“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.” 2 Peter 3:10
I just blew the tanks out on a ten mile run. It was ugly (about 9:40 per mile) but I finished it. Three revolutions around the old 3.3 mile loop through my neighborhood.
For some reason, though, I kept wondering if someone would call the cops on me. Maybe it’s because I ran at midnight, maybe it’s because I didn’t sleep much and I’m paranoid, I don’t know. I was just fixated on the idea of the cops being called.
Let’s be honest: what are you thinking when you see a bespectacled, shirtless, moderately-overweight young man glistening with sweat attempting to drink out of an automatic sprinkler system (what else was I going to do? I was dehydrated!). That’s suspicious activity.
I think this odd fixation on being mistaken for a thief or no’count ruffian is what’s causing me to ruminate on the verse I quoted and ponder my own muleheadedness concerning the End that all athletes face.
Consider the death rate of football players. Most football players die after their senior year of high school. It’s true. Statistically, most football players in America eight to ten years practicing and honing their skills until the final whistle of their last season, and they never play a down of football ever again. Of course, they live, but they’re no longer football players. Joe Football Player dies and rises from the ashes as Joe Stockbroker or Joe Auto Mechanic. This is a perfectly healthy, normal thing; it’s just that you can’t really call Joe a football player anymore.
The same phenomenon applies to runners. Luckily, running is a sport that you can partake in your whole life, if you’re lucky. But that’s a big “if” right there. Runners are an oft-injured bunch: plantar fasciitis, stress fractures, ruptured tendons, and myriad other ailments and afflictions can end your life as a runner. But runners are also made acutely aware of the intricacies of their own body by the hours spent on the roads, coaxing miles out of muscles. Because they know firsthand the fragility of the body, runners are aware of the temporal, random nature of their existence. The ability to put one foot in front of another is the result a complex system of machinery that can be rendered inoperative rather easily.
I am especially well-acquainted with this fact.
I came out like gangbusters my senior year of high school cross country. I ran my butt off all summer and was truly disciplined for the first time ever. I ran a 58 second PR at the first meet, then I promptly got swine flu and a very severe case of bronchitis. After attempting to “run through” the sickness like an idiot, I went to a doctor and was ordered to sit out a significant portion of the season. Senior season, over. Hard work, nullified.
You would think that glimpsing the ease with which running can get taken away would have made me cherish running more. And it did, for a time. But then, my enthusiasm faded and I found myself making excuses time and time again. By the middle of winter, I’d gained about 15 pounds, and I was barely running because I took it for granted.
I was not in shape at all for track season. However, the first few weeks of the season got me moving again and I started snapping back into shape.
Then, one night, I was walking through my house when it was dark and I stubbed my toe and broke it. No running for six weeks, no senior track season.
These events all but slapped me in the face and shouted “appreciate running, you dolt!” And yet I still found myself skipping runs and making excuses, albeit with less frequency.
I finally started to get my head right in college and started putting in the miles regularly, but then my life went approximately like this: stress fracture, pneumonia/bronchitis/flu, lupus.
Suddenly, the separation wasn’t temporary anymore. I really might never run again. The sword hanging over my head had drawn blood before, but it had never dropped in such a violently permanent fashion. As a runner, I died.
John L. Smith’s explores this phenomenon in Again to Carthage, the sequel to the cult classic Once a Runner. In the final pages, the protagonist Quenton Cassidy finds himself running in fourth place in the marathon at the Olympic Trials with a seemingly insurmountable gap between him and the third place runner. In the Trials, of course, only the top three runners make the team. Throughout Smith’s cathartic narration of the final miles, he sounds the refrain “All runners have to die someday.”
So, Memento Mori, everyone.
My intent in telling you, the runner, to remember that you will die is not to be maudlin; rather, I aim to emphasize the preciousness of the run. Remembering that you are just a blown knee away from never running again makes you appreciate your daily run that much more. I was lucky enough to receive a second chance to run, and I run more consistently now than I ever did. But why bank on second, third, and fourth chances? Why not simply cherish each run, even the bad ones? Embrace the fact that there will be good runs and enjoy them, but embrace the bad ones as well. Welcome the pain of the long-run in the hot sun, because the struggle brings growth. Don’t shy away from the difficulty inherent in running, because any run is better than no run at all.
Fill those blank calendar pages with black ink, friends.