It’s hard for me to explain to my non-running friends why I like running. I don’t always love it. In fact, there are times I hate it. I’m not always as successful as I’d like to be, but I keep at it anyway.
And they don’t get it when I say that even though I have been injured a lot over the last few years, that it’s part of who I am. It always has been, and probably always will be.
I remember watching Bruce Jenner finish the 1500m, as the last event of the 1976 Olympic Decathlon. For some unknown reason, that really captured the attention of my six-year-old mind. The jubilation on his face as he finished is still etched in my mind, forty years later. The image on the Wheaties Box is what I remember today, despite the fact that Bruce is now Caitlin.
My curiosity about distance running started while watching ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” one Saturday. As kids, if we were home during the late afternoon, that show took over the TV. In those pre-ESPN days, we’d watch the variety of sports, from the mainstream to the obscure. Tennis, lumberjack games, arm wrestling, track and field, swimming, boxing, surfing…you name it.
But it was one day in 1982 that really left a mark on me. I remember watching coverage of the 1982 Ironman at Kona alone, and marveling at how exhausting that race could be. Swimming more than two miles? Biking more than 100 miles? Running a marathon? I wondered why anyone would want to do any of those things, let alone all three.
The men’s coverage wasn’t particularly compelling, in my mind. I don’t remember the name of the winner. But I remember the women’s finish. Boy, do I remember it – I was sitting in the basement alone, watching Julie Moss collapse from exhaustion down the stretch. I was saying “get up” as if she could hear me, and I could will her to the finish line. I remember being very disappointed that she didn’t win. In my immature 12-year-old brain, I wondered how someone could do so much, and not finish the race. To me, crawling wasn’t finishing, and second place wasn’t winning.
In the years to come, I followed a few runners – mainly Sebastian Coe, Edwin Moses, Steve Cram and Johnny Gray. They were the best at the races I wanted to run. And they won – a lot.
In junior high and high school, I was a middle-distance runner (400m, 800m, 300m hurdles), and also ran cross country as prep for track. I had great speed, and solid endurance. I was fairly successful, winning conference in a couple of events, and setting my high school’s record in the 800m (which I think still stands). But I was a bit of a late-bloomer, and didn’t get any offers of significance to run in college, so that was the end of my track career.
During my college years, and the first 10 years of my military service, I played rugby. I loved the competitiveness, and the brotherhood. That took the place of running for many years, as rugby kept me in good enough shape to keep scoring high on the Army fitness test.
It wasn’t until my mid-30s, when my kids started getting older, that I took up running again. I had had a series of injuries which had sapped my sprinting speed, the kiss of death to an undersized rugger. Around that time, Sandy talked me into running a half marathon. (Actually, she didn’t talk me into it – she shamed me into it, but that’s a topic for another time….) Seemed like a better thing to do than to sit around gaining weight, so I accepted the challenge.
At the time, I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to run anything longer than a 10K, but I trained (not enough), and completed it. What a feeling of accomplishment!
Nine years later, I completed my first (and to date, only) marathon. In all, I’ve done probably about 10 half marathons, a handful of ten-milers, and one marathon. I’ve also dabbled in triathlon over the last two years, doing two sprint races.
It’s only been over the last few years that I’ve come to fully understand why the image of Julie Moss crawling across the finish line has stuck with me all these years, right next to Bruce Jenner on the Wheaties cover. Make no mistake – there is no better feeling than winning. But the key is how you define winning.
In my lifetime, my goal in running has evolved from “training to win” to “training to improve” and is now possibly sliding toward simply “training to endure.” These days, I see it as a metaphor for life. At the end of your life, you’d like to think that you got everything out of it that you possibly could. I’ve finally seen that image from 1982 at Kona for what it really was: the picture of a woman who got every ounce out of herself on that given day.
In my grown-up mind, that’s a resounding win, and if I ever get back on the road again, I’d be proud if it were me.