Running through the void

(Note: I wrote this hot off a breakup. I feel like, perhaps, it would be wiser and at least more political in this small town, to keep it to myself. But, oh well, here we go.)

I know it’s not attractive for someone to admit his or her hunger, but I’m not going to whitewash the fog of loneliness I was in Friday night. All I wanted to do was break through it. For some people, I think camping or heavy drinking or adopting a kitten is the attempted solution, but for me running has nearly always been the best thing. I’ve been doing it since I was 9, and nothing gives me a sense of accomplishment and perspective like a good run does.

I went online and found that the Rhododendron 10K (6.2 miles) was slated for the next day in Bakersville. Never mind that it was more than 90 minutes away and started at 8:30 a.m and that I hadn’t run more than 3 miles in a shot in the last three years. It sounded perfect.

The next morning, I escaped my Waynesville reality around 6 a.m. and headed east, then north, following winding back roads, thick with trees. Even while only driving and listening to terribly addictive pop music, I already felt accomplished, having stepped off the grid of my own patterns and expectations, and heading toward something that felt right. Growing up, running was a huge part of my life, and my father and I would run together five days a week, pretty much without fail. We also did somewhere around 20 or so races, from 5 milers to half marathons. When I moved away from home, however, my running became spotty, and my speed (which was never much to shout home about, anyway), went downhill.

The Rhododendron Run was going to be my first race in six years.

-2By the time I arrived in Bakersville, a tiny place by the Tennessee border, I was feeling blindly confident. I chatted happily with the folks at the check-in and walked around the starting line area as I soaked in the pre-race excitement and jitters. In the midst of all the people stretching and generally psyching themselves up, I met a nice man, originally from Liberia, who was about to watch the race with his three little children. His wife, he explained, was running. We talked for a couple of minutes, and as I left, he told me they’d cheer for me too.

Shortly after, I was one of about 100 people lining up, listening to the race master’s instructions and bowing their heads for a prayer. A bullhorn sounded, and we were off.

Breathing heavily and trying like crazy not to tucker myself out prematurely, I smiled as I realized that I’d forgotten how humbling it is to have a flood of racers pass you. That day, the group included a boy who looked around 9 and a hunched-over woman who must have been in her late 70s. Try as I might, I never could catch her.

As I ran, a strange new reality settled into me. I realized that I had gone from being a slow runner to being an extremely slow runner. I’m used to doing about 10-minute miles, but my first mile was just shy of 12 minutes, and none of the following ones were any better. Often, I could pretend I was running the race, which circled through the small town and its surrounding hills, alone, as there were only three or four people chugging along behind me. When I did encounter other souls, such as the extremely friendly volunteers handing out water and giving times, they were unfailingly supportive. I even had fellow runners cheering me on as they ran past after reaching the turn-around point. I must have looked in a bad way, because they kept telling me that I was doing really well and that I shouldn’t give up.

What they didn’t know was that there was no way I was letting this race get the best of me. I was going to cross that finish line — having not walked a step — no matter how long it took.

Though I never became faster, the race did get easier toward the end. After five miles, I was feeling upbeat, actually, and even fancied trying to catch up with some of the runners in front of me. I managed to stave off the guy behind me, as every time I heard the sound of his snot rockets being expelled and his shoes hitting the pavement, my pride made me pick up speed. This little game kept me distracted until finally I was at the 6-mile marker.

A few seconds later, I saw that friendly man from earlier with his young family. They had waited long after his wife had finished to root for me.

It was right about then, with less than a quarter of a mile to go, that I broke down and cried. I was still moving forward, gulping for air, and tears were trickling down my face. I think it was due to that man’s surprising support, but also because I was amazed that I was about to finish something that I realized was so important to me. I’m sure the loneliness had something to do with it, too. I was overtaken with conflicting emotion — so much so that I missed the final turn toward the finish line.

Within a few minutes, I reached the end of a blocked-off road, where an old man stood directing traffic. I asked him where the finish was, but he couldn’t hear me. I started crying harder and he just stood there, smiling awkwardly and not knowing what to do. I ran around in circles for a moment and finally flagged down someone who had long-since finished the race. She directed me to the end, and suddenly I started running faster than I had in the last hour and 15 minutes. Finally, I felt free to give it my all. With what must have looked like a great gust of aggression, I sprinted past a running woman who was probably 30 feet from the end. Gasping and dry heaving, I pushed myself across the finish. I then promptly puked and crumpled to the ground. I hadn’t felt that vulnerable or that powerful in a long time.

A few hours after, I found myself at nearby Roan Mountain State Park, with its famous rhododendron gardens. As I perused the thousands of flowers, it began to rain heavily. It was one of those unrelenting, cinematic downpours, and as I ran the half mile or so back to my car, I became completely soaked. Strangely, perfectly, I felt like I was being baptized. I felt no hint of the loneliness I had started my day with, though I knew it would come back, as loneliness loves to do.

I was in such a moment of euphoria that I even saw the beauty in being lonesome, as I knew that was what had brought me out to run that day. I sat still in my car for a few minutes and tried to hold on to that clarity. I still am.


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