Even when I was just taping off my steps before the race started, I was comparing myself to the other runners. I don’t remember many of the moments of the actual 100 meters in high school, but I remember walking off steps around the curve in my lane on the track, and that the distance between my two pieces of athletic tape was much longer than anyone in the other seven lanes in the 4 x 100 relay. As our third runner, I eventually got up to speed, but I needed a long runway. The second leg runners would come flying in, and everyone in the other lanes would need six, eight, maybe 10 steps to get up to speed for an efficient baton handoff. I would count off more like 20 or 22 steps.
I was the direct opposite of my friend Chris, who led off our relay, and was capital-e Explosive out of the blocks. In his football cleats, I would have no doubts about betting on him vs. a brick wall standing five feet away from him. At 160 pounds, he was the lightest shot-putter to qualify for the state track meet that year. Chris would start off our 4 x 100 relay, hand off to Casey, who would later be a college athlete. Casey would catch me just as I (finally) got up to speed, hand the baton to me, and I’d hammer as fast as I could for 100 meters until I passed to Ryan, who would also go on to be a college wide receiver. Ryan would fly to the finish line, sometimes passing a few people on his way.
I had little real athletic success in high school, but near the tail end of my junior year, I started to develop some speed. Our track team wasn’t exactly the flagship athletic program of our small school—we had a cinder track and rarely hosted a home track meet—but it was my biggest success, mostly on our 4 x 100 and 4 x 200 relay teams. I had high hopes we’d actually make the state track meet in something and I’d get to go, and the 4 x 100 was our best chance.
For a couple months that year, as part of those relay teams, I felt fast. We did well at most of our meets, and as the season went on, we were in reach of a qualifying time for State Track. In the end, though, we came up four-hundredths of a second short. It was late in the school year, we were graduating, and “barely not making it” had started to feel like a bit of a theme in my life.
I had just missed graduating Magna Cum Laude by three-thousandths of a grade point, something that could have been rectified by not fucking around in gym class for four years (or maybe fucking around just a tiny bit less during just one of eight semesters), and I hadn’t gotten into any great colleges. At age 18, when you might love to see a sign from the universe indicating some sort of direction for the rest of your life, I began to realize “directly competing with other people” was probably not, for me, going to be a path to success or fulfillment.
There are plenty of ways to be “the best” when you’re in high school—conference champs, all-district, valedictorian, homecoming/prom royalty, most likely to succeed, but most of us graduate with lots of experience being “not the best” at a lot of things. There’s only one Number One, obviously, and then the rest of us. After my final track meet, I had no immediate reason to keep running 100-meter dashes and 200-meter dashes, or running at all, for that matter.
I didn’t get back into regular running until 18 years later, minus a short break in 2006 when I trained for and ran a road marathon “to see what it was like” and also to make myself quit smoking. It worked: I found out what it was like, didn’t enjoy it all that much, and quit smoking.
Plenty of adults, such as myself, get turned off by running because we think we should be fast, and we suck at being fast. It’s pretty easy to think that way, especially if you wear a watch, or track your mileage and time with a smartphone app, or run an organized race. The numbers are right there: You ran that mile in 9:38. You got 13,942nd place overall in the race. Of the human beings of your gender within 5 years of your age who signed up for a specific race in your region, you were the 182nd best at covering 6.2 miles efficiently on foot.
In the middle of my 18-year break from running, though, I picked up this magical book called Born to Run, had my mind blown, and found a different reason to run: To answer the question “How far can I go?” Which was far more interesting to me than “How do I compare with other people covering a certain distance on a certain day in a certain place?”
I trained for, entered, and completed ultramarathon-distance trail races—50 km, 50 miles, 100 km, 100 miles—and of course, was timed and ranked according to how fast I went. But the point, to me, was answering the question, “Can I do it?” And it was great to have someone take care of planning the route and supplying the snacks and water for me so I could just concentrate on going forward. For me, right now, that’s where the real magic lies: the ability to just keep moving. On the trail. With a bunch of other people who aren’t so much competition, more like fellow idiots.
How fast we go, of course, can be a good metric for our progress: What’s the absolute shortest amount of time we can cover a certain distance, or how does one mile at X:00 pace feel, or can we shave a couple seconds off last week’s time running up a certain hill or segment. But going farther is, at this point in my life, more exciting. I can look at a map and figure out a new route, maybe to a new place or on a new trail, knowing that with a certain amount of calories and water stashed in my vest, I can comfortably cover X distance—or, let’s be honest, semi-comfortably or uncomfortably.
I co-host a running podcast a couple times a month, and one of the questions I always like to ask our interviewees is: How are you getting better at running without necessarily getting faster? Because all of us eventually reach an age when we’re not getting faster. And when we get to that age, and finally have to admit that, it can be hard and even heartbreaking if we don’t have other reasons to keep going. Of course, nowadays, I’m more than comfortable admitting my fastest 100-meter and 200-meter efforts are behind me—but my best running days, I believe, are not.
I took three weeks off of running this winter because of a sinus infection, and whatever fitness and endurance I had pretty much evaporated. I started running again, easy at first, and then met up with a friend after about a week and a half of regular runs. We ran a mile, hiked up a steep climb for a few minutes, ran the trail down, and then separated again for my final mile home. Somewhere in that last mile, for about a block, I realized I was a little tired, but I felt OK—OK enough to just keep going if I wanted to. Which is a pretty good reason to keep doing it.
My new book, I Hate Running and You Can Too, is available now.