We were on gchat. I wonder if years from now, I’ll start this story and my curly headed child will look up at me confused about some archaic structure, “What’s gchat?” in the same way that kids do now when asking about a time before cell phones. Still, I remember when gchat started, that blinking box, connecting our conversation across continents, states, or even the same room. We were on gchat and she had moved to DC and calls were difficult to come by. I’ve always had a hard time on the phone. The box blinked. “Let’s run a marathon.” I’ve been a runner since high school and do it for the sheer joy of the wind and the pounding pavement. A marathon was a challenge feeling seemingly impossible, but a good goal. “Ok.”
I never thought I would actually do it. I wanted to think I could do it, but I had also given myself an out even at the beginning to not go through with it. Still, I told her “Sure.” I mustered excitement about how it would be incredible. We imagined the scene. Two years later we signed up. We planned to do it together in DC and I started training in Atlanta. The hours it takes to train start small, but then they get longer. Five mile runs turn to nine miles, to thirteen miles, and you plan your life around the next three hours you’ll spend with the road. As the day got closer, I struggled with a challenging job and other life variables and then made the choice to run alone in a race in my own city, rather than with her. I told myself I could still give up. I didn’t have to do this.
I started running cross country my junior year of high school. My coach was a wiry old man, white haired and no time for excuses. He had lived a lot of life and appeared to expect us to embrace the pain and thrill of it. This meant he expected us to run every day of the week. It was his proven method. It was his holy grail. He expected it because he was also out there running, every day. That fall, I planned my life around this assumption: that if I got out there, every day, it would change me. So, I made sure I got plenty of sleep and ate during classes to carb load before runs in the afternoon. My weekends were treks that started before the sun was up on buses to old horse racing trails. Even on race days, we trained. We ran a mile before our race and a mile after and we always sprinted the last 100 yards. Over and over. Regardless of how I felt.
I loved running. I hated running. And, it slowly became the place I found myself. I went there to think. I went there to cry. I went there to laugh, to fight, and simply to be. I could feel whatever I needed to. And, I could keep moving. Running became my solitude. The road doesn’t care what you look like or if you failed your last assignment. She doesn’t care about the fight you just had. She doesn’t care about your promotion or the little money you have in your bank account. The seeming good or the bad. She asks you to get out there and accepts whatever you’ve got. She just asks you to show up.
When I ran that day, I had a couple of friends who followed the course and met up with me along the way, at the parts I felt like I could barely continue on. When my phone died and my music gave out and they let me swap with theirs. When I had a particularly long hill. And, just to say, “You can do it” and then “You did” when I finished, tired and overwhelmed with emotion.
If you ask anyone who has run a marathon about what it felt like to finish, I wonder if they’ll struggle with the sentences. There are few words to really speak when in the midst of a victory. Nothing really does it justice. When you’ve put every last ounce of energy and hope into something and then it’s done. The pure joy and utter exhaustion.
As a counselor, I think about how I feel sitting across from someone who is fighting for their life; like they’re running a marathon, and I couldn’t be prouder and more honored to be there with whatever they bring. I want to see their face and the triumph as they show up through the pain. I want to be there when they get to the other side of that finish line and find the person they are and the strength they have. That’s what the road hopes for. That’s what she taught me.