The following piece was presented at the Jersey City Writers’ monthly genre event–Reflections: A Reading of Memoir Vignettes. Please enjoy.
It starts with a step. But not the one you’re thinking of. Not the one at the beginning, over the blue plastic speed bump, when your heart rushes up into your throat and a chorus of watch beeps chirp around you. That step starts the race. One race. On one day. But the step into this whole running thing, the one that forms your identity as a “runner”—that begins in another time, in another place. It begins with the question “What if?”
What if you run a full mile today instead of the half mile you ran yesterday? What then? Well, you’ll have run one full mile, that’s what: eight lonely laps around this shadowy, tilted track. Eight laps of drums and guitars blasting from your earphones as you try to forget the smell of chlorine seeping in from the swimming pool next door. The smell reminds you of where you’ve spent your last two years of college, where you thought you would be this year, your senior year. Where you thought you’d be until the coach called you over the summer, and the words “team manager” scraped away your identity as a college athlete, a swimmer. So here you are, pressing earbuds further into you ears as though sound can block smell. You just try to keep going.
Then it’s springtime, and you’re wondering if you’ll get any tan lines as you circle the outdoor track. This one is longer—precisely twice as long as the one you’ve used all winter—so eight laps means two miles. You’ve never done it before, but today is the day: the day you’re going to run two full miles. On the fifth lap, your lungs are screaming. Your legs are feel like lead. Why are you doing this? What are you trying to prove? If you just stopped now—stopped and sat right down on the track—who would know? Who would care? You don’t realize it yet, but these are thoughts you will have many, many more times. You finish the sixth lap distracting yourself with thoughts of a boy back home who used to accuse you of smelling like chlorine. You finish the seventh lap rehashing the last phone call you had with him, hearing him again tell you how he hates his unathletic girlfriend but loves the way she always smells like coconut shampoo. You finish the eighth lap and realize, to your amazement, that you are thinking about nothing. Nothing at all.
The farther you run, the less you think. And so you run more. Two miles. Three miles. Four. When you can no longer stand to spend one more second laying on your bed hitting refresh on job boards, you lace up your sneakers and head out into your new neighborhood. Beneath the thundering tracks of the seven train, you jog past curry-scented restaurants and precariously balanced fruit stands. What you’re seeking is a solitary place—a place where you aren’t interrupted by traffic lights, Mexican men on bicycles, and shriveled Indian women pushing shopping carts. What you want is a park. Where you are is Queens. So you settle for a cemetery, where you run alone, weaving your thoughts up and down row after row of headstones.
Then, out of nowhere, you run six miles. You didn’t mean to do it; a colleague at work finds out that you run and invites you to run during lunchtime. He and the others are running six, and while you’ve never run this far, you have to try. You can’t afford to be left behind, because these are the first people who have invited you to do anything other than drink alcohol. That’s all anyone here seems to do is drink alcohol, and you’ve tried that scene, but it doesn’t fit. You don’t belong in dark corners beside women in pencil skirts and statement necklaces. Beside them, your sneakers look like clown shoes, and you’re constantly forgetting the name of the person talking to you. You can feel their eyes on your sweaty glass of ice water. Why don’t you drink? What are you so afraid of?
Six become eight become ten, and then you’re standing shoulder to shoulder with strangers—not inside a dark airless bar, but outside on a stark November morning. Your breath escapes in nervous white puffs. Your fingers have become stiff claws of pain, and your toes feel like frozen pebbles. But the national anthem plays, and the gun goes off, and thirteen-point-one miles later you are greeted by hordes of smiling volunteers handing out Dixie cups of pure joy. Warm, salty liquid passes through your lips, glides down your throat, and blooms in your stomach. You cannot imagine what this magical elixir is until they tell you. Chicken broth.
After thirteen, it’s one giant leap to twenty-six. Twenty-six point two, to be exact. You don’t understand, at first, why people are so particular about adding that “point two” to the marathon distance. But, as it turns out, that point two is everything. It’s the whole experience. In those final three hundred and twenty yards, the voices—the ones that wondered at mile one whether you’d actually be able to do this, and then at twenty-one why the hell you chose to do this —those voices have subsided. Every fiber in your body is singing with pain, but the pain and the voices have smeared together into one pounding rush in your head. All you see is the finish line. All you hear is the whoosh of your thoughts. You are almost there, almost there, almost there. And then you cross beneath the banner. You take that final step. A smiling volunteer hangs a medal around your sweaty, heaving neck. It’s over. It’s done. You have finished. You are a runner.
But didn’t you know? You’ve been a runner this whole time. From that very first step.