I don’t think I’ve ever liked the first few miles of a run.
That might be why I love races so much: for those first miles, you are surrounded by fellow eager runners — and the energy is enough to carry you into the heart of the race, when the runners fan out and supporters on the sidelines dwindle and it’s back to you and your music and your thoughts.
But on non-race days, I slog through it. I remind myself how good it feels when I finally find my rhythm. Sometimes I imagine being in a race, surrounded by onlookers instead of the trees and shrubs of the trail. I know, by mile 3 or 4, I will have found my rhythm. I will have found what I’m looking for.
Perhaps that’s why I love mid-distance running so much. If I have to force myself through upwards of a half hour of running before I get to that magical place, I want to spend as much time there as possible.
Ironically, it’s the short runs that make running feel like a chore, instead of an experience.
My poison of choice is the various ATV trails and fire roads that spiderweb the forests in this area of New Hampshire.
I can give the typical reasonings for it: the scenery, the beauty — I can talk about how I need variety, how boring neighborhoods can be, how nice it is to be away from cars and in the thick of nature — but I love the trails for the same reason I live for the hike. It feels like the woods around me take in whatever it is I’m radiating out.
And I am radiating out. I’ve mentioned before the grimaces I can make when I run — as if everything that’s bothering me is brought to the surface for me to contend with as I speed along.
Perhaps that’s why I do so poorly on treadmills. I used to joke that treadmills are an existential panic in mechanical form — spend that much time exerting energy only to go no where and eventually you’ll start questioning the meaning of life — but it’s a lot more than that. On a treadmill, stuck inside, that energy has no where to go but off the walls, bouncing and echoing until there’s nothing but cacophony, drowning everything else out.
Outside, there is nothing but the breeze. And in the open silence, I become a little less sodden.
“So, what’s the difference between running and mid-distance running?” a friend asks during a Sunday morning brunch.
“When it’s only 2 or 3 miles, I’m running away from my problems,” I quip. “When I’m running 6 miles or more, I’m running with my problems.” It’s supposed to be a joke, but I don’t know if there’s a better way to explain mid-distance running, or why I do it.
Perhaps that is why the first few miles are so tough. In the beginning, I run while simultaneously carrying everything that weighs me down. I run while lugging the frustrations of the day, old hurts and haunts, what is on my mind, whatever is bothering me or got under my skin. My demons play piggyback as I attempt to find my stride.
But somewhere along the line, it all gets shrugged off. It’s as if I find the fortitude to turn around and go, “You don’t deserve me carrying you like this,” and I demand them all to fall in line.
It would be wrong to say running gives me a platform to sort out what’s on my mind. If anything, I am the one on the platform, and every issue, insecurity, demon, and frustration is forced to sit in the audience, forced to recognize how insignificant they really are. I don’t bear witness to my problems so much as I make my problems bear witness to me, as the miles tick away, as I rediscover my strength amongst the waves of fatigue.
It’s as if I get to say, “Do you not see what this body is capable of? Do you not get how tiny you are compared to this?”
I don’t run despite my aches and pains — I run with them. I am present with my discomfort as a way to show I’m more than just my discomfort. I become a conqueror of so much more than a few miles and a handful of calories.
And in a piece that is filled with “perhaps”es, perhaps this right here shows why the mid-distance run deserves an ode. It is another nod to the understanding that you have to incorporate the body in order to heal the mind. It is a reminder of the triumph and force of sheer, stubborn, resilient human will.
It’s the ultimate equalizer, a way to win the staredown happening between yourself and your emotions. Did something cross your path to rattle the cage, stirring up a dormant rage about something that you swore you had put to bed for good? Take it to the trails, the streets, and watch how it becomes no match for what your body can do.
Our earliest ancestors hunted by running their prey down — by literally running until the deer or the bore had collapsed from exhaustion. It’s why they believe humans sweat, why we have some of the physical traits that we have today.
Our ancestors ran to survive. And, in a way, so do I.
The woods take on new life in the winter. The trees are stripped bare and the space between them becomes more apparent. I can see deeper into the forest now — I can see the forest through the trees.
It’s a good feeling, to be able to see through everything. To see past what was once obscured, to know what exactly is in front of you.
It makes the world look a little more open, the path a little more free.
I’m on my last run before the December snow came. I’m zig-zagging around a spiderweb of ATV trails, keeping track of trail numbers, noting trails that fork away from me, hoping I can get to them soon enough — motivating me to return and explore where the paths had diverged. I can hear the Robert Frost poem in the back of my mind, but I give it little room to breathe. Even I refuse to be that cliché.
Besides, I know I’ll be back, even with way leading on to way.
But maybe not for the rest of the season. Snow means my runs will be relegated to the roads again, and only after they’ve been sufficiently plowed. I typically lower my mileage in the winter. Some years, I take a complete hiatus and let my knees recover. There will be plenty of outdoor activities to do: I’ve finally learned how to downhill ski, and I have a pair of snowshoes I need to finally use (and a snowshoeing buddy I promised to use them with).
My husband and I are also insanely close to finishing our basement, and there’s been talk about getting a treadmill once we do so.
The treadmill: my existential panic in mechanical form. I’m not opposed to it. There are times during the heart of winter when I’ll hear a song and it makes me wish I could lace up my shoes and hit the roads — times when every muscle fiber in my legs becomes a pack of Pavlovian dogs, and I’m salivating at the sound of the bell. I remind myself that my runs are very much not just about the external scenery, but the internal sensations.
Besides, it might be time to show I’m stronger than the noise, too.