Mile 20

A few years ago (okay, six), I ran my first and only marathon that began in Phoenix and ended in Tempe, Arizona. By no means a seasoned runner, I had taken to competing in long-distance races after the unforeseen dissolution of a romantic relationship and deep need to fill my time and distract my mind from the worry and dread uncertainty often breeds. I began my “journey” feeling like an outsider, as I usually do, reticent to call myself an athlete or even admit I spent long hours scouring blogs and articles to learn proper training techniques and money on state-of-the-art equipment used to track my progress and improve performance. I did not see myself as a runner; I was just someone with a little extra time on her hands, a desire to get out of her head, and an unarticulated need to connect with others, to be part of a community.

I distinctly remember catching the running bug after my second half marathon. The first felt foreign and novel, but the second felt familiar and fun. I traveled to New Orleans on a Friday, delayed the customary drinks on Bourbon Street until after my race, and ran 13.1 miles along St. James Street on a beautiful Saturday morning. Like pack animals, we milled about and observed each other, buzzing with anticipation in the pre-race hours before dawn, steadily galloped through the city, exempt from traffic laws (my favorite part!), and gave ourselves and each other pats on the back simply for making it from point A to point B. I was hooked.

After I signed up to run a full marathon, I trained well. I spent six months doing everything I was told — run a certain amount each week, vary pacing and include hills if working toward a PR, build up to long runs of 18-20 miles and taper at least two weeks before race day. I was ready. On the day of the race, I breezed through the first eighteen miles like they were nothing, I had prepared after all — and then I got cocky. By mile twenty, I hit the proverbial wall — hard. I started walking, which only made the pain and discomfort worse and more difficult to return to a running state. I suddenly realized how hot Arizona was, how much I hated music I had previously needed to blare through earbuds I now found itchy and claustrophobic, and how out of my element I was. Why in the hell did I ever agree to this? Why did I pay to do this? I can’t say I made it through miles 20-26.2 by crossing some existential threshold that delivered me to the finish line having learned the true meanings of peace, resilience, and humility. I just said, fuck it. I’m here, where else can I go but forward? Support from onlookers certainly helped hammer in the notion that I was a runner — at least in that moment. Thinking of myself as a runner makes little difference after running twenty miles away from where I started and finding myself stranded somewhere between Scottsdale and Tempe with a gaggle of onlookers to boot. Call me superficial or crazy, but in that moment of despair or maybe desert-induced delusion, I finally felt like a runner. Seeing myself through the eyes of others, who cheered the miles I had run and those I had yet to tread as an achievement I had already earned, made me feel special, worthy, and capable of finishing even when a part of me wanted to wander into a random home, take a shower, and watch TV. I will admit that seeing my friends one mile out from the finish line lifted me up beyond what I thought imaginable. I ran that last mile full speed and finished with a smile on my face.

What does any of this have to do with where I am today? Well, it just so happens that I ran this monumental marathon during my first year in a Ph.D. program and wrote about my experience as a runner in the applications for Ph.D. programs I filled out the previous year. In those applications, I identified as a runner. I highlighted the transferable skills and lessons I had learned from competitive running that would help me weather the ups and downs and slow building sense of achievement that I anticipated encountering as a prospective Ph.D. student. Now, seven years later, the metaphor holds up, but the rosy runner’s high has worn off, and I’m at mile twenty again. Whether a physical, intellectual, psychological, or emotional challenge, the damage invoked — and it is damage, a kind of trauma — manifests in visceral discomfort that cannot be denied, but only acknowledged and overcome. Being ABD feels like walking, hopelessly, in that sweltering Arizona sun; it feels good to have made it this far, enough to warrant a break, but the brief respite pales in comparison to the reward I envisioned possible at the starting line.

Everyone hits a wall — in running, in grad school, in life. Incidentally, what drew me to competitive running was the sense of community I instinctively felt. From water cooler talk about training to showing up on race day numbered and tagged, giddy with shared excitement, racing culture begets a kind of altruistic athleticism similar to that found in rock climbing and tennis playing communities (in my experience). You’re only as good as the company you keep, so to speak, and it behooves us all to share our gifts and knowledge, so that we show up to competitions ready to give each other a run for the money and collectively produce an event worth a personal record. Still, glory simmers inside the individual runner. As much as competitive running encourages a sense of collaborative exuberance, it is a solitary endeavor — a caveat I struggled with years ago, stuck at mile twenty somewhere between Scottsdale and Tempe, watching fellow runners zoom past me, and one that haunts me now.

For all intents and purposes, I should have graduated years ago, or at least a year ago. I should have kept a steady pace, one I was well prepared to keep at the get go, and had not imagined would falter this far down the pike. I drifted, or faltered, or started walking at some point, and it’s felt like a feat of no greater proportion than lifting one foot and then the other, a little faster and a little faster than that, when all I want to do is sit down, to finish. Post-wall running is an art of its own. Truthfully, the wall works as a dual metaphor: it not only represents the runner confronting feelings of physical limitation and depletion that the rational mind can resolve by reminding the runner of all the training and preparedness that preceded the moment of challenge; it also represents the necessary movement inward, toward a state of calm and acceptance, and a sojourning in solitude that I have never experienced so brutally as I did on that deafeningly hot day somewhere between Scottsdale and Tempe.

At mile twenty (the sequel), I am cognizant of my baser instincts: rationalize quitting; feign incapability; seek shelter. I know what I am capable of — both my all-too-familiar shortcomings and wait-I-did-that? successes. Deciding to embark on what has become a seven-year journey, with no certain end, seems like a fool’s calling. I would never begin a race without the reassurance of a 26.2 finish. But stalling, uncomfortably so, at mile twenty has allowed me to reflect on the feelings of urgency and uncertainty this juncture generates and fill my reserves with the juice I barely found before. I see now: floundering is not failing and walking is not weak, but stopping in your tracks is not an option (barring an actual medical emergency). Mile twenty is a comfortable resting point, but I know better. After all, I’m seven years older, out of the desert, and this ain’t my first marathon.