I run with my husband, Rock. That doesn’t fully describe it. I work through slow starts, charge up hills, and sprint to the finish in equal step with my main person. Some of the most meaningful moments of my life have taken place running next to him. Many with the sun at that perfect point in the sky, adrenaline pumping bliss into my veins and the powerful sense of his presence as we move step over step together. It's like some scenic metaphor for the life we share.
But other defining moments have come on those ugly runs. You know those runs where you contemplate stopping and crying to a pedestrian about your aging knees or betting on how long you'd have to lie on the ground until a stranger would grab you up to carry you to a nearby convenience store and shower you with the cornucopia of treats you clearly earned. You know. Ugly runs.
Last spring, we ran the Central Park Loop. We didn't mean to. It's 6.2 miles. I hadn’t focused on distance running since a knee/back injury four years before. That injury led to a tumultuous breakup with distance running that left me heartsick for years. Even after a full recovery I kept the mileage limited. It was a bit like calling to hear distance running' voice and then quickly hanging up, wondering if it missed me too.
But you know, Central Park. You can't be there are not take a little jog. So we went, but we didn’t actually know any specific trails within the park and were too lazy to actually look at the map posted at the entrance. Too easy. There are people running and we kind of trail behind, using them as guides. Then some light sprinkling. "Eh, we're already out here. And we're waterproof. Whatever." Then rain. "How far if we just turnaround?" Then a full storm. By that point we'd gone, well, I don't know how far. And that was kind of the thing. I couldn't figure whether it would be easier to go back or go forward. I didn't know the course. We weren't wearing watches. I had no frame of reference. My knees hurt, I was tired, I wanted to stop and walk, but welcome to running. That's me all the time. Besides my clothes were soaked so I couldn't comfortably finish a workout in the gym.
We kept going and eventually hit a notable turn in the road. We MUST be halfway now! (We weren't.) The other runners we'd been running near seemed to have evaporated. And frankly that park is a topographical phenomenon. It is entirely uphill save on short downhill slant about 3/4 of the way through. Near what I mistakenly thought was the end, there was this creme de la creme of a hill/small mountain that probably allows for the employment of several sherpas. Now don't get me wrong. I LOVE hills. I own hills. In every race I have run, that's where I have overtaken most of the similarly slow runners I have overtaken. It's the one place I sometimes outpace my husband. But THIS hill was a monster. It twisted over and over so every time you rounded a corner you stupidly believe that you were hitting the peak. (You weren't.) Instead, you'd just find another uphill curve. Maddening.
At one point, I desperately panted: "How far does this hill go!?!" A nearby woman methodically plodding up the hill calmly responded: "Forever." Oh that IS IT. I started walking. Screw this. Where are we?! We've been running forever. Almost entirely uphill. Everything hurts. How did we get so far away from what is familiar? We are lost. We have no money for a taxi. We have no shortcut. Who's stupid freaking idea was this, ROCK!!?? (It was mine.)
I remember my high school running partner, Mary Beth, always telling me: "Go as slow as you need. Just don't stop. Never stop. It's harder to start from a stop than to speed up from a steady slow pace." So I don't stop. Ever. Except until I did. And I wanted to have an adult fit about it--in my lycra.
Then the ugly, insensitive truth occurred to me: You don't always get to see the top of the hill. You don't always get to have the reassurance of a successful end while you are running towards it. So I ran. I ran up that mother f@&#ing hill.
When I could finally make out the skyline that I knew for certain included our hotel, my legs shot off. Jogging out. Near sprinting in. I raced to the end like there was a winner's check waiting for me there. I spotted a grown man far in front of me and picked the point by which I would overtake him. And did. (So much easier to race someone who doesn't know the competition IS ON. Boom, count it!)
It was a total D-move by me. Rock was running with an injury and I peeled off. I could hear him yelling to wait, but I couldn't stop. It was elating to have struggled so dang hard, to have wanted to stop and actually stopped, and then feel my feet and legs power up to a speed I haven't hit in distance running in years.
It was easily one of the very worst and one of the very best runs of my life. We were drenched and whipped. But nothing--absolutely nothing--feels like coming in strong to the finish you weren't sure you'd make.
I'm a regular sack of self-doubt and a sharp-tongued critic of my many faults and failings. I do find though that I am step-by-step getting better. Getting better at charging ahead even when I cannot see the top of the hill. Getting better at moving forward when I am sure JUST SURE I don't have what it takes. Until I find that, I do. So do what you must to experience the moments that lapse between the start and end of a run, without a finish line in mind.
About the author: Sara Grey is the founder of FiTONIC and only slightly uncomfortable with the idea of running without a finish line in mind.