Often when people ask about my long-distance running habit, I am reminded of the first time I met someone who had hiked the entire Appalachian Trail. I asked him how he did it, and he shrugged.
"There wasn't much to it, really," he said. "It was basically just walking, sleeping, and eating for five months."
His nonchalant answer might have been false modesty, but a part of me took him at his word. The reason had to do with my own experience as a runner. The barefoot-shoe designers and running magazine columnists don't want you to know this, but there isn't a whole lot to be said about running unless you are in the upper echelons of competition. It's one of the most basic things a person can do — more a vestigial survival skill than a sport, really. The most important thing is not stopping; the best way to get better is simply to do more of it.
This weekend, I will run my first-ever half marathon, the Charleston Half Marathon, which starts near East Bay and Calhoun streets and ends on the Navy Yard in North Charleston. Maybe you think I'm crazy to run that far without a mountain lion chasing me. Maybe you're a marathoner reading this and sniffing derisively at my half-commitment. Either way, I look forward to testing my mettle across 13.1 miles of pavement come Saturday.
Ordinarily when I run, my brain starts to chew on some bit of mental cud — maybe a snappy comeback I should have used in a conversation with a racist landlord two years ago, maybe the chorus to a Tom Petty song of which I know none of the verses. Sometimes I clip on my headphones and listen to a podcast. Any diversion is good. It keeps me from thinking too hard about the mechanics of running and the ache in my calves.
That's why I find it so difficult to explain my love for running. Sure, I could give a pat answer about endorphins and the mythic "runner's high" (which, if I have ever experienced it, must be a pretty mild buzz), but if I go to such lengths to not think about running while I'm in the act, do I really enjoy the running at all? Or do I simply relish spending time outdoors while catching up on back episodes of This American Life?
If anybody in Charleston can explain the joy of the jog, it's Dan Clapper. He makes his living as a registered nurse at Trident Hospital, and he fills his days off with training for marathons — lots of marathons. He used to store his finisher medals in a shoebox just to keep track of how many he'd completed, but he misplaced the box and now makes a rough estimate of "70 something." He is just over halfway to his goal of running a marathon in each of the 50 U.S. states.
When I called Dan to talk about his Pheidippidean feats, he told me something surprising: He, too, craves distraction. He said that in nine races out of 10, he can find fellow runners who are going his pace and willing to chit-chat. The conversation takes his mind off the pain, and it keeps him from quickening his pace too much. Still, sometimes his body revolts before Mile 26, and he has to deal with the nagging question: Why am I doing this?
"It's like it gets — it gets in your system, and you just look forward to the next one," he said. "You might finish and be cramping and throwing up, and by the next day you're thinking of which race you're going to do next."
I asked him for advice for a first-timer. He told me to make sure I didn't get overeager coming out of the gates, or else I would fizzle out toward the end. And he warned me against the pitfall of letting other runners dictate my pace. Three times, he repeated a simple axiom: "You have to run your own race."
That's what I intend to do. The race might be grueling, and it might be pointless, but it is mine, and I love it.---
Paul Bowers is a former high school cross country runner slowly rediscovering his competitive side. He plans to run the Cooper River Bridge Run in March and keep the Kenyans within sight for at least the first five minutes.