Footsteps in the dark

All I do is keep on running in my own cozy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence. And this is a pretty wonderful thing. No matter what anybody else says.

I. The marathon to the marathon

The 1904 Olympic Marathon May Have Been the Strangest Ever | History|  Smithsonian Magazine

Ask any non-running person to name a road race – literally any race – and the first the majority will name is a marathon. The first officially-organized marathon took place in the 1896 Summer Olympics, though they’ve certainly been around far longer than that. Running as a concept has been around pretty much as long as the universe has been around. Aside from the obvious contender of walking, it very well may be our kind’s oldest, most well-worn sport. And yet: it seems so much easier to just go for a walk compared to going for a run, despite that history. Much easier to default to a nice, peaceful two-mile walk through the woods compared to a less peaceful, more painful two-mile run, despite it being the same distance.

Many of us are wired this way. I was for many years. Prior to January 2020, I can count on two hands the number of times I actually ran. This was not necessarily due to poor health; since 2011, I have been within what the BMI (a terrible calculation) calls a healthy weight range. I went to the gym with fair regularity for most of the last several years. I even got into weightlifting for a while, something that would’ve seemed absurd to me when I was but a stick figure my freshman year of college. Aside from the occasional jog here or there, though, the running bug never came to bite me.

This is until Christmas 2019, more or less. One of my 2020 goals was to run a 5K with my father. He’s been running 3-4 times a week for 40+ years with a few interruptions here and there, but despite various lower-body pains, he is still able to run anywhere from 2-5 miles on a whim with low amounts of stress. I admired it greatly. I’d run one 5K ever, a July 4th one in my hometown where I made it about 1.5 miles in before burning down and 2.9 miles in performing a run/walk combination before sprinting to the finish to simply get it over with. He’s run several races and runs that 5K distance at least weekly. Catching up is hard to do, but someone has to do it.

Those first couple of months of 2020 went swell enough. I slowly built up from one uninterrupted mile to 1.5 to two. Then we changed gyms to one with an indoor track, and suddenly, I got up to three. Seemed easy enough at that point; I wondered how soon I’d be able to touch four miles. Then I went to the gym on March 19, 2020 for the final time for two months. I didn’t run; I played basketball because I had no idea when the next time I’d be allowed to shoot on a basketball goal would be. I tried running outdoors that weekend. Suddenly, I had a realization that I probably should’ve had earlier: running outdoors is way different than on an indoor, bouncy track.

Momentary setback aside, I kept running anywhere from 3-5 times a week, because in the early COVID days, there was literally nothing else to do. Everything was shut down. I was tired of doing push-ups and cursed air squats. Why not run? Essentially, those three words – why not run? – have fueled the last two years. Even when gyms re-opened and you could work out again, even when basketball courts re-opened and you could shoot again, I kept running. It was the only reliable way to get out of the house, then it slowly became something I actually did enjoy.

That summer, the initial goal of running a 5K with my father was accomplished. In the two years since, it’s been blown by at a rate that’s even surprised me, the person who is doing it. I ran a half-marathon in April 2021 a year after being unable to run three consecutive miles. Then I ran three more half-marathons (one race, two virtual) in the 12 months after. The next goal is to run a marathon – the full 26.2 – by the end of 2022. This is after I could barely complete one mile three years prior without wanting to vomit.

There are a lot of positives to this; I have selected five. Part one is the journey to here; parts two through six are what I’ve felt joy in along the way.

II. Viewing party

Part of the beauty of this is that there are no screens in front of you. I am in the slow, arduous process of dragging myself off of the Internet, which is another way of saying I am tired of social media and wish it was not semi-required for what I do. On these longer runs – 6 miles is the example here – that’s a minimum of 50 minutes spent not looking at a screen. 50 minutes spent not having to hear about trending topics. All I see is real life, real birds, real trees, real greenways.

Certainly, one could open up Twitter to relieve the physical stress of running. Maybe it would be nice to hit the refresh button for the billionth time out of boredom. But one could also just not do that. When running, there are millions of things you can think about. Why are there so many places to sit in my home? Why do I always want a Pepsi when it is 92 degrees outside, even though I have not had a soda since March 2016? What makes waffles so attractive compared to pancakes? Who first added Mitch Albom books to high school English curriculums? Will America pay for the many crimes we have laid upon others? (This is a question I only consider when I have hit mile 11. Also, it’s the same query as the Mitch Albom one.)

None of these require a screen. They just require my own thoughts and the noises emanating around me. On some runs, I’ll take an earbud out and just listen. Without fail, there are birds chirping. There is a light breeze blowing. Maybe you hear cars in the distance, or if you’re lucky enough to run by the water, maybe a boat will go by. Other times, I am in an unfamiliar place, and I will take out an earbud for the obvious reason of not wanting to be hit by a car. The physical sightseeing aspect of running is perhaps its strongest attribute. Every major city in the world is runnable; every place in America becomes one you can explore on your own two feet. I make it a point to get at least one run in everywhere I travel now, which is something I would’ve reserved for a drive in the past. It helps me feel like I’m there rather than just passing through.

Recently, I ran at Seven Islands State Birding Park. The birds lived up to the hype. I am a newer birdwatcher, occupying the fandom both of my grandfathers had, but I counted 10-15 different species. There were deer everywhere. As is the case everywhere in Knoxville, there were a few bunnies out and about. But most importantly, there was one fat raccoon, waddling out of my way as I made it out to the island within the park. I caught them by surprise, as they did to me. I leapt back for a second before realizing he was on his way to hide in the grass, and felt bad for a second. That said, I’d be lying if it didn’t bring a huge smile to my face.

In writing about a 50-mile race he ran last year, Paul Flannery said that there are few times in life when you think to yourself “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else than where I am right now.” In that moment, I was happiest in being with the fat raccoon that initially looked like my own fat cat.

III. Ch-ch-changes

As mentioned earlier, the goal when I began doing this was to simply complete one (1) 5K with my father. I had never done that before; I figured being able to run 3.1 miles would be a nice, fine accomplishment. Considering that under 3% of the U.S. population runs a 5K every year, per Running USA, automatically ranking out in the 97th-percentile or higher would be a good feeling. (It’s actually more like 94th-percentile or so; around 18 million Americans sign up for at least one road race every year.) This would have been good and fine and I would have been happy.

Then everything got cancelled, everything was closed, and the only thing I could do was run. The only place I ran was Knoxville Catholic High School, which was a block away from where I lived in March 2020. You can complete one loop of the greenway section and the school’s parking lot in roughly 0.7 miles. If you take that as ‘laps’, my goal was initially to complete three laps. Then it was four. Then it was five. Then, by early October, it was eleven with an additional 0.3 miles at the end to push it to a total of eight miles.

Something I’ve grown to love about running is how malleable the goals are. They can generally be as aggressive or as peaceful as you’d like them to be at a given moment. Want to simply run one mile? That’s a goal you can chase. Hoping to become a first-time marathoner? You can chase that, too. For a while, I wanted to run a sub-23 minute 5K, then I realized it was making running a little less enjoyable on the whole. No worries; I adjusted my goals and hoped to stay under 25 while working on 10K or longer runs in the process.

At the current stage of my life, where I have long realized I could not get minutes for any college basketball team in existence and I am barely an okay wiffleball player, there is but one sport I can legitimately invest myself into as an athlete. Running is it for me, because it never, ever gets boring. Being able to change things on the fly simply keeps it interesting and keeps me going. Two years ago, the idea of ever running a marathon was frankly laughable. One year ago, the idea of doing it just seemed kind of bad. As I write this, it seems genuinely exciting and like something I will have a fun time doing. You can toss the Paul Rudd look at us, who would’ve thought? meme in here easily.

IV. Uptight (everything’s alright)

The worst and best part of my relationship to running is two-fold:

  1. Entering actual road races;
  2. Strava leaderboards.

The first race I entered, a half-marathon in Louisville in April 2021, was perfectly fine. They released us in corrals of 50 every 15 minutes over the course of four days; my corral released at 6:45 AM on a Sunday where it was 45 degrees at sunrise and my wife was baffled that I was walking outside in short sleeves and shorts. (Actually, my only ‘fix’ from that day would’ve been to go with a tank top instead.) In that race, I remember four guys in matching tanks, one of which had a GoPro strapped to his head, speeding past me. I also remember running with a guy for the first mile or so, him speeding off, then feeling some pretty deep satisfaction when I caught that guy at mile 10 and finished a few hundred feet ahead of him three miles later.

The second race – the Covenant Knoxville Half Marathon in October 2021 – was much less fine. This was the first full race (meaning no social distancing or real restrictions) I’d entered in over ten years. I was shoulder-to-shoulder with seemingly half of the city. They put me in the first corral (AKA, fastest) for reasons I still don’t understand. It was 70 degrees, 100% humidity, and poured rain for half the race. I remember feeling utterly helpless for the final six miles of the race, watching person after person past me as I had to stop and walk. It remains the most physically grueling thing I have done to date.

The problem with looking at the first race as overtly positive and the second as all negatives is that both were equally helpful in giving me places to find joy in running. The first is obvious: I beat my goal of a sub-2 hour run by nearly five full minutes and had Popeyes an hour later. The second was the much tougher lesson. Some days, it isn’t your day. Actually, most days, conditions are far from the perfection of mid-40s and agreeable humidity. Watching everyone sprint by me that fall Sunday was a wake-up call: just because I could keep pace with the guys running 1:50 or less half-marathons for the first two miles did not mean I should have done so. It would have been perfectly acceptable to scale back, recognize 70/100%/Noah’s Ark was not likely to produce PR-worthy efforts, and run my own race within a vacuum.

The key is learning my own limits, accepting those, and being fine with not being the fastest runner anywhere on any given day. In my one-person mental leaderboard, I am always first and last, and this is okay. Of course, it does not mean I can’t look at this without some tinge of jealousy.

That is a leaderboard for a 0.9-mile segment of one of Knoxville’s greenways. I’ve ran it many times; my PR is 7:33, which converts to an 8:20/mile pace. Not bad at all. This ranks 1500th out of 3,359 best efforts, which was incredibly humbling the first time I saw it. Most of the guys who lead the local charts are or were members of the University of Tennessee’s track team, which obviously makes sense. They’re going to demolish me and 99.99999% of runners every single day. A year ago, I probably would’ve dwelled more on that. Now, when the men and women of the track team blow past me at NASCAR speeds, I simply smile. They get to run their own race; I run mine.

V. Peace

The joy of edging closer to the finish is, obviously, wonderful. I think about all of the runs that come before it. I think about every little thing I have done to get there; every little, marginal, tiny improvement that has been made along the way. Shaving a few seconds off here and there. All the early alarm clocks; all of the lost sleep. There is good and bad in this, but the more of these I do, the more peaceful it all becomes – not just approaching the end of a big run, but throughout it.

Think about it: what is the very quietest place you can be at when you live in a city of nearly 200,000 people? There are plenty of spots to choose from. Some will choose the comfort of their bedroom, assuming the neighborhood around them cooperates. Some may select to drive in silence, though the teeming buzz of a car engine can throw this off at times. (Unless you’re an electric car driver, in which case, maybe that is more your speed.) My personal favorite spot before running became a significant day-to-day portion of my life was Sharp’s Ridge, a mini-mountain in North Knoxville that is mostly known for an overlook of the city and several huge broadcasting towers.

Find Your Footing Along Sharp's Ridge in Knoxville

Unfortunately, I have yet to add trail running to my list of everyday capabilities. Once I get over my crippling fear of [REDACTED], I will begin considering running the Sharp’s Ridge trails. Until then, my new favorite spot is located off of Island Home Avenue in South Knoxville. This is a very specific, very tiny moment of zen, and it only occurs early in the mornings.

For about 15 minutes in the mornings, as the sun is rising and the sky still has that hazy, orange-to-blue glow to it, there is no place I would rather be in the world than this. As someone who’s struggled with faith immensely at times in their life, particularly in the last couple of years, I feel more faithful and at peace in scenes like this than in places I’d theoretically be happier and less sweaty in. It is precisely this I’ve realized: the mental peace of running is perhaps why I run above anything else. Nothing makes me feel calmer, even when the humidity is high and it’s a tough day out there.

VI. Finish line

Next weekend, I’m running in what’s said to be Knoxville’s oldest road race: the Expo 10K, formerly known as the Expo 10,000. It is the 40th edition of the race, which is pretty exciting. This is not a brag of any sort, merely a statement of fact and an explanation why this post comes out as six separate pieces. (A 10K is technically 6.22 miles, but this is my post and my tired fingers typing it out, so oh well.)

Probably somewhere around mile 4, regardless of heat and humidity, I may mentally stop and think about how far away all of this seemed just two years ago. On Memorial Day weekend of 2020, which would normally be a weekend I visit several friends and make plans, I quietly ran four miles for the first time at the high school near my house. There was no one in attendance and no medal to take home; it was just my personal achievement to remember. That was fine. So this will be, too.

Maybe at mile 5, I can think of how my father inspired me to do this without knowing it, or how my friend/coach Jake remained optimistic about my abilities even when I couldn’t be. Or mile 6, near the finish line, when I’ll see my biggest supporter of all: my wife.

At this point, 6.22 miles is merely one of the 13 longest runs I’ll have done so far in 2022. Considering that it’s projected to be the 41st-longest run of my year come December 31, it could easily be lost in the shuffle as one of several similar runs that ended in similar fashion. For whatever reason, though, I find myself feeling a little sentimental. A little happier. And a little more at peace with everything, more or less. Hopefully the same exists for you, whether that’s in running or gardening or whatever activity brings you joy.