It feels like a confession, something to be whispered from behind a screen amid pleas for absolution. In fact, I’ve visibly shrunk each of the three or four times I’ve managed to say the words aloud so far; nervous laughter and a wild urge to hide under the table always follow. This is an admission I never thought I’d be in a position to make, but here we are in the final three weeks of Before, and it’s time I finally owned up to it. Kindly disregard my nervous laughter and crazy eyes while I put this out in the open: I’ve been training… [pause]… for a marathon.
Now, you might think this an unnecessary level of drama for an activity that ordinary people all over the world do on a regular basis FOR FUN, but I am no ordinary person. One might even call me extraordinary… as in, She spends an extraordinary amount of time sitting, or She is extraordinarily bad at [fill in your sport of choice]. It’s okay; I laugh at my drunken-squid volleyball serve too. I came to terms long ago with my lack of athletic prowess, and it’s always presented a good excuse to bow out of team sports and workout regimens. “Sorry but I’m allergic to any physical activity more grueling than mopping the floor. Actually, that too. If you care to discuss this further, you can join me at my wondrously be-pillowed computer chair where I will be spending the foreseeable future.”
However, I had the foresight [or lack thereof?] to marry an optimist, and in my very active and very motivated husband’s opinion, couchpotatoitis is not a valid condition. I beg to differ, of course, but Dan can be eerily persuasive, which is how I found myself panting on the track below our house in $20 running shoes and complete anguish of body and soul three years ago. It was… not fun. Running felt a little like going for a spin in the dryer and a little like stuffing decorative pillows down my trachea, but not quite as pleasant as either. I managed three minutes that first day before melting down, clawing at the smoking goo where my face had been like a good Indiana Jones villain.
It’s hard to say why I went back. Maybe I didn’t want the previous day’s horror scene to be the final impression I’d leave on the world of sports. More probably, I didn’t want my sacrifice of dignity to have been in vain. Almost certainly, Dan’s infectious enthusiasm had altered a sliver of my mind into believing that I could improve my health and energy and self-esteem by making this a habit, and I must have hoped against all personal logic that running would get easier with practice.
So I kept at it little by little, a few hard-won kilometers a week, and finally last year, I was able to run five kilometers all at once. Granted, I ran just slightly faster than might an asthmatic penguin, and I was certain of keeling over dead every one of my last thousand steps, but I did it. I, a woman who feels about exercise the way some people feel about spinal taps, had just done the impossible. I came home and informed my husband of the fact; he suggested in turn that I consider running the Venice Marathon with him.
To understand what happened next, you need to know that I have a tiny but decidedly weird rebellious streak. It springs on me out of thin air and prompts me to do things that are wildly against my nature just to prove to myself that I can. It’s why, when I was seventeen, I speared my fork into that pot of grubs in South Africa and ate a bite, convulsing with horror all the while. (The memory, still! Gah.) It’s why, a few weeks into my freshman year at university, I let a group of guys I barely knew smear electric blue dye onto my hair. And it’s why this past spring, after weeks of wringing my hands and gnashing my teeth, I agreed to let Dan sign me up for a couch potato’s worst nightmare.
Truly, something insane had taken over my brain. There was no evidence at all to suggest that I might be capable of running 42.2 kilometers straight at any point in my life, ever. In fact, there was plenty of evidence to the contrary, not the least of which was my shortness of breath and inclination to faint while Dan filled out the registration forms. The whole idea was absurd. But then, there was that compelling, delicious thrill at the idea of doing something absurd. I wanted to throw logic to the wind and see what would happen. The tang of adventure was unmistakable.
There was more to my decision than pure spontaneity though, and this deeper reason has stayed with me on those long training runs that leave everything impetuous and smug about me trampled in the dirt.
So often as an adult, and especially as a stay-at-home mom, I get lulled into a static sense of identity. Daily routines ripple by until my eyes glaze over and I stop expecting anything more of myself. It becomes an insidious lullaby, this subtle internal chant of This is who I am and always will be. I’ve heard people say that our personalities are fully formed by the time we turn twenty and then stick there for good; implied in that, I think, is that our habits and preferences and modi operandi are likewise preserved in concrete once we hit adulthood.
I don’t believe it though, at least not for myself. I am utterly unwilling to accept that my personal growth was designed to stop when I became a legal adult (or a wife, or a mother, or a desperate housewife of Expatria). I see how it could easily happen, how I could just settle into my skin and shrug away my discomfort with parts that fit poorly. After all, I don’t have the time I once did to spend on identity development. However, I’m not content to accept stagnation as a normal part of aging. I’ve met too many delightful tattooed grannies to believe that we’re stuck in our own stereotypes of ourselves. Change is always possible, forward motion is always possible, and it’s vital to my peace of mind that I be able to surprise myself every now and then.
So that’s what I’m doing. I’m hitting the track three or four times and week and surprising the hell out of myself with amount of sweat I can generate, the number of kilometers I can go past my limits, and the sheer force of determination roused like some hidden dormant beast previously unknown to science. Make no mistake, running is still hard hard hard for me. There is nothing easy or graceful or inspirational-footwear-commercial about this experience of mine. I in no way feel like the same breed of human as the lanky runners who pass me on the path, chatting easily with each other as their perfectly defined legs leave mine wobbling in their wake. I haven’t mustered the guts yet to call myself A Runner.
But I should. Because no matter how fraudulent I may feel among long-term athletes, the fact remains that I am there, with splatters of mud tickling my calves and sweat dripping down my sports bra and lungs pulling deeply at the air and muscles taut, active, alive, running. This is my personal rebellion against stasis. I am proving to myself, over and over again, that I am not set in stone, that I am still capable of surprises.
The biggest surprise still remains to be seen. The marathon will be a full ten kilometers farther than my longest training run; that’s an extra hour of pushing myself, and there are no guarantees that I will be able to finish. Now that I’m at the end, my five months of training seem hopelessly short, so unconvincing in their results. If you can believe it, though—and be aware that I can hardly believe it myself—I’m thrumming with excitement over the challenge. Three years to the day after writing my first [uncomplimentary] post about running, I’m going to wake up in Venice, take a train to the starting line, and wage the biggest tiny rebellion of my life so far. And maybe then, with my shadow keeping time on the cobblestones beside me, I’ll summon the courage to stop shrinking and nervous-laughing the worth of this risk away.
Update: How Marathon Day went down.