The First Thousand Miles

In high school, the worst day of my life came twice a year. It was the day the state of Pennsylvania required us to run one and a half miles. I wasn’t terribly out of shape in high school, just disinterested in sports. I was competitive enough in most sports not to stand out, at least, but when it came time to run that mile and a half I was a panting, slobbering mess. Some classmates (the rebels) refused to run, strolling defiantly around the cinder track as I shuffled past, but the rules said anyone who ran slower than 18 minutes had to repeat the test after school, so I made myself run. When it was over, I would return with the rest of the class to the gym, and lay wheezing and light-headed on the parquet floor as our teacher read off times. I was always among the last finishers.

The degradation and public shaming of the mile and a half stayed with me well into adulthood. I spent most of my life believing myself incapable of running, and over the years that inability turned to loathing. Even in college, when I discovered hockey and goaltending and turned into an unabashed athlete, I never ran. The few times I attempted to run, motivated usually by the excess fat I was hauling around, I developed shin splints and quit. From the age of 17 until I was 31, there were few things I liked more about finishing high school than knowing no one could ever force me to run a mile and a half again.

All of which makes it hard to comprehend that last week I ran my 1,000th mile.

I didn’t start running because I discovered a love for it. It wasn’t the “runners high” or the sense of accomplishment. It was much simpler than that: I ran to get my girlfriend back. I’d made a half-hearted attempt before we split up, because I saw how important running was to her and wanted to share the interest, but those shin splints came up fast, and I could never make it more than thirty seconds without feeling like I was going to die. I never really felt motivated until two things happened. First we split up. Then she started dating a new guy. A runner.

I guess everyone needs to find their own motivation. For some, it’s the fear of heart disease and an early death. For others, it’s a shallow desire to look good. For me, it was winning her back. I started slow, following the Couch-to-5K plan on Cool Running. Those first few days, half a minute of running set me gasping like I’d just finished a triathlon. It was embarrassing, but I kept at it. The next week I could run twice as long, and the week after that twice as long again.

Back in high school, a certain vision came to mind every time I ran that mile and a half. In elementary school my class read a book, Stone Fox. If you remember it, you know where this is going. The book is about a dogsled race in the Yukon, and a boy who competes against the legendary American Indian racer, Stone Fox. As the boy nears the finish line, his loyal pet dog pulling his sled all alone, he seizes the lead. Just as he’s poised to win, the dog’s heart explodes from exhaustion and the animal drops dead. There’s a lovely and heartbreaking climax in which Stone Fox stops and threatens to kill any other racer who crosses the finish line before the boy, weeping and carrying his dead dog, can win**, but that’s not the point. The point is, every time my heart started thumping, I was sure it was going to explode. The solution was to wear a heart rate monitor. My sister had given me one as a gift, and I’m not lying when I say there were at least a half a dozen occasions I had to check the readout to convince myself I wasn’t in heart-explody territory.

As the weeks went by, something amazing happened: I learned that I was capable of running. The guy who’d been gasping for breath after thirty seconds first ran fifteen minutes, then twenty, twenty-five, and finally a full thirty minutes without stopping. The weight melted off me – close to 30 pounds in a little more than two months, though part of that was admittedly because post-breakup depression is a terrific appetite suppressant. Something else amazing happened, though: my girlfriend and I rekindled our relationship. I can’t put this entirely on the running (there was a bit of an explosive emotional growth spurt around the same time) but I won’t say the running didn’t help. To encourage me, she suggested that we do a race together. Since she never does anything small, said race was of course a marathon.

The great thing about running a marathon in April was that sheer terror kept me motivated. On dark January nights, when the temperature was ten degrees below freezing, you could find me swathed in three layers of high-tech compression cold-gear, running miles on the icy streets of Philadelphia. That marathon was a learning experience in itself. From my first training run to my first step off the starting line, I expected to fail. In all honesty, it wasn’t until I’d completed 23 of those 26.2 miles that I even began to believe I would finish. When I crossed the finish line, I had no choice but to accept that with enough hard work and preparation, I could do a lot of things I considered impossible. Then I laid down in the grass and felt like hell for about five hours.

I haven’t been in a hurry to run another marathon, but I’ve kept running. It’s been less than sixteen months since I started the Couch-to-5K, and I’ve run races in Philadelphia, New York City, and Virginia Beach at distances ranging from a 5K to a marathon. I ran my 1,000th mile the way I ran my first: all alone on an unglamorous training run along a very familiar stretch of South Broad Street. But I ran miles 1,001 – 1,008 with my girlfriend at my side.

Miles 1,009-1,011 came this past weekend in a race. She took first place, and I took 96th. Cheeseball as it sounds, I think I’m the real winner.

Oh, and as for that mile and a half, I can now do it in under twelve minutes. I’m not sure exactly where that would have put me back in high school, but at least I know I wouldn’t have to take the test over again.

** I realize this is a major spoiler, but seriously. I read this book when I was seven. Don’t blame me if you’re that far behind.

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