On Not Trying. And Trying.

Here’s a piece by my friend Caitlin, about how she found herself running 50 miles in a day, even though she’s not a runner. Or wasn’t.

I always tell people that I was picked last for teams in gym class, but I think that’s actually an exaggeration for dramatic purposes. I was definitely in the bottom quintile, you can bet on that. It’s the Ball Sports. All of them. They fill me with dread. I quit soccer after one season in grade one due to all that dribbling around cones. In high school I joined the track team for lack of anything better to do after school. No balls involved, and yet I still didn’t try very hard. Once, when told to go out for a run, my friend and I jogged to Friendly’s, ate a Reese’s Pieces sundae and jogged back to school. Workout over. 

I was recruited for the crew team in college, if you call having a girl named Emily corner me after choir practice and say “We’ve noticed you’re tall. We need you for the crew team” as being hand-selected. I put in effort at crew practice, but not enough to make the ‘A’ boat. Just hard enough to not let my teammates down or accidentally flip our boat over in the still-toxic  Androscoggin River.

Then came a decade (or two?) of gym-going and intermittent running. Corporate 5k fun runs. A couple of sprint triathlons. Not to win, mind you, but maybe to win at exercising. Running was a thing that happened sometimes, a means to an end. I didn’t run regularly, nor for very long.

Last year, some friends convinced me to join their team for a half marathon, a distance that my middle school self could never have contemplated while slogging through the dreaded timed-mile in P.E. I plugged away every week at my one-size-fits-all Internet training plan, tacking on one more mile to each weekend run. I ran the race faster than expected. I surprised myself. Maybe I actually like running? I still had my doubts.

I figured that was it for long runs for a while. Then the plague came. And the being stuck at home. And the near-constant parental duties. Suddenly I latched onto running as a means to keep my wits about me. I signed up for increasingly intense virtual running challenges put on by Yeti Trail Runners. Run 50k (31 miles) over the course of 24 hours? Run/hike the elevation of Mt. Everest (29,029 ft) in the month of June? I did them both. I liked having parameters, a list of things to accomplish. Free-spirited wandering through the woods this was not. Stubbornness propelled me, as did my puritanical need to do things the hard way. I felt called to appreciate the fact that I was physically able to do such things, when so many other people were too sick to run. Or were getting detained by the police while on a run. I turned each event into a fundraiser for Covid relief or racial justice. Something that mattered. Somehow racking up miles just for myself felt…greedy? Selfish? I don’t know. We Puritans can’t just do things for the fun of it, you know. 

The MOTHER OF ALL the challenges came in October. 50 miles over the course of 24 hours, neatly broken into 8.3 mile chunks every 4 hours. “Sure. I can do that. Wait, can I do that? I’m not convinced. I’m not an athlete. I’m not a runner”. So sayeth my inner voice.

I made up my own training plan. I practiced being on my feet and on the move for hours at a time. An hours-long run one week. A 15 hour hike in the White Mountains another. I still had my doubts that I could pull this thing off, until it was actually time to start the thing. “Just try it and see what happens”, said my husband. That sounds reasonable unless you know yourself and you know that you will have a very hard time quitting, even if it’s the right thing to do.

Fortunately, I have running friends who can be talked into bad ideas like running in the pitch-black woods at 4 AM, or at midnight around the Charles River in Boston. I had company on every single leg, including my family, riding bikes, for leg 5, which, as predicted, was the hardest slog of all. By then the lack of sleep and questionable food choices were starting to catch up to me. So close to the end but yet…not. I also felt the added pressure of demonstrating to my kids (particularly my daughter), that one can keep going, even when doing something difficult. Something that seems undoable. “This is really hard”, I whispered to her, making no effort to hide my misery.

After getting over that immense mental hurdle (harder than the 300m of hurdles I barely cleared at high school track meets), the relief was palpable. I would finish this. On the last leg, around the Charles again at 8:00 PM, my friend blasted “Eye of the Tiger”, riding her bicycle next to me. Little did she know that that was the song my gym teacher played as we did our warm-up lap every week in the elementary school gymnasium. The lap we did to get ready for the ball sport I was dreading. This time, though, I felt like an athlete. Finally.