I run because I can’t fly

That motto has been imbedded in my mind for about a year. It is printed on a t-shirt I bought from a women’s running store a few blocks from my house. I bought it to motivate myself to train for a half-marathon, on a self-induced dare to do something improbable to commemorate my 40th birthday. The t-shirt became a talisman to ward off evil spirits that would beckon me to take a pass on a scheduled run. There always seemed to be a reason not to go: it’s raining, it’s windy and cold, it’s dark already, I have awful cramps or a terrible headache, I’m too hungry, I’m too tired…and the list goes on. But if I succeeded at keeping the demons of doubt at bay, I would always be rewarded handsomely. At around the fourth mile, an ethereal feeling would radiate from my right brain and settle into my body, and suddenly the world would seem utterly beautiful and grand, and I would feel overcome with infinite love for everyone and everything. It’s the infamous runner’s high, and I confess I became addicted to that good stuff.

Three days ago I ran the improbable half-marathon, at a speed that surprised no one more than me. My goal was simply to finish. I felt that was heroic enough, considering there was a time I was being followed for possible cardiac arrhythmia because of a chemotherapy drug given to me as a teen, and I only began exercising voluntarily in my mid-20’s. To finish at a pace that was 40 seconds faster than that of every training run in the past three months – my personal best race pace, even though all the races before were much shorter – seems unfathomable. Honestly, where did it come from?

I am awe of what the human body can accomplish when the mind remains strong. My mind was in a decidedly good place that morning. My running buddies and I arrived at the race with plenty of time to spare. The weather was ideal: overcast skies, cool temperatures around the mid-50’s, a bit of dampness in the air but no precipitation, an occasional breeze. I had eaten a solid breakfast. I felt well-rested despite only six hours of sleep.

I set out to do things the same simple way that I did them during training: not to go too fast or too slow (which I would gauge by singing the words to the songs I was listening to), to remember to eat, and to drink water whenever I ate. I felt none of the occasional aches and pains in my right knee or foot during this run. My iPod continuously fed rockin’ music to my ears despite my earlier fear that the battery might run out. Mile markers passed by one after another. Before I knew it, the sign said, “11.”

Soon after, I spotted the finish. As I did on my training runs, I tapped into my energy reserve and revved up to a sprint. Only this time, my brain was getting signals back saying, “Alert! No Reserve! Abort Mission!” I could not feel my legs. They felt detached from me. For those of us who remember the Kool Aid commercials where thirsty kids would yell, “Hey, Kool Aid!”, and out would come this big bumbling pitcher, this massive red orb teetering atop two floppy legs, running to their rescue – I felt like that Kool Aid character as I sprinted. I felt clunky, wobbly, ready to topple over. But I didn’t topple over. I didn’t trip. I crossed the finish line. The second I stopped moving, I sensed a burning soreness in my quads like I’ve never felt before. But I was still standing. I was still alive.

Now I know what it feels like to fly. It feels exhilarating…and exhausting. I don’t know why I assumed flying was a serene, effortless endeavor. A bird’s flight muscles make up 30% of its body weight. Its entire body is designed to support the function of flight – from how much it eats to how quickly it digests food, and how efficiently its lungs process oxygen. A bird makes flying look easy and graceful but it is a still major feat for that little creature. But…oh, the rewards! To feel the air rush past your cheek, to know you are being propelled by the strength of your own body, to breathe deeply and rise above every burden, if only for a few moments… At one point during the race, I closed my eyes and dreamed I had soared to the sky. It was quiet up there…and the view was absolutely majestic.

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