(This is 50th anniversary of my first article in Runner’s World magazine. All year I post excerpts from my book, This Runner’s World.)
May 2000 (retitled in the magazine). A run is such a nice way to start a day that I’ve started nearly 15,000 days like this. Most of these routine runs were worth repeating, but few are memorable.
Already I can barely recall where this morning’s run took me. It was too easy and pleasant to remember for long. Like footsteps on a dry road, it left behind a nothing to distinguish it from thousands of other runs.
Of all the days the days in a career, a tiny percentage go into the mental video library, Here the pictures and words forever stay as clear as the day they went onto tape.
My most memorable days are all race days. What I remember first about them is that they were no fun until they were done. Racing at its best never is.
Please don’t misread me here. Running can be great fun in ways that runners define the word.
Fun is running through the woods on an October afternoon, hearing leaves crunch underfoot. Fun is leaving the first footsteps in new snow on a January morning. Fun is the first stripping to shorts in spring or the first baring of shoulders to the sun in summer.
Fun is joining a partner or a group and easing the miles with your conversation. Fun is going into a run or race with no goal, thereby leaving yourself open to surprises and immune to disappointments.
Everyday runs can be joyful in and of themselves. But memories so easily and often won are short-lived.
The race, if run with great effort and high expectations, is no fun before or little fun during. It is a beast to be fought.
You hate the thought of going into battle, but you must. If you retreat, the beast wins by default because your nerve has failed before your strength is tested. This battle brings moments of panic and pain, but not to try would feel worse.
I’ve found no cure for these feelings. They stretch from my earliest track races to my latest marathons.
Recently I uncovered an almost-40-year-old newspaper clip. Now yellowed and brittle, its headline and byline are missing, and the years have washed away many of the words. Little more than the molecules of memory hold the story together, but they preserve the finest details of from that day.
Before the race the reporter had asked, “How do you feel?” That old story has me saying, “Terrible. I don’t know how I’ll do.” I feared not doing what had to be done that day.
Little is at stake in my current marathons. I’ve run this far dozens of times before, and much faster than now. Still, I never fail to suffer from advanced pre-marathon syndrome – PMS.
In the last week before a race each little tweak in my legs, tickle in my throat or twinge in my gut threatens to blow up into a major illness or injury. This magnification of symptoms defines PMS.
Doubts peak in the last hour before a big race. You have a big job to do, and are as likely to fail as succeed at it.
You can’t know in advance how the race will end, which is why racing is both fascinating and fearsome. This fear, unpleasant as it feels at the time, is good for you because it brings out your best efforts.
In my present-day marathons PMS is still necessary part of the experience – the mind’s way of readying the body for the hard work ahead. The imagined maladies nearly always melt away in the first half-hour, leaving me to worry about the normal challenges of the marathon that are tall enough.
A race well run brings instant relief from all the work and worry. That’s when fun of racing begins, at the finish line.
The old news story tells of me “looking fresh... bouncing around congratulating the other runners.” The fun had already started and would never stop.
Taking on this beast and fighting the good fight pushes the after-joy to a level no routine run can leave behind. You suffer for this joy, and it stays with you long after the wounds of extreme effort heal. The mental videotapes from your scariest, hardest and best days are indestructible.
2018 Update. Memory-making comes seldom these days. My race entries total fewer than a dozen since this column appeared. But in some ways the very rarity makes these events all the more memorable.
[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Miles to Go, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, Starting Lines, and This Runner’s World, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]