Running Down a Dream

ChicagoNow Blogapalooz-Hour!: “Write about a time you worked very hard in your life at something.”

I’m not an athlete. I’ve had the “it only happens in movies” experience of being picked by default for sports teams, crossing the finish line of a cross country meet dead last, and feigning injury through the entire volleyball season in gym class in an attempt to avoid that spectacular humiliation. Aside from volleyball, my failures weren’t for lack of trying; I wanted to be athletic and had a peverse optimism that if I could find my sport I’d be a STAR…hence the ill fated cross country effort.

Not long ago I was telling my kids about my deflated sports dreams, thinking it would motivate them to persevere even in adversity (and spectacular humiliation). When I shared that for an entire season I’d come in last in every race but didn’t quit, they stared at me with far more pity than admiration. “Why didn’t you quit?” my son asked incredulously. “I’m not sure,” I chirped, “but I stuck it out the whole year!” They resumed their breakfasts, mute with embarrassment for  my clearly deluded teenaged self. Later I asked my mother, who had dutifully attended every meet, “Why didn’t I quit?” Her silence on the other end of the phone was deafening. “Honestly…” she was still hesitant to squash the dream, some 30 years later, “I have no idea.”

I’m not an athlete.

About 10 years ago, a friend and I were talking after she had just run her first half marathon in, of all places, Fargo, North Dakota. She portrayed the experience as the most fun you can have for 13.1 miles and encouraged me to join her the following year. She delivered the ultimate closing line: “What do you have to lose? No one knows you there.” I was in.

I pulled up  Hal Higdon training guides, meal plans, running song lists. I bought new sneakers and running socks (who knew?) and protein bars.  I strapped water bottles to my waist and a sports watch on my wrist. I planned my weekends around my runs, starting out at 2 miles but eventually inching into the 5 and 10k territory. As someone who doesn’t much enjoy her own company, the thought of hours alone on the trail and in my head was as daunting as the distance in front of me, but I plodded on.

Race day arrived, as windy and grey as you would imagine Fargo in early May to be; we ran, we finished, and we did not come in last. I might not have been a star, but I was hooked. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done and I was determined to do it again.

Since that day, I have probably logged thousands of miles. I’ve run 4 other halfs (including a second in Fargo for good measure) and the Chicago full. I’ve found a community of women who also run and who have become the dearest friends and the cheapest, best therapists. We’ve laughed until we’re doubled over, cried, shared secrets (“What’s said on the path stays on the path”) and stood guard while one of us has ducked behind bushes (or, maybe, on one really harrowing morning,  into a trench). We’ve run side by side through rain, snow, life milestones and world events; we’ve run through injury, illness and hangovers. We’ve trained for races and had runs that were actually walks but most importantly, we’ve kept moving forward.

When I run, I think about ways to be a better version of myself and once those endorphins kick in, I actually believe it might be possible. When I run I craft conversations with the cable company in which I get all the premium channels for free, I wonder why Ben and Jen had to break up,  I write my great American novel and my Oscar acceptance speech. When I run, I envision happy futures for my children and try to offer some kind of thanks to the world that I get to be out there.

When I run, I’m an athlete.



Leave a comment