily investment for returns understood by few (even among fellow runners)?
A half-marathon is 13.1 miles – by mile 13, the finish line comes into view. It is one of the few moments in my life in which I find generic, Arial bold font to be utterly gorgeous. A crowd lining the sides of last tenth mile roars in raucous noise – in screams, in drums, in horns, in Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” Arms flail from the cluster of spectators, everyone is eager to high five the runners no matter the affiliation or the performance. Someone screams, “Bob!” and you respond with a yell despite being named not Bob. An empty stretcher rolls across the path during a gap between runners – it is humorous and ironic at mile 13 rather than onerous, terrifying, and possibly prophetic at mile 8. To your peripheral vision on your right is a clock – it flashes the marathon time, the time of what could be. On your left is half marathon split – the time that you had eagerly anticipated in both fear and excitement. Imagine the euphoria of setting a goal that you perceived to be out of reach to the point of nearly recanting it minutes before start time – I saw a time that bested that goal by nearly 3 clock minutes or 5 chip minutes.
For many, running is not just a form of fitness. It is not merely about burning calories, about passing time, or about finding a socially acceptable venue to play “Party in the USA.” On a personal level, it is about trusting that this mind, this body, and these legs will take me the distance that I want to go – that when I say “13.1 miles” I will follow through and complete the 13.1 miles, that when I say “1:55:00,” I can somehow find the reserve of energy for “1:52:01.” More often than not, I fall short. I walk a hill. I find an excuse to stretch. I fumble with my iPod shuffle because Regina Spektor should be relegated to hipster make out sessions, rather than pacing. These runs are infuriating and always end with a lament of how old and brittle I have become at 23.
Yet it is the few runs when everything aligns, when the fanciest of equipment and the extra electrolytes become irrelevant and secondary to will power, that reinforce the justification to continue the mileage. Runners are special idiots that try hard, perhaps, because we are idiots. At least this idiot is experiencing a wave of “runner’s high,” hinged on finally aligning thought and action – and avoided spewing Gu and electrolytes all over that woman.